3QD’s Best Books of 2006

Here’s the 3rd annual Christmas Eve booklist from some of the editors and writers of 3 Quarks Daily (last year’s list can be seen here):

1.  The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Sheri Berman

Political history in the industrial world may have ended, argues this pioneering study, but the winner has been social democracy – an ideology and political movement that has been as influential as it has been misunderstood. Berman looks at the history of social democracy from its origins in the late nineteenth century to today and shows how it beat out competitors such as classical liberalism, orthodox Marxism, and its cousins, Fascism and National Socialism by solving the central challenge of modern politics – reconciling the competing needs of capitalism and democracy. Bursting on to the scene in the interwar years, the social democratic model spread across Europe after the Second World War and formed the basis of the postwar settlement. This is a study of European social democracy that rewrites the intellectual and political history of the modern era while putting contemporary debates about globalization in their proper intellectual and historical context. –Mark Blyth

2. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I picked it up at about 11pm one night and I did not put it down—literally—until I had finished it. That might not be saying much, because it’s a short, tight book of flawless prose that only takes about five hours to read, but all the same—I couldn’t put it down. It’s rare that you find a book like that, no? The Road is gripping and beautiful and tragic, completely unsentimental but aching with loss and regret, longing and love. Here are the first three lines of the book: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Incredible. “Dark beyond darkness”:McCarthy takes all the risks with language that we’re not supposed to take, and he succeeds.

Someone Important told me recently that the real measure of a book is whether it changes your life. I don’t know. That seems a bit heavy-handed and sophomoric to me, and I’m not fifteen anymore. I think I may have wept at the end of this book. I do know that in that darkest hour before dawn, having just finished The Road, ego-smashed and raw, with many of the notes at the darker end of my emotional spectrum still echoing around me, I sat for a while and watched the heave of my wife’s back as she slept. Whether or not it changed my life, this book made me want to thank whatever artist it was who shaped the exquisite details of everyday life and–even more–saw fit to place me here, among them. –Timothy Don

3.  The Social Sources of Financial Power, by Leonard Seabrooke

A state’s financial power is built on the effect its credit, property, and tax policies have on ordinary people: this is the key message of Leonard Seabrooke’s comparative historical investigation, which turns the spotlight away from elite financial actors and toward institutions that matter for Lower Income Groups. Seabrooke argues that legitimacy contests between social groups and the state over how the economy should work determine the legitimacy of a state’s financial and fiscal system. Ideally, he believes, such contests compel a state to intervene on behalf of people below the median income level, leading the state to broaden and deepen its domestic pool of capital while increasing its influence on international finance. But to do so, Seabrooke asserts, a state must first challenge powerful interests that benefit from the concentration of financial wealth. A great book that really makes you think again about what you think you know. –Mark Blyth

4.  Creme de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews, by Angela Bennie

This book is memorable for all the wrong reasons. As Angela Bennie says in the Preface, the book “focuses on how negative criticism is written and received and what that might tell us about the wider culture.” Every Australian artist should read it and have a hard think about what these kinds of reviews signify. –Peter Nicholson

5.  Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America 1934-1971, by Stephen Walsh

This is a book I have enjoyed reading this year, wherein Igor, Vera and Bobsky take
on the world, and the first Mrs Stravinsky leaves it. What once seemed an impossibly glamorous lifestyle, with the dramatis personae regularly bumping into the great and the not-so-good, is here shown in its true creative colours. The starkly contrasting sunlight and shadow are comprehensively set forth, leaving readers to ponder the fate of a centrifugal artistic life in the modern period. –Peter Nicholson

6.  Everyman, by Philip Roth

Most of the very good books I have read that were published this year have been fiction. If you have Philip Roth’s Everyman, do not leave it unread. It is very good. You can read it in two days. But it will be around for a while, and it will wait for you. It is the bell that tolls. –Timothy Don

7.  Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World, by Paul Cartledge

In 480 BC, a huge Persian army, led by the inimitable King Xerxes, entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae as it marched on Greece, intending to conquer the land with little difficulty. But the Greeks—led by King Leonidas and a small army of Spartans—took the battle to the Persians at Thermopylae, and halted their advance—almost. It is one of history’s most acclaimed battles, one of civilization’s greatest last stands. And in Thermopylae, renowned classical historian Paul Cartledge looks anew this history-altering moment and, most impressively, shows how its repercussions have bearing on us even today. The invasion of Europe by Xerxes and his army redefined culture, kingdom, and class. The valiant efforts of a few thousand Greek warriors, facing a huge onrushing Persian army at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, changed the way generations to come would think about combat, courage, and death. The battle of Thermopylae was at its broadest a clash of civilizations; one that momentously helped shape the identity of classical Greece and hence the nature of our own cultural heritage. –Timothy Don [book description from Amazon.com]

8.  Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, by Frances Fox Piven

Challenging Authority argues that ordinary people exercise real power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. These are the conditions that produce the democratic moments in American political development. –Michael Blim [book description from Amazon.com]

9.  Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall

Randall, a professor of physics at Harvard, offers a tour of current questions in particle physics, string theory, and cosmology, paying particular attention to the thesis that more physical dimensions exist than are usually acknowledged. Writing for a general audience, Randall is patient and kind: she encourages readers to skip around in the text, corrals mathematical equations in an appendix at the back, and starts off each chapter with an allegorical story, in a manner recalling the work of George Gamow. Although the subject itself is intractably difficult to follow, the exuberance of Randall’s narration is appealing. She’s honest about the limits of the known, and almost revels in the uncertainties that underlie her work—including the possibility that some day it may all be proved wrong. –Abbas Raza [book description from The New Yorker]

10. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser’s eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The common belief today is that we reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of what society determines is right or wrong. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is founded entirely on experience and education, developing slowly and subject to considerable variation across cultures. In his groundbreaking book, Hauser shows that this dominant view is illusory. Combining his own cutting-edge research with findings in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology, he examines the implications of his theory for issues of bioethics, religion, law, and our everyday lives. –Abbas Raza [book description from Amazon.com]