(Image: 1856 lithograph by Edward Hildebrandt depicting Alexander von Humboldt in his study.)
The best five books I read this year? A tough choice in what’s been, globally and personally, a very challenging year. If there’s any redemption at all in a year where we lost David Bowie and Jim Harrison, where Europe lost Britain and trucks driven by nihilistic zealots shattered lives in Nice and Berlin, Syrians continued to be relentlessly pummeled, and in our own country a tawdry and dangerously ignorant television celebrity who eschews reading somehow beat a smart, capable woman even after losing to her by three million votes, it lies in the fact that there are still books to read. As long as there’s a spine on something to crack open there’s a reason to muddle forward.
It’s been the hottest year on record, and I saw first-hand evidence of the devastation that a changing climate is wrecking on the world’s most storied vineyards. I visited several coral reefs on the brink of total destruction. Despite all of it, I still believe that stories give us hope. And these are a few that provided the solace, insight or righteous fury needed to brace for whatever 2017 holds.
I could probably list twenty or more, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give myself a limit. These are the ones that stuck, that changed the way I think, that left me floored, angry, repentant, inspired, devastated…or all of the above.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf
I can’t think of a historical work that’s opened my eyes more than Andrea Wulf’s biography of Humboldt, probably since Roger Kennedy’s Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization. Both books are rollicking tales of Enlightenment thinkers and their pursuits of knowledge history, both natural and human, and the spawning of ideas that have changed the way we think about the world. But they’re also stories of loss. In Hidden Cities, it was the knowledge of North America’s ancient history that was lost and then paved over by progress and racism. But in The Invention of Nature, it was Humboldt’s life and work itself that was lost, overtaken by the works of Darwin and Muir and other thinkers whom he inspired. Humboldt is brought to life as a vibrant, often vain, always curious and restless intellectual who captivated audiences, worked incessantly and inspired the next generation of naturalists. He described the impacts of climate change at the beginning of the nineteenth century and warned about the impacts of slavery and colonialism and unchecked global development. If only we’d listened.
Still, if Humboldt inspired the golden age of science and sewed the seeds what would become a global environmental movement, his life’s work is clear evidence of the power of literature. Maybe 2017 will bring us a new Humboldt to help light the way for science.
Dead Man’s Float, Jim Harrison
I’ve been slowly reading this book since the time of Jim Harrison’s passing, relishing each poem. I’ve looked to Harrison a lot over the years, and drawn inspiration from his life and work. You can only read something for the first time once, so this last volume from Harrison, made especially poignant in its themes of bodily decline given the knowledge of his recent death, is something of a labor of love on my part. As always, Harrison finds solace, if not hope, in the natural world. But it’s also heartening to see that while his body may have been betraying him, his spirit remained larger than life, his last book of verse showing that he was in top form as one of the greatest writers and poets of his generation right up to his final moments.
Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
It’s War and Peace in Nigeria. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is one of the best writers around, and she demonstrates her virtuosity in this book. This is a sweeping, multithreaded story, and she pairs this grandeur with her ability to write sentences so sublime that they make you smile, even as your heart rends as you watch the world collapse around her characters. Gosh, it’s good.
And if there’s any hope in this heartbreaking story of human folly, it lies in the fact that she captures the dynamism and vibrance of the continent with the world’s youngest population. If some of the idealism that fueled the ill-fated Nigerian revolution can be channeled in the right direction, perhaps Africa, with its rich history and boundless human and natural resources, can begin to lead the world in a better direction in 2017.
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant
A white British journalist buys a crumbling plantation house in the poorest county in Mississippi on a whim, and he soon finds himself delving into the roots of the deep divides between black and white, middle class and dirt poor. It’s a picaresque series of nonfiction vignettes that starts off reading like a Sherwood Anderson novel of small town life, but it plunges into a deep exploration of the racial divide in the Mississippi Delta, and by extension our entire country, seen through the eyes of an outsider.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
A father’s letter to his heartbroken son, trying to explain the overwhelming injustice that serially acquits killers of young black men in our society, and by extension, the ongoing assault on black bodies by the state, society and culture. Coates’s exploration largely traces his own autobiography. It’s bittersweet, heartfelt, bleak, hopeful, enraging and thought-provoking. All in 150 pages. Oh, and plus the National Book Award.