Devoted fans will note that I have updated my Amazon books link. Woolgathering on the exerbike this afternoon I got to thinking about "big books"--the kind you can dive into and just wallow around in for a week or a month or longer--Middlemarch or War and Peace that sort of thing. I asked myself: what kind of "big books" explain the 20th Century?
I see I can give no more than a fragmentary answer to that question, but I herewith offer some of my favorites. They certainly aren't the kind of thing you are going to breeze through on a weekend--for me, it's pretty much the record of a lifetime. I first read Bertram Wolfe's Three Who Made a Revolution during my "remedial college" years when I was about 25--my battered original copy is still here, eight feet off my right elbow as I write. I was conscious then that it read like a novel, and I bet it still does. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy I read just a bit later--the two together probably shaped the political views I carry with me today. Free market ideologues like to claim Schumpeter as one of their own, but that's a sign that they haven't read him, or that they suspect we haven't read him: he is far too much of an electic, too much of an ironist, for such facile categorization (for extra credit: I have always found it s defect in Galbraith that he has no intelligible program, no teetable hypothesis; in Schumpeter, this bug seems to be a feature--why the difference?).
Others came later. The Spanish Labyrinth was a traveling companion on my first trip to Spain. Autobiogrpahy of an Unknown Indian carried me back and forth on the long plane flights to and from Mumbai. Hope Against Hope we did as a readaloud, and not an easy task I can tell you--hypnotic, but exhausting (I still haven't read its companion, Hope Abandoned; for a long time I figured it was just a weaker sequel, but Patrick Kurp assures me it is worthy in its own right, and I am meaning to get around to it). Rebellion in the Backlands (in a new translation, just Backlands) ought of course to be bracketed with its novelistic companion, The War for the End of the World--I cannot imagine why I did not just list them both. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon the sprawlingest, messiest of the lot, I did as a book-on-tape in the car. I think it hung around for a couple of years, but I can easily conjure up its tang today--some of the best bits of compassionate comedy I've ever encountered. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I read just a year or two ago in my commuter motel room, on the recommendation of Joseph Epstein.(hat tip).
I note obvious gaps. China, for example. I've read Jonathan Spence's Search for Modern China in prep for a trip to China; I found it most helpful and instructive but still it comes across as a very good textbook, somehow not the thing I want on this list. Japan: I've read as fair amount about Japan but nothing that qualifies as both (a) big and (b) 20th Century. Africa--oh, wait, I forgot to mention Norman Rush, Mating, his not-quite-a-novel account of Americans in Botswana. Do I file that one under "Africa" or "America?"
And speaking of America, I see I have nothing from the good ol' US of A, but I just thought of a candidate: John Dos Passos' great trilogy, USA, another sentimental favorite from back in my Schumpeter/Wolfe phase. It's one I', a little iffy about reading again because I liked it so much the first time and I'm a teensy bit afraid I might not think so highly of it the second.
And I end with Ibn Khalid, Muqaddima which, no, is not 20th Century at all (the conventional date is 1377) but whch underwent a kind of rediscovery in the 20th Century (Princeton published a Bollingen three-volume set in 1967). Anyway the subtitle is "An Introductioin to History." Might not be too much to say that it explains everything about the 20th Century, along with all other centuries, before and after. Anyway, I just discovered it only a couple of years back. In lifetime reading terms, perhaps it forms a bracket with Schumpeter/Wolfe.