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!

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Walter Becker (1950-2017)

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
–Donald Fagen, in a statement

When you read up on the pop era’s most memorable songwriting teams (Leiber-Stoller, Bacharach-David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin-King, John-Taupin), it usually emerges that each member was generally responsible for a particular element of the song. One guy does the music, the other the lyrics, maybe they both help arrange the song, but the division of labor is clear. Even Lennon and McCartney had moved away from their “eyeball to eyeball” writing sessions by the end, their shared credit just a gentlemen’s agreement.

The long and innovative collaboration of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — whose music under the Steely Dan moniker is every bit the equal of those other songwriting teams — was, by all accounts, a genuine and inextricable partnership. It’s not possible to delineate with any assurance who contributed what to each song. Their mutual appreciation of jazz and of sci-fi/beat literature meant they were already in sync, musically and lyrically, when they started to write songs together on demand as Brill Building-type songwriters, and it continued when they created out of thin air a sound that to this day carries an aura and mystique that is unmistakably theirs.

Of course, each member brought his own sensibility to bear. Despite Fagen’s arranging genius (and I believe he is one), without Becker, Steely Dan would have been exactly what its critics always thought they were: antiseptic, vacuum-sealed, and bloodless. Becker brought the edge to Steely Dan (hard-earned, it turned out), an attitude that all the yacht rock successors who superficially imitated their sound could never match (I’m looking at you, Toto).

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Blood in the Water (2016), by Heather Ann Thompson

A monumental work of reporting, this book is an exhaustive (and exhausting) account of the four-day Attica Prison rebellion that took nearly four decades to resolve*. Indeed, by the time the uprising ends and the prison has been violently retaken, there is still well more than half the book left, given to a mind-numbing parade of lawsuits and legal machinations. That Thompson is able to make this half as dramatic as the first is remarkable.

*If in fact it ever has been resolved. Despite some modest payouts to victims, the state has never admitted any wrongdoing in its calamitous decision to retake the prison with such fatal, arbitrary force, nor was any law enforcement official involved in the retaking ever indicted.

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The Best Books Read in 2016

Here is my annual round-up of the 12 best books I read this year, one for every month. The list is alphabetical by author. For the first time since I started keeping annual lists (about 11 years, I believe), I cannot pick a single book to be my favorite. Several of them vied at times for the top spot, but I couldn’t settle on one, so I will not choose one absolute favorite this year*. Hey, if it’s good enough for the Pulitzer board, it’s good enough for me.

Happy reading!

*I retroactively awarded two novels this honor: Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier, and Toni Morrison’s Sula.

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What It Takes (1992), by Richard Ben Cramer

Is there such a thing as being too definitive?

The late Richard Ben Cramer’s titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, which purport to tell us what the candidates are really thinking, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison.

 

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The level of commitment from Cramer here is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate’s life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out).
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