Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

This year's top ten reads reflects my interests pretty well: only one work of fiction, one memoir, one work of scripture, and the rest all research or theory related. I'm boring that way. In alphabetic order:

Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, translated with commentary by Robert Alter. I've spent the entire year continuing to make my slow way through the Old Testament (Revised English Bible version), and I've gotten further than this essential companion book covers--I've also knocked off Chronicles, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job, as well as the Psalms (which I didn't love, but found surprisingly meaningful all the same). But this book will stay with me, I think, because I'm now into the literature and prophecy of the Old Testament, whereas Ancient Israel covered the crucial, and fascinating, period of both real-time and after-the-fact (re)constructions of Israel's collective memory, of how myths and legends and stories centuries old--all the tales from the Patriarchs to the Passover--became a part of their narrative of conquest, triumph, corruption, and defeat. A wonderful work of intellectual archaeology, one which helped me see crucial elements of ancient Israel's world in an entirely new light.

Community and the Politics of Place and The Good City and the Good Life, both by Daniel Kemmis. Departing from strict alphabetical order here, I read both of these books because I needed to--Kemmis's work had been siting on my shelf for too long, and while I'd read parts of both these books before, I couldn't remember having read them both all the way through, and I decided I needed to. Ultimately, that was a great decision, and not just because both are very good books. Reading them both also enabling me to see connections between them and other communitarian arguments from the 1990s which I didn't remember picking up on before. Community and the Politics of Place situated civic republican concerns and questions in the context of the sparsely inhabited American West, and thus brought forward ways in which resource-extraction and dependency, as well as broader ecological concerns, are important to our construction of community. The Good City and the Good Life extended upon that idea, linking the idea of community to the small democratic polity--in Kemmis's view, the small cities that he knew best, like the city of Missoula that he was mayor of--in ways that, I realized as I thought more about it, showed a way communitarianism could have developed that might have avoided the state-centric problems that hampered it's intellectual development. Anyway, two very good, thoughtful books.

The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, both by Alan Ehrenhalt. Once again departing from strict alphabetical order, these were another two books that I picked up, after only have ever read parts of them before, intending to see what going all the way through them together would teach me. I wasn't disappointed, though there was a greater drop-off in the level of analysis from Lost City to The Great Inversion than was the case with Kemmis's two books. Still, Ehrenhalt had some really great observations to make in both cases; really this is a case of books that inspired me in terms of the theoretical connections between them, and the concepts which I saw being spun off by them, much more than in terms of the stories they actually told. In brief, Ehrenhalt makes wonderful observations, but behind all those observations lurks a concern with authority, identity, solidarity, and community in the context of urban life. They are related concepts that he saw as having been built and buttressed in many diverse ways two generations ago, then taken apart, and now (perhaps) being recovered in equally diverse and unexpected ways. Would any of his observations stand up to rigorous sociological analysis? Perhaps not. But they were greatly thought-provoking at the very least.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. A plain old delightful bit of hard science-fiction; in fact, maybe the purest bit of hard sci-fi I've ever read, because it closes off any and all of the larger possibilities of science-fiction by fitting its sci-fi premise (the near-future exploration of the planet Mars) into the fierce strictures of a survival story (can stranded astronaut Mark Watney survive alone on Mars, and can NASA figure out a way to save him?). Some of the characterizations were plainly taken right from the first-time-novelists file, but I didn't mind: what was matters was that Weir kept me guessing, and rooting from Watney, desperately using science and technology to do the impossible. The film version is often very good, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, by Jacob T. Levy. Written by an old friend and intellectual inspiration/goad to me, Levy's book is a serious, straightforward work of Western political theory, laying out the philosophical and the historical arguments for his construction of liberal ideas, and ably defending his own position regarding them. In a nutshell, he introduces his own spin on the classic "positive (freedom-to-do)/negative (freedom-from) liberty" argument, presenting the "rationalist" view of freedom as one which seeks to establish consistent, predictable, limited laws (which means, inevitably, the establishment of a reliably authoritative and therefore distant state), and the "pluralist" view as one which seeks to escape the disciplinary force of predictability by maintaining and strengthening local governments, traditional bodies, and independent sources of authority (which, in their closeness to out own lives, increases the likelihood of small infringements on liberty). Lining up John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton on the rationalist side, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Montesquieu on the "pluralist" side, Levy makes the case that we can't ever resolve liberalism on one side or the other (though his pluralist preferences are clear). I'll be writing more about this book for Bleeding Heart Libertarians soon, so stay tuned.

Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, by Catherine Tumber. I'd never heard of this book before about three months ago, and now I think it's one of the absolutely essential books to my whole research project on mid-sized cities (I wrote some about the book here). Tumber is a journalist and scholar from upper-state New York, who mourned the struggles cites she knew like Rochester, NY and Lowell, MA, have been going through over the past two decades. As the conversation about cities have changed in our adult lifetimes (hopeless cesspools in the 1970s, the future of the planet in the 2010s), she wondered: where do small cities, the cities that aren't linked into and benefiting from the financialization of global capitalism, the cities that once were the backbone of American manufacturing and agriculture before corporate farming and outsourcing destroyed them, fit in? Her answers are thoughtful, well-researched, and to me simply inspiring.

So Anyway..., by John Cleese. This autobiography/memoir continues my ongoing engagement with the legacy of the people and productions of Monty Python, the greatest team of comedy writers and performers in the whole history of the English language, or at least so I think. I've spent a lot of time thinking about Michael Palin, and this year I had the wonderful opportunity to think a lot about his most frequent acting partner and the dominant figure behind Python, the endlessly fascinating and frustrating John Cleese. If Palin was Python's surprisingly normal and patiently observant and kind-hearted Yin, then Cleese was Python's regularly angry, never satisfied, constantly striving Yang. A delightful and insightful read--I can't wait to dig into Gilliam's autobiography next.

The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford. more than six years ago, Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work simply blew me away: I thought it was the best and most original work of political and social philosophy that I'd read in years. Combining the insights of Marxist economics, Aristotlean moral thought, and a Heideggerian-influenced phenomenology, Crawford constructed a Laschian defense of manual labor and practical, artisanal skill. In this book, he dives even deeper into the phenomenology, adding too it research on cognitive psychology and the way in which such perspectives are deepening our understanding of the way humans make choices and process information about the world. His basic argument? It's almost impossible to summarize in a single sentence, but if I must, it's this: contemporary technology and economics have pushed us to accept as normal moving through constructed environments in which our ability to think steadily and productively about the sort of habits and forms of action which might actually add to our own individuality and thus to the richness of our social worlds have been crowded out, shouted down, made seem quaint and silly, by a constant stream of advertising, information, and noise. How's that? How to respond to this problem, and rediscover real individuality and connections with the real world? Read the book and find out.

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