Sunday, November 25, 2012

Best Books of the Year

It's time to name the best books of the year so naturally, serious people are asking, what will Buce name as the best books of the year?

Happy to oblige, at least with a shortlist of five.  But first, some groundwork.  One, I can kick out a lot of  (seemingly) not-very-good books because I just didn't finish them.  I'm sure I cost myself something that way, but I've finally  come to terms with the fact that it's not a moral judgment on me if I simply cast the book aside.  I do, however, stick to some books that drive me nuts, where the driving-me-nuts factor is aggravated by the intuition that they nonetheless seem to have something to offer.  See, e.g., this one.  I'm also setting aside narrative accounts of the financial crisis.  I think I've read about 40 of those so far since aught-eight and I'm not at all sure it is anything to be proud of.   At this point, they are too easy: they overlap and they tend to blur.  I suspect I have already forgotten the particular identities of several.  I'm also setting aside  David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years, because I still can't make up my mind whether it is a really original piece of work or an overrated con job--maybe in ten years it will be easier to judge (but not for me, heh).  More perversely, I'm setting aside Daniel  Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, as just too popular: among other things, it is the only book read this year by both Mr. and Mrs. Buce.  And I guess Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise:  it's too soon (I read it just a couple of weeks ago), and much as I liked it, still it might turn out to be a flash in the pan.

With some hesitancy, then, I open the envelope and find that the first nominee is Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites.  This too is a choice I might regret once the hype wears off but it does seem to be one of the rare left-critique books of contemporary society that really seems to have something new to say, something eyond the usual talking points.  Second, Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower:  a wonderful biography by almost any measure, with a personal resonance for me because it parallels so much of my own life, but also fascinating study in the nature--the mystery--of leadership--what works and what doesn't, and how do you know?   Third, I'll have to make room for The Emperor of All Maladies  Siddartha Mukherjee's great history of cancer.  It sprawls, and a fair amount of it is a bit beyond me but it is at least a tour de force and probably bears intrinsic merit to match.  The experience was matched, I think, by the fact that at more or less the same time I was listening to Frank Snowden's marvellous lecture course on epidemics, from Yale.  That's another one, FWIW, on which Mr. and Mrs. Buce agree: we'd both rank it as the best audio/video learning we did all year.  

Number four is a tougher sell: Kent Flannery and  Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality.  I've inflicted it on at least two friends who seem to wonder why the hell I bothered.  I can take their point: it is sprawling; it is diffuse, and the authors are maddeningly unwilling to draw conclusions or even to offer summaries.  I suspect their response would be: look, what we have shown is that the world is a complicated place and evolves in mysterious ways.  We've shown it to you in all its richness and diversity and we don't apologie for not trying to trick it up with facile soundbytes.

Which leaves room for one more, and I'm going to go with  The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner's unmatchable history of Bell Labs.  Like the Ike biography, it is fascinating for its intrinsic merits but also as a vehicle for further thought: what kind of society, what kind of leadership does it take to produce so successful an institution--or must we write it all off to good luck?

 Perhaps gratuitously, I'll note at least one big book that I did not read last year.  That would be  Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power  the umpteenth installment of Robert Caro's biography of the great drawler.   Johnson certainly deserves the full treatment and I guess nobody can fault Caro's diligence in research.  I read some of Caro's earlier Johnson stuff, but I kind of got off the train with Caro's account of the infamous 1948 primary.  I don't doubt, as Caro argues, that Johnson probably stole that election; I just can't come to terms with Caro's efforts to sanctify his opponent, Coke Stevenson. By everything I've ever heard  or read, Texas politics was a nest of scoundrels in those days and Stevenson was no better than par for the course.  I mention Caro now, however, partly to remind myself that there is one Caro book I really do want to go back and read: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I've heard described as one of the best studies of public administration ever written, right up there with James Q. Wilson's   Bureaucracy.

And here's a book I did not read and probably should: Katherine Boo's, Beyond the Beautiful ForeverThat one might be Mrs. Buce's favorite of the year, and from all I hear, it deserves every bit of the credit she gives it. 

And one final item.  Oddly enough, the book that I may have given most thought to over the past few months is Timothy Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information EmpiresI say "oddly" because I don't think I realized how impressed I was with it at the time I read it: I liked it but since then it has been coming back and back. Might be partly because it dovetails so well with Gertner's Bell Labs book of which I wrote above.  But in fact, I didn't read Wu this year: I finished it back in the fall of 2011.  As time passes, it really looks like a keeper..


The New York Crank said...

What!?!?!? Not even an honorable mention for HEIRESS STRANGLED IN MOLTEN CHOCOLATE AT NAZI SEX ORGY! A MEMOIR"? I am amazed. Amazed.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank

Buce said...

Crank, this is the non-fiction list.

Anonymous said...

too dam many people talk to me too much and the ones i want to hear from dont call enough. so i dont let no book talk to me. i want to turn pages, not dials or whatever you use to listen to books. maybe if i still lived in metro dc and rode the metro it would be a good idea. but, then there's the weirdo people to look at.