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  • Ken Ilgunas

Best Books I read in 2017

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

I’d already read P&P, and I was already thinking that I was done with old English lit., so I opened it up without the intention of reading it (figured I’d just thoughtlessly browse the first few lines), but by the end of the first page, I couldn’t stop myself. The mother and father feel so “lived in” and real and precise. Lady Catherine and Collins the clergyman, in their stuffy absurdity, are seriously funny. I must confess that I fell in love with Elizabeth, a shining example of emotional intelligence, good cheer, and uncommon sensibility. We should all strive to be as smart and worldly and kind as Elizabeth Bennett, and I fear Austen would be aghast to see the sorts of ways young people occupy their time nowadays (though Austen might argue that young people could be just as frivolous then, as we see in two of Elizabeth’s sisters). Darcy is essentially the male version of Elizabeth, equally smart and just as well-equipped with “understanding,” though he lacks the awareness to manage his ego and bloated sense of pride. The days after I read the book, I was speaking and writing with enhanced clarity and precision, which tells me that I should always have some brilliant English book being read in the background.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (2017)

Like books? Used bookshops? Dry Scottish wit? Bythell uses the diary format better than anyone. Some days are just funny, short entries about running a used bookstore. Other days the prose is enriched with research about the area or the book-selling trade. It makes me wonder whether I could pull off something similar with a travelogue, a style I'd previously been skeptical of.

Here’s a job reference Bythell wrote for one of his employees: Sara worked Saturdays at The Book Shop, 17 North Main Street, Wigtown, for three years while she was at the Douglas Ewart High School. When I say “worked”, I use the word in its loosest possible terms. She spent the entire day either standing outside the shop, smoking and snarling at people trying to enter the building, or watching repeats of Hollyoaks on 4OD. Although she was generally punctual, she often arrived either drunk or severely hungover. She was usually rude and aggressive. She rarely did as she was told, and never, in the entire three years of her time here, did anything constructive without having to be told to do so. She invariably left a trail of rubbish behind her, usually consisting of Irn-Bru bottles, crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and cigarette packets. She consistently stole lighters and matches from the business, and was offensive and frequently violent towards me. She was a valued member of staff and I have no hesitation in recommending her.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

My expectations were low. The book came out soon after Jobs's death, and I was expecting that this was another biography that was hastily written to make money at an opportune time. This isn't the case at all. It's thorough and exhaustive, yet fun, even exciting, to read. Isaacson has somehow made the technical side of Jobs's life engaging, which is noteworthy given that this isn't a subject I usually have any interest in. Jobs reminds me to be dogged about pursuing dreams, meticulous about perfecting one's craft, and always thinking of the future.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (2016) Worth reading if just for the delicious prose. It had a pitch-perfect Lolita-like caustic sense of humor. Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.

Game of Thrones Books 4 & 5 by George R.R. Martin (2005 & 2011)

Books 4 and 5 have reputations for being inferior to the first three. They're not inferior. They're just different. The pace is slower and there is less action, but these books still manage to be amazingly addictive. There is wonderful character development and Martin's world is becoming ever more rich in detail. The history and geography of Westeros are getting filled in, and there's a deepening in his world's cosmology.The dialogue and characters and bits of wisdom are as good as ever. The books are not so dynamic as those of Books 1-3, with major beheadings, red weddings, and wildling battles, but I loved these books just as much. Martin’s mind is an international treasure. At the pace he's written these books, there's no way he can finish the series in just two more books...

If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron half helm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the small folk whose land they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad in all steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world.

Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot (2017)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to discover George Monbiot. He is a kindred spirit. Not only do we share interests in fringe topics like rewilding and the right to roam, but in this book he speaks to all the things I worry about: runaway consumerism, loss of social capital, our shattered democracy. His diagnoses of our country’s ills seem spot-on, and his suggestions are well thought out and practical. He maintains a poised tone, but that doesn’t stop him from dreaming big and thinking of the deep future. His style is exceptional. Warm, honest, smart, direct. He can venture headfirst into an idea, but also treat his detractors with respect.

We are astonishing creatures, blessed with an amazing capacity for kindness and care towards others. But this good nature has been thwarted by a mistaken view of our own humanity. We have been induced by certain politicians, economists and commentators to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust other, and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010)

This is one of my favorite presidential biographies, which I put in the same tier as Team of Rivals. John Adams said, if Washington “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.” This wasn’t an insult, I don’t think, because sometimes that’s in large part what a leader needs to be—an actor. Washington was in fact partisan, fiery, hot-tempered—this we see after his presidency, when he abandons the facade of the cool and nonpartisan leader and begins to actively conspire against the Jefferson- and Madison-led Democratic-Republicans. But for the the length of the Revolutionary War and his presidency, he mustered all the self-discipline he had, swallowed his tongue, and gave the disparate and loosely bound band of colonies — shaken by war, revolution, and tumult — what it most needed: a symbol of stability and republican virtue (except for the whole slavery thing). I think it’s fair to wonder whether the U.S. would have formed without Washington. The war may not have been won. The colonies may never have come together. The fledgling nation may never have taken flight with a lesser first president. He may be one of those few figures whose existence has dramatically altered the course of history.


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