Books I Loved in 2019

According to my Google doc I read 48 books in 2019; at about one per week this sounds about right. I started off reading a lot of old Western novels – I guess because I’d just moved out West – and overall read way more history books than in 2018 – I guess because we recently feel to be at such a precipitous moment in history. Full list at the bottom, but some of my favorites:

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano RooseveltGreat biography of one of the great presidents that I knew too little about. FDR took the helm of an America that was dedicatedly isolationist, even amidst the rise of Fascism, and that “had yet to conceive its role as providing social services”, even at the depths of the great depression. Roosevelt defeated Hoover by campaigning for the basic level of social assistance we take for granted today: unemployment insurance, federal insurance of bank deposits, social security, and fair labor standards among them. Many of the most important social government institutions we have today were created by Roosevelt, and our conception of the state role in social affairs we owe entirely to him.

His greater challenge by far was getting the US into World War II. FDR saw immediately the moral and existential threat posed by Fascism but, like Cassandra, was all but powerless to move a staunchly isolationist America into the war. FDR took a two pronged approach of helping the Allies indirectly by providing materiel through the lend-lease program and embargoing Japan, and slowly swaying the opinion of the country through his fireside chats. Eventually he all but forced the Japanese’ hand at Pearl Harbor which gave him the power to finally declare the war he’d felt necessary for so long.

Season of the Witch: Amazing, fascinating history of San Francisco starting with the Summer of Love in 1967 and the corruption of that promise that followed. Free love, music, drug use, and anarchy in the Summer of Love promised a new, better world. For a brief moment this was true; but then free love turned into AIDs, anarchy turned into gangs and cults abusing the unprotected, and drug use turned into addiction. Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and Diane Feinstein are all covered – did you know Harvey Milk was a big defender of Jim Jones? Or that Feinstein was all but washed out of politics until she inherited the City Supervisor’s office after Harvey Milk’s assassination? Lots of good stuff in here.

On a personal level I was pleased to read about how the current tech wave in the Bay fits into San Francisco’s history of new arrivals changing the makeup of the city. The sixties brought in the hippies; the eighties brought in the gays; and now the 2000s bring in the tech bros. Each arrival triggered a reaction by the existing predominant culture worried about changing mores and their own group being sidelined, but the forces of change always win in SF.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandhas received plenty of coverage on “Best of 2019” lists so I’ll speak sparingly here. Another fascinating, recent part of our history that I had a complete blind spot for. I think of the Protestant vs. Catholic blood feud as occurring in ancient Europe, yet this story occurred in my parents’ lifetime. Scary to see how easily these sectarian tensions can be inflamed.

The Killer Angels: one of those great historical novelizations that reads like a novel but tells a true story. Narrates four days of the battle at Gettysburg from the perspective of the generals and captains leading the significant actions. Covers the purported as well as actual reasons given by both sides for fighting the war. There’s real tragedy here: the leaders on both sides know each other, often intimately, and fought as compatriots only ten years earlier. On the southern side many see the war as lost; on the Northern side there’s little faith in their commander; on both sides they know their actions could lead to the deaths of their friends. Yet everyone sees themselves as buffeted by forces beyond their control and forced into this tragedy. Some brutal descriptions of war.

Ruminations

Looking back over my reading list for 2019 I realize that I spent much of the year looking back; that is, reading more history books (and less fiction) compared to 2018. In part I think this was due to spending plenty of time with the terrific Revolutions podcast; this both fascinated me with European history and shocked me with how little I know about our proximate cultural history. I also ascribe this in part, as with seemingly everything in 2019, to Trump. At a time when previously immovable geopolitical boundaries are shifting and prevailing wisdom challenged I started to wonder about how we arrived at this state of affairs and how fluid our world really is. What is the point of NATO? Why are Ukraine’s boarders where they are? Why are we allied with Egypt, or Saudi Arabia? Why isn’t Russia more European?

Usually I find these histories comforting. There has been a massive amount of tumult in the history of the world and the calm that we think exists or existed was mostly illusory. Countries fracture and are formed continuously. Alliances are formed and broken, sometimes at dizzying speed. Compared to the depression, our economy is fine. Compared to WWII or the Cold War, our world is peaceful. Compared to the sixties or even the eighties our racial tensions are calm. The world usually feels itself to be at an unprecedented moment of peril but usually this is not the case.

Full List

  • Barbarians at the Gate
  • The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
  • Fascism: A Warning
  • The Sirens of Titan
  • Slaughterhouse Five
  • Brave New World
  • Cat’s Cradle
  • Educated
  • Bad Blood
  • Boom Town
  • Red Notice
  • Lonesome Dove
  • True Grit
  • Dawn of D-Day
  • Boom Town
  • The Sun Does Shine
  • Killers of the Flower Moon
  • American Dream
  • Traitor to his Class
  • Heavy
  • Edge of Anarchy
  • Dune
  • Season of the Witch
  • Charged (unfinished)
  • Two Income Trap
  • Deep Work
  • Rules of Civility
  • Say Nothing
  • The Color of Money
  • Ask Again, Yes
  • Normal People
  • The Call of the Wild
  • Manufacturing Consent
  • The Big Fella (unfinished)
  • The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction
  • The Killer Angels
  • Russian History: A Very Short Introduction
  • Locking Up our Own
  • Ender’s Shadow
  • Operation Paperclip
  • Ring of Steel
  • Cherry
  • Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch
  • Our Man: George Packer
  • Waterloo: Day of Battle
  • 1066: The Year of Conquest
  • The Odyssey
  • The MVP Machine

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