Unlike other “best” book lists, my criteria for excellence is somewhat different. To make the list requires a combination of value (how much I paid for the book) and good reading. Whether the book was published in 2011 is of little significance to me as I am a person who likes to think of himself as immune to book hype while preferring to shop for books at used bookstores, independent book stores, book festivals, church sales and even online (gasp!). I crave the process. Here’s my list of most notable finds/reads in 2011:
Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow by David Shields (1996). It's a “collection” of essays, anecdotes, bumper sticker compilations, advertisements and photos (sounds like a blog) that examine how celebrity culture manifests itself in our daily lives. I found a signed copy of this book at Books Again (see sponsor link on upper left) for a fiver. You can read more about Remote here.
The Conversations: Walter Murch & The Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002). Nick Hornby mentioned this book in one of his Stuff I Am Reading columns in The Believer and since I have a small book allowance at work to buy books about the media, I made the transaction. This book is a fascinating conversation of the artistic and creative choices (not much gossip) that went into the editing of some of my favorite movies: Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The Godfather, The Talented Mr. Rigley and of course, a film adaptation of Ondaatje's own book, The English Patient.
The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagen (2003). Ever since I saw Kagen on Book TV drawing parallels between the war between Sparta and Athens and America's hegemony in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was interested in reading the book. I found a copy at Eighth Day Books in Wichita (see sponsor link) a couple years ago and finally got around to reading this lengthy tome. Before I read it, I didn't know squat about the war (431 BC to 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta and now I do.
Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James (1980). Any reader of this blog knows I am obsessed with James' book Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. (I've corner the market on many discounted hardback copies. See here), but decades ago I was first introduced to James when I read his autobiography about growing up in post-war Australia. While browsing through the $1 shelves that insulate the outside of the Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, I found a severed copy of the book Unreliable Memoirs (literally split in half). Seizing the opportunity, I reread some of it before it completely disintegrated. It's amazing how this Tasmanian devil kind of kid who grew up without a father (killed when returning from Japanese POW camp) later became an insightful political and culture critic.
Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Dana Meadows (2008). Our friend Maggie was reading this book when she visited my longtime fiance Denise and I earlier this year. Maggie is responsible for introducing me to one of the books from last year's list, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2009), so anything she is scribbling notes in, I am interested. At first this book, which examines the fundamentals of how systems work or don't work, seems simplistic. However, as the book progresses you realize that the knowledge of these fundamentals can help one get a better grip personal as well as global problems. I ordered my copy from Eighth Day Books because they always have these kind of smart books in stock and they can ship them to my door immediately.