Monday, January 2, 2012
2011 in Reading
So for the year 2011, between kindle, ipod and traditional print, I read or listened to about 100 books. Here are my nominations for the best books. Some of these books are recent, others are not. I would be curious to hear from readers any thoughts on these particular books or favorite books from their past year of reading.
Non-Fiction Related to My Dissertation
1) The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers by Carl L. Becker - A series of lectures on the Enlightenment, which Becker viewed a product of rather than a simple break with the Middle Ages. If I ever teach a historiography course this book will be assigned along with Sir Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History for the topic of the Whig narrative and why it fails to explain the origins of modernity.
2) The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement by Pawel Maciejko - The best history hands down on the Frankists, an eighteenth-century heretical movement in eastern Europe, which resulted in a mass conversion of Jews to Catholicism. I would particularly recommend this back as an example of counter "great man" history. Not in the sense that Jacob Frank was a pretty infamous character, though he was, but in the sense that Maciejko places the Frankist movement as the center, as opposed to Frank himself. In fact Maciejko's central argument is that a strong Polish Sabbatian movement existed apart from Frank and outside his control; Frank reacted to and was the product of "Frankist" movement much more so than the other way around.
3) Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History by David Ruderman - There is little original with this book, but Ruderman does a great job bringing the major issues of interest to me regarding early modern Jewish history together, particularly the relationship between conversos, Sabbatians and the early Enlightenment. As I am doing with my own discussion of Sabbatianism, Ruderman places a heavy emphasis on mobile networks of individuals.
Non-Fiction Not Related to My Dissertation
1) Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - A powerful autobiography by a Somali ex-Muslim. What particularly impressed me about Hirsi Ali is that she is remarkably non-bitter and non-polemical in her account of her family and of Islam, particularly if you consider how easy it would have been for her to have made it so. Yes she places Islam as a threat to Western Civilization, but this book is hardly of the "Muslims are evil" or even the "religious people are evil" genre. I particularly relate to this book as someone who has taken a step away from a fundamentalist religion, though not as radical a step as Hirsi Ali, via means of classical liberalism. This is a conscious rejection of the authority of community and tradition in a favor of the individual and reason, backed by a nation-state. Because of this experience, Hirsi Ali thinks in terms of either classical liberalism or religious fundamentalism. Her objection to modern multi-cultural liberalism is precisely that it fails to appreciate the attraction of religious fundamentalism. As I see it, how can someone appreciate the attraction of something that never appealed to them in the first place and which they cannot seriously imagine themselves having followed? This unwillingness to take religious fundamentalism seriously at an intellectual level means that modern liberals are not prepared to go up against fundamentalist apologists, who use modern liberalism's own abandonment of the absolute authority of the individual, reason and the placement of any type of national culture as fascism to justify the continued existence of fundamentalist enclaves funded by public tax dollars.
2) The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto - As with the previous book, this is a defense of classical liberalism that focuses on the experiences of those outside the West. De Soto makes the libertarian case that government bureaucracy causes poverty in third world countries. More importantly, de Soto, following in the tradition of Frederick Hayek, is an eloquent defender of rule of law. He is not anti-government; on the contrary, he believes in government based on principled rules as opposed to arbitrary whims of politicians and interest groups. As in the case of Hirsi Ali, I think there is something about living in a society where a belief in liberal principles is not a given and where one must consciously defend such positions against intellectually serious non-believers to force one back to the basics of liberal principles. In de Soto's Peru and the other countries he describes there is no two-hundred year history of a constitional system which commands the loyality of the entire political system. If one is going to take a stand for constitutional government and the rule of law then that stand must be a principled one or stand in line with those willing to use force of arms and politics to take what they believe to be rightfully theirs.
3) Bonhoeffer: Paster, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas - If I ever were placed in charge of Artscroll's hagiography division for the writing of gedolim biographies I would assign this book to everyone working for me as an example as to writing inspirational biographies. There is little need to use over the top rhetoric to make Dietrich Bonhoeffer sound heroic. He was an anti-Nazi German pastor, who returned to Germany right before the start of World War II because he felt he needed to actively oppose Nazism on the ground in Germany. He did not survive the war. With that out of the way Metaxas is free to spend the book explaining Bonhoeffer's theology and offering some background on early twentieth century Protestantism. This book also makes some useful arguments for viewing Nazism as something other than a conservative movement.
4) Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis - Certainly the most intersting book on sports I have ever read. For those who like the Freakonomics/Malcolm Gladwell style counterintituitive arguments Lewis offers a different way of thinking about sports and possibly about life as well. If you wish to articulate why sports anouncers are full of nonsense, who consistently fail to say anything useful about the game this is the book for you. What I particularly took from Moneyball is a lesson on the vulnerabilities of self replicating elites; they tend to recruit people who look the part rather than genuine capability. Baseball scouts tend to jump for athletes who are tall, well built, fast and can throw over 90 miles an hour as opposed to hitters who can rack up walks. One wonders if the Haredi leadership and the journalists who empower them place too much emphasis on people who come from the right families, make the right public statements and are photographed at the right weddings as opposed to engaging in actual scholarship.
Fiction (I Will Leave It as an Open Question as to whether Any of This is Related to My Dissertation)
1) Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill - One of the best written horror stories I have ever come across. It takes a very simple concept, a suit with a ghost attached to it, and scares the pants out of you with it. It makes little use of graphic violence; who needs gore when you have a deliciously psychotic dead hypnotist to talk people into suicide. The book also features lead characters who are actually likable as opposed to a parade of hunks and blondes just lining up for the slaughter. If the writing sounds a bit like Stephen King's, the author happens to be his son.
2) Elantris by Brandon Sanderson - There is something to be said for handing characters over to true destruction, the sudden loss of family, position and reputation. Death is too easy and for it to actually matter it almost needs to render the character narratively useless. So it is to Sanderson's credit that he can craft a truly unique vision of a Hell on Earth to cast his Christ-like hero. As with Orson Scott Card, Sanderson's stories are first and foremost about characters and relationships. In this case a hero faced with the task of rallying the denizens of an inescapable Hell into a community. (He does this brilliantly as well in Way of Kings.)
3) Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson - More Sanderson. This one features a pair of princesses, one of them in a Queen Esther type scenario, a pair of comic henchmen, who go off into libertarian style monologues in defense of their profession and a really cool system of magic involving colors and souls. Sanderson's fantasy that is not about heroes off questing to defeat evil dark lords and save the world. Keeping to the best of the Tolkien tradition, Sanderson is a world builder. If Tolkien built his worlds through language, Sanderson works through systems of magic. Imagine a world governed with a slightly different set of physical laws (Sanderson's magic is always based on clear and consistent rules) and ask yourself what sort of society would spring up under such circumstances. Any system that allows a minority of people to become even slightly more powerful than most is going to be hierarchical, but what sort of hierarchy and how might it become vulnerable?
4) Song of Fire and Ice Series by George R. R. Martin - Murder, sexual immorality and idolatry and I am loving the series. I have never read a fantasy author who gets the medieval mindset like Martin does. These books should practically be classified as historical fiction. Is it that big a deal that the books do not actually take place during the War of the Roses and involve some dragons in one of the side plots?