Favorite Books of 2016
I didn’t read as much this year as I usually do. Apart from my son’s board books, I made it through 25 volumes, maybe, while several lie scattered around in varying states of incompletion. Alas, the demands of parenthood and launching a company necessitated that my energy be spent elsewhere.
A Long Long Way | Sebastian Barry
And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish – and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest – their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.
The best book of the year came highly recommended from a friend. Eight months after reading the book, I’m still haunted by those “million gallons of mothers’ milk.” I expect I will be for years to come.
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is the lyrically told story of Willie Dunne, an Irishman who volunteers for the British Army at the onset of World War I. Barry evokes an entire world crumbling to pieces: empires squandering their treasure on an adventure that will splinter them into pieces; an inchoate revolution tearing apart Irish society; families turning on themselves, father against son and son against father. The tsunami of this wave in human history is made visceral. There is no escape from its destructive path.
It’s not a terribly uplifting book, plainly. Considering the enormous casualty counts, and the countless millions of broken families and broken hearts—figures that would be tripled a mere 25 years later—I couldn’t shake a feeling of disgust at how we’ve chosen to spend the inheritance. The entry prices paid for this carnival too grotesque. The decadence. The amnesia for tragedy.
Clearly, the book is emotionally taxing—I cried at several points—and the scenes of horrific violence will be off-putting to some. But I cannot recommend it highly enough. A Long Long Way is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Punto.
Song of Solomon | Toni Morrison
There had to be something better to look forward to. He couldn’t get interested in money. No one had ever denied him any, so it had no exotic attraction. Politics—at least barbershop politics and Guitar’s brand—put him to sleep. He was bored. Everybody bored him. The city was boring. The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all. He wondered what they would do if they didn’t have black and white problems to talk about. Who would they be if they couldn’t describe the insults, violence, and oppression that their lives (and the television news) were made up of? If they didn’t have Kennedy or Elijah to quarrel about? They excused themselves for everything. Every job of work undone, every bill unpaid, every illness, every death was The Man’s fault. And Guitar was becoming just like them—except he made no excuses for himself—just agreed, it seemed to Milkman, with every grievance he heard.
Beyond the depth of character development (evinced in the quote above) and its captivating plot, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is an extraordinary book with layers of allegory and meaning that will take me years to reflect upon and digest. Without subjecting you to a book report or spoilers, a few of the book’s themes that struck me include:
- Slavery’s tragic and pernicious impacts on African-American families;
- The perennial dream to take flight and be free, and the binds of history and circumstance that tether people to the ground;
- The struggle to make sense of a past that’s often conjured up as myth;
- The tension between individual thought and group identity;
- The migration to the Rust Belt and reverse flight “home” to the South; and,
- Connections to the book’s Biblical namesake.
Song of Solomon, also highly recommended by a friend, is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade.
The New Testament
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand (Matthew 12:25)
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)
Back in the noughties, after reading something from Walter Russell Mead, I came away with the feeling that I was culturally illiterate, and I set myself the goal of reading through The Bible in its entirety. It took me five years to slog through the Old Testament, and save for a handful of books (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), I can’t say that I’d recommend enlisting oneself for the full undertaking. That said, Lord knows how many literary, political, and philosophical references I’ve missed or misconstrued over the years due to my ignorance.
In any event, the New Testament is an uplifting read, a veritable breath of fresh air after the Old Testament. This is particularly true for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which chronicle the life and teachings of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson—deist and general antagonist of the “corruptions of Christianity”1—once wrote, “[Jesus’s] system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has ever been taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the antient [sic] philosophers.”2
I can’t argue with his conclusion. Though as one reads through the letters of Paul, one begins to see how, through a long game of telephone across time, culture, and language, the “most benevolent & sublime” preachings could get misremembered, misreported, and misinterpreted. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If you’re looking for something without the metaphysical bits, Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is a decent compromise. The book is Jefferson’s attempt to create a chronological story of Jesus and his preachings (leaving out the miracles), which Jefferson did by cutting and pasting sections of the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English. The Smithsonian Institution pulled together a pretty cool edition that replicates Jefferson’s original.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis | Robert Putnam
The most rigorous economic and social history now available suggests that socioeconomic barriers in America (and in Port Clinton) in the 1950s were at their lowest ebb in more than a century: economic and educational expansion were high; income equality was relatively high; class segregation in neighborhoods and schools was low; class barriers to intermarriage and social intercourse were low; civic engagement and social solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.
Regular readers may have noticed that the vanishing of the American Dream is a topic that this blog has covered from time to time, including in the inaugural edition of the Favorite Books of 201X series. It’s clear that American society has evolved from Melting Pot to Vinaigrette Dressing: a sour elite floats to the top while gravity drags the masses down to a state of inertia—until someone shakes things up.
The cognoscenti raved about Putnam’s book—which, of course they would—but I agree with their assessments. This is an important study that highlights not only that American society has become stratified along class lines, but also how this stratification is manifested and why it matters. By juxtaposing upper and lower class families’ experiences throughout the country, Putnam highlights the importance of families, parenting, schools, and community organizations in shaping kids’ access to opportunity. We all need to do better.
The True Believer | Eric Hoffer
One gains the impression that the frustrated derive as much satisfaction—if not more—from the means a mass movement uses as from the ends it advocates. The delight of the frustrated in chaos and in the downfall of the fortunate and prosperous does not spring from an ecstatic awareness that they are clearing the ground for the heavenly city. In their fanatical cry of “all or nothing at all” the second alternative echoes perhaps a more ardent wish than the first.
The slimmest book of the bunch, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer compiles the key requirements for a mass movement to take root. The book is full of thought-provoking observations and assertions detailing what drives frustrated individuals to embrace fanaticism, and to carry out the horrible deeds that mass movements demand of their followers.
With classical liberalism in decline, and demand for authoritarians in the ascendant, Hoffer urges one to consider whether 2016’s political eruptions may signal the birth pangs of a generational catastrophe.
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1 Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, 21 April 1803. As quoted in Thomas Jefferson: Writings (Library of America: 1984), pg. 1122.
2 Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly, 9 April 1803. As quoted in Thomas Jefferson: Writings (Library of America: 1984), pg. 1121.