Worst Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!
There was a very annoying strain of worried hand-wringing running through a great deal of the year’s general nonfiction, with a great many authors who ought to know better (and a number who do and were only lying for a paycheck) mounting their platforms to call X, Y, or Z staple of modern life a sure sign of the deterioration of the human species and a harbinger of the End Times. The irony of this tendency was only bitterly underscored by the fact that while all of these authors were publishing their worry wart tracts and embarking on their book tours, the real world they so studiously ignore was easily outdoing them; income inequality grew wider than at any point in modern history, rabid xenophobia took hold everywhere, and for the second time in a century, a powerful industrial Western nation was taken over by Nazis. All of which makes fretting about gluten look even sillier than usual. Such fretting didn’t define all the worst books of 2016, but it had a quorum:
10. The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax (Public Affairs) – This hymnbook for hipsters hauls in just enough faux-research to shore up its contention that “real” – i.e. ostentatiously anachronistic – objects are making a comeback as more and more Williamsburg mustache-waxers come to find the digital life unfulfilling. Virtually none of the book’s exposition is reliable, and its underlying rejection of modernity is as insulting as it is disingenuous.
9. Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The idiotic Chicken Little theme of so many of the books on the list this time around is on full display in this pile of crap by bestselling bottler of nonfiction bilge-water Thomas Friedman; for page after breathless page, he goes on about how fast-paced and hectic things are these days, and his wandering contentions aren’t only so much unimaginative arm-flailing but also frequently and startlingly stupid (contentions that the carriage-horses of Victorian times would have been the first to object to the combustion engine, for instance). As a “manifesto” for mindfulness, I’d like to say it’s singularly mindless – except it’s got plenty of company.
8. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaky & Larry Rosen (MIT Press) – The opening note of this scatterbrained screed has at least the potential for some worth: that distraction and multi-tasking go hand-in-hand and lead not only to inefficiency but also unhappiness. But the authors bury that opening note under whole symphonies of preposterous hand-wringing about how the smart-screen devices currently in possession of 6.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion humans are making those humans dumber, lazier, and less happy, when all three of those things are demonstrably the direct opposite of what those smart-screen devices are actually doing. If you’re worried about having too many things chattering for your attention, waste no time in dropping this book from the list.
7. When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey (Bloomsbury) – The bulk of this book is a largely unobjectionable quick run-through of some of the roles memory has played in human history, and the ways humans have invented to aid memory and sometimes substitute for it. But like so many other books on this list, this one advances its points much further, worrying about how our present-day records and ephemera may or may not be preserved for future ages. The book isn’t long, but thanks to preemptive silliness like this, it sure as Hell feels long.
6. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael Patrick Lynch (Liveright) – Although it’s a very crowded field, this book may be the single most shrill and quavery Chicken Little screed to appear this year. Lynch spends dozens and dozens of pages loudly worrying that our ability to Google things is killing our ability to think about things, that our ability to store data electronically is killing our ability to remember things, and that always-on smart-screen technology is killing our ability to live without always-on smart-screen technology … and while he’s at it, he covers the whole thing in a woolly carpet of cod-philosophizing, all of it pulling the tired rhetorical trick of taking the small percentage of worst-case scenario tech-abusers and inflating them into the status quo of the whole world in order to say that world is in big trouble. It’s all bunkum, of course, and like many other books on this list, The Internet of Us is really designed to frighten elderly Luddites by painting the single most glorious age of the mind as a Dark Age reaching out to impoverish their grandkids.
5. Against Everything by Mark Greif (Pantheon) – Greif’s status as co-founder of the insufferable literary journal n + 1 goes a long way toward guaranteeing him a place on any list like this one, but I went into Against Everything conscientiously working against that prejudice, especially since I’m a big fan of contrarian prose when it’s done well. But on page after page, Greif nailed his own coffin shut as just the kind of pretentious blockhead that seems to be an indigenous n + 1 sub-species. The book’s anile, on-deadline grumping is repetitive and totally unconvincing; as a “manifesto,” these collective essays represent with dismal accuracy what a comfortable middle-class bourgeois thinks informed contrarianism sounds like.
4. Undeniable by Douglas Axe (HarperOne) – The heart of this wretched, lying book is Axe’s contention that not only is the universe and everything in it self-evidently designed (by the Christian God, naturally) but also that we all intuitively know this and have to be manipulated into believing otherwise. Part of Axe’s sales pitch rests on the fact that he was trained in science many years ago before becoming a religious zealot, but that original training only underscores the duplicity of the book; it allows the reader to see with ease the cynical ways Axe twists and cherry-picks the fake science in his book. But if anything, the insisted implication that all of those readers somehow psychically know the truth of Axe’s religious claims, deep in their innocent child’s heart, is even more insulting than the trickery. You can read my full review here.
3. The American Miracle by Michael Medved (Crown Forum) – For dozens of pages, when you first start reading Michael Medved’s stupendously moronic new book, you’re absolutely certain he’s got to have some alternate, ironical scheme, some double agenda. It just doesn’t seem possible that any author could literally mean that the United States of America as a political entity was helped into being by the Christian God through a series of very specific miracles – snow during a certain battle, strong winds during another, the Louisiana Purchase, for Pete’s sake. But no, that’s exactly what Medved is claiming in this book: that his God was loading the dice in favor of the creation of his home country. Never mind that this would make his God complicit in millions of murders, hundreds of thousands of slave abductions, and dozens of separate campaigns of genocide; never mind that this is supposed to be the same God worshiped by the British were fighting to prevent the “American Miracle”; never mind that if God wanted the United States to exist, He could have taken a more direct route than mucking around with weather forecasts … in fact, never mind any hint of rationality.
2. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity by Edward Lengel (Da Capo Press) – The figure of George Washington has always attracted crackpot quasi-historical pulpit sermons – that he was a wise father to the nation, that he was a political visionary, that he was a military genius, etc. But even given that tendency, this new book by Edward Lengel is horrifically incredible: a study of Washington’s finances that’s overwhelmingly adulatory, a study, for that matter, that isn’t all but entirely about slavery, is an abomination even laid against the hyper-praise this figure has always garnered. Washington built 90% of his prosperity on the buying, selling, bartering, and leveraging of human beings. So what’s next? Hitler’s Interfaith Outreach? – maybe with half a dozen Index entries on “Jews, contentious relations with”?
1. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton (Thomas Nelson) – On levels that feel both intellectual and somehow personal, this book by Larry Alex Taunton is by a wide margin the worst nonfiction book of 2016. In its deceitful, self-serving pages, Taunton wheedles and implies and hints and winks that the renowned atheist Hitchens was reconsidering his stance against Christianity at the end of his life. Loathsome of Taunton, who claims to have been the man’s friend. Simply and purely loathsome. You can read my full review here.
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