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Bloggers Read Books, Too
FP's bloggers pick their favorite books of 2010.
FP‘s bloggers are an interesting bunch — from a Pulitzer Prize-winning nuclear historian to an international uber-consultant to an IR scholar with a thing for zombies. But one thing they all have in common is that they read, a lot. This year, we asked them what they especially liked reading in 2010 — and the answers are unexpected, ranging from the best books about the financial crisis to advanced physics, from George W. Bush’s memoirs (not really) to a little novel called Freedom.
Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University:
Here’s my book list for the year — not in order of importance or achievement.
1. William Pfaff, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy. A thoughtful, brooding reflection on the intellectual errors and arrogance that have undermined America’s standing in the world, from one of our wisest commentators on foreign affairs.
2. Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America. Back in the 1990s, Tom Friedman told us that the United States had perfected "DOScapital 6.0." As Taibbi shows with a biting, incisive wit, what we’d really perfected was a series of scams designed to enrich financiers and leave the rest of us poorer. If you read this and then watch Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, you’ll want to burn down Wall Street and keep your money in a mattress.
3. S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. A gripping history of the American Southwest by Texas journalist Gwynne, with some intriguing lessons for our counterinsurgency struggles today.
4. Ussama Makdisi, Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations. A passionate but fair-minded chronicle of the many missteps that have undermined America’s once-positive image in the Arab world. Why do they hate us? Makdisi makes it clear that they have ample reason in this tragic tale of self-inflicted wounds.
5. John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. You might think that states would lie to each other all the time, but Mearsheimer argues that this rarely happens, for the simple reason that states don’t trust each other and they know that lies will be scrutinized and exposed. But leaders lie to their own people all the time, and usually for the wrong reasons. Now you know why governments hate WikiLeaks.
6. George W. Bush, Decision Points. Written with the self-critical insight and elegant command of language that one expects from Dubya, this book is the perfect guide to What Not to Do Should You Ever Become President. Or the head of your local PTA. Or chairman of the holiday party committee at your workplace. Or any other leadership position whatsoever. Just ask yourself, "What would W. do?" — and then do the opposite.
7. Bruce Cumings, The Korean War. Rather than a strict narrative history, Cumings’s book is an intense and revelatory reflection on how the Korean War has been forgotten, misremembered, or fetishized in North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The book also illustrates the pervasive American tendency to get deeply entangled in societies whose history we barely comprehend.
8. Stephen Kinzer, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. A bold yet compelling argument for moving away from America’s current "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and moving toward better ties with Turkey and Iran. Some will disagree with Kinzer’s prescriptions, but it is a thoughtful analysis that deserves to be read and pondered.
David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and CEO of Garten Rothkopf:
Throughout 2010, I’ve been working on my next book, and so almost everything I have read in my scant spare time has had to do with it — a look at the centuries-long struggle between public and private power and how it has and will define the shape of the world. So I have been immersed throughout in Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Marx, and Milton Friedman. (I don’t want to talk about it except to say that Milton Friedman does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the other guys.) I also read a bunch of recent books on the relationship between markets and states, but I don’t want to say anything about them because the authors are just the kind of people some book review editor is likely to have comment on my forthcoming book and so suffice to say, they were all brilliant.
So for me, the best books of 2010 were the few that I was able to escape into that took me far, far away from my writing and from a Washington that can have the same effect on its residents that a strong flush has on the Ty-D-Bol Man. Here are my favorites:
1. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design. I find books on physics to be very relaxing. I’ll admit this could be due to lack of comprehension. But they provide a complete escape from the emotion, speculation, and hoo-ha-filled world of foreign policy into somewhere completely different — a place where facts and hard rules and rigor apply. This book, which makes the case that a creator was unnecessary to produce the origins of the universe, does include some speculation and guesswork by virtue of its subject. But it makes its case clearly, and its description of the current state of physics, M-theory, and the 10 dimensions in which we live is enthralling. The fact that most of those dimensions are tiny and curl in on themselves even makes Washington sound like part of the natural universe.
2. Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain. This is a masterwork of editing, stitching together the many attempts of the greatest American author to sketch out his own perspective on his life. I read it in one great swoop, but it could just as easily be dipped into for bits and pieces of inspiration. (And humility — no writer can read this without feeling hopelessly inferior.) Take Twain on biography: "What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words. His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things, are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world…. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written." True, but it’s a fault not shared by this autobiography.
3, 4. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, and Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question. These are the two best novels I read this year. Both are exceptionally well-written, as rich and multilayered as any novel should be but also suffused with the humor and humanity that elevate storytelling. After we’re all long gone, people will be pouring through Freedom to feel and understand what life in our times was like, and not just for the Berglund family, its Minnesotan protagonists, but for all of us.
Finkler could be the most revealing exploration of anti-Semitism I’ve ever read, both because it understands the subtlety of the disease and also because Jacobson is deftly comic. Anti-Semitism isn’t funny. But people are. Life is. Especially in a universe of 10 dimensions in which we are only just barely conscious of three — or four — depending on how you are counting.
1. Robert H. Carlson, Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. Mankind is at the threshold of a new leap forward in our understanding of how life works, and this book shines a light on the path ahead by approaching the subject as a series of engineering and technology problems. The book is sophisticated, clear, and eye-opening in explaining the promise, and peril, of a profound revolution in genetics and molecular biology.
2. Brian Jones, Failing Intelligence: The True Story of How We Were Fooled Into Going to War in Iraq. The author is the former head of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons division of British military intelligence, and this is one of the most clear and fascinating insider accounts yet of the Iraq debacle — already released in Britain, due out in America in June.
3. B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters. This is a book that challenges what we know about North Korea’s worldview and ideology. The author argues it is not Stalinism or Confucianism — nor the oft-cited juche (self-reliance) thought that holds the place together — but rather a kind of race-based nationalism that shapes North Korea’s view of itself and the outside world. Should be read along with last year’s excellent book on the North, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.
Thomas Ricks, who covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008 and writes the Best Defense blog for ForeignPolicy.com:
The novel I enjoyed most in 2010 was The Imperfectionists, a comedy about a failing newspaper in Italy by Tom Rachman, and the test of it was that after I finished it this summer, my wife read it and then my son and then his girlfriend. The most overrated book of 2010 was Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I am a huge fan of Franzen’s, but this book was not half as good as The Corrections. The writing that had the biggest impact on me in 2010 was hundreds of pages of interviews that Gen. George C. Marshall gave to Forrest Pogue, who was writing Marshall’s biography.
1. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone.
Both these books were published in 2009, but I only got around to reading them this year. They concern a subject of great moral interest: the men and women who resisted Hitler. Fallada was a novelist of some fame in Weimar Germany who continued to publish under the Nazis. His masterpiece was Every Man Dies Alone, which came out in Germany in 1947 and only in the past two years has become available in the English-speaking world. Fallada’s novel traces the story of a very ordinary, working-class couple who lose their only son in one of Hitler’s senseless campaigns, which launches them on a quixotic and eventually fatal effort of small-bore resistance to the Nazis.
In Red Orchestra, Nelson tells the true story of men and women from all walks of life in Berlin who led efforts both large and small to resist the Nazis. Those efforts invariably ended in failure and often those involved faced show trials and the most gruesome executions. But their examples remind us that some exceptional human spirits cannot be crushed even by the most vile of tyrannies.
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy:
For me, 2010 has been year three of trying to come to grips with the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. If last year’s crop of books was about the tick tock of what happened, this year’s harvest was more about why it happened. For me, the three best, most accessible books on this subject were Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, Raghuram Rajan’s Fault Lines, and John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics. By honing in on the few people who bet against the subprime mortgage boom, Lewis’s book nicely demonstrates the myriad ways in which the bubble was allowed to inflate for so long. Rajan’s Fault Lines looks at the combination of underlying domestic and international factors that contributed to the crisis, while Quiggin’s book deconstructs the ways in which market-friendly ideas devolved from rigorous theory into caricature.