The best books I read this year, in no particular order:
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
This novel tells the story of two Jewish cousins who become successful comic book authors in the 1940’s and ’50’s. It explores the antifascist origins of the superhero genre, as well as questions surrounding the role of art in society. I loved this book—it left me with a new appreciation for superheroes and comics in general—and it does more than just explore comics and comic history. It also moved me on a personal level over and over, reducing me to tears at several points in the story.
Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes
In April this year, after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, I started to feel embarrassed about how little I knew about the Spanish Civil War. Reading this book was an attempt to rectify my ignorance. On some level this book was unsatisfying: It left me with only slightly more knowledge about what exactly happened in Spain from 1937 to 1939: It’s not a military history book. Instead, it paints a human history of the war, detailing the personal experiences and motivations of the soldiers, journalists, nurses, and others who were there. I have always had strong pacifist instincts, and while I understood intellectually that war might sometimes be justified, on an emotional level I felt that war was always wrong. This book made me feel that sometimes violent action is morally good.
A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielson
Before reading the title of this book, I didn’t even realize that disability was a historical lens. This book, in addition to tracking the rights of disabled people through US history, helped me understand how cultural values dictate how we understand our strengths and weaknesses. I heard somewhere that “History is the most revolutionary science because it forces us to understand that things could be different.” For me, this book was an illustration of the truth of this quote. This book taught me that there were many other ways that people interact with their bodies, and it helped me with the struggle of learning to accept the inevitable decline that comes with getting older.
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
It’s hard to pin down what this book is about. The story follows a young peasant named Julien Sorel living in 1820’s France as he pursues love and wealth and honor. It’s an exploration of the human psyche, and the gulf that exists between what we expect to make us happy and what actually makes us happy. Or it’s a critique of 1820’s French politics, and the ways that the new social order corrupts personal endeavor into serving the ends of powerful people. Or it’s an examination of vanity, and the ways that concern about how we are perceived can consume and destroy us. Or it’s an explication of the narrowness of the human mind, and the way that our personal sociological theories inform interpersonal behavior and dictate relationships.
The Red and the Black is one of the most intellectually stimulating novels I’ve read in a long time. It gave me new tools to think about love, politics, friendship, self worth, happiness,economics, careers, and many other facets of the human experience.
My pastiche of The Red and the Black.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
I’ve been a fan of Noam Chomsky for a long time, but I didn’t get around to reading what is arguably his most important work until fairly recently. This book proposes a propaganda model for the US mass media, outlining the ways that ostensibly independent news sources are beholden to powerful entities like corporations and the US government. Although the United States government rules with the consent of the voters, the US is not a true democracy, Chomsky argues, because that consent can be manufactured by media control. Elections are only free insofar as the press is free, and in the United States the press is not free.
Part of why I didn’t read this book until recently was because I was already familiar with Chomsky’s ideas. I assumed that Manufacturing Consent would be redundant with what I already knew. I was pleasantly surprised. This book is really good. Chomsky is trained in the sciences (he’s one of the founders of cognitive science), and he and Herman attempt to explore their propoganda model with scientific methods and rigor. The result is that the book provides not just a lens through which to understand the media (which is what I generally expect from books of this nature), but a concrete sense of where and how much the lens matters.
My post on Bolivia, which was informed by Manufacturing Consent.
Read Manufacturing Consent for free here.
Honorable Mention: The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky
The Basques are one of the oldest peoples of Europe, living with a continuous identity, culture, and language—in the Pyrenees on the border of modern-day France and Spain—since well before the Roman Empire. This book explores the question of how a group can manage to survive for so long. It offers insight on how to preserve tradition and heritage while also being forward-thinking and progressive. And it challenged my understanding of nationalism and ethnic identity.
Read The Basque History of the World for free here.