Favorite Books of 2018

I set myself two book-related goals this year: first, I established a target of reading 50 (non-children’s) books. I missed it by some distance.

Second, I pronounced a moratorium on book purchases. This went quite well until October, when I purchased two books for a church class (a violation of the letter — but not the spirit — of the law), and a subsequent visit to the library around Thanksgiving. 

The library was selling books to raise funds, and — whilst perusing the stacks — I spied a hardcover copy of Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation on offer for the paltry sum of $2. This, my friends, is the greatest bargain that has ever been offered. Seriously. How could I turn it down?

Also, as Lao Tzu said, “A tree that is unbending is easily broken.”

Moreover, I reasoned to myself, what shall I do with my DVDs of the BBC series when DVD players go the way of the dodo? How will I enjoy the art and wisdom? How will I pass Sir Clark’s lessons on to my sons? Is it not possible that all of Western Civilization may hinge on this one decision?!

Well, it’s all been downhill after that, with the Amazon boxes arriving like waves of Persians pressing against the gates at Thermopylae.

In any event, the following books are my four favorite reads from this year.

[Previous editions of this series may be found here.]

Bad Blood | John Carreyrou

The miniLab is the most important thing humanity has ever built.
— Elizabeth Holmes, as quoted in Bad Blood

John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood was the best book I read in 2018. It exceeds the hype. Carreyrou writes a ripping yarn, and the scope and the scale of the fraud that was Theranos is absolutely astonishing. Jaw-dropping revelations appear on nearly every page. 

The book is replete with delusional people — including an array of credulous board members culled from the upper echelons of the U.S. national security establishment — and is chock-a-block full of shameless mendacity, contemptible management, wanton disregard for patient safety, and atrocious failures of governance. 

A bona fide tale for our times.


Amazon | IndieBound | Library

The Handmaid’s Tale | Margaret Atwood

It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters of our lives.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian theocracy-of-sorts is chilling. I had a genuine feeling of terror for the protagonist, Offred. I challenge any reader to come away from the book without an appreciation for the importance of reproductive rights. 

I mean, we live in a time when the President of the United States has boasted, “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

The craziest thing about the book is how it all seems plausible. Indeed, in some corners of the world — including some pockets here in the States — Atwood’s appalling setting is deemed utopian.

Amazon | IndieBound | Library

Directorate S | Steve Coll

From the first days following September 11, America’s principal goal in Afghanistan was to destroy Al Qaeda. After more than a decade of effort, Al Qaeda remained active, lethal, and adaptive … The fallout from the Afghan war also persuaded Pakistan’s leaders, after 2011, to give up on any strategic partnership with Washington and to deepen ties to Beijing.

I want to live in a country where my kids don’t have to choose between a Bhutto and a Sharif.
— Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, former Director General of ISI, as quoted in Directorate S

Steve Coll’s Directorate S continues the story of the United States’s “secret wars” in Afghanistan and Pakistan where Ghost Wars left off, bringing readers forward from September 11th to the waning days of the Obama administration. 

Directorate S refers to the units within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that work covertly with the Taliban, Islamic extremist groups in Kashmir, etc., and which have proven to be as irksome a foe as those found northwest of the Durand Line.

Coll’s research is meticulous and the narrative has pace. Candidly the book’s level of detail is probably overkill for most people. But, I once worked on these issues and knew some of the characters, so I found it to be quite enjoyable.

Sometimes, when I ponder career decisions I’ve made, I wonder whether I should have carried on in the world of national security / diplomacy / whatever in the Middle East and South Asia.

“Would I have made a difference?” I ask myself. 

Certainly, I could have made an impact at the tactical level. But at the strategic level? Would any of it have mattered?

Coll’s book offers a resounding answer: lol, absolutely not.

Amazon | IndieBound | Library

Christianity, Diplomacy and War | Herbert Butterfield

We seek too great a sovereignty over our history; and it is wiser to imagine ourselves as rather preparing the ground where many of the most important things in life will grow of themselves. We underestimate the importance of peace and stability in this respect — the importance of peace as the necessary condition for the development of human reasonableness and for the proper balancing of the activities of men.

We might say that even if the United States found itself master of the world, it would become less likely that a man of reasonableness and moderation would be elected to the Presidency.

Herbert Butterfield, whom I discovered in a footnote in Toynbee’s A Study of History, has appeared several times on this blog. His musings constitute a veritable gift that keeps on giving.

Christianity, Diplomacy and War [1953] is yet one more deeply edifying lecture series, with this one’s aim centering on how the beliefs and forces of Christianity may be used to solve problems — be they at the level of human nature, the nation-state, or the international system. 

But the book’s also quite a bit more: a discourse on the value of history and the utility of trust, a lesson on the universality of human sin and culpability, a plea for limiting (and limited) war, and an exhortation to avoid ideology and self-righteousness. 

It is a welcome reminder that the individual human being is the appropriate unit of analysis.

Spread the love y’all. Happy holidays.

Amazon | Library