What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, or those I enjoyed most (though I recommend all on both counts) but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, though some were, but they all were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2022. This was, if nothing else, another good year (as I said too last year) to kick back and read.
They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking, which would be too problematic for books as different as these.
Corban Addison - Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial (2022). You could fairly argue that this book is slanted: It takes the side of the plaintiffs in a case of industrial pollution, and you're not put in much doubt about who to root for here. But the breadth of the case and the reasons for people standing where they do is amply explored. And more than that, and what sticks with you, is the awfulness of what a while lot of people in one region of eastern North Carolina were made to experience, for decades, as a result of the industrial practices of the hog industry in their area. Really, the book makes a solid case that the sides here are not morally equal at all.
Ron Chernow - Washington: A Life (2010). I picked up two big and excellent historical-biography books this year super-cheap at the used bookstore at the Salem Public Library, but for variety's sake I didn't choose to list both. Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit (2012), about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the muckrakers, was enjoyable, enlightening and intriguing in its its interweaving multi-biographical approach to showing how a long-festering set of subtle conflicts improbably developed (and reshaped the nation). I strongly recommend it. I narrowly give the edge in this lane though to Chernow's Washington, if just because his carefully constructed take on the man as a human being - with great strengths and flaws both - was such a refreshing look at the founders. (Even if, I think, a tad ungenerous to Jefferson.)
Kristin Kobes Du Mez - Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020). To people who are looking for more insight into how we got where we are politically in this country, I may have recommended this book more often than any other in the last year - not as gospel but as a way of thinking about why the evangelical right is the way it is. The Amazon description says in part, "Many of today’s evangelicals might not be theologically astute, but they know their VeggieTales, they’ve read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and they learned about purity before they learned about sex—and they have a silver ring to prove it. Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise shape the beliefs of millions. And evangelical culture is teeming with muscular heroes—mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of 'Christian America.' Chief among these evangelical legends is John Wayne, an icon of a lost time when men were uncowed by political correctness, unafraid to tell it like it was, and did what needed to be done." There's a lot to unpack here, and while I wouldn't argue for every piece of it, this book better explains what we're seeing in this area than any academic study I've yet seen.
Stephen Kotkin - Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (2014). If you're in the crowd of people waiting for Robert Caro to finally deliver his long-promised Lyndon Johnson finale, you might while waiting give this a try - and find a more engaging, albeit often dark, story than you might have expected. In common with many big historical figures, Stalin is often seen in monochrome and outside of his context (which see, to some extent, Washington), and by sketching in with fine-grain detail the life and surroundings of Stalin, we get a far different view of him and his world than we (or at least, I) have been accustomed to. Not a more favorable one: He still seems like a monster (there is no whitewash of his awfulness here), albeit than his major monstrosities happened after this segment of his life, which more closely covered his surprising political cunning (somewhat reminiscent in that regard of Johnson). It's something of a mind-bender of a book. And the research effort behind it is staggering. Volume 2 is on my reading list for this year; you can handle only so much Stalin at a time.
Stephen Markley - Ohio (2018). Only a few fiction books this year really grabbed me, and this was one, drawn out of the current world of younger people maneuvering through unstructured lives and a broken society, some of it (not all) blasted by opioids and other social problems. It's alternatively been called a "masterpiece" (by National Public Radio), which is a stretch, and been criticized for characters who sometimes seem a little too dopey. But it reads in aggregate like an accurate mirror held up to a too-large part of American life as it is now. It is, a little like Jesus and John Wayne, not a book to take to heart as gospel, but offering a lot to think about.
Mike Rothschild - The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything (2022). A basic field guide to one of the foremost conveyors of insanity in America today. I've read any number of articles and books with descriptions of the Q-Anon madness, what it is, where it came from and how to deal with it, but this one most effectively puts the pieces together, and best explains why it has had the appeal and impact we've seen. In the telling, there are some useful suggestions about where we might go from here.
Eric Silberstein - The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev (2021). I didn't read a lot of dystopian sci-fi this year (and a couple of others were simply disappointingly implausible), but when I did ... well, this one was the most entertaining and most provocative by far. Its premise kicks off with the serious current problem of disinformation delivered by our global electronic information network, and extends the speculation over that and related subjects to what might happen if we go too far in the wrong directions in trying to combat it - and that destination might not be where you imagine. Concerned as I am about the disinformation that's been swamping us in recent years, this book did convince me we need to be careful in how we try to cope with it.
Leah Sottile - When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times (2022). This book wouldn't be here - and I might not have read it - if it were just about the true crime case that has gotten more headline in Idaho than any other in recent years. (I would say it's the Northwest nonfiction book of the year.) But it is much more than that: This mainly is about what happens when boredom and the desire to become Important get out of control, a fantasy better suited to a video game becomes a person's perceived reality, and really terrible results ensue. It becomes a thoroughly engrossing, compelling story that sounds all too much like central elements in our present day politics.
Guido Tonelli - Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2021). One of the subtitles in the book is, "abandon prejudice, all ye who enter here," and that's just about right; this was by science mind-twister of the year. Written by an Italian physicist well immersed in recent quantum physics, this is a speculative guide going all the way back - all the way - and what we might find if we look hard enough. One reviewer said "You will find poetry here, and a strong sense of wonder and awe." I wouldn't disagree.
Barbara Walter - How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (2022). Of the books on this list, probably none got more general national attention than this one, and with none do I probably have larger bones to pick. (I wonder what she thought of the mid-terms.) And yet, it's an essential read. The book's premise, amply developed, is that America has been drifting away from stable democracy and toward an anocracy, a condition in which our social order as we've known it isn't exactly gone but is shaky. I think (but then ring me up as an optimist) that we're not quite as far gone as she makes out (she was writing in the Trump years, after all) and her definition of what constitutes a civil war is more expansive than mine. That said, she makes excellent points about some bad directions we've been heading (see some of the other books on this list for more about some of these) and the comparisons with how other countries historically have devolved into disorder makes for sobering and gripping reading. Even if you disagree with pieces of what she has to say, this is an essential part of today's public affairs literature - for good reason.