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  • Ken Ilgunas

Best Books I read in 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (1960) This is one of the best history books I've ever read. It relies almost entirely on primary documents (speeches, letters, etc.). I appreciated how there was no cautiousness in Shirer's style; Shirer writes clean prose with moral ferocity. There's no vacillating university relativism here. It's not a dry read by any means. It reads like a thrilling war movie that ends happily ever after.

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan (2019). This is a relationship novel more than anything, and there are a lot of funny and insightful things about the romance. But I was in it for the robot. I greatly enjoyed all the ethical questions the book explores, though I thought Adam, the robot, sometimes was powered off too much so the kitchen sink drama could play out. McEwan's smart prose makes up for any deficiencies in the plot. The counterfactual history (with a thriving Alan Turing) was a lot of fun.

Heimat by Nora Krug (2019). This is a delightful book that's admirably researched. Krug reflects on her Germanness, and how she grapples with the complicated history of her wartime family.

Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger (2020). This book goes to show that you don't need to walk around the world to write a good travel book. It's about Twigger's straight-line walk up England connecting weirdly aligned historic landmarks. The writing is fresh; there's something special on every page. Lots of honesty, history, humor, and hi-jinx: everything I love about the travel memoir genre.

"To develop that earlier thought about not starting at the beginning, there should be a word for the instinct to start things in a half-arsed fashion (Farsing? Harsing?), as if starting properly will jinx the enterprise, set it up on too high and unachievable a pedestal. The instinct to start in a half-arsed way for fear you'll never start at all."

Bushcraft by Mors Kochanski (1997). This past spring I got an email from a producer of the TV show, Alone, inviting me to apply to be a contestant. I'd never heard of the show, but I've since become a fan and have begun a multi-year project to apply, get on, and win. I have lots to learn! I've read about five bushcraft books this year, and this one is the best. Mors is meticulous and scientific. The illustrations are very helpful.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989) This is a memoir of a teenage boy written with the detail and dialogue of a novel. I compare it to another old favorite, Angela's Ashes, except that This Boy's Life takes place in 1950's America. No one has ever captured how a young teen acts without thinking as well as Wolff has. It's as if the boy fails to have any ability for self examination and awareness, which is probably how most of us existed in our youths. We just can't remember it. But someone Wolff, as an adult writer, not only remembers this, but, somewhere down the line, discovered his amazing powers for intrapersonal intelligence. The De Niro/ DeCaprio 1993 movie of the same name looks too bleak; the book has a bit of humor on every page if you can find it.

Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2019)

Eloquent and bold. As with sexuality, it might do us some good to someday blur and ultimately forget about binary racial boundaries, as helpful as they can be. I wonder if boundary dissolution will be one of the great social movements of the 21st Century.

"[S]ince the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families as well, but I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends in my Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their “whiteness,” as if they were somehow born into original sin. The writer and linguist John McWhorter (who happens to be black) has called this development “the flawed new religion” of Anti-racism, or “The current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), ‘acknowledge’ that they possess White Privilege,” he writes in a 2015 essay of the same name. “Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal . . . The call for people to soberly ‘acknowledge’ their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.” In other words, it is to walk that special path."


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