In some ways, it’s been a bit of a weird and dark year. For some evidence of that, you can check: this blog’s entire archives. If you don’t feel like doing so, you can just reflect on why you need to pull tight the cloak around your shivering body, nervous with dread at each new dawn, wondering what horrors await. Either way!
But it’s also been a pretty good year for books. I’m usually pretty terrible at reading new things, especially new fiction, but for a few reasons have made more a point of doing so this year, in addition to the usual nonfiction.
So, here’s a totally subjective list of some of my favorites. This isn’t to say the “Best Books of 2017”, since that would be absurdly arrogant, not to mention extremely myopic. Here are the best books I read this year, with no real division between fiction and non. I’m sure there are many I am missing, and will kick myself later on. I really need to start writing this stuff down.
The first list are ones published this year, then a shorter one of books I finally read, whether a few years old or many.
There’s no real order here, except the first one would probably be on top if I did.
The brilliant novel by George Saunders is about memory and pain and the ghosts that make us who we are, as people, and as a nation. It is a novel that is stunningly important for the now.
Just when we need it the most, a fun and insightful book about our worst tendencies hits the shelves.
In the August/September issue of Reason, Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU (and of the most alternately triumphant and nervous fanbase in sports) reviews Playing to the Edge, Michael Hayden’s apologia for the post-9/11 security state, and why he would do everything he was able to do to protect us.
But it is not a good sign when your memoir’s central metaphor breaks down in the foreword. Hayden’s conceit is that those who run intelligence have a duty to “us[e] all the tools and all the authorities available, much like how a good athlete takes advantage of the entire playing field right up to the sideline markers and endlines”—the edge. As he’s said elsewhere (he’s been on this kick for nearly a decade), “Playing back from the line protected me but didn’t protect America. I made it clear I would always play in fair territory, but that there would be chalk dust on my cleats.”
The first problem is that if you get chalk on your cleats, it means you’re out of bounds. (Or at least you are in football, Hayden’s obvious inspiration.) That this has apparently gone unremarked to Hayden over the years—even by Dan Rooney, the owner of Hayden’s hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and Hayden’s high school football coach, with whom he watches too many Super Bowls in this book to count—is notable in itself. That it goes entirely unexamined in the book’s numerous invocations of the image is, alas, characteristic.
Worse still is that “taking advantage of the entire playing field” is a pretty odd way to describe the main thing that good athletes do. Of course, spraying one down the right-field line or throwing it deep and wide can sometimes help the team. But they are hardly required to win the game. Hayden never bothers to explain why pushing it to the edge is a main point of his duty as a public servant. Like so much in the book, it is simply assumed that people of good faith will agree.
That’s sort of the whole ballgame: we know what’s best, and you don’t. There is a “trust” factor in intelligence that assumes a one-way relationship. While no state wants entirely transparent intelligence, it is assumed that America should have the same level of secrecy, and the same dom-sub relationship with our intelligence forces, as the most fly-bitten police state in the world. It’s an argument that sounds persuasive on the surface, but can and should be taken easily apart.
Brett, who is one of the best at crafting an argument that is both forceful and legally exacting (sort of a hyperlogical polemicist, employing the best of both world), is the right man to tear it apart.
The fine folks at Just Security were kind enough to ask me to review Karen Greenberg’s excellent Rogue Justice, about how we transformed into a security state following 9/11. It’s a great read, and persuasively argued (the book, not my review). One of her key insights, beside the great reporting, is that the decisions made after the attacks fundmentally changed our relationship with the government, in ways we didn’t realize, and that I think will affect the national character for decades.
I’ll have more on the book later on, a few longer essays on some of the themes. In the meantime, here’s the review. Thanks to Just Security, especially for keeping the Huck Finn theme throughout.
This complicity came from careerists worried about rocking the boat, politicians in both parties worried about being painted as weak on terror (with notable and noble exceptions), and to an uncomfortable extent, the general public. The terrorist attacks in 2001 made everyone realize that anyone could be a target, but we didn’t see — or didn’t want to see — that in a very real way, we also became a target of the government. Many of the policies enacted in the wake of 9/11 made everyone a suspect as much as a target. Through official secrecy aided by general indifference, we allowed ourselves to be passively dragooned into being on both sides of a war.