Friday, December 08, 2006

Slate's best books of 2006

The folks at Slate have weighed in with their favorite books of the year. Two of the recommended titles appear in our "page 69" series. And two the recommenders put their own books to the "page 69 test."

Deputy editor David Plotz--read about his book, The Genius Factory, here-- chose a work of nonfiction:
The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's account of the rise of al-Qaida before 9/11, is a horror movie of a book. You'll read it with the equivalent of hands over your eyes, because you know what the awful ending is. It's all the more appalling because at every moment Wright shows how easily these villains could have been stopped, how weak they really were, how disorganized, how maddeningly human and vulnerable. Yet we failed and failed and failed, because we never really sought to understand them, never appreciated the terrible power of their ideas. Wright's Remembering Satan was one of the great books of the 1990s because it explained, with clinical though not heartless precision, the behavior of incomprehensibly alien people (the accuser and accused in a Satanic ritual abuse case). The Looming Tower does the same trick, except this time Wright's subjects are Osama Bin Laden and the other al-Qaida founders. Wright's Osama—depicted with halogen clarity—is much more human than the cartoon we know, and yet in some ways scarier: Wright shows us where Osama's ideas came from, how they took root, and why they appeal so profoundly to certain Muslims. I must give a shout-out to the book's opening chapter, which is about Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the modern Islamist political movement. Wright explains how living in the United States during the 1940s radicalized Qutb, and made him realize that true Islam and Western modernity were incompatible. It's one of the best chapters I've ever read in any book.
Learn more about Wright's book here and here.

David Greenberg, who writes the "History Lesson" column and who put his book, Nixon's Shadow, to the "page 69 test" (read about it here), selected a new work of history:
One of the most original and creative works of macrohistory to appear in 2006 is Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon. There have been several tedious (if not pointless) books trying to define happiness as a product of neurons firing in the brain. McMahon, an intellectual historian at Florida State University, is too smart to be seduced by such intellectual fads; indeed, he understands the vogue of brain science to be itself a cultural phenomenon. More fruitfully, McMahon takes the long view, exploring with insight how different cultures in different eras—from ancient Greece to the Reformation to America's founding to the present—have defined and pursued this protean ideal. Once associated with the eternal, happiness became an earthly possibility in the Enlightenment and, more recently, a veritable entitlement. Masterfully bringing the worlds of scholarship and popular accessibility, Happiness is stimulating, funny, and memorable, a work of impressive erudition.
See how McMahon's book fared at the "page 69 test" here.

Jacob Weisberg, Slate's editor, picked two books, including Michael Lewis' The Blind Side, soon to appear in the "page 69" series. Weisberg writes:
My friend Michael Lewis' latest book looks deceptively like Moneyball applied to football but ends up being more about race than sports. At its heart is the irresistible tale of how a wealthy white family in the Memphis suburbs adopted an enormous black man-child from a ghetto background so chaotic and deprived that he could barely speak, let alone read. In a new, supportive environment, Michael Oher defies everyone's expectations, including his own. The heroes of The Blind Side are white Southerners who reject their culture's assumptions about young black men. Like my other choice, it's a book about idiosyncratic idealism—but with a hopeful ending.
Read about all of the Slate picks here.

--Marshal Zeringue