With all these lists of favorite this or favorite that from your teenage years going around FB, and with Obama weighing in with his own reading list of favorite books that helped him through 8 years of being the Big Man on Campus, I thought I'd start the new year with a blog on my favorite books from the past year of reading. Like most academics, I am a chronic book reader. It's a terrible affliction being literate, and it completely disqualifies me from any higher office (just kidding, Pres. Obama, but you know who I'm talkin' bout). But to tell the truth, like most academics, especially in my field of history, I usually don't read books cover to cover. Rather, I dig into them, and take them in in dribs and drabs. I use them for all sorts of purposes, including writing my own articles and books, not to mention as elevation support for my monitors and screens, where I do my REAL reading on the Net.
So, here are 10 books that I actually enjoyed reading cover to cover (or thereabouts) in 2016. And if your book didn't make it on my list, don't worry, I'll be back at the end of 2017 with another one!
Written by S. C. Gwynne, this is a great work of historical non-fiction about the inevitable conflict between the hunter-warrior tribe known as Comanches and white settler societies in post-Civil War era Texas, focusing on the story of "half-breed" Quanah Parker, whose mother was captured by a Comanche tribe and went "native". An epic story that all Americans should read to better understand the history of our great nation, especially for those who like a bit of the old ultra-violence. Spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for the Comanches.
I've been a fan of Thomas Dolby's music since his breakout song "Blinded By Science" hit the airwaves in 1983. In this memoir, he tells the story of how he went from a nobody to a celebrity musician and back again to a nobody in the 1980s, making several amazing record albums and pioneering the art of synth-pop in the process, followed by his extended foray into the world of sound technology. It's a story of genius, dogged persistence, and sheer luck, told by a fantastic story-teller with a gift for self-deprecating humor.
Ever since I first started teaching world history many years ago, I've always been fascinated by the ways that different historians package that grand story. Peter Frankopan has written an ambitious history of the world with a strong emphasis on Asia's central role in that story, and even for a seasoned world history reader such as myself, there are new insights and info on every page that make this a worthy slog. Truth told I'm still in the middle of the book, so I may have to provide a final analysis next year!
I was a huge fan of the works of Stanislaw Lem in high school and college. His vision of the future, sometimes fantastical, sometimes cynical but always fascinating and grounded in hard science, has influenced me more than any other Sci Fi writer save perhaps Philip K Dick. Yet until last year I had never encountered this novel about the discovery by space explorers of an alien planet featuring some bizarre technology. It's a gripping story that might have made a great film. Even though some of the tech seems laughishly outdated (he wrote it in an era when data was still stored on magnetic tapes), the themes are timeless.
I must confess that I don't read enough Chinese literature these days, perhaps because I live in China and I'm already surrounded by and embedded within the China Dream. But when this author Ge Fei came across my radar screen, I was curious enough to check out his novella, translated into English by Canaan Morse. I found it totally absorbing and read it in a few late-night hours. Familiar as I am with Chinese society and with Beijing, where the story takes place, the novel and characters were both recognizable and haunting. It's a story that reminds us that tribal affiliations are at least as important as class or regional ones, and that an obsession for something as esoteric as hi-fi audio equipment can lead to all sorts of unexpected consequences.
A couple of years ago, I met the author Taras Grescoe in Shanghai and took him on my tour of the Bund. He was working on this non-fictional book, featuring the story of the love triangle between Victor Sassoon, Emily Hahn, and Shao Xunmei in 1930s Shanghai. The result is a well-crafted work of non-fiction, which often reads like a novel that brings back to life those heady and tumultuous years in the Paris of the Orient. While it comes with the caveat that the author isn't a China historian, it's about the best you can do as an "amateur" in our field and it is backed by a significant amount of original research into the lives of these people.
I stumbled upon this edited volume while researching an article I was writing on the femmes-fatale figures of Shanghai. As a scholar who takes music seriously as part and parcel of empire- and nation-building, I was pleased to find so many like-minded scholars crammed into one book. It includes a great piece by Andrew Jones on the circulation of Chinese pop music in the 1960s, as well as a chapter by Nan Enstad on the connections between cigarettes and jazz in 1930s Shanghai. I'm still going through the articles in this fascinating book, which provides countless insights into modern music and its connections to the other forces that shape our world.
I've been a fan of Oliver Sacks since my college years, when I was deep into studies of the mind. His memoir, written while he was in his 80s, is a beautifully written account of his rather unique life and career as a doctor, a scientist, and a writer. Above all it's a testament to the power of obsession. We learn about his early career phase, when he was a champion weight lifter and a motor-cycler obsessed with speed. We learn of his various drug addictions. We learn about his sexual life as a rather closeted gay man, who had a great deal of trouble with his identity. But most of all, we learn about his struggles to research and write about the subjects that most fascinated him: human beings with debilitating brain injuries and/or mental states that made them behave in strange and mysterious ways. Throughout his life story, he comes across as somewhat of an Arrowsmithian figure, trying to maintain his integrity and sanity in a discipline that didn't easily allow for the sort of insights and methods he was bringing to the table.
Ever since I took a job as associate dean of a university that plans to launch a liberal arts degree program in China, I've been reading a lot of books about liberal education and why it is in crisis. Actually, it's been in crisis ever since it began in the nineteenth century (or earlier depending on how you look at it), but that's another story. Among these books, this one by Wesleyan president Michael Roth is probably my favorite. He draws upon great American philosopher-statesman Thomas Jefferson, and philosophers, activists, and intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Addams, William James, W. E. B. Du Bois and many others in the history of our pluralistic society to dig into the history of higher education and to further the argument that what we need from our schools is not "practical" education that will land graduates jobs, but rather "to kindle the fires of the mind" (to misquote Emerson).
Why do we like lists of 10? What is it about this number that seems so definitive? After all, isn't it just an arbitrary number, which happens to be the same as the number of fingers on our hands? Well, if you are like me and you like the number 10, you'll love this book as much as I did. Greil Marcus is one of the most uniquely talented writers and critics of the history of rock'n'roll, which you'd know if you'd read his other books. In this one, he tackles the history of rock music by focusing on ten songs, most of which are pretty obscure to anybody who didn't grow up in the 1950s. Each song tells a story of the power of music through a "web of affinities" involving those who produced and reproduced the music. While you don't have to agree with his choices--after all, this book could be written in hundreds of different ways--his descriptions of the music, its producers and performers are poetic and insightful in a Benjaminian way.