Best Books of 2017 – History!
The year 2017 was of course the anniversary of two enormous historical events: Martin Luther’s sparking of what would become the Protestant Revolution and the Russian revolutions of 1917 – and a bumper-crop of books dutifully appeared on both subjects, and quite a few of those books were excellent – certainly excellent enough to appear on this list, even though that inevitably leads to some clumping-up of subject matter. Considering how good these books are, I’m opting to consider it an embarrassment of riches:
10 Istanbul by Bettany Hughes (Da Capo) – The three ages of this remarkable place, Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, provide an enormous amount of material for exploration and connection, and Bettany Hughes weaves it all into a story of exotic beauty and very human contradiction. The “ages of Istanbul” as a framework is centuries old, but there aren’t many living historians who can write like Hughes can.
9 The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis (Liveright) – Loyal reader that I am, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that George Stewart’s 1936 classic history of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger, could ever be equalled, but in this fantastic book, Michael Wallis not only equals it but handily surpasses it, and he does so by placing the doomed Donners and their company in the much larger setting of their dreaming, grabby time.
8 Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock (Crown) & A Sovereign People by Carole Berkin (Basic Books) – 2017 produced quite a few first-rate Colonial-era histories, but these two stood out even from that crowded field. Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence tells the familiar story of the violent rift during the American Revolution between the minority who fervently wanted independence and the majority who didn’t, and Carole Berkin’s A Sovereign People tells the far less-known story of the 1790s, when the new country’s civilian leaders faced the weird task of forging a nation. Both books tell their stories with tremendous vigor without pandering to their obvious modern-day relevances.
7 Red Famine by Anne Appelbaum (Doubleday) – The great historian Anne Applebaum here chronicles the disastrous effects of Stalin’s farm ‘collectivization’ on Ukraine, where millions of people died of starvation as a result of one psychopath’s ideological monomania. The writing is magisterially precise but also thrillingly baffled and angry; the subject has never had a better account in English.
6 Protestants by Alec Ryrie (Viking) The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster) Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall (Yale University Press) – The aforementioned anniversary of the fateful year 1517 coincided with the appearance of a great deal of new books on all aspects of religion, across the whole spectrum of history, as these three outstanding titles demonstrate: Peter Marshall’s thick tome gives readers the heart of the Protestant Reformation in England; Alec Ryrie gives an insightful and surprisingly boisterous overview of centuries of Protestantism; and most impressively of the three, Frances FitzGerald dissects with totally convincing dispassion the fissions, fusions, and frustrations of the Protestant faiths in American history – and all three do such a subtle and wonderful job that a subject that ought to be depressing ends up being engrossing.
5 Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (St. Martin’s) – The eruption in Russian society that began in February of 1917 caught most of the sprawling country’s people by surprise, and Helen Rappaport captures this perfectly by focusing on a small cast of characters in sophisticated, jaded St. Petersburg and traveling with them through the tumultuous months that followed, and the combination of anecdote and research is stunningly effective.
4 Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat (Yale University Press) – The sheer confident wisdom with which Abbas Amanat navigates his enormous subject, centuries of Iranian history richly embedded in its broader world context, is incredibly impressive. He’s a steeply thoughtful historian with a fiercely complicated story to tell, and so it’s a book that won’t appeal to everybody, even to every history buff. But it’s a tremendous journey and a monument to English-language studies of its subject.
3 The House of Truth by Brad Snyder (Oxford University Press) – The informal gaggle of intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, charlatans, journalists, and jurists who began meeting regularly in a Washington row house in 1912 were mainly motivated by a desire to complain about President Taft, but as Brad Snyder’s enchanting account illustrates, the group and the discussions quickly broadened to become the capital’s first unofficial think-tank and amateur debating society. All the era’s larger-than-life personalities are here painted in joyfully lifelike detail.
2 The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan (Oxford University Press) – That biggest and baggiest of subjects for a grand historical overview – the history of warfare – has been tempting academics to excel each other in windbaggy pontifications for centuries, and the spirit of that temptation is treated with justly understated scorn in this brilliant study by Cathal Nolan, a study that looks at all the grotesque highlights of humanity’s warring upon itself, concludes quickly that all war is appalling waste and mud, and then proceeds to study the very allure it’s discounting. It’s an amazing work of scholarly compression.
1 The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton University Press) – Even when I was half-way through this immense study of one sprawling apartment complex in the heart of Soviet Moscow, I had the strong suspicion it would end up on my list of the year’s best works of history, and as I finished it and re-read it, I became more and more impressed with the Tolstoy-like way Slezkine weaves together hundreds of personal narratives into a thrilling and incredibly heartbreaking portrait of an entire nation and era. Even in a strong year for history-writing, this was easily the year’s best.
As many of you know, this is the category closest to my reading heart. I try to read actively along a broad range of subjects (there are some books on this list that surprised me by ending up here), but my deepest loves are history and biography, and 2011 was an exceptionally strong year for both – so much so that, unlike most years, picking only ten was a torturous process (hence the swollen size of the Stevereads Honor Roll). There are thin years and fat years, in publishing as in all else, and 2011 was a very fat year.
10. The Selected Canterbury Tales (Norton) – We’ll prefer to call this edition of Chaucer’s book ‘nonfiction’ because it never comes to us ab ovo anymore but rather encrusted in decidedly non-fictional critical afflatus. And the critical apparatus here is elegant and eye-opening (as, indeed, is the book’s cover, the best Chaucer cover I’ve ever seen): Professor Sheila Fisher has given us a ‘selection’ from the poem, a selection far meatier and more enjoyable than many un-shortened versions. With its lightly-worn erudition, its extremely judicious adaptations of some of Chaucer’s indigestible bits, and especially in its barely-suppressed grin of very Chaucerian amusement, this edition rather handily beats out the half-dozen new translations and adaptations that have appeared in the last five years. To adapt the old ad-speak slogan: if you only buy one version of Chaucer any time soon, make it this one.
9. Under the Sun (the letters of Bruce Chatwin) – This big, well-annotated (I found only one gaffe) compilation of Bruce Chatwin’s chatty, urbane, unfailingly substantial letters is that rarest of epistolary conglomerations: a volume that can be read sequentially like a novel, with mounting pleasure (that enormous volume of Kingsley Amis’ letters from a few years ago was the same way – alas, pre-Stevereads!). And it’s a Bruce Chatwin-centric production from first to last, full of incredibly learned asides, dipsy speculation, an the most wonderful collection of boldfaced lies this side of The Book of Mormon. Although he vigorously denied it, Chatwin always intended to live on through his letters (there was nothing more insincere in the whole universe than his hastily-appended ‘burn this’), and this pleasingly fat volume will certainly aid in that endeavor.
8. The Information by James Gleick – Another unlikely entrant, James Gleick (author of the incomprehensible gobbledegook that was Chaos) has written a new book that is a natural history of this baggy, vast second world mankind has been generating since the stone tablets of Sumeria, ‘the information,’ a sprawling other country to which this book is a trotting Baedeker. How we generate it, how we store it, how we use it – and also how it changes on its own, while we’re not looking. Ordinarily, such technical mumbo-jumbo would have me hitting ‘delete,’ but when Gleick writes that ‘Not all information is knowledge, and not all knowledge is wisdom,’ he utterly wins me over. The Information will be by far the most important … thing of the 21st century, and this book is its best herald. I hope it approves.
7. George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis – The long-suffering author of this book agreed to wait until his subject, fraidy-cat cold warrior George F. Kennan, died – which Kennan finally did in 2005, aged 237, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence (which he called “a potentially inadvisable step”). Gaddis does a superb job fleshing out the man who sculpted so much of the 20th century’s political landscape and then spent the last 157 years of his life trying every trick in his Walter Mitty little imagination to keep the spotlight on himself without looking like that was what he was doing (mostly by disagreeing with everything said or done by anybody in the entire world, and by maintaining that nobody understood him). Gaddis deals evenly with this low-boil egomania, and the warts-and-all portrait that results is one for the ages – ages which will be unknowingly forever in Kennan’s debt (and, at last, spared his Eeyore presence on the sidelines).
6. Inferno by Max Hastings – Hastings takes 800 pages to achieve the damn near impossible: an indispensable one-volume history of the most-chronicled war in human history. Inferno is always taut, takes nothing for granted, keeps the pages turning every bit as though its readers didn’t know how it all turns out. New angles and insights are generated on even the most shopworn subjects, and the narrative strikes the perfect balance between clinical and compassionate. No serious reader of history – especially those who, like me, think there’s nothing new under this particular sun – should miss this magisterial tome.
5. Britain After Rome by Robin Fleming – Post-apocalyptic writing is far from being the sole property of science fiction – the lessons gain weight from living history. In Fleming’s intense, cinematic rendering, we see the first full-blown apocalypse of the West – the departure of Roman forces from the imperial outpost of Great Britain in the fourth century. Fleming’s portrait shows an incredibly resilient group of societies left to fend for themselves against the quick-witted barbarians who are always waiting at the periphery of any power’s fall. These little kingdoms are forced to re-invent themselves, and the author tells the story with great attention to detail, great humor, and a sure-footed synthesis of all the new findings that keep turning up in British fields.
4. The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes – It’s been over 20 years since I. F. Stone’s best-selling The Trial of Socrates, and it at last has a worthy successor – and a narrative superior – in Bettany Hughes’ engrossing study of the famously contrarian 4th-century philosopher and the Athenian polity that eventually consigned him to death. Hughes breathes new life into all the well-worn details of Socrates’ life, trial, and death, so even readers familiar with it all will find themselves rapt with attention, no matter which side of the great ‘did-he-deserve-it’ debate they find themselves on.
3. 1812: The Navy’s War by George Daughan – The author tackles his still-too-neglected subject with an unflagging enthusiasm, focusing on the fledgling U.S. Navy’s efforts, outnumbered and out-gunned, to wage the new nation’s war against the greatest naval power on the face of the Earth. Daughan is a master of evocative set-pieces (no history buff will want to miss his account of the Constitution v.s the Java, which actually manages to out-do the fictional version in Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortunes of War), thrilling battle-narratives, and pithy exposition, but he’s also adept at the broader scene-setting so many accounts of the this war either lack or overdo. This volume supercedes all other accounts of the War of 1812, even, I’m melancholy to observe, Pierre Berton’s great two-volume work from a few decades ago, and it’s the single best work of history I read all year.
2. Worm by Mark Bowden – The subject of this lively, fascinating story, the incredibly insidious Conficker computer virus, is almost certainly present in whatever device you’re using to read these words – and in all your other networked devices (or in devices you’ve even once connected to a network, like your printer), just sitting there, interfering with nothing, self-propagating like crazy, occasionally sending out quick signals to its Dark Overlord, telling that person where in the world it’s physically located. Bowden deploys his entire grab-bag of nonfiction-specialist tricks in order to craft a fast-paced, gripping story about the likely origins of this super-virus, and the intrepid band of petty, nerdy, back-biting, non-hygienic, arrogant, utterly insufferable computer-experts who dub themselves ‘the X-Men,’ vow to stop the Conficker, and then proceed to spat with each other, issue grandiose public announcements every time they turn around, and do precious little to stop the Conficker. Indeed, this may be the very first potential major-level public threat that was ignored specifically because of how God-damn annoying its watchdogs were, and Bowden tells the whole story with surgical skill. I haven’t read a book this horrifying since Mattie Stepanek’s Heartsongs.
1. The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina – The genre of nature-writing is particularly embattled in shthe 21st century, especially in the United States, still reeling from eight years of President George W. Bush’s unrelenting legislative hatred of the environment. All the more remarkable, then, that Carl Safina, author of the gorgeous Song for the Blue Ocean, should produce a work as personal, as heartfelt, and as ultimately full of hope as The View from Lazy Point, which instantly joins such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The House on Nauset Marsh on the shelf of the best, most evocative, and least delusional hymnals of nature, itself embattled by a choking tide of plastic and waste. Safina’s Lazy Point isn’t some far Erewhon where it’s still possible to see an egret – it’s only a few miles from New York City, which makes the wonders he captures that much more meaningful. No nature-walker should miss this great book, the Stevereads Best Nonfiction Book of 2011.