Yuletide brings the advent of lists. Every conceivable aspect of the year is organised into a list and published online, to be read by bored people who are passing time between drinks. In my experience, the most remarkable feature of these lists is that they vanish from my mind the moment after I finish reading them. Despite this, I am contributing one more list. This one is a little different, in that it is not a ‘best of’ list, but rather a selection of books that, this year, I found particularly interesting.
I had the idea to put together this piece while checking back on the books that I read or consulted this year. As an undergrad, now master’s, student in history, I look through a lot of books but only read some. This year, I probably looked at over 140 books, but thoroughly read about seventy.
10. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho
This is a short novel, published in the 1990s, that follows a boy on his journey to Egypt in search of treasure. Along the way, he meets various mysterious figures who reveal things about the world that he never knew; and anyone who’s read any heroic journey can probably guess what the ending might be. The book is notable, however, for two things. The first is its simple writing style. As this is a translated text, one must be cautious in making comments on actual word choice, but nonetheless, the unadorned language is compelling. The second notable feature is Coelho’s focus on the idea of the “Personal Legend”, the goal that each person knows they must achieve. Heroic tales have trod this path many times before, but Coelho articulates the vision in such an unaffected way that it becomes believable once again.
9. Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps by Tzvetan Todorov
There are many books about the camps in the twentieth century, but Todorov’s short work is characterised by an appreciation of nuance that is wielded by few historians. In three hundred pages, he contends with the manifestations of both good and evil in the Nazi and Soviet camps, along with the forms of resistance to evil that emerged in the camps and afterwards. This book is a powerful corrective for anyone who views historical figures as fundamentally good or bad; Todorov shows that the virtuous were often motivated by twisted ideals, while the vicious were human beings just like the people they destroyed. His concern with morality is tied into the totalitarian experience, as he demonstrates the ways in which people both adapted to and were twisted by the camps, which stand as the apotheosis of totalitarianism.
8. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
Published in 2007, The Shock Doctrine details the ways in which economic “shock therapy” has been imposed on countries in the wake of disruptive crises, producing considerable profits for a few, an activity that she calls “disaster capitalism.” It is a dense read that may oversimplify some history at times, but Klein is successful in exposing what happens when basic maxims of capitalism are distorted and misapplied. She draws connections between this activity on a macro scale and the use of shock therapy conducted on individuals by a psychiatrist working with the CIA, revealing a world defined by the strategic and tactical use of power.
7. Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson
This is perhaps less likely to turn up on top-ten booklists, but it should probably appear on any good university course. Johnson offers another explication of the idea of the shadow, all those parts of one’s character that remain unconscious and projected until conscious awareness is applied. The book is particularly effective, however, in detailing the duality of this phenomenon. It is not merely that one has certain darknesses that are hidden from view, but that every element of the psyche has two sides. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but Johnson does an excellent job of making it something accessible, something that the reader can actually envision.
6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Unlike Johnson’s book, this will be found on an endless number of booklists, but the two texts are similar in their concern with the duality of the human condition. The student Raskolnikov murders an evil old woman, working on the theory that such an immoral act can be transformed into a moral one, because it will enable him to do an inordinate amount of good, as he steals her money and puts it to productive purposes. He soon discoversthat once the box of immorality has been opened, its dark forces will rush beyond conscious control. Hailed as one of the greatest novels of all time, Crime and Punishment is a monument to the danger of unintended consequences.
5. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas
This is one of those classic studies that is cited everywhere, with such casual frequency that I have to wonder how many people actually read it. Published in German in the 1960s and translated in the 1990s, it is a difficult read, not least because Habermas moves among areas such as history, law, economics, cultural theory, and sociology, without stopping to explain specialist terminology or key concepts. His thesis is that various developments in the economic, legal, and philosophical realms led to the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere, characterised by rational-critical debate and an appreciation for culture. This sphere, in its initial form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, provided the forum for political debate. Habermas’s work is frequently used in relation to the French Revolution, and often applied to the public sphere of the twentieth or twenty-first century. Those who use his concepts, however, appear not to have read the second half of the book, wherein he argues that the rise of mass culture and the emergence of the social-welfare state actually destroyed the bourgeois public sphere. Whether or not this is correct, his work was a milestone contribution to our understanding of public discourse.
4. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
Kennedy also foregrounds the role of economic forces in shaping history, though in this case the topic is the interaction of the Great Powers between 1500 and 1980. In a sweeping narrative, he lays out the extent to which economic power influences military might, which, in turn, has determined the ascendancy of one state or another in the global power hierarchy. One might argue that he is mistaken in giving politics and diplomacy short shrift, but nonetheless he is successful in outlining the economic-strategic forces that have driven European power politics during the modern era. This is macro-level history at its best, analysing broad trends while remaining grounded in hard facts and figures.
3. On Liberty by J. S. Mill
In a time when questions of freedom, especially that of expression, are constantly debated, Mill’s famous text seems just as important as ever. I was particularly struck by the manner in which Mill balanced the demands of the individual and the collective, because in our contemporary public discourse these two are often presented as essentially irreconcilable. Mill, on the other hand, envisions a society where each person retains the maximum amount of individual freedom, while operating within a mutually supportive community. This may seem an unlikely notion when one looks at the current state of the public sphere, yet it is reassuring to rediscover such a balanced view of the world.
2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Technically this is not a book, but given the significance of the work, I daresay such a categorical error may be forgiven. I had read versions of Hamlet before, but this year I studied the play itself, and watched Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour adaptation. Everything of interest has probably been said about this already: there is not even any need for me to summarise the plot. I can only remark that, in-keeping with the theme of many of these texts, Hamlet is a compelling showcase of the extent to which an individual’s destructive potential can be disguised by his or her good intentions, hence leading to terrible tragedy.
1. The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
This could have filled not one but three spots on this list, because it is made up of three large volumes. Originally published in the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece was a literary sensation, as he exposed the workings of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union. Many memoirs from the Russian labour camps had been published before, but The Gulag Archipelago offered an encyclopaedic overview, from the moment of a prisoner’s arrest, through interrogation, transport, labour, to release and exile. Along the way he offers lengthy expositions of such topics as the show trials, the children in the camps, the interactions between political and criminal prisoners, the camp uprisings after Stalin’s death, the Cultural-Educational Department, the experience of imprisoned Party members, the uprooting of whole populations, and plenty more besides. He produced the work with reference to 227 prisoner accounts, and the three volumes combine history, polemic, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, in a overwhelming depiction of a world within a world. There is much in this work to disturb and unsettle, but perhaps the most disturbing aspect is Solzhenitsyn’s avowal that this vast text does not even begin to pay homage to those taken by the Gulag.
I shall try to make this a yearly tradition; but for now, farewell to 2018.