With the year (and the decade) drawing to a close, I thought I would give my own version of the ever-popular "best of" listings for the year. When I went back over the books I read in 2009, I realized that my selections are not to be found on any current bestseller list. Truth be told, I am much happier burrowing like a mole into some musty corner of a used bookstore. Nonetheless, I think the books below are definitely worth a look if you relate to anything I write here. So here is my list in no particular order:
Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, by William Cronon. This book provides a fascinating history of the growth of Chicago. But moreover, Cronon describes how the city and its surroundings were inextricably linked. Without the Great West, there would be no Chicago. He focuses on railroads, lumber, meat-packing, and commerce to illuminate his points.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larson. This is to show that contrary to popular opinion around our house, I do indeed read novels. This recent book tells the tale of a precocious young genius (Spivet) who wins a fellowship to the Smithsonian. What they don't understand is that Spivet is a 12-year-old boy from Montana. The story is full of humor and interesting little drawings in the margins (supposedly drawn by Spivet, himself). One of the things that captivated me was Larson's wonderful descriptions of the world including a Union Pacific freight train that Spivet hops to get to D.C. Lots of fun.
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe. This Pulitzer Prize-winning history from the Oxford History of the United States series is long, detailed, and very really well-written. Howe makes that blank period in my understanding of American history come to life. For those who find current events to be full of partisan bickering and yearn for the "good old days", Howe makes it clear that things haven't changed. There has always been partisan bickering (and worse). The title is the famous line that Morse used to open the telegraph which was one of the two technology revolutions that Howe talks about. The other was the railroad. Worth the read despite the length
The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America: 1865 - 1900, by Jack Beatty. I added this one to the list with mixed feelings. Beatty lays out a litany of Gilded Age sins in this book but I found his treatment to be sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious. His narratives on the injustices committed against the recently-emancipated slaves in the South will make your blood boil. His descriptions of some of the rulings of the Supreme Court of that era should do the same but these are less clearly told. Still worth the read.
Invention in America: With Images from the Library of Congress, by Russell Bourne. This slim volume is very well-written and well-illustrated. Bourne does a great job in looking under the hood of American invention to fill in the blanks on much of what we think we know on the topic.
Wedding the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, by Peter L. Bernstein. The Erie Canal really was a Big Deal. Bernstein tells the tale of the politics behind its construction, the engineering prowess of the amateurs who built the canal, and the canal's impact on American history. It was the marvel of its age - and deservedly so.
Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, by James Green. Before reading this book, I had this fuzzy image that, yes, there was something special about the "Haymarket" but I couldn't have told you what it was. Green's book brings history to life, describing the events in Chicago in the middle of the 1880's when labor was being systematically exploited by very wealthy capitalists. This story makes clear that our fear of Communism is much older than the McCarthy Era. This is a tale of injustice, well told.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It, by Arthur Herman. This is really a tale of the Scottish Enlightenment. The number of 18th Century thinkers coming out of Edinburgh and Glasgow was (and is) astounding. Almost everything that we consider to be modern has at least a trace that goes back to this period in Scottish history. The mystery is why Scotland didn't continue to be an intellectual leader.
The Big Switch: Rewiring the World: Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr. Carr shows us the parallels between Edison's world and the world of the Internet. Both depend on large networks for their impact. Moves right along but an interesting read.
The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Kevin J. Hayes. This biography of Jefferson will appeal to any bibliophile as it tells the story through both the books that influenced Jefferson, the works that he wrote, and the libraries that he built. Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, "I cannot live without books". This book tells you why.