Best Books of the Decade

(of the ones I read).

I decided to contribute to the end of the decade festivities by creating my own best of the decade book list. Since I’ve lived outside of the US the entire decade I haven’t seen much TV like the Wire or the Sopranos. I rarely watch movies and I rarely read hardcover books, so I’m not a great resource for these lists. I also rarely buy music anymore so I could give opinions on the first half of the decade music-wise, but feel pretty out of the loop.

Instead, I’ll just note the best (or most affecting) books in different categories that I’ve read in the 21st century without paying attention to their publication date.

Best Novel: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Published in the 80s I didn’t read it until about 2006. I didn’t really get what I was reading at the time (kind of like my experience watching Pulp Fiction for the first time). Even after finishing it I was unsure of what I had witnessed. But a couple years later I read it again–it having haunted me the entire time and I having read the rest of McCarthy’s works in the meantime–and realised that this novel is one of the most original and powerful pieces of art I had ever experienced. And it is an experience. I would have to stop to read passages aloud to my friends and then read them again out loud to myself. Images are seared in my mind, particularly of the hairless Judge and the hirsute idiot trudging through the desert keeping the beaming sun at bay with a makeshift parasol made of a dead animal’s ribcage and its tanned hide. If I ever start a punk band, the name will be The Legion of Horribles.

Runner Up: The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Actually, if pressed, I’d probably pick The Road, but that would seem cheap since I’ve already picked a McCarthy book and the Road is on a lot of lists already. Duncan’s book is funnier and does not lack in profundity itself. Both books I recommended to others with good results and both books ended with tears streaming down my cheeks. Also, I think that both books express truths about family. The Road is, perhaps, more sublime aesthetically and may give a terrifying glimpse as to where we’re heading, but the Brothers K made me laugh out loud as much as any book I remember and explains where we came from better than most other books. In the end, I pick the Brothers K since I loved it enough to make a pilgrimage to the Camus, Washington paper mill and the Washougal Adventist Church.

Best History Book: The Balkans: Nationalism, War & the Great Powers, 1804-1999 by Misha Glenny.

It’s really long and very much a history book. Each nation of the Balkan peninsula gets its due and the results are riveting. I read quite a while ago, now, but it was very affecting and taught me about the region well enough to be able to have a conversation with most anyone about it. I’ve forgotten quite a bit of it now, but there’s a lot to forget at 750 pages. The passages leading up to and about World War I were amazing, particularly regarding the great population shift between Greece and Turkey, the rather pitiful Black Hand, the massacre at the Dardanelles and the subsequent burning and rebuilding of Salonika, and the utilisation of a Moroccan Cavalry by the French in Macedonia. I was also struck by how isolated Albania was during the turmoil of those 2 centuries.

Runner Up: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins. World War I became a fascinating mystery to me after the Balkans book, but I came across this one by complete accident. I noticed the author’s name to be Latvian and the book to be on the sale rack so I bought it and read it and had many questions answered concerning the Western Front that were not addressed in the winner. The book also details European thought the led to the War, including those in the arts and architecture, and the thought that the Great War gave rise to afterwards. Great great book that I wish were more appreciated. I recommended it to my father, who thought it was heady. I guess that’s because Eksteins writes as an academic historian rather than a pop historian like, perhaps Stephen Ambrose. He uses critical theory in order to make some of his points. But it’s still great.

Journalistic Tomes/Current Events: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. What more can be said? It’s entertaining and probably the most important book I read on this list. It changed the way I buy and consume food. Fun read, too.

Runner Up: Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. I bought this book at the Mumbai airport on my way back to the UK and wished I had read it before going to India. It can be read all the way through, but it also works in parts. The section on the police force should be turned into a movie trilogy. The book is so eye opening that Slumdog Millionaire was a tragic disappointment to me. There are so many more interesting things going on in the Mumbai underworld that Boyle neglected to show.

Theology: Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell. I feel I should have a better catalogue of books for this section, but I think that when you enter the academic world, you read enough in your own subject that nothing really shifts your paradigms very drastically. I think also, that had I included the last two years of the 20th century I could put more here that was more affecting since my first two years of seminary really opened my eyes to different thoughts (Jon Sobrino, for example, whom I discovered in 1999). Nevertheless, Dragonfly is a classic and deserves its place in my decade’s list despite it being written decades before. It’s really a memoir, but the theology implicit and explicit in it is fantastic.

Runner Up: An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land by William Stringfellow. More of a straightforward theology book, but so strange in so many ways. It seems extremely conservative in its method, but the results are a rather radical theology. Perhaps it also betrays its lawyer roots a little too much. But paradigm shifting, it should be. The title alone says a lot.

Critical Theory/Criticism: Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Morson and Emerson. I can’t say that I’d call this the best book I’ve read on theory, but it is the one that affected me the most. It is the one I refer back to and the one that I go to when thinking about literary theory. I also love Speech Genres by Bakhtin himself.

Runner Up: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace. A lot was said about Wallace after his death last year. Most of it regarded his fiction, which I actually haven’t read. This collection of essays, however, is fantastic. It is funny as well as thought provoking. Perhaps it isn’t critical theory, per se, but it does have a lot of it in the book, particularly the very long book review on the Dictionary of American English Usage. One of my favorite essays of all time, however, is “Up, Simba”, which is Wallace’s reading of John McCain’s campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. It told me all I needed to know about McCain before he secured the nomination in 2008. McCain’s politic-playing was evident even during his more sympathetic, yet unsuccessful bid 8 years previous. Read it for yourself.

Honorable Mention: The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. I’m not sure where to classify this one. It’s mainly biography, I suppose, but a biography of 4 people (Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton). It has a hefty dose of criticism as well, since the subjects are all writers. However, there is quite a bit of theology in it since the writers are all Catholic and their Catholicism informs their writing. Anyway, I loved this book and it affected me since I finished it while waiting for my wife to get out of surgery. At the same time, Pope John Paul died. The confluence of those three events almost turned me Catholic. Why my wife’s surgery participated in that thought, I’m not sure, but the book was the main culprit. By the way, can you think of a similar book made up of Protestant writers? Who would it include? John Updike, Marilyn Robinson, and no one else. Meanwhile, I can think of several other devout Catholics (or Anglo-Catholics) that are good enough writers to make for interesting reading about.

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One Response to “Best Books of the Decade”

  1. Anthony CLD Says:

    Thanks for this Ivan,

    Nice to see Brother’s K is getting its due. I’ll be picking up the Road very soon.

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