The books that spent time with me in 2015
The takeaway is: you should read Zero to One and reread Huckleberry Finn.
Briefly, the books I read this year that I highly recommended:
- Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
- Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al
- The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Walking Dead volumes 18–21 by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
- The Hive by Charles Burns
- David Boring by Daniel Clowes
- Blankets by Craig Thompson
- Harry Potter books 3–7 by J. K. Rowling
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
Waking Up by Sam Harris
A good addition to the conversation about meditation and mindfulness and where they fit in with rationality, science, and atheism. Given how smart Harris is and what a talented thinker he is, I found it disappointing how confident he is not only in the practical usefulness of the techniques he describes — essentially psychology tricks — but also in their deep meaning.
He assures us that this meaning is empirical and not a matter of faith. But isn’t prayer an empirically powerful experience, with health effects similar to meditation? Harris is convinced that he has earned his devotion through reason and rigor, but as usual, I think he’s letting himself off too easy. It’s as if he thinks that his proud rationality provides a blanket shield that makes his cosmology more valid than everyone else’s.
With that said, this book is worth reading for Harris’s analysis of split-brain epileptic studies alone; he convincingly uses them as the start of a thread that he pulls and pulls, elegantly demolishing the illusion that our consciousness is a singular, unbroken phenomenon.
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
A short, short gem of a business memoir. I can’t say there are many practical proposals or lessons I will take from this book, but I’m happy to have spent a bit of time in Sivers’s unique brain. His sense of purpose — using entrepreneurship to help your friends and make you happy — is clarifying and refreshing.
I do wish he would get into details a bit more; he breezes by his disastrous abandoning of his company for several months, and I got the sense there was much there that would make for a great read, if a difficult chapter to write.
Recommended, in part because of its refreshing brevity!
Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
Very short and not at all a practical book; more a collection of aphorisms in the spirit of professional dedication. I find the spirit and tone of Pressfield’s writing genuinely inspiring and meaningful. At its core is an identity he articulates: that of the artist who cultivates a practice every day. This is more a book to keep around and keep skimming than a source of information.
Highly recommended, in part because of its refreshing brevity!
Our Final Invention by James Barrat
A doomsaying book about the coming rise of AI. Not quite the rigorous thought exercise I was looking for; more of a chatty, light, extended New Yorker article. Full of interesting ideas, though they do not cohere. A good introduction to the thinkers relevant to this debate.
Recommended with reservations. You can kinda get the point from a single XKCD comic.
Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al
Excellent book on how to make tough conversations go better and get all parties more of what they want. A slog of a read for me, because the information is so evocative of complex emotions and associations. Compared to similar books, I found it more specific, and thus more useful. It’s also quite hard on the reader, which I appreciate: a large section covers what the authors call “clever stories”, explanations we tell ourselves to excuse our own inaction, selfishness, greediness, and laziness.
The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown
My mother finds Brown’s work very valuable, so I’ve been meaning to give her a shot. She’s not full of shit; there are no brandable catchphrases or acronyms. And she doesn’t peddle easy answers or a single realization that will unlock everything.
Instead, there are messy accounts of extended self-destructiveness, self-undermining and self-defeat. Most are about her, and they ring true; you know she’s not revising them artificially to fit the book, because they don’t actually fit the book terribly well! It feels disjointed and all over the place.
Some useful questions I gleaned to practice asking myself:
“What do you do when your fears are active? How do you protect yourself?… What’s the most courageous thing you could do for yourself when you feel small and hurt?”
Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick
Humor writing where “as was their wont” passes for wit. So obvious and unimaginative that it made me start daydreaming about their taxes. It reads like the jokes that the geeks in “Freaks and Geeks” tell each other, the ones that they try desperately to grow out of.
Gimp by Mark Zupan
Surprisingly good. Zupan is not your typical memoirist; he’s a bro, and it’s doubtful that he would have developed the need to express himself through writing were he not a quadriplegic. Like nearly all literary athletes, Zupan struggles to find much to say about the performances for which he’s known, and the worst parts of this book are the play-by-plays, but the kinetic and visceral experience of quad rugby is captured well by the film Murderball.
This is no simple feel good story; it’s gruesome and soaked in layer after layer of pain. What makes it special is that he experiences the greatest pain in those layers of his life that are most universal, and it is only in the course of writing that he seems to have come to face that pain directly.
The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Amazon reviews complain that this book is “anecdotal”. And it certainly is, but similar books’ anecdotes are rarely this specific and opinionated. Its lessons do not generalize well, and that’s part of Horowitz’s point: that the problems a CEO faces are difficult precisely because they are novel and not solvable by applying case studies or aphorisms.
“The struggle is when your employees think you’re lying to them, and you think they might be right… The struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better, and end up feeling worse.”
I predict it will be passed around at business schools for decades.
Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
A straightforward, wide-ranging exploration of Thiel’s investment theses, the lessons he learned at PayPal, and his view of the political and economic prospects of the United States. Thiel can turn a phrase and form simple and catchy B-school-ready memes. Many popular business writers serve their own pithiness to the exclusion of contrary evidence and anecdotes, but Thiel doesn’t seem to care enough about his popularity to bother with all that. It makes sense that this book grew out of his lectures, which are naturally multifaceted and not formed around a single, overriding, brandable idea.
I recommend also reading the co-author’s original longform lecture notes, as they go further in various directions of thought and feature excellent guest speakers in conversation with Thiel.
His simple central thesis is one of the most useful tools for evaluating innovation that I have ever encountered; I already hear people use it in a wide range of contexts all the time.
The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
A compassionate and thoughtful life story of a promising Yale student who couldn’t escape his roots in the poor and violent outskirts of Newark. I am not much of a reader of biographies, which so often strike me as comprehensive to a point that is exhaustive and exhausting. I confess to skipping many pages.
Where Hobbs seemed most interesting, and where I wish he would have gone even deeper, is in his portrait of the complexities of identity that college students explore and juggle. He points out that each black freshman is forced, by the totalizing nature of race in America, to answer a profound and sometimes demoralizing question in a short amount of time: what kind of black person am I setting myself up to be categorized as in the minds of others?
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
I wish I had come to this book with fewer expectations. It’s a far smaller and more familiar type of novel than its ecstatic praise suggested to me.
The heroine is a brave and difficult choice for an author to tackle: she is almost absurdly inert and passive, but never inhumanly so. She is at the boundary of what could still constitute a compelling protagonist, yet she doesn’t stay trapped by Kushner as a symbol, but instead seems like a genuine person whose small delights and heartbreaks are real.
I gave this book to my mother, who likes literature about feminism and gender, but she could not stand the heroine and put the book down. I got the sense that she wants her female protagonists to be more uplifting; it’s not that she didn’t recognize something true in this character, but she didn’t want to spend her time with art that such a depressingly familiar and backwards portrait of the roles we have been stuck in.
What impressed me again and again is Kushner’s spectacular ability to turn a phrase. I might never have folded over and dogeared so many pages as I did with this book.
There’s a moment in the middle that I have probably thought about a thousand times since finishing the book: the main character meets a vivacious and impulsive relative of a friend for the first time, and narrates that “As soon as I saw [her], I knew she would take something from me.”
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Fresher than I remembered, more raw and imaginative and observant than it seems like it could possibly be. How did Clemens perceive so much about the human condition? So much about superstition, both inventive and stubbornly cruel? So much about the open- and closed-mindedness at the heart of America?
Page after page is alive with appreciation for the human capacity for imagination and generosity, but also for crafty persuasion, grandiosity, and most of all, cheating. Huck is an utterly spectacular character. Out of whole cloth, formed only from his simple window onto the value of honesty and the hypocrisies of others, Huck creates an unspoken moral compass that is truer than those of the adults around him. His own racism speaks to the power of this compass, because he acts in defiance of it and of white supremacy, though he doesn’t begin to see their authority as false. If accompanying Jim to freedom, and keeping his oath, mean he is going to hell, then Huck figures he’s just going to hell.
The racism in this book — Twain’s, Huck’s, and Jim’s—make it an uncomfortable read, and Twain had a lot to learn about black people. But the beauty of writing like this is the struggle to grow out of the accepted truths of the time. The purpose of literature, the power of the collaborative imagination of the writer and the reader, the versatile range of English, and the core spirit of liberalism are all right here. It’s worth being alive to read books like this.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
An example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. The man can write a fucking sentence, possibly better than anyone. It’s astonishing that English isn’t his first language, and it’s fun to wonder if that is part of how he is able to tune the music of words so well. But I could only read about a third before I was exhausted with an inner world so empty. Nabokov seems to be making the point that indulgent narcissism like Humbert Humbert’s is infinitely tedious. Point received, I guess.
The Martian by Andy Weir
It’s hard to believe that such a literarily clumsy and unsophisticated novel could be so brilliantly composed in its integration of scientific knowledge and story. There might be nobody else on earth who could write this book.
Packing in so much technical knowhow risks seeming self-aggrandizing. But from start to finish, the author, like the protagonist, shows no sign of glorifying himself. It’s this absence of ego, and the centrality of engineering in the mind and heart of a true engineer, that lets the protagonist survive. Against my own ego, this dutiful persistence seems both alien and irresistibly compelling.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
This sci-fi book has a wonderful core premise that expands and twists the question of identity in the age of artificial intelligence. Quite a lot of clever ideas go into constructing this world, but as I often feel with sci-fi books, it’s hard not to be distracted by the narrow scope of the world-building, and the aspects that feel quickly sketched or incomplete.
Curses by Kevin Huizenga
The author/illustrator is clearly very talented, but doesn’t succeed in constructing stories that have their own life and meaning.
X-Factor: Breaking Points by Peter David and Leonard Kirk
Reading this, and thinking back to all of David’s writing I’ve read over the years in Hulk and X-Factor, I realize what a gift for tone he has. There are characters, issues, jokes and relationship elements that are specific to David’s X-Factor and which would be out of place in other X-books.
David has never had John Byrne or Alan Moore’s ability to devise colorful peril and villainy. But before and after a fight, there is an instantly-recognizable tone that combines cynicism and intimacy which David has spent much of the last 25 years weaving into the title. The enemies in good X-Factor stories are institutional — these are government employees, after all — and the triumphs come when individual and group cohesiveness are asserted in the face of the soul-eroding power of the system.
Recommended for superhero comics fans, though not this volume more than any other.
Walking Dead volumes 18–21 by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
Consistently fresh. Seems to draw its power from a steadfast commitment to a realism which goes beyond just environment and dialogue, and leaves the story itself to the whims of fate. Everything does not happen for a reason in this world; things don’t go as planned, in ways that aren’t anyone’s meaningful fault; killers don’t have a heart of gold, and if they do operate by some code, it is one that seems to have metastisized out of convenience. In this sense, The Walking Dead is a sort of anti-Star Trek, a counterpoint to all storytelling where the enemies seem to know who the good guys are and seem to always keep a door open for a tidy, episodic little redemption.
This translates to the way Kirkman builds characters who are believable as leaders. Rick’s evolution into a leader is epic, but what is even more impressive is that the strengths and weaknesses of other leaders the group encounters — both allies and enemies — present such a variety of convincing combinations. The sadism that enemy leaders in other fiction often exhibit is usually presented as a twisted flaw. But in The Walking Dead, that sadism may be just another manifestation of a broad and powerful decisiveness that is fearful survivors legitimately value.
Bone by Jeff Smith
The central characters are etched into my heart, and nothing can compare to Smith’s use of the cartoonist’s line to tell stories and to dance between realism and symbolism.
The banter and antics in the first half dozen issues are wonderful. But as the story expands and real conflict begins, the rules of the universe never cohere, and so the stakes never feel high. I love rereading the first dozen issues, but find that the spell isn’t sustained through the rest.
Usagi Yojimbo: Fox Hunt by Stan Sakai
“The Outlaw”, the last story here, has the perfect blend of Sakai’s themes: fatalism, whimsy, violence, and exploration how codes of honor can be both profound and limiting. Another story, in which Usagi uses a spectacular feat of skill in the middle of a duel to disarm and embarrass an arrogant samurai, is also a classic.
Sakai has been producing these stories with consistent quality for 20 years, and is a superb cartoonists’ cartoonist. But as a reader of much of his work over that period, I do sometimes wish he would explore the deeper territory that lies one level below, in both expressiveness of line and depth of story.
In some ways Usagi is like a DC superhero before the 1960s’ Marvel Comics revolution in character depth. Which is not to say I need Usagi to be a troubled basketcase from Forest Hills, Queens, but it would be nice to see him get over his head in politics or misjudge character because of his baggage or something.
Lewis and Clark, by Nick Bertozzi
Full of personality, spontaneity, and a sense of compositional freedom. Bertozzi’s loose and sketchy style, reminiscent of Will Eisner but more expressionistic, and his equally free and natural plotting and pacing, make for an experience of history that is uniquely immediate.It shows the deep and unique power of comics. Film and prose both have fundamental aspects of their form that tend to make documentary reenactment and history writing dry and official, but this book is free of that.
Bertozzi’s Meriwether Lewis is an impulsive, opinionated, unpredictable, and yet masterful leader, and you can feel the intense hum of his inner engine throughout this book in a way that’s hard to imagine encountered the material anywhere else.
The Moon Moth, adapted and illustrated by Houmayoun Ibrahim from a short story by Jack Vance
I’m only just discovering Jack Vance, who has a massive following among the most sophisticated sci-fi fans. The introduction calls him an overlooked American Calvino (which calls to mind Ursula Le Guin’s description of Philip Dick as “our own homegrown Borges”).
Unlike many adaptations into comics form, this book has a real raison d’être; the story hinges on matters of visual appearance, and the illustrator comes up with some beautiful and wonderful solutions to conveying certain aspects of the alien culture. It feels a bit flat, but it’s a fun, quick and unusual read, and makes me want to get into Vance.
The Hive by Charles Burns
The second book in a trilogy, but stands alone well. Burns is an absolute master (his Black Hole is one of my favorite books). He uses inking here, as in some of his other work, to blend contrasting levels of representation and abstraction in the same panel.
It’s hard to believe a comic as bizarre and incoherent as this could feel as though it makes so much sense, according to its strange internal rules. The mechanism connecting the parallel pieces of story not spelled out, and it doesn’t matter if it never is. The connections are impressionistic, almost subconscious, and feeling the presence of those connections without precisely knowing what they are makes this a sublime read.
Ex Machina Book 1 by Brian Vaughan
The pitch for this book is brilliant: a middling superhero who had one star moment turns to politics and becomes NYC mayor. Everything that’s done with it, however, is disappointing. None of the characters seem to have consistent motivation or identity. Nothing imaginative is done with the basic setup. And the worst part is, the writing is constantly congratulating itself for being so clever, and the reader for following the plot. I dislike it as much as I disliked Vaughan’s widely loved Y: The Last Man.
Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I’m in the minority on this one too. I appreciate the density of its world creation; there seems to be a new species or piece of mythology introduced every other page. And I don’t mind how wildly the imagination ranges, from a ruling class whose heads are TV sets to a lion-sized talking cat who can detect lies. What I mind is the way that the incoherence of this world makes its characters’ motivations meaningless. We have a royal prince who is sent across the galaxy to a planet where he hasn’t even been aware his side is at war, to put a stop to a single romance because it bridges the war’s sides? And this sort of romance is a completely unbelievable shock to everyone, even though the couple themselves seem culturally compatible to an almost effortless degree? And the famously lethal and ultra-competent enemy practically rolls over and dies in the face of the heroes’ mildly competent opposition? What sort of stakes can there be on so flimsy a foundation?
David Boring by Daniel Clowes
I deeply enjoyed this graphic novel, which aggressively fights against being enjoyable. Clowes is a master on so many levels at this point that it’s as if he must distort and alter every aspect of comics storytelling he encounters, never letting anything remain static across a single page, let alone a whole book. Everything is at play: pacing, tone, genre, naturalism vs. absurdism vs. symbolism, even texture and color.
This many balls in the air would be scatterbrained and meaningless if it wasn’t done with such care and sensitivity for story and character. The absurd shifts don’t feel like they come from his whims, or at least not his whims alone; they seem like they either come from what makes each character tick, or else they are an embodiment of the nature of life, imposed on the characters by the world and the author.
In this way, the book reads almost as an experiment in the destruction of the lens of character through which we typically experience literature. The characters are disassociated from all of tricks that normally draw a reader to them, but this is done with masterful sleight-of-hand where each panel seems to be playing along with a standard characterization, but the larger work is somehow unrecognizable and alien.
Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman and various illustrators
Neil Gaiman’s eclectic, anything-goes mythology turned me off as a teenager; it seemed so eager and self-satisfied. That has worn off somehow for me over the years, and I’ve appreciated the sprawl and whimsy of his cast of characters. But without that particular distaste I see even more clearly how little is done with the potential of all of these gods in one place. What does one pantheon do that another wouldn’t? Where’s all the trouble that Lucifer is supposedly causing? The celestial, framing story begins and ends without ever finding its center.
On the other hand, Gaiman has a knack for stories on the personal, human level, and a wonderful way of adding just a twist of myth or magic or destiny to bring an prosaic scenario to life. That’s why I loved his Death: The High Cost of Living at 14, and why I love the earthbound scenes here best. And there’s always a morbid and blasphemous spirit, with a deep and sincere ethical heart, that fills his books.
What I Did by Jason
Three short graphic novels published together, deeply different in tone. I loved the second one, which gets most purely into his incredible talent as a visual storyteller, and where his formalist stylistic constraints make for a sublime, trancelike reading experience. I also loved some of the risks he takes in the uneven first story, which begins in familiar cartoonist-memoir territory but ends up somewhere more bizarre.
My problem is that I don’t think he always has firm command of what his panels are and aren’t literally conveying to the reader. It’s hard not to give away spoilers here, but in the first and third books, there are crucial plot points that are unintentionally undermined by his artistic choices.
The book is uneven, but its great parts are genius, and I want more!
Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari
A beautifully looking graphic novel whose raison d’etre is unclear. Frank Miller’s 300 is the obvious comparison, but there’s no question about the artistic impulses behind a work of such spectacular visual intensity, racist triumphalism, and general exploitation.
In Marathon, there’s a drop of Miller-esque anachronistic ultraviolence (like using a shield to chop off a head), but no choice is made to steer the violence toward stylism or naturalism. The action sequences take on a manga-like staccato delivery, but without much care in communicating who is where, when. The characters are barely distinguishable visually. And there are touches of revisionist humanism in flashes of doubts and personal relationships, but not enough to outweigh generic hagiography being presented as straightforward dialogue.
I wish history comics would step forward out of the adolescent Gladiator stage they are largely still in and catch up with current cinematic and literary trends in historical critique.
Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Comparable to Whedon’s Avengers movie in its fanboy-approved, yet newcomer-friendly take on classic characters. Some parts work better than others, and plenty is ridiculous or flimsy, but it’s full of the same kind of witty observational humor that made the Avengers movie so satisfying. Whedon believes in these characters and their stories, and gives them (or at least, some of them) room to take shape. And one of Marvel’s greatest characters — Kitty Pryde — shines at the center of the whole story arc.
Ronin by Frank Miller and Lynne Varley
Totally bonkers. Miller is a genius at building a unique visual language around a concept. He can also be an almost aggressively clumsy storyteller. Here, so many characters are interchangeable with each other and with other Miller tropes (futuristic Nazis… who are gay!!! etc.) that it undermines Miller’s brilliant central concept. The art design and layouts are breathtaking, and it makes me wish that some of his written projects, such as the Robocop movie scripts, existed as comics drawn by him instead.
Finder: King of the Cats by Carla Speed McNeil
Not as fresh and urgent as the earlier Finder books, which were wonderful examples of the unique territory comics can explore.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
A simple memoir well told. Uses comics to present tricky scenarios in ways no other medium could; a great read for children about disability.
Habibi by Craig Thompson
A master of the comics form at work. I’ve never seen such a fluid integration of words and pictures. This is a story that simply can’t exist as such in any other medium. The sequence, about two-thirds of the way in, following the fisherman who fishes in a sea of garbage, is the best comics I’ve ever read.
The rest is beautiful, but suffers from a sort of cold, Jungian objectivism that concerns itself with absolute meanings of symbols and letters; I appreciate the desire behind this approach, but I never think it actually serves to illuminate character.
There is a curious mishmash of elements from different eras, but I find the fluid use of anachronism one of the more liberating aspects of this work. That’s one area, at least, where the form is bent to fit the characters and not the other way around.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
A deeply sympathetic and generous apostate memoir. Not quite the ambitious mix of image and words that Habibi is, but a more successful study of characters that are closer to the author’s personal experience. The sequence, around the middle of the book, where the protagonist remembers being castigated for drawing a picture of a naked woman, is something that will stay with me forever; it is as powerful an argument for comics as a medium as any I’ve seen.
Market Day by James Sturm
A simple story of village life and technological change in Russia, well told. The dream and imagination sequences are incredible.
Babysitters Club books (first 3) by Ann M. Martin
Better than I expected or remember, but not really at the modern young adult level. Can’t hold a candle to Katherine Patterson or Ivy and Bean. But these are very accessible for young readers, and I love the idea of entrepreneurship by a group of girls without asking permission first.
Recommended with reservations.
The Meanest Doll in the World by Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick
Uninspired, clunky, tiring and pointless. Makes me appreciate the clarity, plotting and characterization in the Toy Story films all the more.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
A beautiful book that teaches children about the history of film, the wonders of invention, independence, and the delight of tinkering.
With that said, the story and writing themselves feel strangely constrained. The elaborate set up of the plot crowds the scenes, and the characters themselves feel flat. The wonder is spelled out at length, and borrows its value from wonderful things themselves. Compare this to a book like Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which builds deeply memorable wonder, and horror, on its own terms. Dahl needs no artifice, no elaborate setpieces and props; the delight comes from each page and its words and pictures.
Recommended with reservations
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm
A book adaptation of the Oscar-winning short animated film.
You know how Pixar will take a premise and do more with it than you could have hoped for? They find aspects of their worlds that you always knew but whose implications you never thought to consider. The story that they tell has its roots in the premise and can’t be separated from it.This book is the exact opposite. It’s just a bunch of metaphors that are vaguely book related. These metaphors don’t actually draw on what makes books special, so they don’t real;y serve their own central conceit. It’s someone’s big idea, not the work of a storyteller.
Catwings by Ursula le Guin
A sweet gem of a chapter book, short and simply written, and perfect for a first grade reader. Plays lightly but meaningfully with the different perspective each species has of the world and its dangers. The final message is about compassion, and is beautifully composed and memorable.
Rumpelstiltskin by Paul Solinsky
An excellent adaptation of the classic fairy tale, with good notes on how it was compiled from different versions of the original Grimm tales. The illustration is are fine and draw elegantly on different European medieval artistic references and styles.
The Castle Crime by Ron Roy
Full of trivia and technical details, which is refreshing. But oh, are the pages boring. Makes me realize how excellent J. K. Rowling’s pages and paragraphs are; in 2500 pages or whatever of her work, my attention has never wandered as far as it does in one page of standard children’s lit like this.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
The characterization of some of the adults is a bit muddy, and a few elements of the plot don’t quite work , such as a bad guy turning out to just be completely misunderstood. And as always, the boundaries of what magic wizards can and cannot perform are vague and subservient to the needs of the scene; this undermines the dramatic clarity of key situations, and undermines the awe that I wish I felt more in these books. But the climax is phenomenal, in its weaving of the personal themes with the politics endanger of the world she has created.
This book also is the first to really showcase Rowling’s political cynicism. In her world, the government is not merely incompetent — it is a force of systematic, willful ignorance, actively serving powerful and manipulative interests at the expense of the common good. Her greatest villains are those who scheme for power in its own right, be it through cruelty or by appearing to be victims; in this attitude she shows both liberal and conservative currents in her thinking.
Azkaban delivers a clear argument against capital punishment, and a warning that the security weapons that defend us pose a danger not just to our enemies but to ourselves. But it also warns that a large and powerful government becomes a large and powerful tool of the Malfoys of the world, who use their access to further their own ends.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
Surprising in the freshness and psychological truth with which it explores the inner world of its hero. Rowling’s artistic risks keep growing, as when she contrasts the cheering of tournament crowds with the nearly psychotic terror their coerced young gladiators are feeling behind the scenes. In one brief passage which has never received the attention it deserves, Harry honestly wonders whether he will lose his grip and do the magical equivalent of going postal.
This book is too long by half, literally as long as five Great Gatsbys, and there are errors that suggest its editing was never quite completed. But the breathing room does allow space for a portrait to emerge of a young, not yet fully-formed celebrity used as a pawn and exploited by peers, journalists, and power seekers.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
Surprisingly political and relevant to fundamental questions of pedagogy, power, and control of information. The scene where students are told to study theory and not practice is unforgettable, and it indicts the prevailing theory-first philosophy of our most august graduate schools of education. Still episodic and swashbuckling, but with a nuanced portrait of how a campaign to discredit whistleblowers eats away at them and erodes their relationships. The action sequences seem arbitrary, but Rowling gets more ambitious and daring with each book.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
A bit stuck in devices and routines the series has used already: the perils of shortcutting one’s academic assignments, misunderstandings leading to friends’ not speaking to each other, Ron and Hermione stubbornly ignoring Harry’s observations, Dumbledore seeming shut off from Harry for an unknown reason. Professor Slughorn even evokes Gilderoy Lockhart in his obsession with amassing social status. Though I did love seeing the Ministry of Magic continue to put politics before good governance, with Harry twice asserting the wizarding equivalent of “Free Leonard Peltier”.
The real work here is a deepening and widening of the political history of the wizard world, through the exploration of one family. And the series enters the realm of horror for the first time here, in a spectacularly hellish sequence.
The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame
Sweet and lovely, but its meandering pace and old fashioned references make it hard for today’s children to get into. I wish its portrait of fickle, rubbernecking villagers — not to mention the self-serving St. George — were more accessible. The Narnia books, which are similar in language and outdated cultural context, have a sense of fantasy and urgency which makes them still work, though C.S. Lewis doesn’t have Grahame’s critical eye for the short-sightedness of the crowd. (Being a conservative, Lewis reserves his criticism for progressive education, which he sees as raising a generation of entitled whiners.)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
Brilliant and delightful, with strong and clear championing of loyalty, dignity, duty, faith and love. Mixed in with these are quite a lot of distasteful reactionary values, particularly with regard to gender roles and the worship of royalty, so a parent must be able to edit on the fly. Even so, these are truly great books, full of imagination and meaning, and it’s not easy to find children’s literature that engages these values so well.
If you actually got this far, drop me a line!