The inspiration for this week’s year-end column is one of this year’s best books–Martin Puchner’s THE WRITTEN WORLD: THE POWER OF STORIES TO SHAPE PEOPLE, HISTORY, CIVILIZATION.
As the title indicates, this book is a celebration of writing and storytelling, and is closely related to three other similarly-themed books published this year: IN THEIR LIVES: GREAT WRITERS ON GREAT BEATLES SONGS, edited by Andrew Blauner; LIGHT THE DARK: WRITERS ON CREATIVITY, INSPIRATION, AND THE ARTISTIC PROCESS, edited by Joe Fassler; and a book I reviewed a couple of months ago–David Sedaris’ THEFT BY FINDING: DIARIES, 1977-2002, the first of what promises to be a series of this popular author’s encounters with life over the years.
This has been the best year for books I have seen in quite some time, and there is simply not enough space in this column for a full, or even extremely partial list of this bounty. As in years past, I am limiting myself to nonfiction titles, not because I don’t like fiction, but because I spend most of my time with nonfiction. Of course, we might be entering an age when facts don’t seem to matter, as recounted in two particularly provocative books published this year. First up is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ essential, yet contentious WIN BIGLY: PERSUASION IN A WORLD WHERE FACTS DON’T MATTER, which is a primer on the new world of fake news we find ourselves in and the accompanying new rules of persuasion that got us here; actually these rules aren’t all that new because Plato’s “Gorgias” provided a similar primer for Athens over 2,500 years ago. Next is Kurt Andersen’s much-talked-about five-hundred-year survey of how fake news originated: FANTASYLAND: HOW AMERICA WENT HAYWIRE: A 500-YEAR HISTORY. I reviewed this book when it first appeared and I urge you to read it as a very clever and relevant new way to frame American history.
As you know, this column is focused on pop culture, and several books this year fed (pun intended) my interest. Although I gave up on “The Walking Dead” at the end of Season Five, I am devouring (pun intended) Paul Vigna’s GUTS: THE ANATOMY OF THE WALKING DEAD, which is a thought-provoking cultural history not only of the series but also of the zombie genre in general. This is a perfect companion to last year’s MAD MEN: A CULTURAL HISTORY, by M. Keith Booker and Bob Batchelor; if you’ve read this column for any length of time you will know that this is my all-time favorite TV series, next to “Columbo” of course. Books about movies and music are generally at the top of my list, and I highly recommend Glenn Frankel’s HIGH NOON: THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CLASSIC (a companion to his earlier analysis of another 1950s classic–John Ford’s “The Searchers”). After being intrigued by Woody Allen’s recent movie, “Irrational Man,” I am very anxious to read Eric Lax’s blow-by-blow account of how this movie was made–START TO FINISH: WOODY ALLEN AND THE ART OF MOVIEMAKING, which is by all accounts one of the best explorations of moviemaking that we have yet seen. It will have to try hard, however, to convince me that it is better than another stellar movie book published this year: Ann Hornaday’s TALKING PICTURES: HOW TO WATCH MOVIES. Two outstanding music books were published this year. As a followup to his previous account of music made in 1971, NEVER A DULL MOMENT, David Hepworth has produced a probing account of the rise and fall of the “rock star” phenomenon, called UNCOMMON PEOPLE, which contains fascinating profiles of rock stars from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain. There are many very good general histories of American popular music, but perhaps none better or more provocative than Ann Powers’ GOOD BOOTY: LOVE AND SEX, BLACK & WHITE, BODY AND SOUL IN AMERICAN MUSIC. Start here if you want to understand the deep, and often taboo currents that shape our music, both past and present.
Although I have limited scientific skills, I am an avid reader of books about science, cultural biology, and machine intelligence. This year saw some very interesting titles, including Max Tegmark’s LIFE 3.0: BEING HUMAN IN THE AGE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE; Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s MACHINE, PLATFORM, CROWD: HARNESSING OUR DIGITAL FUTURE; A CRACK IN CREATION: GENE EDITING AND THE UNTHINKABLE POWER TO CONTROL EVOLUTION, by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer A Doudna (with Samuel H. Sternberg), and a very head-spinning meld of science and humanities, WHAT ALGORITHMS WANT: IMAGINATION IN THE AGE OF COMPUTING, by Ed Finn.
As a history teacher, I am impelled to mention two very interesting and myth-shattering books about history: Yuval Noah Harari’s HOMO DEUS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOMORROW, a follow-up to his well-received volume SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND, and perhaps the most ambitious title for any book about history, Adam Rutherford’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED: THE HUMAN STORY RETOLD THROUGH OUR GENES.
My candidate for Book Of The Year is about a subject that occupies much of my time–creativity, particularly as this skill is used to redefine the nature of learning. Anthony Brandt and David Engleman’s THE RUNAWAY SPECIES: HOW HUMAN CREATIVITY REMAKES THE WORLD should be required reading for anyone who teaches (and aren’t all of us teachers?) or cares about the importance of learning in the modern world. This book is a sumptuously-illustrated tour de force that puts creativity at the center of any discussion about the role of human beings in the world. This should be read in conjunction with A.O. Wilson’s new book, THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY, which is an argument for the preservation of the humanities as a centerpiece in the world of science. And, last but certainly not least, is the final chapter of Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of LEONARDO DA VINCI, where he outlines the many reasons why Leonardo is still relevant five-hundred years after his death. At the top of this list is “Be curious, relentlessly curious.” As I tell my students, if they cultivate curiosity and creativity, they are prepared for the “real world.” And, as I have said many times, these two virtues are not measured by the standardized tests that fortunately weren’t around when Leonardo was dreaming of flying machines and enigmatic subjects for his paintings.
This list could of course go on and on, but, alas, I have exceeded my word limit.
Here’s wishing you a coming year filled with books and creativity.
See you next week.