Best of the Decade Part One: Books
So I've got this weird thing about 'End of the Year' lists, especially for music. I don't know why, because inevitably, I read the list of the 'Best Albums of [Insert Year Here]' and maybe recognize two of them- at most. Same thing with Best Books and hell, even best movies. I was all set to plunge into figuing out whether the 'Best Songs of 2019' actually delivered on the hype, when it sort of hit me that the people who makes "Best of" lists are usually critics who listen to a shitload of music/read a shitload of books/watch a shitoad of movie/TV for a living and thus have a far wider palate than you or I might, dear reader- though in the case of television, the golden age of streaming has made that far less of a possibility than it used to be.
The long and the short of it: I figured why not make my own, 'Best of the Decade' lists. So I'm starting with books, there will be another one for Music and one for Movies/Television. For the books, I basically consulted my Goodreads account, looked at everything I had read this decade (more or less) and pulled out all the books that had really stuck with me and did two rounds of trimming to get it to a svelte Top 25 of the 2010s. So, without further ado, here they are:
25. Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail '72, Hunter S. Thompson: I've read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, but I can't claim I've read all of his stuff, however: this makes a strong case for being right up there for one of his masterpieces. Truly, this is Thompson at his finest and probably the progenitor of a whole genre of 'Presidential campaign' memoirs both serious and cynical.
24. World War Z, Max Brooks: Zombies are not really my thing, but Brooks' Oral History of a global conflict facing the undead manages to bring the global scale and the struggle of humanity against the undead onto the page with simplicity and haunting beauty.
23. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman: I've always been a sucker for mythology-- my jam back in the day has always been Greek mythology, but with the rise of Thor in the pop cultural zeitgeist, I had kind of been on the hunt for some Norse mythology for awhile. Gaiman delivers with his usual standard of excellence in this compact, compellingly readable volume that hits the high points of Norse mythology in language that is beautifully crafted and accessible to modern readers.
22. The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer: This isn't by design, I swear- but Amanda Palmer's book on the art of asking and building her career as a musician through crowd funding and building a fanbase through interaction is interesting, inspiring and potentially one of the most important books you will ever read as we move further into the economy of the 21st Century.
21. Happy City. Charles Montgomery: I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but a childhood of playing Sim City and Sim City 2000, plus an ever present curiosity about urban planning made this a book I instantly fell in love with. A deep and thorough exploration of why our cities are designed the way they are and, more importantly, how to redesign them to maxmize that most elusive of all qualities: happiness.
20. Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, Steven Woodworth: Did some research on where Iowans fought ahead of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and found that many of them fought in the Army of the Tennessee in the western campaigns, which I knew very little about. This excellent book gave me the knowledge to appreciate a visit to Shiloh 150 years to the day after the battle took place.
19. The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson: if the 2000-2010 was defined by stumbling across Kim Stanley Robinson and his Mars trilogy, Stephenson more or less moved into that position in this decade. I tackled Snow Crash, Seveneves and the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, but none stuck with me more than The Diamond Age, a mash-up of almost steampunk and nano-technology that seems to be a future both utterly alien and eminently plausible.
18. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin: if anything rekindled a fascination with the Civil War and my more murkier spots of American history it was probably this book, which shot to the center of the cultural zeitgeist in the wake of President Obama appointing his one time rival, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Lincoln is generally thought of as one of the greatest Presidents, but no better is this illustrated than in this book- which showcases not Lincoln the orator, but Lincoln the politician.
17, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline: my first foray into the world of Audible and audiobooks, this one was a fantastic ride through a massive multiplayer online world known as The Oasis and the struggle to solve a quest left behind by it's mysterious founder to control it. Packed with pop culture references this book truly is a love letter to 'nerddom' and way better than the movie was.
16. The Fall Revolution, Ken Macleod: Some of the best science fiction I've read in the past decade, The Fall Revolution sequence consists of The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road. Each of which is so good in it's own way, I couldn't possible choose just one, so I picked the whole damn series. What I love about about this sequence is the structure: The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal tell the story of the Revolution from different points of view. The Cassini Division and The Sky Road imagine different endings to the Revolution. It's brilliant writing and science fiction packed with ideas, which I always love.
15. Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne: The older I get the more aware I become of how woefully inadequate my knowledge of American history actually is. This book filled in some of those gaps with the tale of the forty year struggle between the Comanches and the white settlers for control of the west. The role and power of the Comanches should not be underestimated: they halted white westward expansion dead in its tracks and Gwynne tells their story and the story of their last and greatest chief, Quanah Parker.
14. Double Cross: The True story of the D-Day Spies, Ben Macintyre: Everybody knows about D-Day, but fewer probably know about the operatives in Double Cross, who launched a herculean effort to convince the Germans that the landings were coming anywhere but Normany. Unique characters all, their efforts were ultimately crucial to the success of Normandy- and it's past time that their story was told.
13. The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa: If books like Empire of the Summer Moon fill in the gaps of American history, writers like Vargas Llosa fill in the gaps of the history of our neighbors to the South, which is another area of history that most Americans find themselves woefully uneducated about. The War of the End of The World is Vargas Llosa's masterpiece that tells the story of the War of Canudos late in the 19th Century of Northeastern Brazil.
12. Silence, Shusaku Endo: Okay, hot take for the current moment- Silence is a better Scorsese movie than The Irishman and that's in large part due to the beautiful, haunting source material of the novel by Shusaku Endo. A beautiful novel of faith set in feudal Japan, where Christians are tortured and martyred for refusing to recant their faith. A capture young Jesuit Priest struggles with his own faith as he wrestles with whether or not to renounce his faith to prevent the suffering of others.
11. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz: I had heard a lot about this book but it took me awhile to pick it up and when I did, I was glad because Diaz weaves a story that plunges the reader into the life of Oscar Wao and his quest to overcome his families curse. Touching of themes of story-telling, the Dominican diaspora, sexuality, identity and oppression I couldn't put this book down.
10. Walkaway, Cory Doctorow: Wasn't sure how I was going to feel about this book, to be honest, but it turned into a future I could get behind, because it poses an interesting question: if enough people can get access to technology that gives them everything they need, what happens to the current system of capitalism? If you can 3D print everything you need, why bother having a job or plugging into the rat race at all? Many people in Doctorow's near future are doing just that- and walking away.
9. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury: This novel has felt like one of the great science fiction touchstones that I had never bothered to read until I finally did and saw way. It's structure is beautiful: like a series of short stories or an episodic novel about the colonization of Mars and the eventual atomic devastation of Earth. The standout for me has to be, "There Will Come Soft Rains" the end of a smart house left behind on a barren and ruined Earth.
8. La Place De La Concorde Suisse, John McPhee: One of the pioneers of creative non-fiction, this is McPhee's captivating look at the place of the Swiss Army in Swiss society and how anybody who tries to invade the place will be in for an unpleasant surprise. (Honorable mention here to Encounter With The Archdruid, but if you haven't read McPhee, then get yourself some McPhee.)
7. The Odyssey, Emily Wilson: I love The Illiad and I love The Odyssey and no poetic translation has connected with me more than this one. It's an absolute revelation and takes a very old story from Homer and brings it triumphantly into the 21st Century.
6. The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer: the amazing story of the race to save valuable manuscripts that are centuries old from Al-Qaeda. Abdel Kader Haidara helped to salvage tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts to build one of the great repositories of world heritage in Timbuktu and when Al-Qaeda rampaged across Mali, he helped put together a team to smuggle the manuscripts to safety.
5. The Martian, Andy Weir: I couldn't put this book down. That alone justifies placing it this high on the list, but it's clear that Weir has done his homework and while the scenario seems somewhat unlikely, given how far way we appear to be from Mars- but the story of surviving against impossible odds seems very believable indeed.
4. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Leguin: A hauntingly beautiful science fiction masterwork from LeGuin, the end of this one stuck with me.
3. The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay: The Parentals have been fans of Guy Gavriel Kay for years now, but I never actually read any until I picked up this book. A historical fantasy novel that mirrors the history of Moorish Spain and ends with the characters receiving the news that Al-Rassan itself has been conquered- a haunting, beautiful ending that mirrors the Reconquista in our world.
2. How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan: One of the most consequential books I read this decade, Pollan turns his talents to exploring the emerging science of psychedelics and the impact they may have on the treatment of mental illness, especially. A must read.
1. Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks: I dipped my toe into Banks' Culture novels with Consider Phlebas, but Use of Weapons just straight up blew me away. It's not often you read the ending of a book that you didn't see coming- but this ending made me straight up drop my Kindle.