Top Books of 2018 (retrospective)

I took notes on all the books I read in 2018; these are the books that (with the benefit of hindsight) I liked the most.

In no particular order:

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky

I know Professor Robert Sapolsky from his human behavioral biology lecture series on YouTube.  Coming to understand ourselves as beings crafted by biological processes is a very important project, and one so riddled with potential pitfalls that I end up feeling disdain for basically everyone who attempts it, including myself (I’m sorry Tim Urban).  Sapolsky’s work is terrific both for its attempts to build up some degree of human biological understanding, and for the analytical tools he uses to critique that understanding.

Sapolsky’s memoir is, unsurprisingly, much less educational and less philosophical than his lectures, but his insight is still present in the way that he understands his own life and the world around him.  And Sapolsky has led a very interesting life.  His memoir details his time doing field work in Kenya, alternating between chapters about baboons, and about his interactions with the people of Kenya, as he increasingly understands the culture and geopolitics of the region.

A Primate’s Memoir (by far the least heavy book on this list) is engaging, interesting and insightful throughout, and at times hilarious and surprisingly moving.

The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I read the novel The Sympathizer in preparation for traveling to Vietnam, and liked it enough that upon finishing I immediately started reading Nguyen’s follow-up nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies.  The Sympathizer tells the story of a communist mole in the US-allied South Vietnamese army who emigrates to the United States and continues to spy long after the American War in Vietnam is over.  The novel criticizes the depiction of the war in the international media, and explores the impact of the side-lining of Vietnamese narratives in favor of stories that focus on American heroes and anti-heroes.

Nothing Ever Dies is a more analytical exploration of the same ideas presented in The Sympathizer.   Nguyen traveled back and forth between Vietnam and the United States, visiting museums, monuments, graveyards, and so on, in an attempt to understand the cultural memory of the war.  Throughout the book, he grapples with important questions pertaining to healing and justice and forgiveness for atrocious crimes like those committed during the American War.

These two books were important to me, both for their discussion of how to deal with the fact that humans sometimes do really horrible things, and for the way that Nguyen interacts with information.  These books lastingly changed the way that I understand media and the world around me.  Everything that humans create—whether it is a novel, a monument, a museum, a restaurant, or a scientific body of research—can and should be understood through a literary lens.  Stories are fundamental to the way that we see and express the world around us, and understanding how stories work can lead to surprising insights anywhere.

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The perspectives of American Indians are largely neglected in American history—including in more left-leaning spaces.  In school, I mostly learned about American Indians pre-contact, under the unspoken implication that the cultural heritage of the United States is America’s indigenous peoples.  Discussion of contact between white settlers and American Indians was mixed with some narratives of peace, some narratives of conflict and aggression on both sides, and some narratives of genocide; but all of these narratives of contact treated American Indians as a relic of the past, from when America was wild.  We’re civilized now, so of course indigenous people no longer exist.

In reality, America’s indigenous peoples still exist, and the conflict between them and the United States is ongoing, with continued poverty and cultural trauma in Native American communities, continued abridging of the rights of sovereign indigenous nations by the US federal and state governments, continued treaty violations by American companies, and even continued race-based genocide.

This book is a really good overview of US-indigenous conflict from contact to today.  Dunbar-Ortiz challenges common cultural narratives and historical assumptions, including many, like the notion of American multiculturalism, that are celebrated in left-leaning communities.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, German born Jewish American philosopher, reported on the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, and three years later published expanded versions of her articles in a book.  The book (subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil) largely consists of a psychological profile of Eichmann: Eichmann, who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust and who was found to be essentially psychologically normal by multiple psychologists, argued throughout his interrogations and trial that although he was involved in the organization of death camps, he was not guilty of any crimes because he was just following orders, or doing his job, or acting in accordance with the moral system dictated by Nazi Germany.

Arendt uses Eichmann as a case study to criticize the tendency to look for depth in evil actions.  Evil does not arise from inner twisted-ness.   Instead evil happens when natural human moral instincts become secondary to ideology.   Nazi Germany celebrated the ability to place Nazi party goals above the natural aversion to murder.  Eichmann didn’t want to kill people.  He enabled the murder of millions of people because it was his patriotic duty.

In this way, Arendt argues, evil is extremely banal.  It doesn’t come from some inner depth, but instead from a lack of depth.  Eichmann didn’t take pleasure in the suffering and pain of others.  Instead he just neglected to ask whether or not what he was doing was good.

This perspective on evil is, I think, very important.  I’m sure that some of the evil in the world is committed by people like Darth Sidious who find glee in the suffering of others.  And of course people who are angry, or afraid, or jealous (or any other negative emotion) sometimes do terrible things. But  a huge amount of the evil in the world comes from people who are seeking to better themselves within a system that rewards immoral action, or even from people with genuine humanitarian goals who are uncritical of the institutions that claim to further those goals.

But this perspective on evil is also not a novel perspective, at least not for me.  I grew up in a world that had had access to Arendt’s work for 40 years.  I learned about the Milgram experiment in multiple high school and college classes.  I knew that normal people can do horrible things in the right setting.  What elevates Eichmann in Jerusalem for me is Arendt’s discussion of the obvious follow-up questions.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is hugely controversial, in part because many read it as an acquittal of Eichmann’s personality.  If Eichmann is normal—if his actions didn’t stem from some moral flaw in his inner being—then how can he be guilty?  Arendt addresses this question.  She asks, what if our actions stem more from setting and circumstance than from some fact about our inner selves?  What if Eichmann is correct in his assessment that most people in his position would have done the same thing?  How can justice operate in such a world?  How can we condemn a normal person?  But then, how can we not condemn someone who was instrumental to the murder of millions of innocent people?

Most discussions of the banality of evil are detached and academic.  What do we know about human psychology?  When do people do bad things?  And these conversations are important.  But they don’t make me experience the horror that comes with understanding that Eichmann was a real human person.  Arendt (herself a Jew who fled Nazi Germany) forces us to simultaneously consider both the humanity of Eichmann and the humanity of the millions of people whose murders Eichmann orchestrated.  The effect, as she leads us to the conclusion that he needs to be condemned in spite of his normalcy, is deeply, deeply, upsetting.

This book hurt me in a way that no other piece of media ever has.  But the wound it left is a good wound.  Eichmann in Jerusalem forces us to confront the fact that we are responsible if moral negligence allows us to lead comfortable lives enabled by the suffering of others.  And hopefully by understanding our moral responsibility, we can become better people.

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