To mark the close of 2020, we asked several of our writers to name the best three books they’ve read this year, and briefly to explain their choices. We have encouraged them to pick two recent books, and one older one. The first five of their answers appear below in alphabetical order. The rest will appear tomorrow and Friday. (Unless otherwise noted, all books were published in 2020. Classic books are listed by their original publication dates.)
Before the Holocaust, there was the Armenian genocide. But its victims weren’t only Armenians. There were also the Greeks and the Assyrians, who went from making up 20 percent of the Anatolian population to only 2 percent in the course of 30 years. Based on exhaustive historical scholarship, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Harvard, 672pp., $35) by the historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi tries to provide a comprehensive historical account of the murderous events that transpired in the late Ottoman empire, through the rule of three different regimes. Morris and Ze’evi argue that the three waves of anti-Christian violence—the Hamidian massacre of 1894-1896, the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916, and the destruction of the remaining Christian communities in 1919-1924—constitute one single event of ethnic cleansing of Christian minorities by Ottoman and then Turkish officials.
If anyone is confused by the constant Turkish denial of such historical crimes, the book puts away the shadow of any doubt. Through extensive research and digging in the archives of many states including the U.S., Austria, France, Germany, Britain, and Turkey herself, the authors demonstrate not just the determination of Turkish officials to erase entire communities, but also to erase any memory of their criminal actions. Some parts of the book make for horrifying reading, exposing what men, intoxicated by the dreams of power, can do to men, women, and children. Stories of unimaginable torture, mutilation, rape, and mass murder are as outrageous as the stories of the local tribesmen racing to scavenge the belongings of the victims. The actions were not mere war-induced aberrations. Whether defending the supremacy of Muslims over Christians in the aging empire, defending the integrity of Ottoman rule, or the national cohesion of Atatürk’s nascent Turkish republic, consecutive governments orchestrated and executed one of the worst crimes in history with complete impunity. The book shows that the collapse of the Ottoman empire, a process which some may argue is still sending us shockwaves from the past, was much more violent event than initially thought.
To move from the tragedy of days past to the madness of our own days: in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019, 288pp., $20), the prolific English journalist Douglas Murray takes us on a journey through the insanity at the heart of the social unrest currently shaking the English-speaking world. Murray, taking the reader’s hand with one of his and holding a torch of sanity in the other, explores the incoherent and dementing new ideas about sexuality, gender, and race which are destabilizing Western cultures and invading our schools, businesses, churches, and political institutions and threatening the foundations of our civilization. The culture wars that were once fought in sociology departments broke out of the university and are confronting us in public and in private, in person and in absentia, online and off in the name of social justice, intersectionality, and equality. Murray provocatively explores the progressive impulse leading our societies into the derangement of wokeness and a downward spiral of regressive tribalism; he also explores the Marxist underpinnings of this contradictory and innately unstable set of beliefs.
There is no doubt that The Madness of Crowds is required reading for those who feel that their own sanity is under assault. Murray’s voice, loud and clear, lets you know you are not alone and that we all see it. We all hear the contradictions between the claim that to be gay is to be “born this way” but that to be a biological male isn’t. We all see that the same culture that claims the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is offensive to women also celebrates the female rappers Cardi B and Nicki Minaj as icons of female empowerment. In a time when no one seems to believe in truth, objectivity, or transcendence, a new religion seems to be unmaking the achievements of the old ones. At the end of the book, one can’t help but be thankful for the fresh air one is able once again to breathe. Men go mad in herds but can only retrieve their sanity one by one. Given the violent events of the summer of 2020, Murray’s voice demands our attention.
After the sapid and sane voice of the heretic of the present, one is tempted to seek more sanity from a heretic of the past. When G.K. Chesterton was making the case for tradition in the 20th century in his seminal book Orthodoxy (1908, 168pp., $12.95), he was unwittingly also making the case for his book in the 21st. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton gives an account of his own discovery of a philosophy which turned out to be nothing but Christianity, like an English yachtsman whose navigational error led him to discover a new island, only to later discover it was none other but England itself. In this timeless masterpiece, enhanced only by Chesterton’s wit and humor, we learn that intuitive common sense is often more sensible than intellectualism, that a belief in a personal world with a cause is capable of producing a meaningful life more than a random and accidental one, and that myth and allegory have the power to make us think and wonder more than the banalities of experts ever could. In Chesterton’s opinion, a belief in a random and materialistic existence could only produce a world where either nothing is forbidden or everything is and it is only a belief in a transcendental world that can offer us a sane and rational impulse to find out what should be consecrated and what should be pushed aside. But more than making an argument for tradition, Chesterton also warns us about the dark abyss to which intellectual indifference to mystery can lead. This warning, more relevant than ever, was later picked and developed by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man (see below—eds.) and The Abolition of Sanity.
On the fiction front, I loved the story collection Immigrant City (HarperCollins, 2019, 224pp., $18) by the gifted Canadian writer David Bezmozgis. The author, who was born in Soviet Latvia and came to Toronto as a child, tells stories about moving among worlds—readable and often funny, but always with a bite. In “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, a Los Angeles lawyer goes back to Riga to take care of a family matter that gets complicated. In the title story, a young father goes on a quest for a car door in the Toronto projects where recent immigrants, Somalis, are working and hustling their way in a new country. If you liked Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories, you’ll like the new collection. (And if you didn’t read Natasha you should right now—you can thank me later.)
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (Doubleday, 416pp., $29.95) is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years. The journalist Ariel Sabar spent years on the mystery of a papyrus fragment that was supposedly an ancient reference to Jesus being married, and which was touted by a Harvard professor as a finding that demanded the re-evaluation of Christian history and doctrine. Cracking the con took Sabar to the deepest, slimiest reaches of the Sunshine State and into the world of Coptology, but that’s only part of his accomplishment in Veritas. Equally important is the way he delves into the world of biblical studies and the academy to understand the ideological weaknesses that made smart people into easy marks for fraud.
As for an older book, there’s none better than The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (NYRB Classics, 284pp., $15.95), a collection of the writing of Vasily Grossman, one of the best writers of the 20th century. (The collection isn’t that old—it came out in 2010 in a translation from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova. But the material ranges from between the 1930s and Grossman’s death in 1964.) There is no book I return to more often than this one. The unforgettable first story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” tells the story of a loyal Red Army commissar who finds herself giving birth in the home of Jewish villagers. The title story summons unexpected power and emotion from a description of the Nazi invasion of Russia as seen through the eyes of an Italian donkey. Other essays include a meditation on Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, and one of the first descriptions of a Nazi death camp, which Grossman wrote as a reporter accompanying the Soviet soldiers who liberated Treblinka. There’s also a story about a Soviet space dog and a journalistic account of an ordinary day at a Moscow cemetery. For sensitivity to human souls facing life and fate, no writer compares to Grossman. His sprawling Russian novels of World War II get much attention, but the short writing found in The Road is better.
My first choice is not a book, but a writer: Tom Stoppard. Some call him the last great writer of the 20th century; others England’s most important living playwright. Yet even these superlatives are inadequate, for Stoppard’s oeuvre would stand out in any century and he belongs not just to the country that adopted him, but to the world.
In order to outlive the coronavirus year, he has remained in strict isolation at his country cottage: “As an octogenarian smoker,” Tom tells me, “I don’t have too many cards to play.” When the pandemic struck, Leopoldstadt, his latest play, had just opened in a London West End theatre. Almost immediately, and before the critics could reach any kind of consensus, it closed again. Unusually for a play, therefore, Leopoldstadt (Grove Press, 101pp., $15.99) now exists only in book form.
Chronicling the Merz family and their home in Vienna before, during, and after the Nazis, Leopoldstadt is the first of Stoppard’s works to deal explicitly with Jewish themes: assimilation, Zionism, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust. Hence it has inevitably been interpreted as the dramatist’s reckoning with his own rediscovered identity—the Jewishness of which he had been unaware, or at least incurious, for most of his life. While there is nothing obviously autobiographical about the play, there is one valedictory speech in which Stoppard appears to indict himself for living “as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.” If that is what he thinks, he is too hard on himself: no contemporary writer has been more aware of the past and none has cast a longer shadow.
For Stoppard fans, this is a bumper year: as well as Leopoldstadt, his publisher Faber and Faber have this year also brought out Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life (forthcoming in the U.S. from Knopf, 896pp., $37.50). Nearly a thousand pages of a story that is by no means finished, this biography is exhaustive and occasionally exhausting in its detail, summarizing every plot and dwelling a little too much on the human flaws not only of its subject but even of his friends—including some still living. But Professor Lee’s portrait is level-headed, fair-minded, and accurate. About such an extraordinary man of the theater, it is better to have too much information than too little.
My next choice is also set in the Vienna of coffeehouse culture, angst, and Anschluss. The Murder of Professor Schlick (Princeton, 336pp., $27.95) is a true crime story—but, as its subtitle The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle implies, it is much more than that. Curiously, given the popularity of turn-of-the-century Viennese art and music, the intellectual history of one of its most influential legacies—logical positivism—has been neglected. Already the author of excellent books on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bobby Fischer, John Edmonds gives us a readable account of some fairly unreadable philosophy. His forensic investigation of the events that led up to the assassination in 1936 of Moritz Schlick, the Vienna Circle’s leader, throws light on the fiendish hold that anti-Semitism had gained over one of Europe’s most sophisticated cities. Unlike many of his colleagues, Schlick was not a Jew—but because the ethical, metaphysical, and political ideas he espoused were deemed to be “Jewish,” he was murdered anyway. As the Nazi official in Leopoldstadt tells the Jewish family as he takes over their apartment: “You’re not at home now.”
To complete this Viennese trio, my final choice is The Kraus Project (2013, 336pp., $18) by Jonathan Franzen. Like many Mosaic writers and readers, I have reservations about Franzen’s various attempts at the Great American Novel, but this slim volume that appeared seven years ago is their antithesis. Indeed, it is as unclassifiable as it is unique. Much of it is not by Franzen at all, but consists of translations (alongside the German originals) of selected essays and poems by Karl Kraus, the arch-wit of Vienna, with copious notes, not only by Franzen but by his fellow novelist Daniel Kehlmann and the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter. Embedded in this multilayered text is a memoir of Franzen’s youth, when he spent a year in Berlin. The joy of this book is that even if you don’t care for Franzen’s own views or recollections, you can still enjoy the razor-sharp satire and apocalyptic prescience of Kraus. It is at once a homage and a homily, a labor of love and a cry of pain, a gracious gesture from the New to the Old World. Stoppard, Franzen, and Kehlmann are writers with very different politics, but all three are Jewish by ancestry and Atlanticist by inclination. In an age of transatlantic divergence, that still counts for something.
Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704pp., $35). In this magisterial work, Henrich argues that people in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies are, as the initials indicate, weird. Unlike members of the clannish communities that have always constituted a majority of human societies, members of WEIRD societies tend, among other things, to be individualistic and trusting of strangers and to think analytically rather than holistically. Marshaling a dazzling array of data, Henrich makes the case that the special characteristics of members of WEIRD societies are the unintended consequences of marriage norms introduced by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Contemporary members of conservative religious communities, including non-Christians, will find themselves somewhere else on the WEIRDness continuum, though perhaps closer to the WEIRD end than they suspected.
James D. Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (Yale, 312pp., $18). Hunter and Nedelisky argue that recent attempts to determine the scientific foundations of morality rest on reductionist underpinnings—specifically, on the assumption that morality is “nothing but” a set of evolved preferences or utility-maximizing rules. In the authors’ view, the entire exercise is tantamount to a denial of morality altogether and, at the very least, weakens its hold on modern man. Their case is not airtight—to assert that viable moral systems must be adaptive and must increase certain kinds of collective utility is not to reduce morality to these properties—but it is well argued.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man ($14.99, 128pp.) This short book warns of the dangers of the postmodernist attack on objective truth and value and its attendant pathologies. Lewis argues that in a society ungrounded in the bedrock truths and values common across cultures, what he calls “the Tao,” the masses will be vulnerable to the whims and self-interest of an unprincipled elite in possession of technological and psychological means of mass manipulation. The book would be remarkable even if it hadn’t been written in 1943.
Hillel Halkin, The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion (Toby Press, 436pp., $19.95). Many of these wonderful essays about pioneering Hebrew writers first appeared separately in Mosaic, yet the effect of reading them together carries a cumulative punch. For Halkin, Hebrew is not only a tool for early Zionists to fulfill nationalist aspirations in the Land of Israel, rather Zionism itself can in some ways be characterized as a love story with the Hebrew language. Halkin revives and animates turgid early Hebrew novels that few readers are likely to engage with these days, and provides an equally entertaining account of the personal and political drama behind the written works. He offers English-language readers a dynamic account of how modern Hebrew literature has evolved from, but is still deeply rooted in, its biblical and rabbinic foundations.
Moshe Koppel’s Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures (Maggid, 218pp., $24.95) is also a book about language, but not about Hebrew exactly. Rather it is a fresh and fascinating articulation of a broader conception of Judaism as a culture and way of life that, just like language, is intuitive and inherited. Koppel’s characters and arguments themselves have the quality of sticking in the reader’s mind long after putting the book down. This eclectically sourced and truly original work offers a new paradigm for thinking about the future of Judaism in our cosmopolitan world.
Orson Scott Card, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel and Leah (2000-2004, $51.34). Living in the land of the Bible, I often find myself craving biblical fiction to read. This surprisingly good trilogy depicting the inner lives of the biblical matriarchs, written by a legendary Mormon science-fiction writer who lives in North Carolina, managed to do the trick. Each of the three books offers an imaginative account of key years in the matriarchs’ lives. Rather than complain about the lack of adequate representation of women in the Bible, Card celebrates the material we do have. He uses his powers as a storyteller to weave together a complex portrait of Sarah and Rebecca especially, all while remaining (mostly) true to the text. Admittedly, by the time he reaches Rachel and Leah, the tableau gets so crowded (including also Bilhah and Zilpah) that the book loses some of the emotional power of the earlier novels. Part of the fun of the trilogy for a Jewish reader is to note places where Card unknowingly overlaps with rabbinic midrash, filling in notable lacunae that are simply asking to be resolved.
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