2013: My Year in Books

Some Notes On Books I Finished This Year


These are the books I finished reading in 2013. I started many more. Making lists is a strange exercise, and prompts much consideration. Why I read the books I read varies, but in the end this list and my few thoughts about each book are a kind of portrait of the time, and of myself in it. I liked everything I read, which says something either about my powers of selection, or a lack of proper critical faculty. You be the judge.

The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin – At its best, these essays remind us that there is an awful continuum in conservative thinking that runs from Burke to the Tea Party, an unbroken chain of intellectualized id, embracing hierarchy and violence. link

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes – Far more lucid, thoughtful, and current than I've ever seen it given credit for. A provoking intellectual journey worth the investment and then some. link

Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker – An account of the lead-up to and the first two years of World War II pulled together from contemporary diaries, journals, memoirs, and newspaper stories. In short bursts of observation, propels you through the mechanized, maniacal breakdown of civilization and wholesale disregard for human life. link

Mysteries of the Druids – The Veil of Isis, W. Winwood Reade – A quirky collection of folklore, rumor, assertion, and polemic about Druidism, Catholicism, Freemasonry, and ancient religion. Unreliable, but colorful and fascinating. link

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter – The first half reads like a contemporary observation of Right Wing extremism, while the second part casts a decidedly uncharitable light on the “Progressive Era.” Required reading. link

Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon..., Rob Delaney – Touching and funny. A master of 140 characters, in long form Delaney presents a surprisingly candid and sincere memoir of alcoholism and the long road to adulthood. link

Tacitus: The Histories, Volumes I and II, Caius Cornelius Tacitus – Fascinating portraits of the main players in the civil war during the “Year of Four Emperors,” after Nero's death, but it's the bit players and Tacitus' powers of description and observation that shine. link

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, David Grann – A damn good journalistic story-teller. The collection ranges from misfits and heroes, from comic to tragic, from the benign to the evil. Stories about sandhogs, squid-hunters, and an aging ball-player are standouts. link

Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup – I had never heard of it before I heard about the movie. Gripping narrative, with beauty and horror. An extraordinary story told in a sympathetic, measured way. Eye-opening, even knowing the history. link

The Shining, Stephen King – Uneven, but ultimately compelling. Some surprises for those who have only seen the movie. At its best, the best. At its worst, dull and unconvincing. link

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli – Pragmatic, cynical, hard to gainsay. Enlightened, but maddeningly patriotic, and provincial. Machiavelli seems to have been a victim of hundreds of years of misreading. Ultimately limited by a failure of imagination. link

The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, Procopius – Procopius was a scholar, soldier, and wrote a long, praise-full history of the reign of Justinian, who briefly reunited the Roman Empire. Procopius wrote a “secret history” in which he accused Justinian and his wife of being demons, bent on destroying mankind, filled with salacious details. Engrossing. link

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, Margalit Fox – The story of the decipherment of Linear B, focusing on the unglamorous, thankless side of discovery. Alice Kober is the standout character, whose hard-won insights led to the breakthrough, but who died young and unsung. Well-written. link

Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad – An adventure story, a meditation on courage. Really quite good, and devastating. Effective framing device, plenty of suspense, and characters that follow you after you've shut the pages. link

Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain – Meandering, but deep, and unpredictable. Only the slightest edge of cynicism and sarcasm, the rest is expansive, and loving. A panoramic view of human life on the big, changing river, with rapid, eddying, patches of memoir. I was absorbed. link

The End of Laissez-Faire, John Maynard Keynes – Speeches transformed into an essay, laying out the limitations of the 19th century capitalism of Ricardo, Bentham, Mill, both already existing inconsistencies with reality, and desirable modifications. Hope for the future. Conversational, slightly polemic. link

Tacitus on Germany, Caius Cornelius Tacitus – A short book filled with a wealth of ethnographic observations culled by Tacitus from contemporaneous primary sources. Lost to history, a single manuscript was discovered in 1455. Unfortunately popular among the Nazis. Of the Germans: “Silver and gold the Gods have denied them, whether in mercy or in wrath, I am unable to determine.” link

Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, Bertrand RussellJesus was kind of a jerk. Sometimes humorous, but extremely sincere explanation of the failures of Christianity as a religion, and as a philosophy. Other essays showing prescient arguments for expanded rights for women, more liberal education, and openness to sexuality, problems of capitalism and government censorship. link

A Room With A View, E. M. Forster – Slick, and efficient storytelling, and richly evocative of place and time. But something deeper buried in it makes this novel stand out. Hard to pinpoint why, but good. link

Autobiography, Bertrand Russell – Honest, effacing self-portrait of a life that spanned the Victorian era to the Vietnam war. An imperfect intellectual, of great philosophical and literary achievements. “WHAT I HAVE LIVED FOR Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” link

Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, Fawn Brodie – A portrait and a kind of rehabilitation for a long-maligned figure of reconstruction. He fought tirelessly against slavery and was a champion of universal education. A crafty political machinator, but undone in part, at last, by a driving desire to punish wickedness. link

The French Exit, Poems by Elisa Gabbert – Poems whose lines flit intelligently back and forth between concussive moments of realization. I turned the pages with a kind of shapeless awe, pleasure, and ended, as the poems do, in startled, confident uncertainty. link

Richard Nixon, the Shaping of His Character, Fawn Brodie – An unflattering psychological portrait of Richard Nixon. Deeply engages with his biography, and attempts to understand his pathological lying, and a persecution complex he shared with many conservative thinkers. A mean, selfish, lying, cruel bastard. Worth reading for the contrasting, though dark, portraits of Stevenson and Kennedy. link

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius – A collection of meditations by the emperor and stoic philosopher. A reminder that even the most exceptional of us are people, suffering through life the same as we are. Grim view of life at the end of a golden age. link

Principles of Geology (abridged), Charles Lyell – A good abridgement of a foundational volume. Lyell lays out a series of arguments for the extreme age of earth, and towards a theory of geology in which the geological formations we see are the result of currently occurring processes of erosion, eruption, etc. Powerful portrait of a mind at work. link

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad Our man. A breathtaking adventure, and a view and condemnation of European and capitalist colonialism in South America. Surely an antecedent of much of the literature of magical realism, where the magic is just the stirrings of human souls, and the realism, political, personal, is deadly. An incredible book. link

The Aeneid, Virgil – Not quite Homer, but a valiant effort. Scenes are heart-wrenching, as Dido throwing herself to the pyre, stolen, as Aeneas descending to the underworld, or totally inexplicable, the ships turned to pretty water-nymphs, as big as whales. Only partially completed at his death. link

The United States in 1800, Henry Adams – An excerpt of the first few chapters of Adams's survey of early 19th century American history. Most telling, his revelation of a backwards, anti-technological agrarianism married to a relentless democratism destined to change it all. link

The Voice of the Poor: Essays in Economic and Political Persuasion, John Kenneth Galbraith – A short but heartfelt exhortation for and about the poor nations of the world, especially India, and the history of their relation with the United States and the other rich countries. link

A Theory of Price Control, John Kenneth Galbraith – A cogent argument for government price control as a means of combating inflation during times of full-employment based on experiences during World War II. A shot across the bow to economic fundamentalists. link

The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes – A sober, clear-headed analysis of the terms of the peace settlement after World War I, along with a riveting account of the people and personalities that enacted it. A tragic portrait of Wilson as a moral crusader, hopelessly out of his intellectual and political depth. A plea for reason, and a prediction of a second war. link

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Eric Auerbach – After years of dipping into the volume, a huge, engrossing survey of reality perceived from Homer and the bible through Virginia Woolf, I finally read it through. I've been introduced to writers I never considered, and walked through passages of writers I knew with more detail and thoughtfulness than you could imagine. Fascinating on medieval and early Renaissance literature, and France in the 19th century. Ulysses' Scar, alone, the opening chapter, is worth the price of admission. link

Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz”, Alan Lomax – The fanciful, self-promotional riffs of Jelly Roll Morton as he makes the case to Alan Lomax in hours of recordings at the piano at the Library of Congress that he invented jazz are mesmerizing. Lomax girds the narrative with a documentary investigation of the claims, and the whole is a lush portrait of the birth of a genre, and a place and time. link

The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius – A wealthy Senator and confidant of King Theodoric, the Ostrogothic ruler of Rome, his worldly success ended when palace intrigue had Theodoric strip him of everything he possessed, and tossed into prison. A neo-Platonist, he lauded philosophy to the end, writing his Consolations while awaiting execution. One day, soldiers came into his cell and bludgeoned him to death. link

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt – Part brilliant, part insufferable. You won't know why anything exists after reading this, but you will have both given it a lot of thought, and gotten a good overview of what others think. link

The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Hilda M. Ransome – A collection of folk-lore about bees from around the world. The bee as the soul, the bee as the kingdom of spirits. The bee in ancient Egypt, and the various shared customs will have you reflecting on human history and the meaning of life as you put honey into your tea. link

The Bayeux Tapestry, Eric Maclagan – A short monograph, eschewing “pedantry.” (It's not a tapestry, but needlework.) With color and b&w plates of the banner, the Latin text, and English descriptions of the Norman conquest. Harold may not have had an arrow in the eye at Hastings after-all, and this Norman account is surprisingly friendly to the English. Highlights are Harold saving William's men from the quicksands, the sighting of the comet, and Bishop Odo exhorting the troops. link