This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.
1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.
2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.
3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.
4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.
5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.
6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.
7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.
8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.
9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.
10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.