Favorite Books of 2013

In light of the holiday season and year end, I thought I’d share the best books I read this year.  While most of these weren’t published in 2013—a number of them dutifully collected dust on bookshelves in no less than three apartments until they were summoned—the following eight books stand out as my favorites over the past 12 months.

Non-Fiction

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America | George Packer

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in it its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.  Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.1

Shortly after moving to Atlanta, I stumbled across an advertisement announcing a George Packer book launch at the Carter Center.  George Packer wrote a new book?

PackerIn a previous life, when I spent my working hours on police capacity-building and interior ministry reform in Iraq—among other things—I found George Packer’s writings on the war to be singularly insightful.  The Assassins’ Gate remains the best book I’ve read on Iraq; and his article The Lesson of Tal Afar—chronicling the efforts of then-Colonel H. R. McMaster to implement counterinsurgency doctrine in one city—was one of the most important elucidations of the necessity for a shift in U.S. strategy in Iraq.

It was with much interest, then, that I took my seat in the auditorium to listen to Packer discuss an issue I’ve found myself reflecting upon with greater frequency: the discernible breakdown both in American institutions and the social compact.  Adjusting his focus from the realm of foreign policy to the quotidian travails of ordinary Americans, Packer masterfully captures the overwhelming sense of entropy besetting American households.

I would have to rank The Unwinding as the best book of 2013.  The stories within its pages make manifest how unsustainable our current economic and political trajectories are, and they emit a whiff of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re heading toward A Reckoning—a subject I hope to flesh out at some point—but, like Packer, I’m optimistic that it will bring renewal.

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Reflections on the Revolutions in France | Edmund Burke

But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers…

Society is indeed a contract…As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.2

Given the fraying social compact within the United States and The Reckoning to which we’re seemingly heading, I thought I’d seek the answers to two questions: what is the right way to view a social compact, and how does a society best navigate change?  Edmund Burke’s book fit the bill nicely, arguing for the necessity of conservatism amidst change, and the importance of maintaining linkages across generations.3  

As politics—increasingly, it seems—becomes a discussion of who pays for what, the intergenerational component should draw greater attention; even though the unborn don’t vote.  And perhaps it will: legendary investor Stanley Druckenmiller of Duquesne and Soros fame has been on a road show preaching the gospel of generational equity.  While the cynics may argue he’s talking his own book, it’s worth listening to what he’s saying.4

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman

When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.5

Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite authors.  The Guns of August remains a seminal work of military and diplomatic history, and The Proud Tower brilliantly conveys the societal tensions wrought by rapid change, with eerie parallels to today’s world.

Sticking with the theme of how societies cope with change, and seeking to learn more about Medieval Europe, I dusted off A Distant Mirror. Chronicling the Black Death, schism in the Church, the Crusades, feudalism, the (unperceived) start of the modern world and more, it was a delightful read.

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The Great Rebalancing | Michael Pettis

In a world of weak demand growth, demand is the most valuable economic asset.6

Global trade and capital imbalances contributed to the Global Financial Crisis.  Five years on, trade and capital imbalances persist, putting us all at risk of another financial crisis or—gulp—worsening trade tensions.  Going beyond the blame game (China needs to consume more stuff!  Americans are so greedy, they consume too much!  Germany must be to blame for something!), Pettis provides an incisive framework for analyzing the global economy.

While it opens with a discourse on accounting identities and balance of payments arithmetic, and though it can be dry at times, Pettis provides one of the most accessible explanations of the economic sinews linking countries to one another.  His chapters on China, Europe and “When Will the Global Crisis End?” are particularly strong.

We’re all in this rebalancing together, and we risk descending into a beggar-they-neighbor world.  As countries pursue the elusive quest for demand, we’re already seeing increased restrictions on FDI and reductions in global capital flows (see exhibits below).  Pettis’s book helps us understand why these are happening, and what these mean.

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Source: McKinsey Global Institute, "Financial globalization: Retreat or reset." March 2013. Page 24.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute, “Financial globalization: Retreat or reset.” March 2013. Page 24.
Source: UNCTAD, "World Investment Report 2013." Page xix.
Source: UNCTAD, “World Investment Report 2013.” Page xix.

Fiction

Life and Fate | Vasily Grossman

Man’s fate may make him a slave, but his nature remains unchanged. Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed.7

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is a masterpiece.  The KGB deemed the book to be so dangerous that they even confiscated the ribbons on which it had been typed.  Through the story of one Soviet family, the book captures the horrors and indignities that totalitarian regimes inflicted upon mankind from Germany to the eastern reaches of the Soviet Union.  The writing can be utterly heartbreaking at times, haunting you for days; but it’s a book that must be read.

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The Sense of an Ending | Julian Barnes

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.8

Beautifully written and well paced, The Sense of an Ending meditates on memory and remorse while tracing the certainty of youth to the uncertainty that bedevils us all as the years tick by.  At 163 pages, it’s a delightful way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

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All That Is | James Salter

In life you need friends and a good place to live.9

Bologna. “T T T.” Taken April 2013.

It’s all a bit hazy, but I believe my first introduction to James Salter came during the inaugural get-together of a Scotch whisky drinking appreciation society on a damp night in Bologna, Italy a number of years ago.  It was one of those nights that ends with a nervous walk home through the medieval city’s charming porticoes at that dark hour shortly before sunrise.  But I distinctly recall borrowing The Hunters from a friend, and his act of generosity prompted an appreciation for Salter (those sentences!) that continues to this day.

So it was fitting to read Salter’s most recent book about a man coming of age in the 20th Century during a trip back to Bologna—which makes two cameo appearances in the book—to reunite with friends.  A fitting companion for a trip to Italy, or any train travel.

It even made President Obama’s to-read list.10

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Shantaram | Gregory David Roberts

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.  I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.  It doesn’t sound like much, I know.  But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.  And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.11

Let’s see: man escapes from maximum security prison, ends up living in a slum in Mumbai, gets into organized crime, trafficking in Zaire and goes to war with the Muj in Afghanistan.  All that with a side of redemption.  Just have to read it, I guess.

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# # #

Notes:

1 Page 3.

2 Oxford World’s Classics Edition, pages 95-96.

3 Niall Ferguson picked up this theme in the first of his four BBC Reith Lectures, delivered last year.  The audio of his lectures are free to download on iTunes; alternatively, you may stream them or read the transcripts here.

4 A good place to start might be his recent interview with Charlie Rose.

5 Pages xix-xx.

6 Page 193.

7 Page 216.

8 Page 88.

9 Page 141.

10 Allegedly. He could have been buying it as a gift.

11 Page 3.