U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Open Thread: Best Books You Read in 2016

Year’s end lists generate a great deal of ambivalence, at least for me. “Best of” lists are useful, but, for novels or television, frustrating. Catching up is impossible, and the pleasure of reading someone else’s list of the best to offer from the last twelve months is generally vicarious. It’s nice that someone gets to read/watch these wonderful things! “Best music of the year” lists are much more enjoyable (here’s Erik Loomis’s eclectic, very knowledgeable list at Lawyers, Guns, and Money). I can catch up much more quickly, and the joy of discovery outweighs any lingering shame that I am no longer as au courant as I was in college. Film lists are somewhere in between. Especially in December/January, many of the critics’ picks are not widely available to the common viewer, but one can at least plan on seeing whatever makes its way to a streaming platform or to one’s public or university library.

What I find much more valuable are people’s reflections on the best books they read during the year prior: not necessarily books published that year, but books that finally maneuvered their way to the top of the to-read pile. Even if I do not end up reading these books, reading about them broadens my awareness of what’s out there (at least if it’s a good list) and I can file away some notes on what books might be useful if I need to research a particular topic. (Here’s a good example at Crooked Timber.)

So beneath the fold I’ll talk about a few books that I feel are worth flagging, and I’d like to invite you to do the same in the comments. What books that you read merited the notice they’ve received or deserve to be better known (and perhaps also more widely read)?

  • Jonathan Holloway’s Jim Crow Wisdom has already been widely praised, but it certainly deserved whatever warm words it has received. At once brisk and tender in its double curation of history and memory, it is a book I would love to teach someday.
  • I try to keep up, more or less, with contemporary poetry: reading it provides a sharp change of pace from monographs and primary sources, and generally can be squeezed into the interstices of a day. Some of the best I read this year was Mary Szybist’s immaculate Incarnadine (which includes the best love poem for two academics I’ve ever read, or for any couple that works often at home), Natalie Díaz’s bracing When My Brother Was an Aztec (here’s a great sample poem), and the harrowing The Performance of Becoming Human by David Borzutzky, which folds Chile and Chicago in a kind of tesseract-like collapsing of time and space. The single best poem I read, though, is Aracelis Girmay’s long poem about the childhood of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. You can hear her read a part of it here.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is worth much more comment than I can give it here, but, if read primarily as a character study it is perhaps one of the most complete and vital literary performances of the past decade. The story of a young man from Newark who worked his way into Yale, did spectacularly well, then fell back into the drug trade in Newark, ultimately murdered by rival dealers, it brushes against numerous questions that it wisely decides not to answer. The author, Jeff Hobbs, instead focuses on putting the pieces together of a life, and creates a Gatsby-like story about the worthlessness that lies at the heart of some ambitions once achieved.
  • Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism? and James Livingston’s Fuck Work (his original title; it is published under the more temperate No More Work) likewise deserve much more substantial analysis. Both are very short, and if you can get your hands on them, more than anything else I read this year, I encourage you to pick them up.
  • I read both of Eula Biss’s books, On Immunity and No Man’s Land. Some have compared her to Joan Didion, but the more apt predecessor is Susan Sontag. Her astonishing ability to maneuver through extraordinarily complex moral and intellectual tangles is an intimidating standard for intellectual historians.
  • I am obviously really late to this, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is nuts! Why anyone would teach Looking Backward instead of this as an example of GAPE utopian novels, I don’t know. (I mean, I understand the reasons, but Herland is flat-out amazing.)
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a divisive novel, but I was enraptured. It and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 were the only really transcendent novels I read this year. Hopefully next year will be better!

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hmmm…..let’s see:

    I read some science fiction this year–not enough, but what I read I thoroughly enjoyed. Most notably Cixin Liu’s “Three Body Problem.”

    I NEED to read more poetry–I’ve been meaning to get into Claudine Rankin’s work, especially her collection “Citizen.”

    I’ve also been reading some primary source material for the dissertation–several books written in the 1960s on the power of the Black vote (might be a blog post down the road). And for my New South course, I’ve read works by George Washington Cable, who was quite the writer when it came to the South around the turn of the 20th century.

    This also reminds me: I really need to start utilizing my Goodreads page, just to hold myself accountable for reading books that I’ve been meaning to finish for months (or, ahem, years).

  2. I have the privilege of reading many new books and the time to read things that have been around for years. Of older works three stand out for 2016.

    Gender and Morality in Anglo-American Culture, 1650-1800 (2003); a collection of essays by Ruth H. Bloch packed with some interesting ideas about gender as a moral system.

    The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1984) by Joel Schwartz. Very illuminating regarding the gender implications of Rousseau’s politics which leads to how the Enlightenment established the modern gender binary.

    Also, trying to shore up my reading of 19th c. novels. Middlemarch by George Eliot is currently in rotation and needs to be revisited for its cultural criticism. I should have read it a long time ago embarrassed to say. So many more to tackle.

  3. Two favorite sci fi/fantasy novels I read this year: NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) ties together themes of disaster-prone ecology and racial slavery by positing an oppressed, reviled guild of geological magicians (for lack of a better word) who keep the world from falling apart. It feels like a perfect book for our moment without at all forcing its timeliness.

    Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning (2016) is a deeply ironic story of utopia under stress, set in a possible future that idolizes the Enlightenment and believes it has abolished the shackles of gender, organized religion, and the nation-state. (The author is, incidentally, an intellectual historian by day)

    The best scholarly book I read this year was probably Thomas Mullaney’s Coming To Terms With The Nation (2006), which traces the ideological roots of China’s minzu system of ethnic classification, and the social-scientific apparatus tasked with devising categories people could be persuaded to believe they fit into. A brilliantly-executed monograph.

    Robert, glad to hear you enjoyed Three Body Problem, which gives me more encouragement to get around to reading it…

    • I’m reading the Jemisin right now, and am just gobsmacked. It’s great. I found the first half or third of The Three-Body Problem pretty great, but then it started falling apart for me (sort of like Ancillary Justice, actually, which I read in 2015). But Robert knows SF a lot better than I do, so take his word over mine!
      And I will definitely check out the Palmer book. Thanks!

      • To be honest, I couldn’t get into Ancillary Justice. And I felt bad because that series is critically acclaimed.

  4. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m currently reading E. Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945. It’s already changed, in certain respects, how I think about that period. And in the linked CT thread I mentioned H. Parker’s The Anatomy of a Soldier, an autobiographical novel based on a British officer being wounded by an IED in Afghanistan and his recovery.

    Re Yanigihara’s A Little Life, mentioned in the OP: I don’t buy many books these days for space (and, to some extent, budgetary) reasons, and I read parts of this some months ago, standing up in a Barnes & Noble for about an hour. I decided that was enough for me and didn’t buy it, though I could tell it was good.

    @ L. Barger: All I’d say about Middlemarch is: move it to the top of your list, then turn off the computer, turn off the cell phone, mute the ringer on the landline phone (if you have one), and prepare to be completely absorbed.

  5. Andy, great post.

    I think I did more reading over this past break than I did throughout the rest of the year. But very early in 2016 I read George Cotkin’s A Feast of Excess — marvelous!

    James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash were my spring/summer reads.

    I did re-read one novel over the summer: Wuthering Heights — appreciated it a great deal more at my current age/stage of life than I did at 20 or 21, when I read it last.

    This past fall I couldn’t read in any deep or meaningful way to save my life, so over Christmas break it was like a dam broke and I was desperate to read / re-read All The Things. Won’t do a full list here, but the highlights over the past month have been John Williams’s Stoner (yikes!), Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History (the person[s] who told me that was a Bad Book gave me a bum steer), Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (he is such fine intellectual company), Michael Kimmell’s Manhood in America (you may be noticing a theme!), Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods (that book changed my life the first time I read it — inspired me to look into a grad school program in humanities! — so I am fond of it, plus it’s a delightful read), and — last but certainly not least — good old Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (lord have mercy, could that man write). There were several more titles, but those were the most soul-restoring books on the list.

    Started off this year at 6:00 AM on New Year’s day reading a couple of essays published in 1975 — one by Adrienne Rich and one by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Whatever else happens in 2017, I’m determined to make it a Good Year for reading and writing.

    I wish the same for all of you!

    • Probably should have mentioned Ohmann’s English in America — it’s a more bracing read than you’d think, and I found it useful for once again pondering the problem of the ideas v. materialism, a problem that looms large over our own sub discipline (at least in my experience). More here:

      Ideas and Lives

  6. My favorite new intellectual history book of last year was “Bind us Apart” by Nicholas Guyatt. It’s a much needed account of the early origins of ‘separate but equal’. It is also very inviting and readable.
    I also read “Ormond” by Charles Brockden Brown recently. Brown’s novels continue to amaze me.

  7. I think I had a good reading year. Due to some genealogical discoveries I read several books about the Battle of the Somme, the Lost Battalion, and the Easter Rising in Ireland.

    Read a substantial amount of poetry for the time in years, including Yeats, Heany, and Longfellow. I would recommend Longfellow’s poems on slavery.

    The best non-history, non-fiction book I read is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. It is a masterpiece of story telling and character revelation. Susan Cain’s Quiet is also quite good, especially if you are an introvert like me.

    My favorite fiction read of the year is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I really enjoyed his narration. This book sits well with Graham Greene’s Quiet American and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Some of the fiction classics that I read in 2016 didn’t wow me the same way. For example, I just did not follow Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and the ending for Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables disappointed me (for whatever that is worth).

    Best history books that I read in 2016 include Stephen Long, Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane that Transformed New England; Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism; and Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America.

    Best biography goes to Kathleen Dalton’s Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life.

  8. The best books I read in 2016:

    1. Both volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I think I liked volume 1 better. This is one I’d read snippets of, and around the book for years. I needed a deep dive in the circumstances of early 19th century America, and this helped. I now understand better why both sides of the spectrum find something to like in these works.

    2. Jason Stahl’s Right Moves. This caused a four-part reflection on Jesse Jackson here at the blog. Need I say more! But I will. I really, really appreciated Stahl’s chapter on New Democrats and their think tanks. I needed to read that exactly when I was into his book.

    3. Michael Schudson’s Rise of the Right to Know. I obtained this to write a review for the American Studies Journal (AMSJ), and found myself engaged by Schudson’s argument, which revolved around legislative activities, journalism, FOIA requests, open records orgs, etc. I don’t read a lot of legislative history, but this book held my attention. I found the overall argument overly optimistic, and said so in my review. But I was happy to be told the history of a subject about which I knew little beforehand.

    4. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Even though these lectures read like dissertation chapters, with their long excerpts, I wasn’t particularly bothered by it—mostly because James’ reflections and integrative passages worked for me. I kept wondering how a Muslim or Buddhist or practitioner of Hinduism might read the text. But it worked for this Catholic. I haven’t read much early psychology (only snippets of, and few essays, from Freud—must read Civilization and Its Discontents, btw), so this was a revelation to me.

    5. Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites (esp. the first 4 chapters). After reading around Lasch for years (as I did with Tocqueville), and snippets of chapters, I invested some time in this work. Why? Mostly for the title and in relation to my interest in anti-elitism. But after reading I discovered that Lasch and I share a number of views in common, though I depart from his Shire-esque views on the function of the state, and his overly romantic view of “family.”

    6. Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. I had absorbed the message of this book years before, through several articles and reviews. But I appreciated the force of their message better after a sustained reading.

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