Instead of focusing on the best books published in 2017, my tradition is to revisit the best books I read in 2017. To do this I pull out a year's worth of scribbling on notecards that have been repurposed from a variety of sources. These might include promotional postcards from restaurants, travel postcards, or my Vietnam Posters-as-Postcards collection (shown at right). Moreover, if I add a page number to my notes, it works as an index, does it not? Upon completion, I either stick the card in the book for future reference or place it in a card file.
This method looks better than using a highlighter or a pen to mark up the book and when I revisit the cards, it’s like getting a brief refresher on what I read. (The complete list of what I read, examined, skimmed and studied can be found in the right margin of The Book Shopper home page. ) I like to think of it as an eclectic list, but I did discover some shared themes. Here are some topics that emerged. I have embedded some links to relevant earlier postings as well.
Slow-reads. Doublethink/Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts & Twofold Speech (2016) by Eva Brann. This book of aphorisms ranging from death to kookiness filled so many postcards that I finally switched to 8 ½ by 11 sheets of paper for my notetaking. A seamless mix of wisdom, humor, and philosophy. It will require a re-read in the future.
Japan-related books. I started out the year reading Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century which devoted a chapter to the pivotal 1939 battle between the Soviets and the Japanese at Nomonhan on the Mongolian-Manchurian frontier. Horne’s identifies some of the lesser-known historical battles of the 20th century that had wide ramifications to our world geography. (After their defeat at Nomonhan, Japan turned its interests more to the Pacific theatre.) By a strange coincidence, I was reading Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), which includes a character who was wounded at Nomonhan. I also read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and in another coincidence Hershey’s prose style reminded me of Murakami’s.
Vietnam Books. The toughest book to read in length and just general sadness on the destruction and waste in Vietnam was Neil Sheehan’s: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988), which I wrote an essay about for the Tropics of Meta blog. Another related Southeast Asia book was on my shelves for decades: Impossible Vacation (1992) by Spalding Gray found its way into my reading queue too. The author was known more for his solo performances, which is the core of the late Jonathan Demme’s film, "Swimming to Cambodia". Billed as a novel, Impossible is an account of how Gray developed as an artist while living in New York City and making pilgrimages to India and Mexico. I loved the book’s dedication: To my “Mother, Creator and Destroyer.”
Books about Books. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962) wins this year’s prize for most serendipitous discovery. I first saw a guy reading this book on a beach vacation while on Long Island in August. This 800-page tome by storied critic Edmund Wilson examines writers ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ambrose Bierce to generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Confederate cavalry man John S. Mosby. Patriotic Gore caught my attention because this is no beach book. Well, I didn’t think much more of it until a few months later when I was having lunch with book publisher Paul Dry. We were conversing about the new Grant biography by Ron Chernow, and Dry mentioned Wilson’s chapter about Grant in Patriotic Gore. It was then I knew that I needed to check this book out. I have not finished this well-written, brilliant book yet because it is thick and requires meditative reading, but to my Civil War buffs/friends (I won’t embarrass you in a personal callout) you gotta look at this. And for others, if you don't think the Civil War matters any more, why is this statue in Lee Circle in New Orleans suddenly missing something (Robert E. Lee)?
Fantasies of the Library (2016) edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin and published by one of my favorite presses and bookstores (MIT Press) is a collection of essays/research articles on archives and libraries. What makes this book a delight is that it captures some of the physical delights of reading and reading spaces.
Final thoughts. 2017 was a good reading year for me. A little intellectual discourse with a another mind -- that one-on-one between writer and reader --- always helps me keep a calm perspective in these tumultuous times.