A personal list:
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin.
A frightening work on the post 9/11 “terrorism-industrial complex,” a world of secret agencies so vast that no one knows how big it is or how much taxpayers are spending on it. Two Washington Post journalists found more than 1,200 top-secret government organizations that are supposed to be tracking and capturing terrorists, but in fact are keeping track of ordinary citizens—with money and high-tech tools Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover never even dreamed of. And then there are the private contractors, making billions while claiming to save the government money. The authors’ estimate of the total cost: more than $2 trillion.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918, by Adam Hochschild.
I loved this story about a big war and the small number of people who said it was wrong—not the Iraq war or the Vietnam war but World War I, one of history’s most senseless exercises in violence. Hochschild focuses on Britain and on those who were jailed for trying to stop the war that killed so many millions and broke so many of the barriers to what we considered permissible. Written with impressive narrative power and moral clarity, thke book offers an unmistakable lesson for our own time.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable.
Lots of striking new stuff in this biography of the man who embodied “the very ideal of blackness for an entire generation.” “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me,” Malcolm said, “is to say I’m irresponsible, because by ‘responsible’ they mean Negroes who are responsible to white authorities.” And yet, after his “Autobiography” became a best-seller, whites came to admire him for his conversion from militant black separatism to a kind of “multicultural universalism.” Marable, the Columbia University historian who died as his masterpiece was being published, shows that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was as much the work of Alex Haley, a liberal Republican, as of Malcolm himself.
Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks.
An unforgettable novel about an unexpected subject: the injustice of our laws restricting the lives of convicted sex offenders. Banks’s central character, “the Kid,” is never going to harm anyone, but he is forced by the law to live in a homeless camp under a freeway bridge with other convicted sex offenders—some of whom have indeed done terrible things. Banks has never been more courageous than here, where he brings to life the dehumanization and suffering of a true outcast.
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens.
Assembled in the last months of his life, this collection consists of essays written before his cancer diagnosis in June, 2010 and after his split with The Nation in 2002 over the Iraq war. Hitchens supported that war not because he liked George Bush, but because he hated Saddam’s tyranny and loved the cause of Kurdish freedom. This collection however barely mentions Iraq or Bush or “Islamo-fascism.” Instead, in these 750 pages he engages with novelists, politicians, intellectual heroes, and injustice and hypocrisy in high places. He was a wonderful writer and in many ways an inspiring person – this book reminds us how terrible it is to lose him now.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post included Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew Bacevich — which, it turns out, was published in 2010.