Of the dozen or so books I read this year, I recommend the following seven. Four were published this year; two I was catching up on; and one of them was published five centuries ago.
1. The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research. Robert Spencer, 2022. This is the Qur’an I keep close at hand now for ready reference. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a tool like that, and one that we’ve needed for a long time. Spencer’s book offers four features that are impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume: (1) Variant readings: It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament. (2) Tafsir commentary: Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative, and their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam. (3) Critical commentary: Citations from academic scholars shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an. (4) Clarity: This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages, for example like the many exhortations to jihad; the words is usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. Importantly, the suras are explained in view of the doctrine of abrogation (the late suras of Medina supersede or take precedence over the early suras of Mecca) and that if there is any one sura that has the “final say” in mainstream Islam, it’s sura 9. This easily tops my list; see here for a full review.
2. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Absolutely required reading — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I certainly did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.
3. Castaways. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 (English translation: 1993). Written by a Spanish explorer, this journal is a wealth of anthropological information about Native American tribes that are unattested anywhere else. It’s a fantastic read on its own right, and certainly the best book I’ve ever read about the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and it’s incredible that he survived to leave us the details. He was naked for the full eight years, freezing during the cold seasons, and often lived on a diet of spiders, worms, and cacti. It’s no surprise that from the original expedition of 600 Spaniards, only he and three others survived (the only surprise being that any of them survived), mostly by being accepted among the various native tribes as witch-doctors who performed faith-healings. For a man of his times Álvar Núñez was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms, and who was enraged when he finally reconnected to Spanish civilization in Mexico and found that his countrymen wanted to make war on the natives and enslave them. Full review here.
4. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons. Ben Riggs, 2022. If you really want the dirt on TSR, this is the book to read. My biggest takeaways: (1) “Saint” Gary Gygax was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. (2) Lorraine Williams was even less admirable, notwithstanding the author’s attempts to reconsider her legacy. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them social equals), treated her staff like shit, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. (3) By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. There is more here. Old-school gamers will definitely enjoy (?) this book.
5. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. David Motadel, 2014. This won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize, but it somehow never got on my radar until this year. It’s a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details, for example that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go all the way back to the late 1800s. The book’s thesis is that Berlin’s engagement with Islam in 1941-45 was at least as extensive as in 1914-18, if not more so. Motadel examines the way Nazi Germany promoted Islam, and the ramifications of that alliance in terms of both race/ethnicity and religion/ideology. Hitler devalued Christianity while extolling Islam; for him Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak, while Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. It’s intriguing that Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it (by upholding white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways). This book is utterly fascinating and the research behind it impeccable. Full review here.
6. The Jazz-Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Ryan S. Walters, 2022. I can’t think of a better way to honor the 100th anniversary of Harding’s presidency. I rate him the second best president of all time for all the reasons Walters covers in his book. Harding slashed taxes and government spending, started a booming economy, and achieved world peace through international cooperation instead of war-mongering. He went to bat for African Americans, even going so far as to address a crowd in the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full swing: he insisted on the need for equal rights for blacks, many of whom listened to the speech behind a segregated barrier. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, appointed liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Woodrow Wilson during the first world war. To this day, Harding is remembered for almost none of this. After he died the scandals of his administration were uncovered — scandals that were no worse than those that plagued many other presidential administrations, and Harding didn’t even participate or gain anything from them. But for bizarre reasons, historians continue to exaggerate them. Read this book (as well as my Rescuing a Reputation) and allow the real Harding to overthrow the demonized Harding.
7. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. Dale Allison, 2021. Like Allison I aspire to be led to my conclusions, not led by them, and this book is a model of such aspiration. In 400 pages it reworks and hugely expands on the 177-page essay from Resurrecting Jesus (2005), and amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection that I know of. It covers a lot of interesting ground, the most interesting being the arguments for the empty tomb; those arguments have been revised for both better and worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact. I reviewed those particular arguments (from chapters 6 and 8) here, but the whole book is worth going through. There’s a chapter, for example, on the rainbow body phenomenon in Buddhist thought (disappearing bodies), and parallels between stories of people who achieve the rainbow body and the stories of Jesus’s resurrection. Allison mines the fields of psychology and parapsychology in accounting for how humanity copes with bereavement and dead loved ones, while steering clear of any reductionist explanations. With regards to the empty tomb, I think he makes a plausible case both for and against, and I agree with him that the scales tip slightly — ever so slightly — in favor of Jesus’s body being gone from the tomb on Easter morning. Though what that means or implies is still anyone’s guess.