As 2019 draws to a close, I’m sharing my annual list of the books I’ve read over the past twelve months. As regular readers of More to Come know, since returning from sabbatical early in 2016 I’ve committed to reading more, and to seeking out a wider range of works beyond my favored histories and biographies. With that in mind, here—in the order I read them—are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.
Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (2006)—Craig Nelson’s excellent biography of Paine captures the relevance today of the man who wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible. Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis—“These are the times that try men’s souls”—was written in the winter of 1776, yet it resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. The coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams/Alexander Hamilton approach of a ruling class of multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors. However, Adams and Hamilton would be shocked to learn that their “admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)—This book by Yale Historian Joanne B. Freeman had me absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members. Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one representative at the hand of another. All involved, with the exception of the poor victim, were handily re-elected. Slavery, and its future in America, was the key issue that led to this bullying, fighting, and total breakdown of civil discourse. Parallels to today should be heeded.
Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine Age (2017)—In an era when the best research indicates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by technology within the next ten to twenty years, authors Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig make the case that humans must change how we think, work, and communicate to survive and thrive. The authors define humility as “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”
The Is Not Baseball Book (2013)—This quirky little work is from the Are Not Books series, a micropublisher and academic research program. The program’s goal is to “facilitate cultural transactions that are not based on competition, measurable ‘success,’ or the accumulation of capital,” but are focused instead on a gift economy made up of “friends who care.” Whew! In any event, I think you have to love a book which begins with a first chapter of “Sports Is Not a Metaphor. It’s a Symbol.”
Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats that are Ruining the Game, The New Ones that are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball (2017)—ESPN reporter Keith Law has written a book about baseball—that most tradition-bound and statistically-drenched of sports—and how it has undergone a fundamental change over the past two decades that impacts how the game is understood, played, and coached. These changes happened because a few people had the insight to challenge the conventional wisdom about the game.
Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (2018)—John Kaag, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, writes about two journeys he took to Piz Corvatsch, the Swiss mountain so important to the writing and life of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. One journey was when he was 19 and the other came while in his 30s, with his wife and child. Kaag argues that there are lessons in Nietzsche lost on the young who don’t understand the ease with which we can be lulled into being satisfied with mediocrity or how “difficult it would be to stay alert to life.” Kaag aligns with Nietzsche’s thought that transformation into becoming who we are requires that we physically rise, stretch, and set off. It is a world view about “aims once more permitted and sought after.”
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (2017)—John McPhee’s book on writing examines how to get from a good first draft to a great fourth draft. As a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker, McPhee explains that, “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once.” McPhee takes the reader on a delightful and well-considered journey from ways to structure a piece of writing to an ending chapter on omissions. That last feature is just as important as the first. A mantra McPhee continues to use with his writing students is, “A thousand details add up to one impression.”
A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions (2019)—Reed Hundt makes a compelling case, in the words of reviewer Steven Wiseman, that “The president-elect forgot how he got elected, and favored Wall Street over homeowners, deficit hawks over the middle class, and costly health care reforms over the chance to make a difference on climate change.” The outcome was an insufficient response to the crisis that favored banks over the middle class and, subsequently, led to the Tea Party revolution and the election of Donald Trump. Strong, provocative words.
A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)—Amor Towles novel about a Russian Count who, during the Russian Revolution, is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel is a good, if light, read. Towels is a gifted writer who can turn a phrase and tell a story.
Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (2011)—Author Andrea Wulf’s work had me absorbed in her illuminating study of the passion for gardening, agriculture, and botany of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—America’s best-known founding fathers. These four gentlemen (plus Abigail Adams) tied the beauty and bounty of the American landscape to their concepts of liberty and the greatness of their new country. As expected, Thomas Jefferson was a recognized leader in this work, but the surprises here are more with the passions of George Washington, John and Abagail Adams, and James Madison.
Hiroshima (1946)—John Hersey, the author of the landmark 1946 report/essay on Hiroshima in The New Yorker, once wrote that, “What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, as much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.” Hersey’s reporting led the U.S. government to revise its narrative about why dropping the bomb was necessary. The report was serialized in some 70+ newspapers (back before all the major newspapers were owned by a small handful of conglomerates), turned into a book (never out-of-print), produced as a national radio reading, and became a touchstone for the nuclear non-proliferation movement. I bought a copy of the book at the Hiroshima museum in Japan and finished reading it in two nights. Very powerful.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955)—C. Vann Woodward’s seminal work has been cited by none other than The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the historical Bible of the Civil Rights movement.” The book has stood the test of time as a landmark history that also made history. Woodward’s major thesis—that segregation and overt bigotry were relatively recent developments of the 1890s and were not inevitable—had a tremendous impact on our understanding of the South since Reconstruction and the opportunities available to the country in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Fifth Risk (2018)—Author Michael Lewis believes the rift in American life “that is now coursing through American government isn’t between Democrats and Republicans,” but “between the people who are in it for the mission, and the people who are in it for the money.” This short work—written in Lewis’s crisp, clear, yet entertaining style—shows, as others have before him, how decisions made for short-term gain are ripping apart our nation’s social compact.
Life on Earth (2018)—I read David Attenborough’s 2018 edition of his classic Life on Earth while in the U.K. And while I didn’t blog about this book, I was nonetheless taken by the strength of his positions and the clarity of his writing. Early in this work, Attenborough compresses the 4 billion years that have elapsed since the Last Universal Common Ancestor (a population of simple bacteria) lived on earth down to one year. Each day, then, represents around ten million years. In that setting, the oldest worm trails were burrowed through the mud of the Grand Canyon in the second week in November. “The first fish appeared in the limestone seas a week later. The little lizard will have scuttled across the beach during the middle of December and humans did not appear until the evening of 31 December.” Fascinating reading in a richly illustrated edition.
The Source of Self-Regard (2019)—Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author and arguably our First Lady of Letters, passed away on August 5th as this new book of essays and a recently released documentary entitled Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, introduced long-time fans and new readers alike to her towering intellect and broad vision. At the end of “Peril,” the very first offering of the 43 essays found here, Morrison makes the bold statement that, “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” And through 350 pages of speeches, essays, and meditations, she shows why.
Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark (2019)—This short and entertaining work, written by Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifelong New York Mets fan, led me to go against my standing policy of rejecting books with jacket blurbs by George Will. Instead, I took a flyer on this set of 33 essays, most of them repurposed from National Public Radio’s discontinued science blog 13:7:Cosmos and Culture, and came away finding challenging and intriguing points-of-view on topics that every fan—philosopher or casual observer—would understand.
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015)—Long time New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris has not written a style manual, per se, but rather a memoir of a life lived with an obsession for clear writing. Her memories from The New Yorker and beyond are told with the wit of a natural-born storyteller. I am pretty confident that I’ve never laughed out loud when reading a book on grammar; yet, I did so more than once on the subway while devouring Between You and Me.
Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom (2019)—Steven Waldman’s new work is a companion, of sorts, to his earlier Founding Faith, and it stands as an impressive overview of America’s long struggle to craft a new way forward in supporting religious freedom. Waldman goes into some depth to describe James Madison’s “ingenious, counterintuitive, and often-misunderstood blueprint for the religious liberty we enjoy today.” Madison argued that the best way to promote religion was to leave it alone. That was—and still is—a radical concept.
Ballpark: Baseball in the American City (2019)—This magnificent new book by Paul Goldberger—Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, Trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a personal friend—is an elegant and engaging work on a subject that’s clearly as dear to his heart as it is to mine. In slightly more than 300 pages, Goldberger takes the reader through a detailed, intriguing, often unexpected, and richly-illustrated history of the intersection of baseball parks, the American city, architecture, urbanism, business, sports, and culture. If you click through on the link, you’ll also get a detailed update on my personal quest to visit all 30 Major League ballparks.
Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters (2019)—Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite essayists writing today. This collection of her most recent works includes an opening piece that ends with this equal parts hopeful and challenging observation: “This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s why there’s a battle about whose story it is to tell.”
Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018)—Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book is a study of the life of four presidents and the ways in which they addressed major issues in fractured times: Abraham Lincoln (winning the war, ending slavery and saving the union); Theodore Roosevelt (responding to the sharp inequities and unfairness of the industrial revolution); Franklin D. Roosevelt (rebuilding a country out of the Great Depression); and Lyndon B. Johnson (the fight to ensure civil rights for all Americans). As with most of Kearns Goodwin’s work, it is thoughtful, insightful, and more than timely in this day and age.
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018)—Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s smart, insightful, and timely book is a thoughtful take on how our nation, and how much of the world, came to a place where we are identifying ourselves with a series of smaller and smaller tribes while also expanding our resentments into larger and larger grievances. I found it to be, ultimately, hopeful as well.
Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love You (2019)—This delightful advice manual for travelers and others interested in living more successfully with the French, was written by family friend Janet Hulstrand. After 40 years visiting and living in France, Janet has much to pass on of value, with writing that is clear, breezy, and digestible. Five essential tips for “even brief encounters” followed by ten chapters to help understand the French mentality are passed along as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a wonderful French wine and a good friend who is giving you a crash course before you venture out on your first trip to France.
How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (2011)—Stanley Fish has written a marvelous work, one that not only includes wonderful example after wonderful example from a wide range of writers, but one that also takes the time to teach us how to analyze a sentence in order to gain payoff and pleasure in reading.
I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among this collection of works.
What’s at the top of my 2020 list? Well, right now I’m reading City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present (2019) by Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Alex Krieger. Once I’ve finished that work, I’m looking forward to reading Margaret Renkl’s first book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss; Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States; and historian Eric Foner’s newest work, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. That should get my to-be-read pile down to a little more than 30 books, assuming I don’t buy anymore before I finish these four.
In any event, I can’t wait to dig in!
Enjoy the week, and happy reading!
More to come…