No, I haven’t quit reading for the year. I just thought it was time for this list again.
I make this list with much less joy than I did last year's; the highs are not as high, and the lows are…well, I’m sure the lows are similarly low (I’m not going to do a 9 worst book list). What I mean is that I could have made this a list of 19 books and it wouldn’t have been a great deal of different than the 9; number 7 would be a close call with number 11, number 5 wouldn’t be very far from number 16, number 2 is almost as good as number 1. But I’ll keep it at 9 for consistency's sake.
I read many books this year that I liked, that were informative, that were useful, that I respected, but none that I loved. I put every book I read to a test that it couldn’t possibly pass, and that wasn’t fair. But it’s what happened. It's the way things are for me right now.
Here’s the criteria again if you missed last year’s list: when I say books I read in 2007, I mean exactly that—books I read in 2007, not books that were published in 2007. I did read quite a few that were new this year, but some of the best were from other years, and I hope they’re remembered.
Everything on the list is nonfiction. I tend to avoid fiction most of the time these days for reasons that probably make sense only to me. I did read a few novels, but didn’t do any write ups of them, so they’re not included. And I guess these reasons, and these titles are amongst the many things that I will keep in my heart and ponder. Here’s the list:
9. London 1945, by Maureen Waller (Life During Wartime) A thorough, engrossing account of life during the Blitz; everything about how the ordinary people lived, from the food they ate to the clothes they wore to the radio programs everyone listened to.
8. Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan (When the Twain Met, The Power and the Unglory) A carefully orchestrated moment in history with two of the, well, weirder and more dangerous of history's world leaders.
7. Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, by Gino Segre (Devil's Bargain), A Fly in the Cathedral, by Brian Cathcart (Bigger Faster) These two are so much a part of each other, I'm counting them as one; in fact, I got the name of the Cathcart book from the bibliography of the Segre book. Both deal with physicists in the 1920s-30s, the time when quantum mechanics was really coming into its own and nuclear physics was on the rise. Faust is about the theorists who made their discoveries with pencils, paper, and equations. Fly is about the experimentalists who did their work on actual pieces of equipment. Segre excels at drawing portraits of the scientists in his book, while Cathcart helps make the work of his physicists' accessible through descriptions of the apparatus they constructed and worked with.
6. Transatlantic, by Stephen Fox (Turbinia) Part of the enjoyment of this book came from surprise about how good it was. A history of steamship travel? Who'd have thought it would be so fascinating?
5. Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, by Neal Bascomb (Sailor, Beware) This is a fine examination of a much mentioned, but little detailed event in history, with moments of sadness that you wouldn't expect.
4. Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough (Heat Wave) A tour of the underworld, with insiders' views of bank robberies, kidnappings, and jailbreaks. I was glad to hear a movie is in the works and hope for the best.
3. A People's Tragedy, by Orlando Figes (Revolution Takes Its Turn, Sailor, Beware) A comprehensive, fascinating account of life in Russia from the 19th century through the early 1920s that explains why the Revolution happened. I came away from this book feeling that I had really learned so much.
1. (tie) Troublesome Young Men, by Lynne Olson (Rebels With a Cause) and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner (Counterintelligence) I found it hard to choose between these two because the intent of each is so different. The former is a tight focus on a pivotal moment in history, when a group of Conservative Party members in Parliament rebelled against their leaders, risking their careers in order to get rid of the weak leadership they felt was endangering Britain. The latter is a vast, epic history of the misadventures of the CIA, in all its unglory. Neither approach to telling history is more valid than the other, thus my refusal to choose. What I can say with absolute decisiveness, though, is that both are more than worthwhile. I learned quite a bit from them and liked them both. And that was it, nothing more.