delanceyplace.com: our 2009 list of notable books!
Notable Books We Read in 2009
Here a baker's dozen of notable books we read in 2009—whether they were published in 2009 or not! Presented below, not in order of preference, or importance. These first few books are not light but they aren't heavy either:
Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint. The feel good David versus Goliath story, of writer Jane Jacobs, fending off the all-too-powerful Robert Moses, and saving New York's Soho and Washington Square Park, in the early 1960s. In the process she redefined, our ideas of city planning with her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gotta love it—and for our money Jacobs was one of the smartest people of the last century.
1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan. Who knew that 1959 was such an important year? The microchip, the pill, Miles Davis, William Burroughs, Frank Lloyd Wright, and much more ... Kaplan makes it come alive with a fascinating and eclectic assortment of the social. business, political, and scientific developments that happened during the year.
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. It's short, you'll learn a lot about Elizabethan England, and it makes Shakespeare fun. Also, you'll be able to one-up any Shakespeare snob that you have the misfortune of encountering.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English by John McWhorter. If you're the type that loves to know the arcana of etymology and syntax, or simply someone who secretly worries about ending a sentence with a preposition, this is another fun addition to the literature. Very much in the spirit of David Crystal's The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot and left. A very pleasant diversion.
These next few books are a little heavier, but still very manageable:
Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz. Most of us would rather avoid the subject of prisons—but with the U.S. prison population the highest in the world, and prisons (a.k.a. "monster factories") simply making those inside their walls more virulent, it's a critically important subject. Schwartz's book is a deeply personal account of her work inside some of these prisons and it is gripping and heartbreaking. You'll be distressed, as much as you'll be encouraged, but you'll be better informed, and our bet is you'll know much more about human nature as a result.
Make'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. A superb and briskly written overview of comedians from Chaplin to Saturday Night Live and George Carlin—with many stops inbetween. Unlike the other books on this list it has lots of photos and is coffee table size—so be prepared.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed—and What to Do About It by Josh Lerner. You need to have a healthy interest in business to get into this, but if you do, it is an eye-opening critical and original look at the world of venture capital, and its importance to society.
The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling. We've read dozens of books about the American Revolution and good old George, but we don't think we ever really understood either until we read this book. It takes both George and the Revolution out of the realm of the selfless and the virtuous and into the realm of real people, with real motives, and feelings. It rings true without muckraking. We think we understand now.
Columbine by Dave Cullen. Ouch. A terrible tragedy laid bare in front of you. You'll be amazed at the number of unfounded myths that sprang out of the Columbine media coverage—and you'll probably lose whatever remaining trust you had in the media. You'll learn a lot about psychopaths, teenagers, and tragedy. One of the best, recent books we've read.
These last few books are a touch more challenging—but for those who are willing and genuinely interested in the given subject matter they are richly rewarding:
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. We've read the Old Testament many times, and heard hundreds of sermons, but it always seemed a little too murky until we read this book. The book focuses on Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and fundamentalists. Each of those religions aren't in agreement with much in this book, but to us, it all now makes sense in a way it never previously did. For an interesting companion piece (forgive me Bob), read first David Plotz's, Good Book: The Bizarre Hilarious Disturbing Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. It's an easy and ultimately respectful read that will get you in the proper mood. Plotz is a journalist who reads and reports on the Old Testament in this short work. Bet you don't know a fraction of the stuff that's really in the Old Testament—even if you are a faithful churchgoer.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Forget everything you knew about North and South America before the arrival of Columbus. The two continents were likely densely populated and filled with civilizations more advanced than we've previously been led to believe. The complexity and variety are astonishing.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Our view is that there are few skills in life more important than making decisions. However the brain's reasoning processes are easily fooled and often make not very rational judgments. This book captures the most advanced science and research into the subject and as always seems to happen when studying the human mind you will be surprised.
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark. In our opinion, if you want to know how the world works you have to make economic history central to your investigation. The unforgivable crime of most historical works is that they give almost no financial history their economic context. (For example you can read most books about the Hundred Year's War between England and France, and you still won't know the relative GDPs of those two countries or their relative populations, much less some of the economic prizes they were seeking—such as the bountiful profits from the rich vineyards of Burgundy. Unforgivable. This type of omission makes most history exceedingly difficult to make sense of—and thus most history books become more of a social pageantry. How can you know the motivations of a person if you don't know their economic wherewithal? How can you gauge the outcome of a war unless you know the relative wealth of the combatants?) Clark provides a sweeping overview of economic history—and you'll be better for the experience—even if you don't agree with some of what he says. His book is a little weaker towards the end as he brings us into the present—but then again that's what history isn't?