Top books I read in 2008, in no particular order


Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun.

Don't be deterred by Hamsun's later ties to Nazism. Apart from its rejection of "modernity," there's nothing in this book that suggests that it was inevitable that, almost 30 years after its publication, Hamsun would eulogize Hitler as a "warrior for mankind." This is a great book for anyone who likes multigenerational sagas, stories about settling wildernesses, women's issues, and so on. This won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917 or 1918.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

Have you seen Disney's The Sword in the Stone? Well, the first book of T.H. White's tetralogy is similar in substance and spirit to that work, but the rest of the books share a completely different tone -- darker, fatalistic, melancholy. Heck, the second book begins with the murder of a unicorn and the subsequent abuse of its head. White's liberal prejudices are a bit annoying at times, but on the whole I think it's a fine work for kids and adults, and one deserving of praise for its sympathetic portrayal of the Middle Ages. (There's an entire chapter describing what Guinevere and Lancelot see as they stare out a window one day in their autumn years; White really conveys the virtue and darkness of the Middle Ages here in a beautiful way.)

Titus Groan / Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake.

Just read the sample text on Amazon. I can't think of another author with such a deep and keen knowledge of our language.

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Not brilliant like the above works, but still worth far more mention that it seems to receive. Here are three or four fantasy novels that tell a huge story in maybe under 1000 pages. The pace is fast and the story is intricate. It's also unusually touching for a fantasy series. Recommended to the utmost!

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Ok, so if you're looking for a cheap thrill, this isn't the book for you. But if you want a plausible ghost story with a good deal of complexity, this is the one. (It's comparable, say, to Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, only readable.)


The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage.

Name the most important development in communications since writing. Go ahead, try it. If you picked the internet, radio, or TV, you're probably wrong.

No, in terms of the qualitative improvement in the speed of communication, all of those innovations pale in comparison to the telegraph. Consider that before the telegraph (or the railroad), it took months for word to reach India from Britain. Then, with the invention of the telegraph, that time was cut to minutes. The implications of the reduction of communications time from the speed of a fast sailing ship to the speed of an electrical impulse are well-covered by Standage, as are the precedents for the telegraph, but where the book really shines is in his comparison of the telegraph to the internet.

Think long-distance friendships or dating are new phenomenons? Not by a long shot, Standage points out. Telegraph operators would 'chat' with other operators in their downtime, and sometimes they even fell in love. (Such affairs even inspired an 1880 novel -- Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes.)

Think the internet was the first technology to shake-up the newspaper game? Again, not by a long shot. The telegraph positively chagrined newspaper men. With the instant delivery of news to all corners of the country, newspapers couldn't acquire stories before their rivals by means of horse relays and the like -- and what else would set apart papers but the speed with which they obtained the latest news? Many newspapers expected to go out of business.

And so on. Do yourself a favor and spend a few bucks to pick up a used copy.

Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution by R.R. Palmer.

Considered to be the best book on the French Revolution ever written by an American, and with good reason. Its strongest points are the author's evenhanded appraisals of the major players (he doesn't adore or vilify Robespierre and in fact spends more time considering the abler members of the committee), his thoughtful observations, and a careful presentation which makes this both an important academic work and also a downright enjoyable history for popular audiences. Most important to me was Palmer's assessment of the politics of the radicals of 1793-94; Palmer explicitly points out the bourgeois prejudices of the Committee and often mentions this or that measure or idea as proof of the committee's unsocialistic character. For instance, regarding the Jacobins' refusal to repudiate the debts of the Monarchy, Palmer wryly states that such moves show just how far from socialism the Jacobins were. Likewise, he explains the Jacobins' overtures to the poor as motivated not by ideology but rather by the fact that the poor were rather more ardent revolutionaries than the rich; conversely, their disdain for the rich had more to do with intolerance for the uncommitted than any class perspective. What's more, Palmer says that even the left-most members of the committee (such as Collot d'Herbois) envisioned a society of small commodity producers rather than a socialist society. And so on -- time and time again the author provides evidence to refute the notion that the Jacobins were anything but the radical wing of the French bourgeoisie. So, even though Palmer was a liberal, by and large his conclusions regarding the class nature of the revolutionaries are similar to those of the Marxist historians Lefebvre and Soboul.

The Socialist Party of America: A History by David A. Shannon

Is this the best book on the Socialist Party of America? I don't know. But it is witty, engaging, and accurate.

More importantly, the subject matter is fascinating. One anecdote should demonstrate my point: in 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI, poor Oklahoman farmers, party members, rose in armed rebellion, having heard rumors that other workers across the country were doing the same. They intended to march on D.C. and overthrow the government. This quixotic episode is no more than a footnote today, but it shows what a serious and widespread socialist milieu existed in the U.S. in the first two decades of the 20th century.

The party's slide towards reformism and the emergence of a revolutionary wing within the party, with strong ties to the German and Dutch "ultralefts," and armed with the understanding that capitalism was entering a new phase in which traditional forms of struggle such as parties and unions were outmoded (something since lost on Lenin's epigones), are ably chronicled by Shannon. The suppression of the party's left by the state in 1917-1918 is also well told, confirming the Socialist Propaganda League's prophetic statement of 1916 that "in the class war, all constitutional rights and prerogatives of the people are ignored or abolished and the capitalist class, abominating Liberty and supported by guns, meets the working class with the armed power of the capitalist state. When the workers seek shelter in constitutional guarantees and essay to use these rights for the betterment of their conditions, they too often find that rights and guarantees are mere 'scraps of paper.'" After this and the October Revolution, the party's left went on to form the Communist parties (yes, there were multiple); unfortunately, since Shannon wrote a history of the Socialist Party, the book's second half is filled with dull figures like Norman Thomas and Victor Berger.

Another excellent book on the Socialist Party of America's revolutionary wing is Allen Ruff's We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers.

Books that I hated or that left me very confused

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin.

This is the second book in her Wizard of Earthsea series. The first one was great; this one was awful. The variety, the adventure, and the characters of the first book are all tossed out in favor of a handful of dull characters all confined to a single setting, more or less. If I learned one thing this year about LeGuin, it's that she's inconsistent -- both in terms of the quality of her works and in terms of her politics (she backed Barack Obama despite having been masqueraded as an anarchist).

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

Is it fascist? I don't know, and I don't particularly care. The worst thing about the politics is the clean-cut, 1950s tone. Heinlein's characters sound like Ward Cleavers with axes to grind. And it sure is boring. But at least it inspired Joe Haldeman's Forever War, right?

Dune by Frank Herbert.

For the first 2/5ths or so, I was convinced this was truly one of the best sci-fi novels ever, just as everyone had said. Then about 80% of the cast and 90% of the suspense disappeared and I was left rather bored. Still, it's a fine book and the backstory is unusually interesting, though it's not all it's cracked up to be.

Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

This book's really a compilation of three novels and a bunch of short stories all set on, well, a dying Earth billions of years in the future. Technological advancement and time haven't marched hand in hand, however, for the Dying Earth is a primitive world where magic and science are synonymous (or something like that -- I'm paraphrasing the blurb on the back). The first section of the book, the collection of short stories, introduced a very interesting world and showed Vance to be an imaginative author, yet the stories themselves really didn't go anywhere. I was disappointed, yet intrigued, so I checked out novella that makes up the second part and was pleasantly surprised ... but I'll leave that for next year's iteration of this list.