Saturday, December 29, 2018

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

No fiction made my list this year, in part just because of different reading choices I made this year, and also because the largest fiction reading projects I took on this year was a long re-read of some of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books, and, over the Christmas holiday, re-reading, for the first time in decades, the complete The Lord of the Rings. The ones listed here are best new books, the books I enjoyed and learned the most from, this year, alphabetized by author.

Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Essays. I've been a fan of Wendell Berry's writings for many years, and even at this late stage in his life his personal and critical essays remain beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking reading. I've never developed a taste for his fiction and poetry, which I hope I will someday correct; as it was, this collection could have been an introduction to such, but for me the fictionalized pieces herein, with the exception of the title piece, mostly fell flat. But that doesn't matter, because this collection contains three essays by Berry equal in range and power to any he has ever written, I think. "Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age" lays out Berry's vision of agrarianism, incorporating within it a thorough exploration and condemnation of the presumed "inevitability" of technological progress, and thus environmental destruction. (This essay prompted a long blog post, and an even longer argument with an online friend.) "Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend" reveals Berry at his most cranky, as he, while never disputing the facts behind the danger of climate change, reveals himself as one who finds those claims being made by erstwhile environmentalist allies of his as mostly accepting the same sense of technological inevitability which made climate change a threat in the first place. And finally, my favorite (and the longest) of the bunch, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation," in which Berry artfully weaves together poetry, Christian theology, environmental science, and the history of writing about agriculture, to give a portrait of a "Mother Nature" that I, at least, think is worth believing in. All of these essays are great, and worth the price of the book alone.

David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner. David Bollier's brief argument on behalf of the importance of defending those places and processes in our lives which could be labeled "commons"--parks and pathways, obviously, but also all sorts of things from open-source software to natural aquifers to regular assemblies on public squares--is wonderful and important. Much of what he argues for are matters familiar to me from other works of socialist or anarchist or radically democratic theory, but he puts them all together in a wonderfully practical and persuasive way. I think he may be a little too enamored of the technology-enabled aspects of "commoning"; his enthusiasm for the "sharing economy" would have been better balanced with a little more time addressing the "subsistence" aspect to the commons, and the fact that--which, to his credit, he doesn't deny, even if he doesn't address it at length--turning away from the profit-maximizing habits of enclosure and privatization would probably often result in less overall productivity and wealth for us to share. Still, I learned a great deal from this book, both about the history of the commons (I'd never heard of the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to the Magna Carta before) and the ways in which commons-thinking necessarily pushes in philosophical directions that prioritizes the tactile and the local, rather than the abstract and rational. A great, thoughtful primer on an important social, economic, and environmental topic, one that I ended up employing in an effort at local historical preservation--a failed effort, as it turned out, but worth trying all the same.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser's biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (as well as her daughter Rose Wilder Lane) is simply wonderful, backed with hundreds of trenchant observations about history, agriculture, journalism, psychology, geography, politics, economics, and more, all of which are there to be revealed as one tries to understand the. in hindsight, monumental work that is the Little House books. Fraser's reconstruction of the editorial relationship between Wilder and Lane, as they worked together (sometimes greedily, sometimes with idealism, sometimes with Wilder leading the way, and sometimes with Lane prodding her mother along) to turn Laura's memories into the Little House books, is equally filled with fascinating details, and seamlessly supports Fraser's overall contention: that there is something profoundly American about not just Wilder's story, but the way it came to be told. Fraser visited Watermark Books this year, talking about her book, and it was a delight to meet her, and dig into our mutual love and fascination for what Wilder created, and how she created it.

Hugh Heclo, Christianity and American Democracy. I used this book as the basis for an Honors Seminar I taught this year, and while the arguments advanced in Heclo's long essay on Christianity and American democracy were often of a highly abstract nature, the conversations they gave rise to were wonderful. Based on a series of lectures he gave, centering on the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, Heclo's broad thesis is that, soon after the first Great Awakening in American life (usually associated with the 1750s through the 1770s), the different Christian denominations of early America arrived at a point there they nearly all were in theological agreement regarding the relationship between religion and self-government: namely, that it was simply un-Christian to judge too harshly the particular beliefs of other Christians (or at least other Protestant Christians). This level of intra-Christian tolerance came over time, according to Heclo, to contribute to notions of the human person, notions of human history, and notions of political life that became deeply entwined with American democracy. He calls this long era of America's (Protestant) Christian civil religion the "Great Denouement," and thinks its legacy lasted, with the eventual inclusion of Catholics through the first part of the 20th century, until the rise of secularism in the 1960s. There are some real challenges that can be made of this thesis--and various authors, in particular Michael Kazin, offer from trenchant criticisms of Heclo's lecture at the conclusion of the book--but I personally found his argument enormously insightful, pointing as it did to many distinct phenomena in American life and showing how the evolutions of different aspects of American Christianity linked together. Agree with it or not, this is a thesis worth grappling with.

Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities. A vitally important classic on the nature and design of cities, one whose arguments I was basically already familiar with, yet one that I also should have read years and years ago. It's probably longer than it needed to be, and I suspect that even when it was first published, in 1961, some of Jacobs's anecdotes might have seemed a little belabored and precious. Still, for all that, a brilliant and deeply informed jeremiad against the rational, top-down envisioning of cities. She offers no comfort to inhabits of cities like mine (Wichita, Kansas)--for her, the glory and value of cities, about which all her observations are wonderfully sharp, demands a density and size and an economic diversity that many American cities--lacking both the immigrant population and multiplicity of economic resources--could never aspire to, even if they wanted to. So in the end, this was a monumentally necessary treatise on one particular, and wonderfully important, kind of urbanism--the urbanism of the "great American city." Her points about mixing old and new buildings, about mixed residential and commercial districts, about small blocks, and about so much more--parks, sidewalks, kids playing the streets--have all entered into the canon of urban discussions (however little they may be adhered to!), and deservedly so. Anyway, a great, great book.

Localism in the Mass Age, edited by Mark T. Mitchell. This collection of essays from the webpages of--or inspired by--the Front Porch Republic is pretty excellent. Some of the essays are much better than others, and there are--from my perspective as someone interested in structural critiques and the theoretical analysis of political and economic systems--some real gaps in the discussion: no real engagement with the scholarship on republicanism or environmentalism, for example. But all of them are worth reading, and some are beautifully insightful and incisive. The overall thrust of the volume is getting people to think about their own connections, or lack thereof, to their local communities, and what the strength of absence of those connections can reveal to us historically, politically, economically, or spiritually. There is a genuinely new localist argument emerging out of (or alongside of) the slow collapse of the all the systems associated with the liberal, late capitalist state, an argument with relevance to how we think about foreign policy, the U.S. Constitution, the do-it-yourself economy, the relationship between farms and cities, technology, sexuality, and the liberal arts. This book probably isn't the perfect introduction to that new argument, but its multitude of voices, both personal and political, is a great start.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. This is a wonderful book--not perfect (I could have done without some of Mann's occasional excursions into side characters and issues that didn't, to my mind, directly contribute to his overall investigation), but very, very good. In a nutshell, Mann is exploring two possibilities which human beings have to avoid what he, like many students of biology, genetics, and environmental science, accepts as an unavoidable biological fact: that the human species, like every other species, will overpopulate, use up its available resources, exhaust its physical environment, and thus, ultimately, will destroy itself. (Given all the dire news about climate change this year, that's something everyone else ought to find plausible too.) One possibility is that we will use the advantages that no other species has--our ability to construct new technologies, to unlock new environmental capacities--to escape our natural limits and transcend our environment. His exemplar of this approach (the one of "Wizards") is Norman Borlaug, one of the founding fathers of industrial agriculture, genetically modified foods and fertilizers, and the Green Revolution generally. The other possibility is that we will use our self-control and conscience to recognize our limits and change our ways of living so as to sustainably exist within those given limits, through renewable energy, conservation, population control, limited consumption: in other words, the whole "small is beautiful" ethic of E.F. Schumacher and others. His exemplar of this approach (the one of "Prophets") is William Vogt, a little known but highly controversial and important early advocate of environmentalism, anti-industrialism, organic agriculture, solar power, Birth control, and all the rest. The book not only provides a wonderfully thoughtful contrast between the two men, but investigates the implications of their ideas in a time of climate change, conflicts over water and oil, and so much more. I've written some much more extensive thoughts about Mann's whole argument, in light of the question of localism, here--but whether that's your interest or not, this is a book worth reading.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book is a phenomenal work of reportage, a careful--but never drowned by unnecessary detail--investigation of a routine medical practice (the taking of cell tissues from patients for study) and the way it had, in one rare case, spectacularly non-routine results. The cancer which killed Henrietta Lacks--for reasons that are still, more than a half-century on, not fully understood--provided doctors with a set of cells which have resulted in a steady, consistent, endlessly multiplying cellular culture, upon which thousands of medical experiments have been performed (and through the marketing and exchange of which, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and earned). The family of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, mostly uneducated urban black family in Baltimore, originally only one generation removed their segregated, sharecropper past, knew nothing about what doctors at Johns Hopkins had done while Henrietta lay dying, and when they did find out, that opened the door to further misunderstandings, miscommunications both legal and cultural, and exploitation by hustlers and the mass media alike. Skloot wonderfully weaves all of this together, writing with equal skill about the hard-nosed business of medical research, the racist arrogance which attended mid-century American medicine, the culture of dysfunction and ignorance which discrimination and poverty results in, the particular (and often sad and bizarre) family dynamics of the greater Lacks clan, and the larger legal questions of using biological "waste" (skin, organs, blood, cells) without consent. This is a strange and fascinating medical saga, and a personal saga as well, for Skloot herself (she frequently writes in the first person throughout), as well as, and more importantly for, everyone touched, in one way or another, by the profound mystery that emerged solely through one random person's death. This is the best book about medicine and American society I've read since Anne Fadiman's wonderful The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which in a sense told the same, amazing and tragic story: that is, a story of the tragic disconnect that can occur when the worldview of modern medical science, and the worldview of a culture that is economically, racially, and religiously set entirely against it, clash.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. This is a superb book--perhaps not as lyrical or as literary as its often heart-rending subject matter might seem to demand, but Bryan Stevenson's clear-eyed retelling of dozens of cases of unjustly convicted, horribly abused individuals (many of which, through the immense efforts of he and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative, were saved from unwarranted execution--but more than a few of which were not) does the job very well all the same. He doesn't spend much time telling his own story, so the book doesn't provide much of a portrait of Stevenson himself--but whether he intended it or not, Stevenson can't help but come off as a bit of a saint. By his own account, the thousands of hours he has spent over a period of decades, dealing with police hostility, racist prosecutors and judges, confused and terrified and mentally disturbed victims, distraught family and community members, oblivious outside investigators, and sometimes threats of violence, were utterly exhausting, though usually rewarding (emotionally, that is--the lack of financial resources to support the pro bono work his law office, and to even pay his and his colleagues salaries, and the lack of financial resources for those whom they serve, is a constant sub-theme throughout the book). Stevenson exemplifies a profound sense of what he calls "reciprocal humanity"--as do the work of the many activists he has teamed with, as do the poor African-American matriarchs of Alabama who have stood beside him and inspired him as he's confronted angry sheriffs, ignorant attorneys, and blood-lusting jurors, and most of all as do those who he and his fellow attorneys have been able to save, who have left prison to the freedom that was taken from them with a determination to live the best they could, even if they never could escape the memories of the lost years, the horrors and abuse of prison, and their own guilt. This books is crowded with their stories, and every single one of them is worth learning about. A great, great read.

Robert Wuthnow, In the Blood: Understanding America's Farm Families and The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. I'm cheating here, putting two books together, but I really view my study of the patient sociological work of Wuthnow this year--he's one of those scholars who, with his team of researchers, has produced dozens of books in his long career; I read four of them this year--as a single, lengthy read. I have no idea what Wuthnow may himself prioritize as his life's work, but on the basis of the works of his I've read, and in particular on the basis of these two books, I can't imagine any better title for him than to recognize him as a masterful storyteller of the lives of the (overwhelmingly white) rural and small-town Americans of America's Midwest and Great Plains, as those lives have been changed since the early 20th-century by both their own (and their childrens' and their grand-childrens') choices and by forces far beyond their influence or (often, though not always) understanding. Through hundreds of interviews, and carefully studying thousands of documents, his sociological portraits provide a history of at least one part of the story of America's middle and of the small town economies that shaped the whole culture of that region. Wuthnow's writing is not lyrical, but he gives voice and shape to the communitarian principle of feeling attached to a particular, limited place; demonstrates the tension felt by those who embrace the pace of life in a farming and small rural communities, even with the knowledge that their livelihoods depend upon financial entanglements that extend far beyond the land; and reflects upon how the Republican party has effectively made use of all the above confused feelings and resentments to expand upon the already conservative, mostly racially homogeneous culture of small towns, and thus planted the seeds of the Tea Party and Trumpian populism. His works inspired me to write a couple of lengthy blog posts, but read them for yourself, and see what you think.

No comments: