Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2017

Here's my list, in authorial alphabetical order:

33916061Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I've read Coates's essays for years, but it was this book, which puts together some of Coates's best work for The Atlantic and, more importantly, ties them together through multiple mini-essays by which Coates himself reflects, both critically and autobiographically, on what he was trying to do in those essays and what that effort says about where he was, intellectually and politically, at the time, which truly captivated me, and made me realize what an intellectual treasure he is. Coates has been subject to a huge amount of debate and argument in the wake of Trump's election, and I have some conflicted opinions about all that. But as to the question of whether Coates is a writer absolutely worth reading, I'm not conflicted at all.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityMatthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. This is a detailed, careful, but also (I think) compulsively readable work of sociology, and that in itself is a rare enough thing that it deserves celebration. But this book deserves a wide readership not just because of the author's skill, but also his subject. Desmond's years of enthographic investigation and diligent research as produced a close, unsparing study of one rarely examined (or, at least, I hadn't ever examined it before) aspect of American poverty: the role played by substandard housing, and the whole range of laws, practices, and assumptions which make stable housing so precarious, and its loss so devastating, for the American poor. I found it a blistering, relentless work of exposure, one that anyone who cares about economic justice should read.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. It would be very easy, and not especially wrong, to present Dreher and Coates as perfect antagonists: Coates is both utterly secular and convinced that white supremacy, under many different guises, best explains America today, whereas Dreher has made himself notorious this year for publishing, after many years of argument on his blog and in other writings, what many people have read as a manifesto for white conservative Christians who feel themselves under attack in an America far more secular, and far more diverse, than it was a generation or two ago. But I'm going to stand by the importance of Rod's arguments, and not just because I consider him a friend (full disclosure: I'm listed among those Rod thanks in the foreword); in the midst of his--self-confessed!--tendency to apocalyptic thinking and us-vs.-them hysteria, he is working out here an argument about modernity and its discontents, and how both conservative Christians, as well as anyone who cares about their received traditions, should respond to the arguably destructive "mobilities"--in terms of technology, economy, and identity. It's not a message that speaks to everyone equally, including Christians; those whose religious doctrines differ from his--the books is far more dependent upon certain specific political-theological claims than I think Rod realizes--aren't really his audience. But many besides that audience have read the book this year nonetheless, including myself, and I'm glad I did.

The detective novels of Tony Hillerman, particular The Fallen Man. We've had a paperback copy of Hillerman's Dance Hall for the Dead on our downstairs bookshelf forever; I think I might have inherited from my maternal grandmother, who has a big fan of Hillerman's detective stories. For whatever reason, at the beginning of the summer I pulled it off the shelf, read it, and found it a delight--and quickly grabbed another four Hillerman novels (The Blessing Way, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, plus the above) from out of our university library, which I then read one after another over the summer, enjoying them all (though some more than others). Hillerman wrote 18 novels starring Sheriff Joe Leaphorn and his assistant Officer Jim Chee, so I haven't even gotten a third of the way through his corpus; maybe I do another Hillerman run next summer. For now, I'm going to put The Fallen Man up as the best of the five I read; it's a compelling mystery, all the more mysterious because, in the midst of all the tradition and tension on the Navajo reservation where these stories are set (and which Hillerman regularly used to great, spooky effect), this is a surprisingly straightforward story of human passions and jealousies gone wrong.

Image result for Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy image David Imbroscio, Urban American Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy. David Imbroscio himself gave me a copy of this book around a year and a half ago, and to my shame I've only gotten around to reading it now. Why to my shame? Because it's excellent. David makes an clear, careful, and (I think entirely) persuasive argument against the liberal assumptions underlying both urban regime theory and liberal expansionism, two dominant theories in urban sociology. More importantly to my mind, he puts into the context of urbanist arguments about state-market relations, community development, and a host of other concerns the ideas of Marxist, localist, distributist, social-democratic, classical republican, and numerous other critiques of liberalism. I've been able to recognize those connections before, but I lacked the language to properly describe those connections, and that's a language David provides for me here. The fact that these connections range widely might be considered a flaw, but I don't see it that way; this is a book about asserting the plausibility of a new context for thinking about city problems, and, as the final words of the book say, starting a conversation within that context. For my part, I've been flailing around in that context for a few years now, but now I've been given a map, to help me better understand where I've been, and what areas of exploration remain open for me.

Leigh Jenco, Changing Referents: Learning Across Time in China and the West. Years ago, I assumed that I was going to make my career as a scholar of Chinese political philosophy and intellectual history. That, obviously, didn't happen, for a lot of reasons. But despite my lack of linguistic expertise or even much by way of a publication record, I've somehow been able to keep at least one toe in the scholarly world of East Asian thought and comparative political theory over the years, so much so that I keep getting invited to conferences to speak on matters I really don't know that much about. Leigh Jenco's wonderful, challenging, and partly exasperating book--a superb intellectual exploration of the ideas of Chinese radicals in the early 20th century, and how those ideas arguably challenge many theoretical presumptions about how we compare ideas across cultural and linguistic worlds--provided an opportunity like that for me this year, in which I traveled to Singapore and discussed matters philosophical with a lot of scholars way above my pay grade. That trip, and the book which prompted it, provided me some of the headiest intellectual experiences of my year.

Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed. This is one of those classic sci-fi novels that I should have read decades ago, but never did. I'm grateful for whomever it was that planted into my head the idea of teaching an Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, and focusing on the work of Le Guin as a way to do it, because as a result I read not only this book, but also The Left Hand of Darkness and a dozen short stories of hers, and I basically loved them all. But if I had a choose one for this list, it has to be The Dispossessed, because of its incredibly detailed imagination of a radical anarchist world, but also because of the compelling way in which that act of world-creation gave force to the equally compelling character development which takes place throughout the book. An awesome sci-fi tale, one worth treasuring.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I've read Pollan's work for years, but like with Coates above, I'd never sat down and read through any long, detailed argument of his before this one. I am glad I finally did! Pollan not only reminded me why he's one of the best scientific journalists writing today, but he also enabled me to see how thinking about cooking--in all its chemical, nutritional, historical, and social aspects--isn't just an side-issue to his long pre-occupations with food, health, and agriculture, but rather an essential continuation of it. We are, and have been ever since that key moment in human evolution many thousands of years ago, cooking animals, and understanding how so much of everything from our taste buds to our civilizations are wrapped up in transforming the animals, plants, earth, and air around us into bread, brisket, and beer is both deep and fascinating. A wonderful, thoughtful, and mouth-watering book.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles. I'm pretty certain that I didn't read another book this whole year that gave me as much unmitigated, geeky, fascination-filled pleasure as this book. I'm not the greatest Beatles fan in the world, but I'm enough of a fan that Sheffield's delightful semi-stream-of-consciousness "history" of the Beatles captivated me with its musical minutiae, its sharp commentary, its frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and its plain, unapologetic fan-boyishness. He makes the case that we all, every one of us popular music-consuming inhabitants of the modern Western world, can't help but be "dreaming" the Beatles whenever we strive to make any sense of all of our pop world; as far as I'm concerned, he makes his case very well.

The Tolkien Reader J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader. Not being satisfied with one Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, I decided to teach another, this one with a focus on Christianity and fantasy literature, particularly as represented by the Inklings, Tolkien being the most famous member of that group. As part of this class, we read a lot of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams (plus some Dorothy Sayers and Madeline L'Engle as well), much of it new to me. None of it, however, hit me as deeply as some wonderful essays and short stories by Tolkien, stuff that I've known about forever but had never taken the time to read. I'm not talking about his justly famous "On Fairy-Stories"; I mean "Farmer Giles of Ham," which I found terribly sardonic and witty, "Smith of Wootton Major," a simply delightful and thought-provoking fairy tale, and most of all "Leaf by Niggle," which is hands-down the best, most haunting and revealing, short work of Christian fiction I've ever read. Tolkien was not just the author of so many of us geeks' imaginary lives; he was a damn fine writer, and this collection proves it.

Honorable Mention: Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids. Not by any stretch one of the best books I read this year, but this close (but not nearly close enough!) parody/re-imagining of the Scooby-Doo gang investigating an old, mystical, eldritch horror-mystery years after their retirement was a fun summer read. More importantly, it got me thinking about Scooby-Doo stories in general, which--thanks to the help of some FB friends--got me hooked on Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (by far that best television-watching experience I had all year), and that in turn got me fascinated by great cartoons of my past and opened me up to some great current cartoons, Samurai Jack, Gravity Falls, and (especially) Over the Garden Wall in particular. So, this was a book that revealed to me (or reminded me of) a whole world of imagination, and for that I must give it credit.

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