Michael Patrick Brady


My Favorite Books of 2008

November 24, 2008

I’ve been very lucky to be able to read a number of truly excellent books this year. Most of my reading, as this list of my favorite books of 2008 will show, has been historical non-fiction. I’m not averse to fiction–quite the opposite, in fact–it’s just that I find myself catching up with classics and reading older novels more than keeping tabs on contemporary work. The fiction I did read this year, like Blood Meridian or the works of H.P. Lovecraft, was fantastic; just not timely enough for this list’s purposes.

If there’s a common theme in the five books listed below, it’s that all concern respect for reason. Reason is the keystone of a progressive, functioning society. That includes not just the ability to think for one’s self and to accept the truth no matter how difficult, but also the power for self-reflection. To fail to assess one’s own biases and beliefs is to walk into a trap from which you may never escape.

My Favorite Books of 2008

1. London Rising
Leo Hollis

In the wake of a devastating disaster, a nation turns not to fear or dischord but instead looks to reason and science as a way of unifying their society and healing the wound. The result? A thriving modern metropolis that becomes the center of the world’s largest empire. London Rising chronicles the role five men (Christopher Wren, John Locke, John Evelyn, Nicholas Barbon, and Robert Hook) had on reshaping the city after the Great Fire of 1666 utterly destroyed it. Hollis shows readers how their New Philosophy (that is, early empirical science) accelerated the city’s recovery and ushered in the Age of Reason. They put out the lingering fires of medieval thought and sparked a revolution of the mind that would serve as the foundation for the modern world’s evolution.

2. Richard and John: Kings at War
Frank McLynn
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Frank McLynn is a writer of the first order. He’s a man in love with words, and who knows that to tell the stories of the greatest and most reviled English monarchs, he’s going to need as many precisely descriptive terms as possible. Richard and John: Kings at War is a remarkably face-paced, enthralling narrative, following the two men through their dysfunctional family life and epic public undertakings with clear and unmitigated passion for the subject. McLynn turns this historical biography into a true page turner as he recounts Richard the Lionheart’s cat-and-mouse game against Saladin in the Holy Land or King John’s duplicitous maneuvering to secure total supremacy in Britain. These figures are rendered in sharp detail, and the adventurous, dangerous, and daring times in which they lived are presented with superlative clarity.

3. The Black Death: A Personal History
John Hatcher
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

John Hatcher is a historian by trade, but in The Black Death: A Personal History, he borrows element of fiction to make his research into medieval manners and the devastation of the bubonic plague more accessible. It’s a risky proposition, Hatcher’s depth of knowledge ensures success. The book uses a real life English hamlet and their 14th century historical records to create a solid skeleton of the events as they took place, embellishing it with a colorful cast of locals who show how people lived in those times and more immediately, how they died.

4. The Wordy Shipmates
Sarah Vowell
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Vowell blends history with humor in The Wordy Shipmates and stumbles into some poignant moments that make readers reflect on the awesome and terrible things that had to occur to allow for our modern American lives. Following the Puritans from their dockside benediction in England to their establishment of a new society in Boston, Vowell dispels the myths surrounding these fervent, thoughtful, intelligent travelers and shows how their aspirations of a “city on a hill” reverberate (for good and for ill) even today. Her light touch and conversational tone is just right for the subject matter, able to introduce important topics without sounding heavy-handed.

5. Young J. Edgar
Kenneth D. Ackerman
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Though ostensibly about the early years of J. Edgar Hoover’s career as a crime fighter Young J. Edgar is more about the Palmer Raids, a series of anti-Communist, anti-immigrant actions executed by Hoover under the auspices of then attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer in the name of fighting terrorism. What began as a well-intentioned attempt to capture true terrorists metastasized into a staggering abuse of power and violation of American ideals. Hoover pulls the strings, and readers can see how those trusted to protect our rights can convince themselves that the best way to do that is to ignore them. Author Ackerman paints a comprehensive and enlightening picture of the radical movement at the time, as well as the noble figures who stood up to the Palmer Raids and put their careers and personal safety on the line to defend justice.

[tags]Favorite Books, Best Books 2008, London Rising, Leo Hollis, Black Death: A Personal History, John Hatcher, Richard and John: Kings at War, Frank McLynn, Young J. Edgar, Kenneth D. Ackerman, Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell, Book Review, PopMatters[/tags]

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