12/16/10 - notable books of 2010

Notable books we read in 2010

For our notable books of 2010, we have another baker's dozen that span the gamut—from sex to war, from sports to business, and from psychology to comedy. To qualify, they didn't have to be published in 2010—though all are very recent—we just had to read them this year. Here they are—not necessarily in order of preference or importance:

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner, 2010). An exhilarating, heartbreaking and gripping history of the Comanche Indians in Texas in the late 1800s. The Comanche were the fiercest of all the Indian tribes in North America—superb and proud horseman and riflemen—so this book is not for the faint of heart. However, the book will give you deep insights into the nature of tribes and to the encroachment of modernity—insights that are as relevant to Afghanistan in 2010 as they were to America in 1880.

Open by Andre Agassi (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010). A jaw-droppingly honest account of tennis star Agassi's life in sports, intelligently written, and void of the cliché so often found in sports biographies. The book ends up being largely an account of the influence of Andre's father, the penniless Iranian immigrant Mike Agassi, a seeming tyrant who devoted his life to realizing his own frustrated dreams through his children. Particularly striking, Mike had his tiny son Andre hitting one million tennis balls each year on the theory that would make him unbeatable. We couldn't put this book down.

The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010). This book's thesis, carefully researched and compellingly presented, is that "genius" is a result of hard work more than gift. You will find it thoughtful, encouraging, and useful.

The Publisher by Alan Brinkley (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010). While on the surface this book is a biography of Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce, it ends up being a sort of history of the twentieth century, and provides a perspective on the most important media voice of that century. The name Time was intended to convey that the reader would save time—the magazine started with no original reporting, and was instead was an aggregation of news from places like The New York Times. From that staid beginning, Luce built a global reporting powerhouse, and extended the franchise to LIFE, Sports Illustrated, People and beyond.

The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester (Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 2009). If you love old maps, this book is a must-read. The book is about how America got its name, and how the New World came to be portrayed in early maps. But to get there, this book shows how the world was portrayed in the earliest maps of antiquity, and thus it becomes a treatise on the evolution of mankind's worldviews.

The next two books relate to business. In The Match King by Frank Partnoy (Perseus Books Group, 2009), the author tells us the story of Ivar Kreuger, a global financier during the Roaring Twenties whose aggressive schemes were the progenitors of much of the abuse we have seen as part of today's Great Recession. Partnoy has been one of the most valuable voices in illuminating the abuses of the investment banking community, but even if you don't like financial scandal, the book has plenty to titillate.

In Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (Penguin Group (USA), 2010), the author provides a productive roadmap to structured innovation. My own background is business, and it was inordinately helpful in that respect, but the book is just as useful as a roadmap to understanding the human mind.

Bonk by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Co, 2008). If you like sex, and aren't too prudish, read this one. Short, lively, and full of revelations, you'll make a quick read of it. And I won't even bother to mention how the book conveys that the distance between the clitoris and the vagina is directly correlated to the frequency of the female orgasm, lest my readers be offended.

Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009). A history of America between 1789 and 1815, masterfully told with detail and nuance that will deeply enrich your understanding of our country. If you look at the history shelf in almost any bookstore, you'll find book after book on certain eras in our history - especially World War II and the Civil War, with a smattering of the American Revolution, the 1960s, and the Roaring Twenties/Great Depression.  Thus wide swaths of our history that are of equal or greater importance are largely overlooked. This is one such period—the period in which the sketchy blueprint of our Constitution was actually put into practice and the business of being The United States of America commenced.

Second City Unscripted by Mike Thomas (Random House, Inc., New York, 2009). Second City is the holiest of holy destinations in American comedy, the starting gate for countless comedians from John Belushi to Steven Colbert. This is an intimately told history of that legendary place.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009). Who knew that Nike was responsible for an increase in sports injuries? Or that the greatest extreme race of our age was in a dangerous and desolate corner of northern Mexico. This book is a sort of travelogue that a friend recommended I read, which I did only begrudgingly, but it ended up being one of those transformative and indelible reads.

Now for the last two. Here's where I have to confess to a weakness. I believe World War I—the Great War—was the quintessential, defining event of the twentieth century. In both the number of casualties and the weaponry used.  It represented something radically different from what had gone before. In fact, I would argue that World War I would have been just another ordinary war with the same kind of esoteric and mundane causes as hundreds of wars before, except that the combatants found themselves with new industrial age weapons and power beyond anything they could have dreamed of or controlled. Further, I would thus argue that the story of both World War I and II was the story of the world's struggle to come to grips with this awesome and terrible new power. Some historians now view the two World Wars as a single thirty year war, and while I wouldn't go quite that far, the causes and themes of World War II stemmed directly from World War I and its inadequate resolution, and studying World War II in isolation leads to false conclusions about the meaning of that war.
In that context, my last to recommendations are books about World War I. The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson (McArthur & Co Pub Ltd, 2009) is an utterly human portrayal of the terrible effect of the war on ordinary British citizens. The greatest heartbreak comes from the thousands upon thousands whose faces were ruined in the war, the futile attempts to repair those faces, and the non-lives those individuals were then left to endure. A World Undone by G.J. Meyer (Delacorte Press, 2006) is for me simply the best single volume history of the Great War, thorough and compellingly told.

Happy holidays!

Richard Vague




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