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The Best Books I Read in 2016

January 5, 2017

Acting on a prompt from Andrew Seal at the USIH Blog, I submitted the following as a long comment there—which seems appropriate to reproduce here. Andy asked not about the best books published in 2016, but the best books we had read during the year—no matter when produced. I read:

1. Both volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I think I liked volume 1 better. This is one I’d read snippets of, and around the book for years. I needed a deep dive in the circumstances of early 19th century America, and this helped. I now understand better why both sides of the spectrum find something to like in these works.

2. Jason Stahl’s Right Moves. This caused a four-part reflection on Jesse Jackson at the USIH blog. Need I say more!  But I will. I really, really appreciated Stahl’s chapter on New Democrats and their think tanks. I needed to read that exactly when I was into his book.

3. Michael Schudson’s Rise of the Right to Know. I obtained this to write a review for the American Studies Journal (AMSJ), and found myself engaged by Schudson’s argument, which revolved around legislative activities, journalism, FOIA requests, open records orgs, etc. I don’t read a lot of legislative history, but this book held my attention. I found the overall argument overly optimistic, and said so in my review. But I was happy to be told the history of a subject about which I knew little beforehand.

4. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Even though these lectures read like dissertation chapters, with their long excerpts, I wasn’t particularly bothered by it—mostly because James’ reflections and integrative passages worked for me. I kept wondering how a Muslim or Buddhist or practitioner of Hinduism might read the text. But it worked for this Catholic. I haven’t read much early psychology (only snippets of, and few essays, from Freud—must read Civilization and Its Discontents, btw), so this was a revelation to me.

5. Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites (esp. the first 4 chapters).  After reading around Lasch for years (as I did with Tocqueville), and snippets of chapters, I invested some time in this work. Why? Mostly for the title and in relation to my interest in anti-elitism. But after reading I discovered that Lasch and I share a number of views in common, though I depart from his Shire-esque views on the function of the state, and his overly romantic view of “family.”

6. Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. I had absorbed the message of this book years before, through several articles and reviews. But I appreciated the force of their message better after a sustained reading.- TL

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