Book Time #5: Best of 2023
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These are my favorite books I read in 2023. Yes, the year isn’t over yet, but I figured I’d send out the list so you could buy an early present for yourself or a loved one. I also made it into a Bookshop list for your convenience.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, Daniel Yergin
It wasn’t that long ago everyone was freaking out about gas prices, and it won’t be long until everyone does it again. This history of oil and power—and how they became virtually synonymous by the end of the 20th Century—has stuck with me. I especially loved the chapter on World War II, in which the author reframes the entire conflict around access to and use of oil.
Forbidden Neighbors: A Story of Prejudice in Housing, Charles Abrams
This book came out in 1955. It’s not prescient so much as evergreen. Reading it crystalized for me that there has always been a housing crisis in America to one degree or another. Times we think of as having housing abundance, like the 1950s with vast tract suburban housing construction, are an historical mirage. This surplus was at the direct expense of people of color legally barred from living there, forced to live in ghettos with more profound housing crises than we can today imagine. This book is not easy to find, but if you're into housing and urban issues it is well worth the effort.
Unfortunately, this one is not listed on Bookshop. I got it via interlibrary loan, one of the most under-appreciated public amenities in America today.
And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry, John Hoerr
I’m surprised I don’t hear about this book more often. Hoerr grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania steel country, spent his whole career as a journalist covering the industry and organized labor, then wrote this book before semi-retiring. As a journalist myself who covers labor issues, I know how hard it is to have both the corporate and union sides trust you enough to tell a story with this much access. Hoerr obviously had that and the book is all the better for it. It’s a tremendously even-handed account of how the U.S. steel industry not only became uncompetitive but almost died. There is plenty of blame to go around. Hoerr is so good here, not just at bringing complex negotiations to life, but showing why you should care. It takes real talent to make collective bargaining agreements exciting while presenting it in all its nuance.
This book also features my favorite paragraph I read all year:
“We New York journalists who specialize in economic reporting can take the economic pulse of the nation without leaving our offices. We read the Dow-Jones ticker for the news on mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies, punch up the latest stock-market prices on a Bunker-Ramo, and scan the reports issued daily, weekly, and monthly by the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve, Commerce Department, and Bureau of Labor Statistics. A formidable array of data practically leaps at us from all sources—figures showing money supply, housing starts, ten-day auto sales, retail sales, consumer and producer price indexes, new claims for unemployment insurance, gold and commodity prices, raw steel production, crude-oil refinery runs, number of people employed and unemployed, bond yields, and so on. Some of my colleagues can immerse themselves in these numbers and produce images portraying the state of the American economy at any given moment. As I understand the process, the images unreel in their minds like a 16-millimeter negative, displaying shadowy integers cavorting in various patterns which are converted to hard print as economic forecasts. This approximation of macroeconomic reality sometimes even proves to be almost correct.”
[You can buy this one on Bookshop but it’s currently $60. There are used copies floating around for much less.]
Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, Henry Grabar
It’s not easy to write about parking in a way anyone in their right mind would want to read. It’s even harder to write an entire book about parking everyone will enjoy. Grabar pulled it off.
[Buy on Bookshop.]
Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, Ian Black
I picked this up at the Brooklyn Public Library’s annual book sale last year and got around to it at the beginning of the year. As a Jewish kid ensconced in a conservative synagogue let’s just say I never exactly got a balanced version of things growing pp. Enemies and Neighbors comes about as close as a single book can get to an historically even-handed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict that is, tragically, as relevant as ever. This was already on my year-end list as of October 6, but if you're looking for a reasonably-sized single volume on how we got here, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, Beth Bailey
I’m a sucker for deeply researched historical works on a quirky aspect of cultural history. From Front Porch delivers with a snappy, entertaining account of dating mores. So many cultural norms invented since the Victorian era are now regarded as timeless because Americans have the historical memory of a grumpy toddler.
Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, Henry Caudill
Two hugely important books came out in 1962/63: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Henry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Both received huge press attention, public debate, and had profound impacts on public policy for the rest the decade. Only one of them is still widely remembered today.
Cumberlands was credited in the 60s for making Appalachia the center of Kennedy and Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts. At the time, a lot of Americans genuinely thought poverty barely existed in the U.S. and ascribed starvation-level subsistence to “the third world.” It shocked people to find out such conditions existed right here. Cumberlands brought national spotlight not just on the depths of poverty in the region, but the causes of it, which are still being debated today.
Silent Spring and Cumberlands have much in common thematically as well. Cumberlands is an environmental history as much as an economic and cultural one. A huge chunk of it is dedicated to the desecration of a beautiful place by all kinds of deforestation and mining, but particularly strip mining, of which Caudill would maintain a lifelong opposition to.
Unfortunately, the postscript for Cumberlands is dark. Caudill became a fervent supporter of “dysgenics,” the view that dumb people breed more and weaken the gene pool. He more than flirted with such extremist policies as forced sterilization programs based on IQ scores. None of that is in the book, and there’s no evidence he believed such things at the time of the book’s publication, although in retrospect I can recall a few passages that demonstrate his susceptibility to such theories. (This comes from a brilliant 50th anniversary series by the Lexington-Herald Leader on Cumberlands and its impact, essential companion reading.)
I didn’t know all this when I read the book, so I can’t say how it would have impacted my impressions if I had. But I’d like to think I’d still be able to appreciate the book for what it is—a beautifully written account of a tragic place and people—rather than for what Caudill would later believe.
Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, Nicole Hemmer
Writing a book about how nuts far right conservatives are is quite popular these days, but it requires little more than transcription. It is much harder to write a deeply researched and elegantly told book about how the far right conservative movement organized and spread its message in a way that is neither judgmental nor exculpatory. Hemmer pulls it off in Messengers of the Right, a book that is as easy to read as it is informative of how the conservative media ecosystem was born.
The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Jerome Karabel
I gushed about this book a few months ago in the first edition, you can read that here.
The MLK Trilogy, Taylor Branch
You just heard me go on about this, no need to repeat myself.
What was your favorite book you read this year? Let me know by replying to this email.
Have a great holiday season! See you in 2024. Happy reading.