The best books I read in 2017

As with previous lists, these are my favorites among the books I read for the first time in 2017, not of books only published in 2017. It’s not quite as diverse a list as in the past, as I did a lot of reading on Chinese and Russian history this year and less on other topics. Books are listed roughly in the order in which I read them:

Nonfiction

  • Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. A marvelously clear and vivid history of the first American offensives in World War II, with many good nuggets of economic and social history mixed in. A worthy sequel to his Pacific Crucible.
  • Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Published in 2014, this is so far my favorite book for understanding the political earthquakes of 2016. His arguments about the effect of technology on media and the loss of authority of elites have only gotten more relevant.
  • George Steiner, George Steiner at the New Yorker. There are so many gems in these essays, I will choose one rather than try to summarize: “There is in men and women a motivation stronger even than love or hatred or fear. It is that of being interested—in a body of knowledge, in a problem, in a hobby, in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
  • Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. Wonderful reporting on the survival of traditional religion in contemporary China, filled with insights into all aspects of Chinese life.
  • Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty. Spare, lyrical and unsentimental reports from the unforgiving territory of old age. “The days have narrowed, as they must.”
  • Books about Siberia. My best reading experience of the year was not a single book but a collection of them, on a topic that sits at the intersection of a few of my obsessions: economic geography, socialism, extreme cold. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is the easiest to recommend, a warm-heated and capacious engagement with the history and reality of Siberia. Fiona Hill & Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold is more for wonks, but is extremely interesting. Out of the huge literature of Russian primary sources about Siberian exile and the Gulag, I have only read Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Islandwhich while not a masterpiece is still fascinating.
  • Robert Loh & Humphrey Evans, Escape from Red China. A riveting first-person account of Mao’s ideological purges and the expropriation of private business during the 1950s.
  • János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism. This 1991 masterpiece is of far more than historical interest, and still ranks as required reading for anyone trying to understand the Chinese economy. I should have read it years ago.

Fiction

  • Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. An impressionistic slice of life of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, in which Babitz works very hard to seem superficial but constantly amazes with her insight and turns of phrase.
  • Francis Spufford, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York. A novel about social trust and identity that is richly detailed and vividly historical, yet quite contemporary in its concerns.
  • John Kessel, The Moon and the Other. My vote for science fiction book of the year, not genre escapism but a vigorous engagement with ideas and human nature. The story revolves around a matriarchal socialist utopia that must deal with internal dissent and a conflict with radical free-market Iranians.
  • Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak. There are many things to like about this short book, but to me it captures very well how contemporary Chinese are both globalized and local, simultaneously trapped in family relationships and adrift in a chaotic society.
  • Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life. Delivers fully on its title despite its compact length. This account of a simple man’s simple life plays down conflict and upheaval in favor of quiet reflection.
  • Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. A sympathetic imagining of the inner life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as he struggles with the demands of the Soviet state.
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An absolutely engrossing Korean family epic, as good as everyone says. Although I’m not done yet, it probably will be the best novel I read this year.

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