Brought to you by the library system of the University of California, San Diego.
This is the fourth in a series of annual book reviews:
I read fewer books this year than in 2016, thanks to a new marriage and a few online serials that consumed a lot of reading time. But I’ve improved my selection process: I’m finishing more of the books I start, and learning more from the books I finish. As a result, I’d put this year’s class up against any of the other years in a… book fight?
(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)
The Best Books
The first five are, in order, the books that I’ve thought about most often this year, and that I remember most vividly. The rest appear in no particular order.
- Ache Life History
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- Tools of Titans
- Against Democracy
- The Damnation of Theron Ware (free to read online, from Project Gutenberg)
- Killers of the Dream
- The Subjection of Women (free to read online, from Early Modern Texts)
- Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
- Hard to Be a God
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant
- The Gods Are Bastards (free to read online)
Aché Life History, by Kim Hill and Ana Magdelena Hurtado
In Sapiens, one of the best books of my 2015, Yuval Harari is troubled by the fact that, though we are healthier and wealthier than any generation before us, we have no way of knowing whether we are happier than our ancestors.
Aché Life History doesn’t answer Harari’s question, but it does present some fascinating and disturbing evidence: The Aché (ah-chay) people of Paraguay, hunter-gatherers who live in prehistoric scarcity, are cheerful and content, even as they spend their lives in a state of near-starvation and bury their own children alive to save resources.
This went on for centuries: A few hundred people living in the forest, in contact with no one aside from themselves, creating nothing that lasted more than a generation or two, and suffering constantly in ways we can scarcely imagine. When encountered by the modern world, they seem almost like refugees, eager to take up reservation life and abandon their old habits — if it means reliable food and the absence of poisonous snakes. They’ve spent their cultural history living outside the grand human story of change and progress, and this book can’t help but make the reader wonder…
…was it worth it? Would it have been better if the Aché Adam and Eve had been childless?
But of course, your ancestors and mine, if we go back far enough, lived in the same state of suffering. What can we, their children, do — what will we do — to make their tribulations worthwhile?
The book itself avoids these philosophical questions, but does speak openly about every aspect of Aché culture, from sexuality and domestic life to sickness and death. The authors spent seventeen years in Paraguay writing an exhaustive history of a people, gathering data on the lives of every Aché within living memory, and they keep an even, objective tone throughout. The result is a collection of deep observations on the human condition — completely unmissable if you want to learn about our species and our story.
I’ll give a quote here, to let the Aché share their own thoughts (in this case, on the topic of an ideal husband):
“A strong man. One who would walk far to hunt, one who would carry heavy loads. I mean a man who would work hard when everyone was tired, or build a hut when it was cold and rainy, a man who would carry his children and get firewood at night. I mean a man who was strong. A man who could endure and not get tired.”
This is a book about people who endured and did not get tired. People very much like them are the reason we are all alive today. This is good to remember.
Note: Wikipedia’s article on the Aché, though it cites this book, contradicts it in many places; Hill and Hurtado describe the Aché as happy to join reservations (until disease broke out) and sharply refute the notion of a 20th-century genocide perpetrated against the Aché (based on cause-of-death data collected for hundreds of individuals). I’m no expert, but the account presented in Aché Life History seems to be objective and consistent.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
Technically, Marie Kondo lives in Japan, but her book reads like a memoir/self-help manual written by an alien (would that count as science fiction? Science fact?).
Anyway, Kondo wants us to add more animism to our lives: To greet our homes when we open the door, and to thank our socks for their service before we throw them out. She wants us to keep only things that spark joy within us, and discard the rest. Many people, professional organizers included, describe this approach as “batshit crazy”.
They may be right, but who cares? It feels to me like the author has found a way of life that really, really works for her and is thrilled to share it. It’s fun to read a book written with such enthusiasm, and it’s also fun to read a book that doesn’t care at all about the divide between reality and fantasy. How often does magical realism show up in books about cleaning? (And how often are those books also laugh-out-loud funny multiple times in a slim 200 pages?)
She may not be totally original, but her ideas were new to me, and delightful. I began to look at my house differently whenever I put the book down. I’ve even thanked my favorite pair of sweatpants for keeping me warm and cozy. Even though the pants won’t appreciate my thanks, I still get to feel the gratitude — and gratitude is healthy. I thank Marie Kondo for suggesting a new way to get it into our lives.
(Many reviewers seem to take Kondo’s non-cleaning advice as seriously as her cleaning advice. This seems like a very obvious bad idea. Don’t do it. Just enjoy it as part of the atmosphere around the cleaning advice.)
Tools of Titans, by Tim Ferriss
Tim’s life mission is to
make money generate value by collecting the tips and tricks of top performers and dispensing them to the masses.
This is a collection of excerpts from his podcast interviews. It’s not surprising, then, that the book reads like a very good day spent on the Internet. I took four pages of notes, implemented three or four changes in my life, and was generally more productive for a few weeks after reading. That’s about as much as anyone can reasonably expect from a book like this, and Ferriss, as always, delivers. He’s very much a bro, and very much a salesman, but he represents the best characteristics of both demographics.
(Many negative reviews call the book “too long”, but it’s also easy to skim. Don’t begrudge the pages where you learn nothing; relish the pages where you learn something.)
Against Democracy, by Jason Brennan
The author summarizes his own book in this essay, and you’ve seen other people summarize it — without knowing — in half of what was written between July and December of 2016.
Brennan argues for a view that many of his fellow writers and professors only believe in private: that voters know almost nothing, and that the unvarnished popular vote is a poor way to choose leaders. After 100+ pages of depressing data, Against Democracy argues for a world where the masses vote only for a public definition of “competence”, and where that definition is then used to find competent voters who have some hope of understanding the policies they wish to implement.
A few books get five stars for being perfect. Others get five stars for being the best book on an important subject, despite their flaws — because what else are you going to read? This is the second kind, because despite the author’s sharp logic and careful scholarship, he makes a few embarrassing missteps that guarantee he’ll be ignored by many of his readers. (The worst is the page where he appears to cite his IAT score as evidence that his policy suggestions aren’t biased.)
If others pick up where Brennan left off, I can imagine downgrading this over time, and upon rereads. But for now, it’s a cornucopia of interesting ideas that should force most readers to grapple with their own beliefs.
Best read alongside “Democracy for Realists” — specifically, the last chapter of that book, which points out practical benefits of democracy that may compensate for its manifest incompetence.
The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic
One of the best novels I’ve read on the subjects of personal mediocrity and intellectual frustration. Theron Ware is a late-19th-century preacher whose cushy job and loving wife don’t shield him from a shallow desire to experience something — anything — more. He tries to write a book, but is no scholar; he tries to flirt with a lovely young pianist, but is no Romeo. He commits no great sins, but finds embarrassment and failure proportionate to his foolhardy ambitions.
And yet, at the end of the book, you feel a great fondness for him, and for the full cast of characters around him. Everyone acts reasonably given their position and personality; no one is all good, or all bad; human decency arises from the most surprising sources. Meanwhile, you get a sense for small-town American life as Harold Frederic lived it, and for the Catholic/Protestant dynamic of the era. I highly recommend the novel as a clear window into one place, one year, and one soul.
Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens
The memoir of Hitchens, a British journalist who tried to become the late 20th century’s answer to Orwell, with moderate success, before his cigarette habit got the best of him.
Only middling for the first half (a bildungsroman featuring a lot of mostly-obsolete British political issues). But the second half contains some of the finest prose I’ve read in a book in years. Hitchens has solid moral principles and often changes his mind in response to new evidence; he also has a knack for picking the right enemies and a flair for experimental journalism. All of these good traits shine through when he discusses some of his more difficult decisions — particularly his carefully-thought-out support for the Iraq War, which I hadn’t thought I’d understand so well before reading.
(A few of Hitchens’ essays — “Why Women Aren’t Funny”, for instance — are stupid or narrow-minded. But on the other hand, he literally had himself waterboarded for an article condemning torture. We all have devils and angels on our shoulders.)
Killers of the Dream, by Lillian Smith
The author, a white Georgian who fought for immigration well before it was popular, tells her personal story of the South and the broken ideas that ran it, sputtering, into the ground.
A very strange book — strange in the way that only books written a long time ago, or very far away, can be strange. Smith’s writing lets us deep inside her mind, into a world where the steady growth of Communism was an existential threat, and where Freudian theories held the power of scientific fact. I can’t speak to the accuracy of her sociology, but she remains convincing even in her wildest flights of fancy. Much of the pleasure of reading comes from the book’s dreamlike style, and from the interest factor of discovering long-forgotten facts and anecdotes (including many bizarre quotes from segregationist newspaper editorials).
I don’t know enough about the genre to suggest that this is a “classic” of U.S. Civil Rights literature. But at the very least, Killers of the Dream is a powerful account of how it felt to be, in those days, a wealthy white woman 50 years ahead of her moral era. Race and money are inherent limiting factors here, as they so often are, but that shouldn’t stop you from picking up the book.
As a bonus, my edition contained footnotes from 1961, 12 years after the book had been written, in the midst of the lunch-counter desegregation wars. The notes strike a decidedly more optimistic tone, and make me wonder what similar footnotes might look like, had they been added in 2017. (Mostly confused, I suppose.)
The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill
Women’s rights, as seen by the philosopher who popularized “the greatest good for the greatest number”.
Read this as soon as you can. You can finish in an hour or two, and every sentence is a jewel. It’s difficult to imagine this being written better in the year 1861 by any other living person — or at least any other man. (Mill’s wife was also a major contributor, and it’s deeply sad that she didn’t survive to see it published.)
The language isn’t so archaic as to detract from readability, and the arguments are constructed with a care and precision I once associated only with the best philosophers of our era; in that regard “Subjection” is leagues beyond Mill’s “Utilitarianism”.
I found something worth quoting on every other page, and much of it still rings true today (indeed, you can see faint echoes of Mill in the best analyses of the James Damore memo). Every time Mill begins to make some statement that might ring false to modern sensibilities, he catches himself and apologizes for his own lack of data, then steps back from the precipice. He also holds a deep appreciation for the contexts within which people and groups live out their lives. Together, these traits make him the ultimate rationalist social justice warrior. On my best days, I hope to see the issues of my society as clearly as Mill saw the issues of his own.
Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction, by Ian J. Deary
A lovely example of how to write a certain kind of book — the non-fluff introduction to a single academic topic. Within two hours, you’ll have a solid grasp of how psychologists and geneticists think about “intelligence”, and you’ll be ready to read other books.
Deary’s tone is thoroughly encouraging, as though you’ve stopped by his office hours, and he provides hundreds of citations that will send you as deep down the rabbit hole as you wish to go. Really, that’s all he had to do, and it’s enough.
Maverick, by Ricardo Semler
A callow youth inherits his father’s company, fires all the executives, and lets people come to work whenever they want.
It sounds like the plot of an Adam Sandler movie, but it’s a true story, and Semler, the hero of that story, made millions of dollars turning the aging Semco into Brazil’s best company to work for. His achievements include:
- Making bosses get their own coffee (and retraining secretaries to draft engineering documents or run the company’s foundation)
- Publicizing every salary (which led to significant shrinkage of the pay gap between managers and other employees)
- Helping his employees leave to start their own companies (which had so many interesting benefits that you’ll have to read Chapter 32 instead of a parenthetical summary)
Semler is a cheerful, honest companion on this corporate journey. While his stories don’t all have happy endings, the book as a whole is a marvelous testament to the power of freedom.
War, by Sebastian Junger
Junger, a journalist and filmmaker, embedded with an American platoon for a 15-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. His subjects became friends. Many of them died. He almost died.
In the process, he wrote a minor masterpiece on a few different topics: How it feels to be surrounded by death, how it feels to be surrounded by people who would die for you, and how bonds develop as a result of both conditions.
There have been better books written about earlier wars, and there may be better books written about the early-21st-century American wars, but I’d find it hard to believe that many better books were written this close to the action. There’s something about being shot at regularly that leaves a mark on a writer’s prose, and Sebastian Junger puts that je ne sais quoi on almost every page.
I love books that are packed with real conversations and weird little details about things that don’t matter in a big-picture sense, and War is exactly that. Junger is perfectly willing to spend a couple of pages discussing which soldiers resemble which household appliances, or an incident where the Army accidentally barbecued someone’s cow — but on any page, at any moment, combat might start up again. In that sense, reading the book feels a little bit like war is supposed to feel. War attempts to get us closer to the mental state of the people we’ve asked to live inside that feeling.
(While the book isn’t political, or “solutions-oriented”, Junger never loses sight of the fact that much of what we did in Afghanistan was stupid and terrible. The plans of our enemies were also stupid and terrible. Sometimes, there aren’t any good solutions.)
Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
A Soviet story (about oppression and the destruction of knowledge) disguised as a different kind of Soviet story (about the work of orderly civilization to stamp out primitive mysticism).
The novel follows a Soviet agent far in the future, sent to a distant medieval planet for the sake of observation (and occasional intervention). Despite the agent’s secret efforts, society goes downhill, thanks to Don Reba, a savage force of darkness who is among the best-described villains I’ve seen in literature. The book invokes a classic science-fiction trope — science used for the benefit of the unscientific — and inverts it, demonstrating the ways in which even the best ideas can be crushed beneath the boots of power.
Beyond the lessons, though, this is just a really good story. Strugatsky’s prose dunked me headfirst into the setting, and I saw the characters vividly in my mind (though I’m not usually a visual reader).
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer
This one is a bestseller, and a movie starring Natalie Portman, so you can buy it just about anywhere. And… it’s actually worth it. Somehow, the airport-thriller version of House of Leaves is just as good, possibly better, at giving you a sense of creeping dread and disconnection from the world.
Annihilation follows a scientist with very few emotions through a landscape that would be intolerably horrible if our narrator had more emotions. There’s a secret in the woods, and we know it can’t be a good secret, but it also doesn’t seem like a bad secret — just a secret we weren’t meant to understand, and a secret that will kill us for being curious, without ever loving or hating us. We are made of atoms that secrets can use for something else.
So… yeah. Scary story. Also a pretty good novel about science, as another reviewer points out. The narrator doesn’t care much about people, but she loves nature, and seeing the world through her eyes is fairly relaxing (until you get too deep inside the woods, at which point you’ll never want to relax ever again).
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
A colonial empire that loves vaccines and hates gay people adopts a brilliant closeted girl from a small island and teaches her the art of subjugation, before setting her loose upon a rogue continent… as the Imperial Accountant.
I’m reluctant to say more about the plot, since the best parts of the book are easily spoiled, but suffice it to say that I’ve never seen epic fantasy put so much focus on logistics. That’s a good thing; someone has to pay for armies and alliances, and it’s nice to get a wallet-first view of global warfare. (There’s also a hell of a good love story buried beneath the bloodshed and betrayal.)
As for the ending… well, I haven’t been so eager for a sequel in years.
The Gods Are Bastards, by D. D. Webb
A big sprawling webfiction ensemble piece, best read over a long weekend.
The Gods Are Bastards takes place in a swords-and-sorcery world as it goes from epic fantasy to Western, complete with gunslingers and dangerous trains. There are more than twenty different protagonists; they all speak in distinct voices and hold very different philosophies. Every character, protagonist or not, might surprise you if you let your guard down and start to make assumptions.
On a narrative level, there’s a lot of focus on the interactions between a group of friends, giving an emotional core to a story that spans thousands of years and dozens of cities. We see the machinations of demigods alongside the personal problems of college students, and it all fits together nicely. No one scale overwhelms the others.
The book isn’t over yet, but it’s still worth starting now (since it’s about 400 chapters long, and it’s only going to get longer). There are a few chapters I’ve saved to reread as perfect examples of how to capture a certain emotion, or how to write a fight scene, and I think you’ll find those chapters (or others!) worth the journey.
The Best Other Stuff
Best short story
- Little /^^^&-, by Eric Schwitzgebel
- Comfort Woman, by Erika Krouse
- Of Frogs and Men, by Shane Frederick
- Piracy and Your Music, by Courtney Love
- How the Brexit Referendum Was Won, by Dominic Cummings
- Why Wikipedia Cannot Claim the Earth is Not Flat, by Wikipedia
- You Don’t Know the Best Way to Deal With Russia, by Bryan Caplan
Thanks for making it to the end! If you wind up reading any of this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.