As we do every year, we’ve asked ToM contributors to weigh in on a deliberately misleading Best of 2016. Why misleading? Because most of us have enough difficulty keeping up with the vast backlog of human cultural expression as it is, let alone reading all the new books and hearing all the latest musical fare of the last year. Which is to say: many of our “Best of 2016” picks are from 2016, but not all of them. Some are from that halcyon era known as “Before January 1, 2016.”
Over the next few posts, our crack team of readers, watchers, listeners, and retweeters discuss the best of what they read/watched/heard/enjoyed over the last year. First up, books n’ things. Followed by movies, music, memes, and more.
Best Book (overall)
Alex Sayf Cummings, associate professor, Georgia State: Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is my new white whale. Even though I’m only 26% through it (according to the iPad), I find that I can’t quit it. It’s reminiscent of Irish author Flann O’Brien’s classic works The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive, where a bunch of dorks are obsessed with a fictional intellectual/philosopher/novelist, and the nerdy academese of it all is irresistible to resist.
Of books published in 2016, few could surpass Krin Gabbard’s dazzling “interpretive biography” of Charles Mingus, Better Git It in Your Soul. Gabbard has the advantage of writing about a tempestuous, larger-than-life figure, whose story would interest any readers who care about the history of jazz, race, and politics in the twentieth century US. The book also benefits from Gabbard’s writing style, which alternates between probing analyses of Mingus’s music and an almost novelistic telling of the extraordinary life of this singular individual–a genius who started out as a kid of mixed white, black, Native American, and Asian ancestry, lugging his cello through the streets of Watts in the 1930s.
Also, this urgent piece of literature:
Todd Moye, professor of History, University of North Texas: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Much has been made of the science fiction aspects of The Underground Railroad, but I was blown away by its retelling of U.S. history. Whitehead borrows from several historic slave narratives, alludes to important 19th- and early 20th-century debates among African Americans, and illustrates throughout how elusive the goal of true freedom has been in this country. I have to think it’s impossible to come away from the experience of reading this book without understanding viscerally how foundational slavery was (is) to any American institution you can think of, and how foundational utter barbarism was to the institution. Every time I put the book down after reading a passage I found myself contemplating just how hollow our national ideals are and have been—and I read it last summer, when it looked like a strong majority of voters would reject Trumpism.
Cherie Braden, PhD candidate in Philosophy, University of Colorado: Warsaw Shire‘s poetry.
Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, PhD candidate in Latin American History at UC-San Diego: Andreas Laskaratos, Reflections (Aiora, 2015).
Lauren MacIvor Thompson, visiting assistant professor in History, Kennesaw State University: Though originally published in 2003, I highly recommend Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor – the only non-academic book I read this year, but it was wonderful. A story of family, class, and the discipline of mathematics in 1990s Japan by a woman writer.
Nick Juravich, PhD candidate in History, Columbia University: I’m going to spend a lot of these replies searching for silver linings for the hell-a-palooza, but in a year of unabashed racism and appeals to law-and-order fascism, it was heartening to see a pair of massive books by groundbreaking historians – Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water – listed as finalists for the National Book Award, and even more heartening to see Stamped win the award. They’re both fantastic, of course.
Jael Vizcarra, PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC-San Diego: Gora by Rabindranath Tagore (1910) is worth mentioning here as a close contender because I couldn’t put the damn book down and got really invested in the argumentation and moral dilemma’s of the main characters, but I will have to go with Pig Earth (1979) by John Berger. I immensely enjoyed Berger’s story-telling for its ability to capture often derided details of the everyday life of peasants. You get to read about things like the travails of human-mediated sheep insemination, the cycle of debt brought about by modern farming techniques, and city bureaucrats looking to punish poor peasants for the crime of home-made spirits. Berger’s portrait of the French peasantry insists that people whose habits and belongings modernity so arrogantly and erroneously labels as “backward” are a survivor class on the verge of imminent destruction all over the world.
Joel Suarez, PhD candidate in History at Princeton University: Adichie’s Americanah and Quinones’s Dreamland. These are big, popular books for a good reason. Americanah is simply a good story, but I found myself surprised by how often her passages on immigrant life resonated with me despite the profound differences in experience. Dreamland will knock you on your ass. It’s depressing, but an incredible achievement of storytelling and reporting. Quinones will take you through the Mexican countryside, pharmaceutical company boardrooms, West Virginia doctor’s offices, science labs, suburban Idaho, and wherever else the tale of America’s opiate epidemic takes place.
Best Academic Book or Journal Article
Lauren: Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Troy: Jael Vizcarra, “Humanitarian Disappointments” in Amerasia, Vol. 42, No. 2, 2016.
Nick: I’m gonna be a total homer here, but a trio of books that started as Columbia dissertations were published this year. They all break new ground in twentieth century US history, and they’re all must-read books. Elizabeth Kai Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America reframes the policy legacy of the Johnson administration and midcentury liberalism more broadly, showing how policy “wars” came to produce massive casualties in urban America, while Michael Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City picks up the story of the “war on poverty from the grass roots up” from Annelise Orleck and company and gives us a long, penetrating look at the intersection of local organizing and national antipoverty policy across nearly half a century. Finally, Ansley T. Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Legacy puts schools and schooling at the center of postwar metropolitan growth and inequality, using a case study of Nashville to show how even a statistically-desegregated school district could and did redistribute the costs and benefits of postwar prosperity in unequal ways. Run, don’t walk, for these three.
ASC: Eliot Tretter’s Shadows of a Sunbelt City offers a deep and urgently needed critical rethinking of the history of Austin, the University of Texas, and the so-called creative economy. My slightly douchey review is forthcoming in the Journal of Social History.
Jael: Eric Tang’s Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto. Tang’s ability to capture the precarity of Cambodian refugee life and struggle without sounding like a U.N. report gave the book an air of hope. Notwithstanding the limits of representation, he manages to present the life stories of his interlocutors in such a way that preserves their voice and dignity. An exemplary book in the field of critical refugee studies and studies about regional racial formations in the U.S..
H. Robert Baker, associate professor of History at Georgia State: Madison’s Hand, by Mary Sarah Bilder. It was published late in 2015, so most weren’t picking it up until 2016. No, it’s not a book about Founder fetishes or some such nonsense. It is about James Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention, which is our primary source for understanding the secret meeting in Philadelphia that produced the U.S. Constitution. Among the things you learn reading Bilder’s breathtaking book: Madison revised and enlarged important parts of the Notes after the fact and Thomas Jefferson influenced the Notes completion. Apologies to originalists.
Cherie: Everyone should read On Certainty. I hail from the cult of analytic philosophy, where the most indoctrinated among us disdain later Wittgenstein in favor of the cold Tractatus. When On Certainty and The Philosophical Investigations come up, there is often eye-rolling among my ilk. I hear complaints that later Wittgenstein is too mystical, too quietist, too aphoristic. But the beauty (and truth) to be found in On Certainty is its unwillingness to pretend answers, and its insistence on leaving unanswerable questions unanswered. It isn’t a religious text. He isn’t right about everything. But the content of this text is at the very heart of nearly everything we’re doing in contemporary epistemology.
144. The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.170. I believe what people transmit to me in a certain manner. In this way I believe geographical, chemical, historical facts etc. That is how I learn the sciences. Of course learning is based on believing.616. Why, would it be unthinkable that I should stay in the saddle however much the facts bucked?
Joel: I’ve been fairly focused on dissertation-related reading, but outside of that very narrow world a couple of classics stood out. Thomas Holt’s The Problem of Freedom and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Idea of Poverty combine the approach of subfields typically seen to be virtually mutually exclusive (social and intellectual history) to take on big questions.