So, two posts a year about what I’ve been reading. Sounds about right. I’ll cover what I read in 2017 I didn’t note in my post at the end of the June, then list some of my favorite 2017 reads.
Overwhelmingly genre not worth noting more broadly. Unlike every pretty much other Neal Stephenson book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (co-written with Nicole Galland) never got to the point where I felt the compelling need to read the next page regardless of what else I had to do. I enjoyed The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead more than I expected to, given my typical distaste for the conceits of magical realism, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Most alt-history novels feature at their core too much woo for one reason or another; Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project is definitely an exception to that. Very deeply grounded in the history of the Manhattan Project and the paths that could reasonably have been taken, it’s a look at how those paths resulting in an earlier bomb could have gone, and how World War II might have unfolded given that. The bomb-making project is the more certain, and better, part of the book.
We keep writing a book, and I keep not mentioning it in a books post here on a timely basis. I wrote the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, and will freely admit I did not expect both teams to make the playoffs (more on the Titans after their season ends).
My friend Nate Dunlevy was kind enough to send me a review copy of the second edition of his book Blue Blood, on the Colts in Indianapolis. I never read the original, so I can’t tell you how the revised and expanded version (covering the Luck years pre-2017) compares, but I enjoyed it (aside from the constant “here’s how I’d write a similar book about the Titans differently” that kept going through my head).
Memoir time: I liked all of Wade Phillips’ Son of Bum, Bruce Arians’ Quarterback Whisperer, and Ralph Cindrich’s NFL Brawler, but none really stuck in my head that deeply. I’d read some of Paul Zimmerman’s Dr. Z when it was online; I wish his third book had been a new version of New Thinking Man’s Guide, or at least for him to explain just how he ended up going from Stanford to Columbia. Alas.
A lot here, even though my reading output was down over the last six months. So, a bunch of quick hits.
I’m not sure if that I didn’t get more out of Dave Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends or Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles says more about the books or how I consume music, but the plausibility of the latter says I shouldn’t devote more of my limited reading time to reading about music without compelling reason to do so.
I pretty much liked Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches, and would give it some more consideration in a different project.
One brick off the list: I finished Ron Chernow’s Washington. Probably because George was a better person than Alexander, in some ways a less interesting book than Hamilton (which I read more than a decade ago), though still excellent. George (a) having no natural-born children and (b) dying in 1799 sets up a couple potentially interesting counterfactuals.
Miracle at Dunkirk by Walter Lord was a good experience after watching the movie (which I mostly quite liked). The Brits are the Brits, in all their heartening and exasperating qualities.
My big takeaway from Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden is, at least in the U.S., there may not be any deeply integrated works on the Vietnam War. Everything I’ve read, including this, ends up feeling small and/or deeply limited in some way.
Richard Feynman was a companionable sort in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I can see why people who read this at a younger age quite liked it.
Senior year of college, for one of my classes, I ended up doing a small group presentation on Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore. At the time, I looked for and didn’t see a good fairly casual introduction to Singapore that covered the history and modern city-state. John Curtis Perry’s Singapore: An Unlikely Power would have filled that void, had it existed at the time. Recommended to the interested.
One of my takeaways from Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning was that it was just more evidence we are living in Gurri World. Recommended to the interested, with a fantastic “This is Bill Clinton” anecdote.
Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy read a lot like his podcast series, which I’d already listened to, in book form. But I can’t downgrade anything that has a section based on a Randy Picker paper.
My most interesting (to me) thoughts arising from Gordon Wood’s Friends Divided on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were less about Adams and Jefferson themselves or even the relationship between them (though it was nice to see Wood acknowledge early on their later reconciliation was in some ways quite superficial), but about other things. It’s Wood, so you know it’s good and he knows the material, but I may be getting to a point of Founder fatigue barring new angles (and somewhat relatedly, the only part of Chernow’s new Grant biography that really interests me is how he treats his presidency, and as noted infra, I have plenty to read already).
A book like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus could easily be too twee; my private joke is I don’t like my people too anthropomorphized, so you really better not do it to animals. It ended up a bit but not as unbearably as I feared. Still a good bedtime read, in that I could read 3-30+ pages at a time and never felt compelled to read the next page.
My 2017 Favorites
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.
Note this is a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. Like past lists, whether identified as “favorites” or “best,” this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2017.
My most immersive fiction reading experience in 2017 was Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, very much genre (fantasy). Notwithstanding, despite, and because of his many flaws (and the books’ flaws), I greatly enjoy particularly the FitzChivalry Farseer books, whether others do or not. Beyond those, Benford’s Berlin Project was probably my favorite novel I read this year. It wasn’t a great year for peaks in broadly recommendable novels.
Non-fiction shortlist: Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a fascinating and multi-layered look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and heroin delivery. The Great Escape by Angus Deaton; the chart showing greater life expectancy at age 15 than at birth was maybe my favorite thing I saw in 2017. Though it doesn’t get the top spot on the hypothetical syllabus, Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry gets the nod here. Add Chernow’s Washington to the list, especially if you’re not familiar with the details of his life. A tick down, give spots to Lord and McGregor. Overall, give the top honor to Quinones.
Aside from, of course, FOA2017, my favorite football book of the year was, uh, hmm, what’s the question again? I guess give the nod to Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew on the 1986 Giants, even though it doesn’t hit the top level of team-season books.
Mark Kurlansky’s Cod was the worst non-fiction book I finished in 2017, with multiple egregious violations of the first and only principle of non-fiction books, that what you write must be correct. In fiction, it was some genre novels that ended up unsatisfying to me on multiple levels but were not actually bad enough I want to single them out here. I gave up on four books and decided now was not the time to read five others, perhaps most notably including Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a book whose soft futurism I found difficult to get through.
Things to Read
Always too long a list and now even longer. I finished every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016, but 2017’s unread list features seven titles. The most notables ones include the latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, and two titles in Penguin’s History of Europe, The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back, while mainstays like Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (I got 250 pages into it before putting it down in September), and War and Peace are still around. Maybe by next update, with the three series books in the order I listed them getting priority. Also, The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson showed up in late December and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet comes out later this month, and those go just as high on the priority list. Now where’s that extra time I need?
As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up to $9.69 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.