It was a ‘back to the drawing board’ kind of year for the kind of people who read books. A world turned upside down dropped a lot of hopes and ambitions in the trash heap. It was a time for looking back, reflected in the presence of three historical counterfactuals in the reading list. We seem to be living in the history we thought could never happen, so it makes sense to look at histories that didn’t happen for guidance.
Here are some of the books that I either read this year, or looked back to for insight.
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
This book was an award magnet for good reason. Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad as a physical entity. By blurring real with imagined history, he places the absurdity of slavery and racial terror in a more accessible context. Using magical realism to describe that time renders the actual realism, and its persistent modern-day offspring, even more insane.
Dominion – CJ Sansome
What if Churchill in 1940 had lost his bid to become Prime Minister and Britain had made peace with Germany? In 1952, Churchill is in hiding, organizing a shadowy resistance to Britain’s Nazi-allied government. Sansome paints a picture of ordinary life under a British Fascist regime and the day-to-day moral challenges it presents.
The Plot Against America – Phillip Roth
Popular Nazi sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh, was very nearly recruited by Republicans in the America First Movement to run against FDR in 1940. Roth revisits this historical near-miss to examine what might have happened if Lindbergh had run and won. This is a particularly valuable read because Roth wrote the book in response to the abuses of the Bush Administration, a reminder that America First did not just arrive in the headlines last year.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right – Arlie Russell Hochschild
A sociology professor at Berkeley travels to Lake Charles, Louisiana to understand the Tea Party fervor. Her timing could not have been better, as the book was released in mid-2016. Billed as a sympathetic effort to build bridges, it inevitably veered toward anthropology. There was simply no way to reconcile the mindset of her subjects with the skeptical, urban worldview necessary to create this kind of inquiry. One is left less with a less sense of hope than with a challenge to win in an unavoidable clash of civilizations.
Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads – Paul Theroux
America’s premier travel writer two years ago wrote what remains today the best piece of ‘Trump whisper’ non-fiction. At gun shows and churches he hears an unvarnished account of modern Southern life on both sides of the racial divide. He manages to deliver an account that is appreciative, sympathetic, and unsentimental. His account of Southern rural poverty is particularly striking and prescient.
This is the first of three volumes in Taylors definitive history of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an important textbook for frustrated suburbanities, waking up to their first taste of political activism. As the initial book of the trilogy, it lays out in painstaking details the nuts-and-bolts organizational challenges facing reformers who sought to challenge a terrorist state with little existing infrastructure on which to rely. More than a history, it is a how to guide for middle class activists unfamiliar with demands of activism.
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
Towles’ second novel is a sad, relentlessly humane, and occasionally humorous story of revolution. Count Alexander Rostov returns to Moscow in 1922. He has friends among the Bolsheviks who preserve his life, but as an aristocrat he cannot escape punishment. He’s sentenced to spend his life at his current residence, the Metropol Hotel. Like a clever Forrest Gump, Rostov finds himself experiencing many of 20th century Russia’s pivotal moments without leaving the building. The book is a sobering reminder of the unpredictable human costs of revolution.