Winter break and the holiday season are both coming. This means free time and the need to buy presents for other people. Luckily, books are good for both of these things.These – in no particular order – are the books that I read and most enjoyed this year:
A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones books 1-5) – George R.R. Martin
If you haven’t read any of these, start now – it’s going to take a long time. The Game of
Thrones series may cause you to neglect your relationships, your classes, and your health because you can’t stop reading. By comparison, this makes The Lord of the Rings look like a children’s tale. Books 1, 3, and 5 are the best, while 2 and 4 felt, in many ways, like something that you had to slog through to get to the reward that turned out to be in the next book. Martin sometimes goes on far too long, with entire chapters about monotonous and slow characters whose names aren’t Tyrion Lannister (Brienne of Tarth is particularly painful). But it’s all worth it. Just don’t get too attached to any of the characters. If you don’t like reading, watch the TV series, where season three starts on HBO this Spring. Winter is coming.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do – Robert Draper
If you like politics but would like to hear about something besides the Presidency for a change, read this book. It delves into the personal stories of some of the most notable members of the House of Representatives following the 2010 midterm elections – recently disappointed Vice Presidential candidate (and future Presidential candidate) Paul Ryan, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, recently defeated Joe McCarthy idolizer Allen West, and House dean John Dingel, to name a few. Draper writes a fascinating narrative that belies the fact that the lack of anything significant happening was the story with that Congress. Also, check out one of Draper’s other books, Dead Certain, which provides an interesting and matter-of-fact look at the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Arguably – Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens died last year of throat cancer, but the amazing thing about writing is that his work lives on. This is a collection of some of his best essays of the last several years. If you’re interested in writing at all, read this to learn from Hitchens’ inimitable style. If you’re interested in other countries, read this for his essays on Iran or North Korea. If you’re interested in history, read this for his essays on figures like Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln. There is a piece about the versatility of the F word and another about the blow job. There is something for everyone in this collection.
The Better Angels of Our Nature – Stephen Pinker
If you’re suspicious of the idea that we live in a world under constant threat from terrorists, child abductors, and gang violence – or even if you aren’t – this book is a fascinating look at how violence has evolved over the entire course of human history. Pinker examines the rate of murder and violent crime in societies from tribal bands to major empires and finds that we live in the safest society in the safest time of human history. Even taking World War II into account, we’ve come a long way from the Mongol hordes. He looks at why the rate of violence is still higher in some places than others, and why the human acceptance of a government monopoly on force has been a necessary cornerstone of civilization. Pinker discusses how the idea of violence as “fun” has nearly disappeared. Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty may seem violent, but they’re far removed from the spectacles of cock-fighting, cat staking, and bear-baiting that passed for entertainment in the past. This is a lengthy read, but it is well worth the time. Few books have had so much influence on the way that I think about the world.
How to Cool the Planet – Jeff Goodell
As Bill McKibben made clear in his essay for Rolling Stone this summer, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” there is no evidence that we will not continue to burn through all of the fossil fuels that we can find and extract. This, along with a lack of collective support for any government action to put a price and a limit on carbon emissions – to treat it as the pollutant that it is – means that we are running out of options and out of time to prevent a permanently changed climate. In his provocative book, Goodell considers some of the less-discussed options for preventing the temperature of the earth from raising dramatically. This includes potential solutions from scrubbers that pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and iron seeding that produce carbon-sucking algae blooms in the oceans to more radical plans that would deflect incoming sunlight by putting reflecting particles high into the atmosphere or by making clouds brighter and more reflective. Many of these ideas are extremely controversial right now, even among the people most concerned about global climate change. As summers get hotter and dryer, winters have less snow, and hurricanes continue to extend their reach into the Northeastern United States, look to hear a lot more about these technological solutions in the coming years.
Wired for War – P.W. Singer
Drones have been all over the news and the new game Black Ops 2 centers around the idea of these robots of war coming under the control of a third party. In this book, Singer examines the way in which unmanned vehicles are changing warfare, whether by raining missiles from the sky or for disarming bombs from a safe distance. The old model of warfare – two lines of tanks facing each other, backed up by bombers and artillery – vanished long ago. Wired for War looks at the high-tech systems that replace them, far extending the power and reach of an individual soldier so that he can strike an enemy target in the mountains of the Hindu Kush while sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Nevada.
Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Technically this one was a reread, but it’s probably my favorite book of all time, so it deserves a mention. This is what science fiction should be. Card creates his own world, peoples it with impossibly smart, violent, yet somehow believable children, and brings it alive in a fantastic story. The twist at the end really makes you feel for the main character, and the internal monologues are incredibly well done. I first read this in middle school, but it’s lost none of its power. If you read it and like it, check out the Ender’s Shadow parallel series, which stems from the point of view of one of the other main characters, is set on Earth, and deals with strategy and politics.
If you enjoy this blog and are looking for a new book to try out, please check out my spy thriller novel, The Men Behind the Curtain.