Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in Books


The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis A nice book on the whole of the thing. Gaddis is, it seems, is rightfully praised for his abilities and wraps up the whole affair well, based on the findings upon opening the Chinese and Soviet archives.

The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia Volume Two, Part One by Nicholas Tarling The period of modernization is covered here, the post-Raffles, but pre-WWI SE Asia. Of interest to specialists only, but fairly well-written.

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Torstein Veblen I rather hated this work, and found nothing of peculiar merit in it, whereas there was much to dislike.

Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Education by A.S. Neill Usually it’s found as an ‘Approach to Child-Rearing’. This edition may alter from that – but it is a good guide to child-rearing as well as an introduction to Summerhill. A must read for anyone interested in children or education, in my opinion.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neal MacGregor With some odd biases this nonetheless presents an intriguing account of the history of the world. One thing to note is that some objects chosen are, themselves, important (such as the Rosetta Stone) while others are symbolic – this hodgepodge is not accounted for, and left me puzzled as to certain symbolic omissions (such as the plough).

The Wolfman and Other Cases by Sigmund Freud I’ve read the Intro to Psychoanalysis, Three Essays on Sexuality, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents: but to read his actual case studies brought a new interesting perspective on Freud.

The Rebel by Albert Camus Is the best nonfiction by Camus I’ve encountered. I enjoyed the Myth of Sisyphus, if that’s the right word, but this stood out as a superior essay.

The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl Is of mild interest, short, and fleshes out initial socialist Zionism.

The City of Ladies by Christine d’ Pizan Went faster than I expected, and I can’t remember hardly any of it. The frame is interesting and enjoyable, but as a list of good ladies in history I can’t recall their individual meritorious exploits.

On War by Carl von Clausewitz This was quite a slog, since the work is unfinished at 800 pages and only partly edited and revised before death. As such one should brace for a difficult read with some worthwhile insights but much that is extraneous.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincy Struck me as over-rated. The language isn’t particularly noteworthy, and the section on opium comes only scarcely at the end. The autobiography is not too enthralling, for my tastes.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion Having read ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ many years ago, and being tremendously impressed and influenced by that chapter, I approached this cautiously, not wishing to set my expectations too high. Only the title essay matched ‘Notebook’ in quality, a feat in itself, and the other essays were all of very high quality. Certainly a worthwhile read for those interested in California and/or the counter-culture.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill This I approached cautiously for other reasons. Mill is a very good writer, but not always the strongest logician, and one can accept an argument based on his words rather than the soundness of his reasoning. Slim and easy it was a worthwhile read, although I am not a libertarian from it.

The Civilization of Renaissance Italy by Jacob Burckhardt This is the worst sort of history book – too pedantic for the layman and not saying anything of value for the pedant. A waste of time, regardless of Burckhardt’s status in historiography.

The Book of the Courtier by Baldessar Castiglione A more pleasant contemporary look at the Renaissance, answering a question we’d phrase as ‘What makes a renaissance man?’ The dialogue loses luster after the first half.

Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard Less pleasant or coherent than the Fragments or Trembling. I remain totally unconvinced of the premise, and would suggest only to Kierkegaard enthusiasts.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay A surprisingly pleasant read, for its length it still goes relatively quickly, excepting the laundry list of alchemists (but this may be my bias against biographies).

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp The best nonfiction of the year, and possibly the best book I read. This book will be heralded, I think as a masterpiece in the future. It can be found for free in a PDF online and I can think of only a very few who I’d not recommend it to.

Essays by Francis Bacon Mildly interesting, if you like Bacon’s style, but not as profound, say, as Montaigne.

Nationalism by Rabidranath Tagore An interesting trio of essays, one on the nationalism of the U.S., Japan, and India. Japan’s was particularly insightful, I thought.

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire Makes consistent reference to a series of works which, if you’ve not viewed them, makes the commentary troublesome. Broad points on modern painting are of some value.

The Observational Approach to Cosmology by Edwin Hubble Enjoyable, easy to read text of modern cosmology and the expanding universe.


A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift Thank goodness for the annotated notes, without which I wouldn’t know what was being satirized. Difficult, certainly an important work but not particularly amusing satire.

The Tower by William Butler Yeats Fine enjoyable collection of poems, meditating on age and change. My introduction to his work beyond single selections.

Outlaws from the Marsh by Shi Nai’An A large epic in the Three Kingdoms style with myriad characters and plot twists, descriptions of combat and morality. Enjoyable and fast-paced classic.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick A nice little story, typical of the best sci-fi and my introduction to PKD. I may read more of his stuff in the future.

Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake The Gormenghast trilogy was very enjoyable, and I liked all three volumes for very different reasons. The language is sometimes repetitive but all in all definitely glad I read it.

Right Ho, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse These two follow chronologically, and are set somewhere in the middle of the arc. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are funny in both, although I laughed more consistently and often at Right Ho, which may be the funniest novel I’ve read. However I was already familiar with the characters from the series, which undoubtedly colored my reading.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford Isn’t the saddest story I’ve ever heard, but is a very good story. This began a string of novels chosen randomly that were on the theme of failed relationships.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth Isn’t funny to me, as some think it is, but really rather sad. The language isn’t great, and I can see why it was probably more praised when it came out than now. Still I found the guy’s plight a bit moving.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon Was my introduction to Pynchon, and doesn’t leave me longing to try his other works. Not badly written, just not entertaining or thought-provoking.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch A nice little story, with good characters – again on failed relationships and lost time, like Ford. I now judge Murdoch a superior novelist to philosopher.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain A short novella that is pleasant and hard-boiled, and surely at short length isn’t a bad choice for anyone.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles I still don’t know what to make of this book’s back quarter to third. It is well-written, though, and struck me as truthful until the section which I’m still debating.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler Sufficiently different from the movie to lend interest, although the language sometimes got in my way.

Graphic Novels/Comics
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware A deep tragedy, and worthwhile read for all.

There is a Heppy Lend – Fur, Fur Awa-a-ay by George Herriman I like the old Krazy Kat comics, and this is a very good collection of Herriman’s comic.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel Certainly a worthwhile read, an introduction to Bechdel that I recommended to many people after I read it.

King Aroo, Volume One by Jack Kent Since my dad collects rare books I was able to read some little King Aroo as a child – but now they’re finally printing off the collection. Funny and gentle newspaper comic.

Top 5
From Dictatorship to Democracy
Right Ho, Jeeves
Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Education
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in Earth