Books, in whatever form you choose (hardcover, paperback, digital), still matter, and in this age of blogs and tweets they still serve as a way of presenting thoughts in a format that allows us to think deeply rather than shallowly. So, with lots of enthusiasm I present this year’s highly personal list of the best books of the year. As usual, you will immediately notice that this list is made up, with one exception, of nonfiction titles. Obviously, you can agree or disagree with my choices. After all, that’s what lists are for. Lists, after all, tell us you more about the listmaker than about the items appearing on the list.
Let’s begin with my choice for Book Of The Year (a very difficult decision, given the particularly large number of candidates). One of my favorite essayists, Chuck Klosterman, has written a book that every American should read: BUT WHAT IF WE’RE WRONG: THINKING ABOUT THE PRESENT AS IF IT WERE THE PAST. Starting with the premise that “It’s impossible to understand the world of today until today has become tomorrow,” Klosterman asks us to think about the past (and the present) in totally different ways, especially when it comes to the questions we ask of both past and present. Wrong questions generally produce wrong answers. Read this book and prepare to be surprised, amused, and often jarred from your complacency.
Three books should be read in conjunction with Klosterman, particularly in light of this “post-truth” age in which we live. Daniel J. Levitin’s A FIELD GUIDE TO LIES: CRITICAL THINKING IN THE INFORMATION AGE, Cathy O’ Neil’s WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION: HOW BIG DATA INCREASES INEQUALITY AND THREATENS DEMOCRACY, and Abby Smith Rumsey’s WHEN WE ARE NO MORE: HOW DIGITAL MEMORY IS SHAPING OUR FUTURE, all concern themselves with the question of how we can know what is true in an environment when facts and truth are more tenuous than ever, and in a time when “big data” is increasingly defining what is important and significant.
As a person who has difficulty with simple math and science, I have done quite a bit of reading about physics this year. Not physics textbooks, mind you, but writing about the importance of physics as a way of understanding fundamental human questions. This portion of my bookshelf includes Carlo Rovelli’s SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS, Stephon Alexander’s THE JAZZ OF PHYSICS: THE SECRET LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE UNIVERSE (a book that appeals to my love of jazz and improvisation), Richard A. Muller’s NOW: THE PHYSICS OF TIME, and James Gleick’s TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY (a book not entirely to devoted to physics, but a thought-provoking overview of why we are so fascinated by the idea of time travel). Before we leave the field of science, I would be remiss if I didn’t include two books on my overcrowded shelf: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY and Thomas Rid’s THE RISE OF THE MACHINES: A CYBERNETIC HISTORY (for those of you who are interested, and perhaps frightened, of our robotic future).
Music lovers will find many titles published this year of interest. I have chosen these five to be representative. First, whether you play the guitar or not, you should read Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna’s PLAY IT LOUD: AN EPIC HISTORY OF THE STYLE, SOUND, AND REVOLUTION OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR (a book I reviewed a few issues back). Although there was a lot of attention lavished on the Beatles this year–with a Ron Howard movie and a book celebrating the band’s activities in 1966–the best music biography is Rich Cohen’s THE SUN & THE MOON & AND THE ROLLING STONES, a fascinating personal meditation on the meaning of the Stones in our lives by an author who spent considerable time with them and worked with Mick Jagger to produce the TV series, “Vinyl.” And I couldn’t agree more with his conclusion that “As I tell my sons, pick one thing to be good at. In the end, it’s only the playing that matters.” Second, if you enjoy intimate conversations with very creative people, by all means read Haruki Murakami’s ABSOLUTELY ON MUSIC: CONVERSATIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of classical music, you should enjoy Ozawa’s takes on the way he approaches conducting a symphony orchestra and his fondness for forays into bars where they play the blues. My fourth selection is Ben Ratliff’s EVERY SONG EVER: TWELVE WAYS TO LISTEN IN AN AGE OF MUSICAL PLENTY, a book that captures what it means to be a music fan at a time when streaming music is more important than owning it. And, last but not least, you should read Thomas Dolby’s (“She Blinded Me With Science”) fascinating memoir of a life in music and technology, THE SPEED OF SOUND.
My love of movies and TV was fed this year by three books: Thomas C. Foster’s READING THE SILVER SCREEN: A FILM LOVER’S GUIDE TO DECODING THE ART FORM THAT MOVES (think of it as a “Movie Guide For Dummies”), Peter Ackroyd’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A BRIEF LIFE, and film critic David Thomson’s first foray into the world of television, TELEVISION: A BIOGRAPHY (a sumptuous coffee table book with a scene from “Poltergeist” on the cover).
As a history teacher always in search for new perspectives and interpretations, I was especially intrigued by these two books (among several others): Frank Trentmann’s EMPIRE OF THINGS: HOW WE BECAME A WORLD OF CONSUMERS, FROM THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY TO THE TWENTY-FIRST, and Peter Frankopan’s THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD. I also recommend that you include Steven Johnson’s new book about the influence of play in our history, WONDERLAND, and Newsweek columnist Kenneth L. Woodward’s analysis of the role played by religion in modern American history: GETTING RELIGION: FAITH, CULTURE, AND POLITICS FROM THE AGE OF EISENHOWER TO THE ERA OF OBAMA. The lone fiction book I alluded to in my opening paragraph is also a work of imaginative history, firmly grounded in the realities of slavery–Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.
Some odds and ends. If you want to understand more about the world of social media, and its implications for shaping culture, you should read the revelatory and deeply disturbing study by Nancy Jo Sales (of “Bling Ring” fame), AMERICAN GIRLS: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE SECRET LIVES OF TEENAGERS. If you want to be more productive at work and at home, and can’t seem to stop being distracted by your gadgets, consult Cal Newport’s DEEP WORK: RULES FOR FOCUSED SUCCESS IN A DISTRACTED WORLD. And how can I possibly claim this list to be representative without mentioning Amy Schumer’s touching, hilarious, and heartfelt memoir, THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO?
So, there we have it. A much-too-long column about the importance of reading. I hope you will pick and choose the items in this and find at least one title that appeals to you.
See you next week. In the meantime, I wish you and yours a very meaningful and safe New Year’s eve and day.