The Year of Reading Dangerously (And the Top 10 Books I Read in 2017)

Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio De Janeiro

Last year, I recounted why reading was important to me. At its core, reading was a method of illumination, a process of enlightening the darker corners of one’s mind and perhaps one’s heart as well. Books connected human beings across time and space through the crystallized wisdom of the printed word. Unlike in 2016, I did not set a goal of reading 52 books this year but rather a more modest 40. I was in my last semester of law school and then working full-time, so I thought I would set a lower bar, surpass it, and declare victory.

In the end, I finished 45 books — roughly 14,800 pages. As I look back on my reading this year, I see now that my unstated approach was to read dangerously. Pick up those books that would wound and stab, push and prod, throw you and all your ill-formed opinions against the wall and force you to examine them, refute them, refine them, and if you could summon the courage, change them. This is what I mean by reading dangerously.

I had come from a place where no one read or even valued the written word, and so when I discovered the gift of self-study, it was as though I had been emancipated from the circumstances of birth. “If you are born in the ghetto,” Saul Bellow once said, “the very conditions compel you to look skyward and thus hunger for the universal.” That hunger, that primordial urge to be connected to the vast and limitless potential of mankind, is something I felt in Scarborough, felt in the banlieus of Paris, felt in the upper reaches of Iraq, and felt in my corner apartment in New Haven. Ideas and learning should be exciting — not the dreary and stifling experience that one has in public schools disconnected from the reality of its own students.

I got really obsessed by the U.S. Civil war in 2016 and continued my independent study of that great conflict this year, supplementing my learning with conversations with friends from the South. Many months of this year were spent engrossed by James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which is the single best one-volume work on the Civil War. I heard David Blight, a professor of history at Yale, remark on his iTunesU lectures on the Civil War that when Battle Cry of Freedom came out in translation in the 90s, he saw lineups outside a Prague bookstore for the Czech version. It is an American story with universal meaning. Even now, writing about McPherson’s work, I feel the beginnings of intellectual excitement. His writing is impeccable and the storytelling and synthesis here are electric. The reader is witness to a historian using the full powers of craft to enliven the tragic and brutal story of the Civil War.

One of my favorite little anecdotes from this work is about a certain German journalist and rabble-rouser named Karl Marx, then writing for America’s largest newspaper, who sent a letter to the great prophet of liberation on behalf of the workingmen of Europe:

As the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

In addition to Battle Cry of Freedom, I took up Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which convincingly argued that slavery built the United States economy. Slavery was not a feudalist mode of production but capitalism taken to its logical end. The myth of docile slaves working the fields was an invidious form of propaganda spread for centuries to corrupt our understanding of the past by suggesting that the slaves enjoyed what was done to them. The same propaganda infects the West’s memory of colonialism, and Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, makes a Q.E.D. case for how Britain plundered and robbed one of the greatest civilizations on earth. Despite the myths of benevolent slave-holders and good Christian colonizers, the enslaved and the colonized knew that their bodies, their treasure, and the women among them were being plundered and robbed on an industrial and transnational scale. They knew. Human beings always knew— but the history books often left out this crucial fact.

Let me confess: As I get older and learn more about the world, there are private moments when, in the middle of a book or essay, I stop myself and think: This is important. This is really important. Why was I not taught this in school? How did no one reference this? Over time, as the frequency of such moments has increased, it has become apparent that the subjects and stories that the schools left out were excluded not by accident but by design. Because when the chips are down, the schooling system in Canada and the whole Western world is still fundamentally Eurocentric. All the knowledge taught to children is thus taught from a very particular and narrow perspective, seen through the eyes of the white Westerner who, like Churchill drawing lines on a map, excises crucial parts of the story that seem unimportant to him but are everything to us. What we choose to remember, and what we decide to leave out, was itself a testament to power.

When I was a schoolboy, I was not told that certain assumptions were baked into the knowledge I was regurgitating. The schools did not see the value in teaching a brown boy the legacy of the British Empire. They did not see fit to tell us that colonialism and slavery were first and foremost economic enterprises that were undertaken under the flag of white supremacy to build the economies of the entire Western world. All the heroic tales of military valor during the Great War forgot to mention the 1.6 million Indians who served Britain in that war, or the 75,000 who died for their colonial masters. There was not the slightest intimation that Islam had a rich heritage, or that other cultures had histories too. One cannot claim to be an educated person without having some familiarity with the Bhagavad Gita, or Confucianism, or the Indigenous civilizations of North and South America. But I think there was something deeper at work.

Perhaps what the schools left out said something about the assumptions they held. Perhaps the act of learning these other histories was also an act of reclaiming one’s place in the story. And why should the administrators of knowledge have cared for what I thought, or where I came from? Why should they have armed me with the knowledge that I would have to seek out on my own? They, too, had been chained to assumptions they did not understand, and this was true long before they or I were born. Go back two centuries and the administrators were in their full glory, in London and Toronto, toasting to the Empire on which the sun never set — but I was in India, watching the colonizers arrive.

In May, I graduated from law school. The rain was coming down in sheets that day as we all entered a world that was more uncertain and more terrifying than at any time in recent memory. But I still felt an old gratitude well up in me. At twenty-seven, it was no longer the gold stars or the degrees or the prestige that mattered — it was the great fortune of knowing so many brilliant, kind-hearted, and generous people — people who made the difficult moments of this year bearable with their quiet acts of solidarity, whose very goodness shined like an inner light through our bitter storm. For that, and so much else, I remain thankful.

My goal for next year is to read as freely and widely as possible, taking in more poetry and science and slowing down to really be present. The objective moving forward is to find some way to use language to transcend our many intellectual and ideological divides, to combine the language of ideas with the language of the streets. The Trump era will have a serious effect on all art and language, and it will be up to us to find voices and methods to articulate our complex humanities. Despite my entire philosophical outlook militating to say the opposite, I still have hope. Yes, I still have hope. You might even call it faith.

And now, the top 10 books I read, with a full list of the 45 at the bottom. Happy reading in 2018.

10. Stoner by John Williams

You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history. Remember that while you’re trying to decide what to do.

This is considered one of the great American novels no one has heard of. Published in 1965, it is the story of John Stoner, a farm boy from Missouri who hopes to lead an academic life but comes up against the reality of fate. Love, failure, defeat, and ambition collide in this complex tale of a simple life, written in pared-down prose that can cut the eye.

9. Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein

The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.

An indispensable collection of Albert Einstein’s opinions on everything from god to humanism to quantum mechanics that breathes new life into the mind with each reading.

8. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari

A slim book that tells the story of the partition of India, the forgotten holocaust of the twentieth century, which took two million lives, created an entire generation of refugees, and now forms the backdrop of a tense standoff between two nuclear-armed states, one of then consumed by Hindu nationalism and the other hijacked for decades by Islamic chauvinism.

7. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

When I was twelve, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report, “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far,” and this was often the case.

When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the neurologist, historian, and writer Oliver Sacks penned a piece for the New York Times explaining how he planned to live out his last days — in the company of friends, reflecting on the great joy it had been to live such a full life on this earth. Sacks is funny, engaging, literary, deeply knowledgeable, and always good company. Reading this book was a rediscovery of the passion and excitement for life. Pair it with his essay on drugs, or the Sabbath.

6. Night by Elie Wiesel

I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.

The classic novel describing Wiesel’s experience with his father in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A dark and somber meditation on life, the brutality of man, the parent-child relationship and the depravity of evil. A short, haunting book.

5. Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

He often felt meaningless, even absurd. He was a Bombay boy who had made his life in London among the English, but often he felt cursed by a double upbringing. The root of language, at least, remained, but he began to appreciate how deeply he felt the loss of the other roots, and how confused he felt about what had he had become…The migrated self became, inevitably, heterogeneous instead of homogenous, belonging to more than one place, multiple rather than singular, responding to more than one way of being, more than averagely mixed up. Was it possible to be — to become good at being — not rootless, but multiply rooted?

I know Rushdie has his fans and detractors. I’ve always admired his facility with language, even when I felt his works became too dense or self-indulgent or just plain confusing. Still, his memoir of living under Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwas is an enthralling read. Memoir, history, political biography all entwined. I wish there was more about his upbringing in Bombay and his days in Cambridge. The great weakness of this book is that Rushdie, unable to help himself, often descends into petty score-settling and criticism of his ex-wives, which kind of derails the rest of the narrative.

4. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor

The former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and current member of Parliament in India builds off his viral Oxford Union speech about reparations to India and tells the brutal and withering story of Britain’s plunder and pillaging of India — the consequences of which are still with us today. Tharoor quotes Britain’s own colonial officers and marshals enough evidence to make the evangelists of empire (Niall Ferguson and others) return in defeat to their Ivory Towers.

3. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

The classic 1985 text describing what television had done to public discourse. This book deserves an entire essay on its own, but safe to say that it is a prophetic treatise that should be read and re-read in this confusing and anarchic age.

2. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

One of today’s newspapers complains about the President’s habit of inviting “thugs and assassins of Idaho and Montana to be his guests in the White House. On winter evenings in Rock Creek Park, strollers may observe the President of the United States wading pale and naked into the ice-clogged stream, followed by shivering members of his Cabinet. Thumping noises in the White House library indicate that Roosevelt is being thrown around the room by a Japanese wrestler; a particularly seismic crash, which makes the entire mansion tremble, signifies that Secretary Taft has been forced to join in the fun.

Learning about Teddy Roosevelt’s life made me realize how lazy and apathetic I can be. Roosevelt was a sick boy who built his body and character through sheer will, became a New York assemblyman in his mid-twenties, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, as Governor of New York, and finally, at the age of 42, the youngest president of the United States, a record he still holds. Roosevelt was known for his incredible energy, his agitation, his temper, and his barreling towards any war or violence. The exuberant Roosevelt read 3–4 books a day, wrote 35 books in his lifetime, was an avid hunter and conservationist, the first president to dine with a black man in the White House and the first to appoint a Jew to the Cabinet, the trust-buster who took on what he called the “wealthy criminal class,” and an obsessed proponent of American imperialism and greatness. Morris brings an electric and literary pace to his subject, turning this biography into a page-turner that makes the reader want to jump out of their seat and conquer life.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyvesky

What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?

This is a novel that cannot be described but must be experienced. The story of the ex-law student, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who in a heat of passion (or is it rationality?) commits a heinous double-murder for which there is no explanation. Dostoyvesky’s narrative hugs close to the mind of the protagonist, and we get so drawn into Raskolnikov’s head that we become not just readers but almost co-conspirators. A fascinating literary examination of the impulses that gnaw at the human heart, and the philosophical dilemmas of a murderous mind.

The full 45 are below, with asterisks next to re-reads and a separate section for audio books.

  1. The Way of Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, by Graeme Wood
  2. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris
  3. The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century, by David Fromkin
  4. Collected Essays, by Ralph Ellison
  5. Herzog, by Saul Bellow
  6. Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
  7. Insomniac City, by Bill Hayes
  8. Stoner, by John Williams
  9. Slave and Citizen, by Frank Tannenbaum
  10. Ideas and Opinions, by Albert Einstein
  11. Muhammad, by Maxime Rodinson
  12. Saving Capitalism, by Robert Reich
  13. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist
  14. The Fire Next Time*, by James Baldwin
  15. On the Move: A Life, by Oliver Sacks
  16. The Last Interview, by James Baldwin
  17. Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business, Rana Faroohar
  18. Mao II, by Don DeLillo
  19. White Working Class, by Joan C. Williams
  20. Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coatzee
  21. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson
  22. A Mencken Chrestomathy, by H.L. Mencken
  23. Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris
  24. The Last Interview, by Hannah Arendt
  25. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  26. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, by Nisid Hajari
  27. Confusion, by Stefan Zweig
  28. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy
  29. What Happened, by Hillary Clinton
  30. A Life of Adventure and Delight, by Akhil Sharma
  31. Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, by Stefan Zweig
  32. Joe Gould’s Secret, by Joseph Mitchell
  33. The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison
  34. The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith
  35. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  36. Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie
  37. Maximum Canada: Why Thirty-Five Million Canadians Are Not Enough, by Doug Saunders
  38. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
  39. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor
  40. Night, by Elie Wiesel
  41. An American Family, by Khizr Khan
  42. Submission, by Michel Houellebecq
  43. In Search of Character: Two African Journals, by Graham Greene
  44. Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
  45. The Last Interview, by Christopher Hitchens

Audio Books:

  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis
  • On Power, Robert Caro
  • In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman
  • The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
  • The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Minds, Nicholas Carr
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson