What was the best book you read during the last year?
I surveyed a select group of my favorite bloggers and asked them just that. Their answers–which ranged from the Chicago Manual of Style to a compendium of writings by a Ukranian anarchist–didn’t disappoint:
“…I am ashamed to admit that this year has not been an auspicious one for me in terms of reading. I think I’m still catching up with 2002. As a matter of fact, I do believe that the only two new books I’ve bought this year are Genesis by Jim
Crace (still unfinished) and the reissue of Erroll Flynn’s autobio. I’d have to say, then, that for me the bestest, mostest book of 2003 that *I’ve* read is the newest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.
It’s really awesome, and totally scandalous in that they’ve changed a whole buncha rules (no more periods in degree abbreviations! Horreur!) and offered, for the first time, a grammar section. I know, it’s no Vernon God Little, but I’m an editor–to me, this is like Christ (to paraphrase Dostoeyvsky).”
Blogger: Lockhart Steele
Blog: Lockhart Steele.com Web Presence
“Gary Shteyngart, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” The first novel I’ve read that compels me to cite “Confederacy of Dunces” as the best comparison. Bonus: For my money, does the best job handling the Eastern European zeitgeist all the rage these days among big-ass novelists.”
“Manhattan, When I Was Young
Mary Cantwell, 1995
Putting aside all beloved and be-hated books by friends, acquaintances, and enemies, I read a few great books by strangers this year, not one of which, I think, was published in 2003. Well, clearly: the best book published in 2003 was Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, with its absolutely startling end and painful roaming. Honestly I have no idea if the Didion book was as brilliant as I think it is, as I was overwhelmed this year myself by a return to the California of my childhood. My California, it turns out, was identically fraudulent to hers. Horrible amazing place — soon enough I’ll be compelled to live there as punishment, I’m sure.
Anyway. So a book about Manhattan, and about being young. This memoir is rather a perfect antidote to the New York diaries of Ned Rorem as he careens in the same years from AA meeting to Yadoo to sexual and spiritual deflation. Mary Cantwell’s autobiography of becoming a woman in Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s benefits from what she says is her absolute recall or amnesia of moments and events. I never trust a memoirist, and am often disgusted (usually pleasantly) by a diarist — so often the past is rearranged into pretty retrospective equations. But one absolutely believes the Cantwell book. Her omissions are complete, and her inclusions seem intensely accurate. It’s a book to appreciate particularly after one has been in Manhattan for a good while, and one can look back on one’s old apartments and lovers and fuck-ups, and think: I was that scared, and as misguided, and I kept at it anyway as well.”
Blogger: Randy Paul
Blog: Beautiful Horizons
“My favorite book of the past year was (drumroll, please): Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which also won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s incredibly well researched, the documentation is solid and the content is very prescient.”
Blogger: Brendan Huhn
Blog: Ask Brendan
“These are the best books I read in 2003. As I mentioned I try only to read paperback, so I’m usually a year behind the times.
I don’t like hardcovers because they are too heavy and I always lose the dust jackets. I also feel obligated to keep hardcovers, which I hate, because I’m a free-spirit and I don’t need worldly things to weigh me down.
Anyhow, my list: Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein
Coming Up for Air by George Orwell
Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
Friedrich Hayek: A Biography by Alan O. Ebenstein
The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek
Law’s Order: What Economics Has to Do with Law and Why It Matters by David D. Friedman”
Blogger: Al Giordano
Blog: Big, Left, Outside
“That’s not an easy question. Right now I’m reading “Los Hombres Verdaderos: voces y testimonios tojolabales,” by Carlos Lenkersdorf, a 1996 work by a linguist who has put in the leg work since 1973 living and sharing with Tojolabal people in their communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and whose findings are causing problems for me (and others) because if what he’s saying is true – that the Tojolabal language has no objects, only subjects, or what he calls “intersubjectivity” it could potentially erase, or severely amend, 30 years of conclusions about the cracking of the Maya code, of the phonetic nature of the glyphs found on ancient Maya ruins.
I’m also reading a delightful draft of a book, so far without title, by Raquel Guti�rrez Aguilar, the Mexican mathematician and La Jornada columnist, that is both autobiographical and analytical: much of it was written, or begun, from a women’s prison in Bolivia when she was imprisoned for years, accused of being comandanta of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, telling the story of what really happened.
Other books I really liked reading a lot this year were two about Tina Modotti… “Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti,” by Patricia Albers, and “Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life,” by Mildred Constantine, both in English, which, you can imagine, as an Italian-American with various economic and sometimes even legal exile problems, in Latin America, there’s a strong identity factor with Modotti and her trials and travails.
I should also give a runner-up to “Nestor Makhno: E A Revolu��o Social na Ucr�nia,” a collection of the early 20th century Ukranian anarchist’s writings, which, when I started learning Portuguese during three months in Brazil this year was the book through which I took out the dictionary and started looking up the words, one by one.
Ah, but you want to know the “best,” which is sure to get me in trouble…
The best book I read in 2003 is one I started in December 2002, and a book I totally disagree with, to the point of it having angered me, a book so infuratingly compelling that it made me want to write a rebuttal: “The Rage and the Pride,” by Orianna Fallaci. Although I completely differ with her conclusions about interpreting September 11th, her longform essay journalism doesn’t get any better than the way Fallaci can still do it. She takes you, the reader, punches you in the nose, grabs you by the collar, and shakes until you want to either surrender or punch back.
I don’t read – or at least don’t finish – a lot of books by journalists about Latin America or the oft-mentioned Latin American novelists of our time. Lord knows I *try* to read a lot of it. But I find most of them to be total crap, written from formula, trying to impress the elites and not succeeding at telling much truth. The kind of work Fallaci produces, or, likewise, in the ongoing book that might be called “the communiques of Subcomandante Marcos,” or even what some of my journalism students have been producing over the past year, simply wipe the floor with what most people who call themselves journalists or writers who get published churn out these days for a price. My view is that if a book doesn’t provoke me it has failed me as a reader. That’s why this year’s “best” goes to a work with a thesis that I don’t share. But it’s so well told, that I forgive even its wrongheaded conclusions.”
Blogger: Miguel Octavio
Blog: The Devil’s Excrement
“Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
An imaginative book with sentences full of wisdom as Pi (for Piscine, swimming pool in French) Patel grows up in India and describes his terrible ordeal fleeing. Some of the situations are so absurd but despite that fact Martel makes them credible. The book just flows through, easy yet imaginative and very enjoyable. Quite different and some phrases are insightful. I loved these two:
To prosper, a zoo needs parliamentary government, democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, rule of law and everything else enshrined in India’s Constitution. Impossible to enjoy animals otherwise. Long-term, bad politics is bad for business.
People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.
Non-Fiction: The future of freedom by Fareed Zakaria.
A book about democracy at a time that people either take it for granted or don’t realize you have to defend it and fight for it. I particularly liked the descriptions of why the concept is hard to sell in Islamic societies. It also discusses how sometimes it is difficult to defend democracy despite its attributes. Definitely food for thought.”
Blogger: Dan Drezner
“The best book I read last year was Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists. An outstanding book on the merits of open markets and the political economy of efforts to prevent such openness.”
Finally, this humble blogger, who spent 2003 living in Ecuador and lacking a television and other distractions, read plenty.
And while Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” as I’ve mentioned, renewed my hope in novels about American men, my nod goes to “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond’s sprawling treatise on global history.
The book is stunning in power and scope–and it offered an answer to a question I’ve always wondered about: why is that civilizations on different continents have developed so differently? Why does Japan flourish while the Ivory Coast decays? Why did colonists from Western Europe subjugate the rest of the world, and not the other way around? It all depends on environmental factors, Diamond says. And he makes a very convincing argument.
That’s it for this year. Thanks to the bloggers above, who kindly took the time to send me their thoughts.