My favorite books of 2011. I know, everyone read Walter Isaacson's book on Steve Jobs. I didn't. Here's what made my Best of list:
1) Most important book I read this year: The European Union Explained, 2nd Edition. Andreas Staab. Yeah, that's right, I read it. Every damn word of it, months ago when Europe was going to hell fast. Didn't you read it? Or did you try to fake your way through understanding what was going on, the way a lot of so-called experts did who appeared on cable TV? Hm? Or were you one of them?
2) Civilization: The West and the Rest. Niall Ferguson. Author of The Ascent of Money (my favorite book last year) and many other books tackles one of the Big Issues of History: how did a bunch of backward countries on the far western edge of the Eurasian land mass come to dominate the world, starting 500 years ago? Why didn't Ming China, or the Ottoman Empire, dominate the world? Naturally it's all an excuse to speculate on whether it's all over for the West.
3) Boomerang. Michael Lewis. The facts about what happened in Ireland, Greece, Iceland and elsewhere in Europe have been oft-told. What Lewis does so well, in this series of stories originally done for Vanity Fair, is illuminate the story with little anecdotes about the people he meets in these countries:
From Greek Orthodox monks who wanted to become real estate barons to Irish bankers who tried to convince the world that there was a desperate need for condos in Galway to a former Greek finance minister, who insisted the Greek railway system was so inefficient it would literally be cheaper to put every Greek in a taxi cab and drive them around rather than keep the rail system going, this is business journalism at its most entertaining.
4) The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples. David Gilmour. All the usual characters are here: Cicero and Machiavelli and the Borgias and the Medicis, but it is how modern Italy was created in 1859-1861 out of a disparate group of mini-states that all spoke different languages that is Gilmour's central preoccupation.
He argues that the concept of "Italians" is a modern invention, that few spoke the modern language even up to this century, and that regional affiliations — not just north versus south but even Neapolitan, Sicilian, Roman, Lombardi, Venetian affiliations — is what truly matters to most Italians, and that Italy could well break up over those regional conflicts in the future.
My grandfather was an illiterate peasant born in the 1870s in the south of Italy and who spoke one of those obscure dialects (Pugliese)...this book had special resonance with me.
5) The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. David Abulafia. Another one of those Grand Sweep of History treatises, full of observations on seafaring, piracy, olive oil, winemaking, and the clash of civilizations between Romans, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Jews, Turks and Russians.
6) The Power of Gold: the History of an Obsession. Peter Bernstein. The second edition has been out since 2004, but I only read it all the way through this year when I was writing my gold series. From the Lydians first minting gold coins in 500 BC to Nixon taking the U.S. off the gold standard in 1972, it's all here: the history of the great empires — the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Florentines, the Venetians, the British, the Americans — and their relation with the precious metal.
7) The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Stephen Greenblatt. Winner, National Book Award, Non-Fiction. Beginning with the rediscovery of the Greek classics 600 years ago (particularly the rediscovery of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things), Greenblatt traces how modern society was invented. It's a book full of nooks and crannies and love of learning — the history of books and book collecting, and the rather sad life of book copiers, for example. But it's mainly about the tug of war between the Church and the non-Christian world that Lucretius represents.
And three music biographies:
8) Life. Keith Richards and James Fox. Imagine asking Keith Richards everything you ever wanted to know about the Rolling Stones. Did he really get blood transfusions to get rid of his heroin addiction? What really happened with him and Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones? But the most devasting line is reserved for the key question: "How do you really feel about Mick Jagger?" Answer: "I was never able to convert him to a friend." Ouch.
9) Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music, the Definitive Life. Tom Riley. Just started this one; curious to see if Yoko comes out looking as satanic as she did in Albert Goldman's bio.
10) Frank: The Voice. James Kaplan. Stunning Sinatra biography, tracing the development of the man and his art from childhood, but stops in the mid-1950s, just as he made his great comeback in From Here to Eternity and began his re-invention of the Great American Songbook with Nelson Riddle and others.
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