Books of 2017

About this time every year, I look through the books that I’ve read over the course of the past twelve months in order to think about what I’m most likely to have discussed and recommended. This is something of a subset of the popular “my favorite books of this year” type of social media post, which pops up all over the place, and intentionally or not, has a tendency to turn into a discussion about how well read the compiler of the list is. (I may or may not be successful in trying to avoid this tendency.) For this list, I’m generally biased in favor of books that came out this year or so (although this isn’t really true of my reading list, generally; I try to read old books, as well), books that didn’t get the recognition they deserve when they did come out, or old books that are for some reason relevant again. I generally exclude most classics on the theory that if your English teachers haven’t been able to convince you to read them, I probably won’t be able to, either. Very few people need an additional literature snob telling them that they should read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so it’s not this list. (If you haven’t read it, though, it’s great; you really should go read it.)

Because of events this year, this is more biased towards non-fiction and politics than it has been in the past, when it’s included more novels and more theology. If you’ve talked books with me at any point during 2017, I probably recommended at least one of these. Here’s the complete list, and some reasons why I would encourage you to read them:

  1. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: Nichols writes with the annoyance of an actual expert (in his case, a Sovietologist) weary from repeatedly swatting down uninformed opinions from amateurs on Twitter, an activity to which he also devotes considerable time. (Incidentally, following Tom on twitter and watching his interactions provides all sorts of examples for why this book needs to exist.) Death of Expertise centers around the idea that we, as a culture, decided to take it as a personal affront to be told things that do not mesh with our preconceived notions of reality. It’s surprising how frequently this is done: seeing this in politics or foreign policy should surprises no one at this point, but seeing something like this with, say, medical advice should be more of a shock. Nichols argues that the refusal to accept expert opinions has and will continue to have far-reaching and disastrous effects. I tend to think that he’s right and would recommend this book . . . even though I imagine that Nichols would correctly point out that mine isn’t exactly an expert opinion.
  2. Alan Jacobs, How to Think: there has been a recent plethora of books about thinking, the most exhaustive and important of which has been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. You’ll be more aware of the ongoing discussion to which Jacobs is contributing if you’ve already read Kahneman (or books by Dan Ariely or Jonathan Haidt), but it’s not required. Jacobs starts from Kahneman’s descriptions of the problems with how we think to something more prescriptive: how we can actually get better at thinking, not from the perspective of a cognitive scientist (although he takes observations from the field into account), but from the perspective of a college professor who is trying to teach good thinking. The resulting book is short, readable, chock full of good advice, and Jacobs references a bunch of stuff that’s worth reading, as well.
  3. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: this is a brick, and it’s older that just about anything else on this list (1953), but you owe it to yourself to read it if you want to understand what conservatism actually is. (You’re sure as hell not going to get a coherent explanation from the modern GOP.) What Kirk has done here is to provide a systematic intellectual basis for modern conservatism — tracing what we now consider to be conservative ideas through the thinkers of the past and resulting in something that looks far more like a systematic framework than what conservatism had when he started. Kirk starts his analysis with Edmund Burke, and progresses to what was the present day when the book was written. Despite the fact that this is over 50 years old, this remains the cornerstone of intellectual conservatism, and is needed even more now that the GOP has lost its way.
  4. Susan Cain, Quiet: our society is, as a general rule, oriented towards extroverts, and this is a collection of Cain’s observations on how introverts can cope with this and how social situations can be modified to make both introverts and extroverts feel comfortable. As Cain points out, somewhere between a third and half of the population is composed of people that are introverts — it surprises no one that knows me that I’m included in this group — and as a result, a society that caters to extroverts risks excluding large swaths of the population. I expect that most introverts will identify with some of the struggles that Cain, an introvert herself, has gone through.
  5. Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: Crawford has an interesting life story, and this book — part memoir, part philosophy, and part practical life advice — seems to frame it as mainly a quest for a satisfying job. The current conventional wisdom is that college is important because it allows you to get a job in which you sit at a desk in front of a computer, and that this is the best way, in our society, to attain happiness. This didn’t work for Crawford, and given the number of unhappy people sitting in cubicles, this idea is overdue for the reevaluation that Crawford gives it, here: this is, as the title suggests, primarily about how work that we do with our hands can do a better job forcing us to think that does many the other types of work that are more common in an information economy, and how they can, consequently, bring more satisfaction.
  6. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, Soonish: if this distinctive last name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably not yet familiar with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, the completely ridiculous and wonderful comic strip from Zach Weinersmith. For this book, Zach has teamed up with his wife Kelly — who is undoubtedly the only Dr. Weinersmith in the entire United States — to discuss technologies that will make everything better, or perhaps make everything terrible and destroy the planet, depending on how everything pans out. This is, as expected, enormous amounts of fun to read and remarkably well-researched. After reading this, I’m pretty sure that all science writers should to be paired with a cartoonist for all future writing projects. I’m not sure it’ll cure all the ills for science education in this country, but I’m willing to take that chance.
  7. Matt Grossman, David Hopkins, Asymmetric Politics: a common misconception about American politics is that the two parties that we have are essentially mirror images of each other, and that they can be understood in essentially the same way. This isn’t the case, and Grossman and Hopkins explain how they are different and how they got that way.
  8. Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: I don’t consider myself to be a member of the progressive left, and Lilla is writing as a progressive to other progressives, so reading this felt a bit like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. Lilla’s premise, here, is that identity politics is killing the left’s ability to win elections — specifically the Clinton/Trump presidential election — and the excoriating reviews and howls of rage that have come from the left suggest that he’s hit a nerve. I’m not sure that Lilla’s analysis is completely correct, here — identity politics generally seems to work pretty well for the left, and to me, it seems rare that someone on the right can pull off identity politics well. (When it does work on the right, however, you get someone like Trump, so Lilla’s cautions are perhaps warranted.) The activist class on the left has a commitment to ideological purity that interferes with their ability to win elections, and identity politics seem to compose a large part of that purity. I’m not sure Lilla’s advice will be followed, here, but the Democrats ignore it at their peril: if they learn the wrong lessons from 2016, it seems likely that they’ll manage to lose to Trump in 2020.
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