It’s that time again.
I typically read about 100 books a year. Everything from travel literature to poetry, history, psychology, fiction and memoir.
I love reading lists and recommendations, and I bet a few of you do, too. So at year’s end, I like to take a moment to share my top reads of the past twelve months.
They made my list because they were either memorable, important, or just thoroughly enjoyable. Some are current, some were older, and each is worth your time. I hope you’ll track them down.
Here are the books that got my Road Wisdom Stamp of Approval in 2017, from one book lover to another.
First up, my Top Pick of the Year. This wasn’t just the best book I read, it might just be the most important…
Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks [TOP PICK]
This is an essential book for understanding the extreme polarization we’re currently seeing in the West, with its quagmire of political correctness, bitter identity politics, censorship and de-platforming of speakers at universities, and the incredibly persistent zombie of a failed socialism that just won’t die.
Hicks offers convincing arguments for how we got to this point, and where the split occurred in both the philosophical literature and politics. Unfortunately, he stops short of offering solutions.
Highly recommended. Brilliantly written. Extremely approachable. And it’s my Top Road Wisdom Pick for 2017. This one’s out of print, but you can get it on Amazon Kindle, or grab free PDF copies online.
In the category of travel literature…
A Journey Into Russia by Jens Mühling
A wonderfully written book about a journey through a place that feels more like a fable than the world just beyond the borders of Europe. A place where beliefs are unhinged, where the present feels like fiction, where messiahs are called for (and appear), and where only the distant past of the Old Believers is firmly anchored to the bedrock of the world.
The vast empty steppes and the vodka-soaked river journey near the end of the book reminded me of traveling in Mongolia, another of those places that feel like a different planet, so far off the fringes of the maps we inhabit.
It’s heartening to know places like this still exist, and that people still want to go there, simply for the sake of learning what they look like and how others live. Get your copy here.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter
Christiane Ritter journeyed north from Austria to the high arctic island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) in 1933 to join her husband, an explorer and researcher, in a bleak bare box of a hut at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. There she endured brutal winter storms and months of darkness, often alone when her husband was traveling. But this isn’t a story of “woman vs. nature” or a tale of epic survival. It is a story of life.
She wrote of “the magic of the ice”, “the life-truths of animals observed in the wilderness”, and the overpowering beauty of the Arctic landscape. “No, the Arctic does not yield its secret for the price of a ship’s ticket,” she said. “You must live through the long night, the storms, and the destruction of human pride.”
Ritter learned to live simply, with few possessions. And when she returned to the south in 1935, she felt that, “A year in the Arctic should be compulsory to everyone” because “you will come to realize what’s important in this life and what isn’t.”
A wonderful tale, sensitively observed, and essential reading for any Arctic enthusiast. Get your copy here.
Green Mountain Farm by Elliott Merrick
In 1934, as the Great Depression swept North America, Elliott Merrick and his wife Kate bought a farm on a hillside in Vermont. On the plus side: it cost them $1,000. On the minus: they knew next to nothing about farming. But they had optimism, and long experience of life in Labrador. “Having lived in tents when the temperature was well below zero,” he writes, “we could not believe that electricity and running water, or any of a thousand other amenities, were the essentials of a contented family.”
As the house falls down around them, Merrick learns to farm by trial and error. He slowly makes improvements to their home, and he writes. This is a lyrical tale of country living, farming, writing, and the love of old houses, and it paints a picture of a way of life that would soon be gone for good. The wonderfully written Foreword by Lawrence Millman, who knew Elliott Merrick, is a touch of icing on an unforgettable story. Get your copy here.
Europe: An Intimate Journey by Jan Morris
Jan Morris’s examination of the European character, with all its similarities and differences, provides a fascinating portrait of a continent trying to reinvent itself after centuries of calamity. It’s also a fun read.
Published at the close of the 20th century, Morris’s musings are based on a lifetime of travel. It’s like reading a collection of loosely linked postcards. A literary grab bag of history, politics, strange customs, personal observation, melancholy, and the passing of time. It’s a book you can savour at intervals or read straight through to appreciate the gradual accretion of atmosphere. Frequently funny, often thought provoking, it is never dull. Get your copy here. I also re-read Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere this year — another classic.
The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray
An extremely well written and thoroughly researched examination of the European migrant crisis, the ill-planned and entirely improvised response of our leaders, and the strange path Europe is taking as Western culture struggles with the reasons — or lack thereof — for its own existence.
I think this is essential reading. Western culture is wonderful and worth saving, if only we can get our heads out of the reeking depths of the postmodern ass for long enough to realize it. Get your copy here.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev
This might be the strangest book you read all year. British native Peter Pomerantsev spent a decade in Moscow working as a TV producer, where he made reality shows and documentaries for a Russian audience. The fast-forward world he inhabited was far more bizarre than anything you’ll find in fiction. Every belief is mutable, every truth contains polar opposites that are equally valid, and everyone’s out to make as much money as they possibly can.
It’s a story of gold diggers, television-producing gangsters, and political oligarchs viewed through a funhouse mirror, and it provides readers with a key to understanding the delirium of the post-Soviet transformation. The perfect book for coming to grips with Putin’s Russia. Get your copy here.
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
A wonderful read, the sort of book that makes the outside world fade away, and that leaves an echo of sadness after the last page has been turned.
War, displacement, the death of the old Europe, the boredom of waiting, the shock of defeat, temporary lives clinging to the small space they’ve carved out for themselves, and a vast cast of vividly drawn supporting characters who drift in and out of the stage lights as events overtake everyone the way that waves and wind overtake small boats.
Olivia Manning’s trilogy is brilliantly sketched from life, the main characters based on her and her husband as they flee Bucharest and the advancing Nazi armies at the outbreak of war, first to Athens and a brief period of calm, and then as refugees making a last minute escape on a rusted boat to Egypt. Unforgettable. Get your copy here.
And finally, in general nonfiction…
The School of Sophisticated Drinking by Kerstin Ehmer and Beate Hindermann
A wonderful book about the culture of drink which draws on history, literature and film to illuminate the role that the spirit world has played in western culture.
Most books about classic cocktails focus on recipes. This volume focuses on the stories of those drinks. It’s based on the ongoing lecture series The School of Sophisticated Drinking which takes place each winter at my favourite Berlin cocktail establishment: the legendary Victoria Bar.
Essential reading for anyone interested in classic cocktails. Highly recommended. Get your copy here.
The Island in Imagination and Experience by Barry Smith
A thoroughly enjoyable read that had me reaching for my atlas and taking journeys on Google Earth.
Smith’s exploration of our obsession with islands is broken up into common themes — tales of castaways, utopias and dystopias. And he takes a clear look at the darker sides of our romantic conceptions, too: the limits of island economies, the way remote places become unwilling pawns in Great Power geopolitics, and how fragile isolated ecosystems can be ravaged by contact from the world beyond.
The text is peppered with references to island tales, histories and individual actors on these tiny stages, but Smith’s prose is never dull. He does a wonderful job of dissecting the essence of “island” while retaining its magic. I would have liked to read more about travel literature, and how writers like Lawrence Durrell created an idealized myth of island living that may not have matched the reality of their lives. But there is plenty to digest in this book without it.
I first contracted mild islomania as a small child growing up in a St. Lawrence River town. I fished on the river with my father, but while he was obsessed with watching his line, my eyes were glued to the uninhabited islands we drifted past. In later years, I would canoe out to each of them, to camp and explore.
A decade later, Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania sparked an interest in the South Pacific, and the possibilities of long kayak trips when I was trapped in university, penniless and book bound. The writing of Lawrence Durrell, especially his island books, sunk those hooks in even deeper. Because of him, I moved to the island of Malta, a place I’d never been to, and I lived there for 6 years.
Like the author, I’ve been enchanted by the strange islands I’ve been able to visit: Lampedusa, Salina and Stromboli, Gotland and Fårö, the Åland archipelago, Croatian islands and many many more. This book has added scores more island destinations to my list, while renewing interest in places whose allure I’d forgotten. It’s filled with excellent references and footnotes, too, which will keep the island enthusiast very busy long after the last page is turned. Get your copy here.
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A brave and fascinating book, and in my opinion essential reading for understanding the most pressing conflict of our generation. Get your copy here.
So there you have it. My top reads from the past year.
I also really liked The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur by Arthur Hoyle, Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, On Tyranny: Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
What stood out for you in 2017? Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for recommendations.