The Best Books Read in 2017

For the sixth straight year, I have rounded up my favorite books of the year (though not necessarily published this year) and presented them here in the hopes that you might find something that piques your own interest. For the first time, I have presented them as a Top 10 list. Of the roughly 80 books I read this year, I first isolated about 20 of them for potential inclusion, then performed another surgery to get it down to 15, then really dug in deep with the scalpel to identify the best 10.

This has been a year unlike any other in my 35 years, to put it mildly, bewildering and exhausting in equal measure, a year-long exercise in gaslighting that has probably rewired all our brains in some ineffable way; opening up my Twitter feed each morning feels like an act of increasing courage.

Things have gotten so radioactive that nearly every move one makes can often feel like a reaction to the political and social moment; choosing not to get worked up over the latest ground-shifting news, if only for mental health reasons, is itself a conscious political decision, and of course that extends to our reading choices as well. What I pulled off the shelf this year was either a necessary distraction from the noise, or a head-long attempt to engage with it. I think my list speaks to that conflict, and I suspect it will only become more acute in 2018.

Onto the list!

10. Don’t Skip Out on Me (2018), by Willy Vlautin
I am including this book, forthcoming in February, because Willy Vlautin deserves a wider readership. His stories are models of plain-spoken beauty (think John Steinbeck or Kent Haruf) with zero artifice and an almost radical humanism incapable of judgment. When I read Vlautin’s novels, I typically feel underwhelmed by the lack of theatrics until he suddenly wallops me in the jaw with an emotional one-two. In this one, a wayward ranch-hand leaves the only stable home he’s ever known to pursue his dreams of becoming a champion boxer. It turns out his greatest opponent is himself.

9. White Tears (2017), by Hari Kunzru

The first half of this book is a perceptive but fairly straightforward narrative about two Brooklyn hipsters who fetishize black music of the 1920s in search of a conjured (and commercialized) “authenticity”. The second half turns into a phantasmagorical journey into America’s dark history that will be familiar to anyone who’s read the novels of Steve Erickson (about whom more later), and a worthy complement for the next book on my list.

8. Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records (2014), by Amanda Petrusich
One of those inquisitive-author-goes-native books, like Word Freak (about hardcore Scrabble players) or Skyjack (about D.B. Cooper conspiracy theorists), this is a deep dive into the peculiar subculture of record collectors. And not just your run-of-the-mill, look-through-used-crates record collectors, but collectors of super-rare 78-rpm blues recordings that may only have 2 extant copies that may require scuba diving into the Milwaukee River to retrieve. Petrusich gets to the bottom of why someone would make his life’s work searching at great expense for music that can be accessed for free on YouTube, but she does her best work examining the cultural impact those first-guard collectors had on framing the history of this music — and the obscure artists who created it — for generations to come.

7. The Nix (2016), by Nathan Hill
Here’s the best John Irving novel in 20 years; small wonder why Irving raved about it to The New York Times. There’s definitely a Garp-like feel to this, as well as a less curmudgeonly Franzen vibe. The specter of David Foster Wallace also hovers overhead. The Nix is essentially a 300-page mother-son drama, padded out to twice its length with myriad sideplots, chapters devoted to secondary characters, literary experiments, and cultural digressions galore. Beneath the stylistic razzle-dazzle, there’s quite a lot to chew on — and the complex narrative architecture holds up. Impressive stuff from this debut novelist.

6. Shadowbahn (2017), by Steve Erickson
Summarizing the plot of this novel — the Twin Towers have re-emerged in South Dakota, people hear different songs emanating out of them, and Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin Jesse is alive on the top floor — is insufficient in capturing the truly disorienting sway it has on the reader. This is a book that is moving and confounding (often simultaneously), capacious enough to take in all of American history and intimate enough to reflect the dread of the current moment (often simultaneously), each page cascading with ideas and possibilities — and killer songs. An elegiac, disturbing bookend to Erickson’s previous novel, These Dreams of You.

5. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016), by Carol Anderson
In this slim, devastating volume, Anderson convincingly argues that America has been one long conspiracy against black people, with every measure of progress since the end of the Civil War met with a virulent and well-organized resistance by whites. There is now a cottage industry of books purporting to explain How Trump Won, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another that lays it out so compactly as this, published before the election but adroitly prefiguring its results: “Trump…dangled a vision before his constituency where the vast resources of the nation would flow to whites, who in a few years would be a numerical minority, but whose comfortable lifestyle would be supported by a large but virtually right-less body of workers, cowed by threats of deportation and virtually unchecked police power in black and brown neighborhoods.”

4. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (2016), by Heather Ann Thompson
I wrote at greater length about Blood in the Water here, but the short version is that this book, a decade in the making, is a miracle of reporting and an essential corrective that shatters all the myths surrounding the Attica prison riots. Nearly 50 years on, those five fateful days in September 1971 have left a complicated, unresolved legacy, and Thompson has doggedly charted them all, despite heavy resistance from the State of New York. As a contribution to our national conversation about mass incarceration and prisoners’ rights, it couldn’t be timelier. Read this after Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

3. Song of Solomon (1977), by Toni Morrison
In most other years, this would’ve been my #1 choice, but it will have to settle for simply being the best novel I read this year. Since winning the Nobel Prize in 1993, Morrison’s writing has become more elliptical and aphoristic, but this book is the great author at her most generous, filled with humor, asides, family lore, unforgettable characters, rollicking and diamond-sharp dialogue, and extraordinary scope. As I march through Morrison’s fiction, I remain in awe of her ability to conjure whole universes out of ordinary people, imbuing them with the grandeur of epic drama. Magical and mythical.

2. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In which the most incisive American author of his generation searches for his voice, finds it, then perfects it. Though I read most of the pieces when they first ran in The Atlantic, reading them in sequence here (prefaced by illuminating essays that explain their genesis and his regrets) re-contextualizes them as a single, symphonic whole. The final two essays, “My President Was Black” and the book’s epilogue, “The First White President,” are now points of departure for understanding the Trump era; “The Case for Reparations” remains provocative and unsettling; and “Fear of a Black President” may be the definitive document when we reflect back on the heartbreaking optimism of the Obama years. These are brutal, incendiary works that, agree or disagree, must be reckoned with.

1. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1994), by Janet Malcolm

“In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction … only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”

This book confirms it: I am an unabashed Janet Malcolm fanboy. I can’t get enough of her sleek little letter bombs, masked by the genteel New Yorker house style, all dressed up in her patented, surgical prose: erudite, witty, cutting, and oh-so-elegant. Ostensibly about the biographers of Sylvia Plath and their run-ins with her literary executor/gatekeeper Olwyn Hughes, Plath’s sister-in-law, it quickly evolves into the kind of meta-textual psychodrama for which Malcolm is famous — and always an active participant thereof.

In her most famous book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm compared the journalist to a “confidence man,” preying on the vanity and insecurity of his subject, who invariably believes the transaction will result in her favor before learning her “hard lesson” when she sees her story appropriated in print. The journalist-subject relationship is inherently fraudulent, Malcolm argues. Deception and betrayal are baked into the cake.

The Silent Woman goes even further: the biographer is effectively a “professional burglar*,” ransacking her subject’s drawers for life details while hiding behind the artifice of the genre, for which readers, in a “state of bovine equanimity,” naively extend substantial literary credit, turning the whole experience into an act of “collusion.”

*Malcolm is never shy with her metaphors.

The reader, who believes the biographer has been holed up in libraries poring through archives and neutrally weighing boxes’ worth of evidence, is blissfully unaware of the simple politics underpinning most biographies, namely those of access: Who controls your life story when you’re gone? Who gets to tell it and what makes their accounts authoritative? And what does it mean for those still alive, who are not characters in a novel but living, breathing people, to see their human foibles and human contradictions as mere writer’s material?

If you’re the biographer, what compromises are you willing to make to secure that access? In the case of a major writer like Plath, that means being able to quote from her works at length. It means being granted access to her inner circle, who are only too happy to oblige you with their (ever-partisan) stories: The Silent Woman is filled with people all jockeying for their rightful position within the Official Plath Narrative, however tenuous. And, like always, Malcolm is not able to exempt herself from her own withering gaze; she too becomes one of the burglars.

Does this all sound hopelessly academic, too inside baseball? It’s not, I promise you: I’ve only touched on a couple of the layers of this endlessly fascinating book, which I read twice this year and will give your highlighter an active workout. Malcolm writes this like a literary detective story, and its implications, particularly when social media has rendered our stories even more expendable, are worth anyone’s consideration. It’s the one book this year I was never able to shake, and for that reason above all, it’s my pick for Book of the Year.

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