The Best and Worst Books I Read in 2017: A Long Overdue Article

Articles about your favorite products, accomplishments, etc. from the previous year have to be posted between December 31st and January 3rd. The following article is about 2 months late. I have been busy. I sure as hell recommended books from the ones I had read in 2017 but I hadn’t written about any of them (Of the 98 books I read only Whatever by Michel Houellebecq, Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Three Theban Plays by Sophocles, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy were referenced in my articles.)

The following article is part one of two. The first part is about the best and worst books I read this year. The second part is about if I met my goal of reading more diverse books set last year. That article will be out later this week (Hopefully?).

[Editor’s Note: Although Dan reads a lot, he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary literature. The only book he read in 2017 that was published in 2017 was The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi. He has admitted in conversation that he does need to work on this.

The specific editions and translations have been noted if necessary. If you have any questions about which edition is best (Oxford World Classics, Penguin Classics, etc.), please contact Dan via the contact page. Dan has problems with Oxford World Classics editions due to their miniature print size and the paper they use for their covers falls apart when it comes into contact with hand sweat. Dan also has noticed that the Oxford World Classics translations are more interested in having the literal title (The Karamazov Brothers, for example) than having a readable translation. So he doesn’t recommend their editions. He does recommend Penguin Classics editions because they usually- but not always- use a visible print size and offer better quality translations. If anyone from Penguin Random House is reading this, Dan will gladly take free copies of your releases. Oxford World Classics people, fix your print size and then try to bribe Dan. In sum, the following article is not about literature released in 2017.]

Story of Your Life and Others (2002) by Ted Chiang

Science fiction is rarely celebrated in our culture. Sci-fi lovers can only let their freak flag fly once or twice a year when the new Star Wars movie or a sci-fi movie that stars a famous actor comes out. Chiang’s short story collection should read by everyone whether you are well-versed in sci-fi or not. The titular story (which was turned into the movie “Arrival”) is a philosophical reflection on time and the nature of existence. Stories like “Understand”, “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, “Division by Zero”, and “Hell is the Absence of God” all take giant philosophical and social problems and transform them into accessible and entertaining short stories. This is also the first short story collection I have read in which the author includes an essay (“Story Notes” explaining what inspired him to write each story.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901) by Thomas Mann (translated by John E. Woods)

It’s hard to write about this book unlike Mann’s other masterpiece, The Magic Mountain. Buddenbrooks is not a philosophic novel. The only explicit philosophy you can find in the novel is a little scene in which Thomas Buddenbrook reads a pessimistic and liberating philosophy treatise that is never named (it is obviously The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer). But even Thomas forgets about the book and dies soon after. That wasn’t a spoiler. You can’t make a familial decline novel without death. What makes Buddenbrooks stand out is Mann’s world. I tried making a chart of how all the characters are connected and eventually gave up because I would have needed a 5 foot piece of paper to finish it. Although a large amount of characters is often overwhelming, Mann makes every character stand out. No matter how insignificant the character, everyone has a distinct voice. Unlike another novel that is heavily influenced by Buddenbrooks and Schopenhauer, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, you can actually feel for the characters. You won’t like everything they do but you can understand even their most irrational decisions.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (2013) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

This book absolves Tommy Wiseau’s sin against humanity known commonly as “The Room.” The Disaster Artist (which was turned into a movie directed by and starring James Franco) is both Greg Sestero’s memoir and a fantastic piece of narrative journalism about America’s mad man, Tommy Wiseau. By the end of the book, “The Room” transforms from an abstract failure into a failure that all artists can relate with.

Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (2008) by William McKeen.

Hunter S. Thompson is the reason I am writing this article. He is the reason I am writing at all. When you give a mouse a cookie, he turns into a greedy and unappeasable maniac. When you give a depressed, heartbroken, angst-ridden teenager Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, you create a beast that will not stop writing and will not rest until he dies. McKeen (one of my former teachers. Side note: I bought the book before I even met him or even transferred to BU) guides us through HST’s life from his southern beginnings to his suicide in February 20th 2005. McKeen holds no punches. HST was a drunk, drug addict, narcissist, egomaniac, abusive husband, adulterer, homophobe, and sexist but he was also the greatest writers of the 20th century.

(Side Note: McKeen recommended I read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine(2017) by Joe Hagan. I finished it recently and I recommend it if you are interested in Rolling Stone Magazine and HST. It’s obsequious at times but it’s a good read. Bits of Hunter’s life with Rolling Stone that McKeen doesn’t spend too much time talking about are talked about exhaustively in Sticky Fingers.)

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996) by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.

We don’t talk about punk (or rock, for that matter) much anymore. If anything the common superficial narrative of rock history is the Beatles’ 60’s, Disco and Bowie’s 70’s, New Wave 80’s, and Nirvana’s 90’s. Punk gets forgotten except for a few songs on “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.” This book will change your mind about rock history. The idea of the oral history makes book feel like a conversation. You hear the voices of the dead speak.

Honorable Mentions:

War and Peace (1867) by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Anthony Briggs)

Good-Bye to All That (1958; 2nd edition) by Robert Graves

James Joyce: New and Revised Edition (1982) by Richard Ellmann

The Artist of the Floating World (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr

Letters to a Young Poet (1929) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Within a Budding Grove (1919) by Marcel Proust (translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin; and revised by D.J. Enright)

Bound for Glory (1943) by Woody Guthrie.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander

Worst books of 2017

[Editor’s Note: Dan’s bad reviews are usually much longer. Dan believes it is easier to write a bad review. Dan, however, decided that he was going to try to limit the length of the reviews of his least favorite books of 2017 due to time constraints. Most of the reviews will be no longer than 3 sentences.]

Lincoln in the Bardo (2016) by George Saunders

An experimental novel is not necessarily a good novel. The idea of an oral history mixed with a ghost story mixed with a reflection on coming to terms with death sounds like a great idea but in practice it comes off as cliched and contrived. The formatting of the quotes is confusing and makes it hard to discern at first who is talking.

Confessions (397-400 A.D.) by Saint Augustine (translated by Henry Chadwick)

I understood that this book is supposed to be an incomplete autobiography and also a conversation and confession with God but Augustine is not a good writer. His sentences (which I found out are even more confusing in the original Latin) never convey a complete idea. Half the book is also Bible quotations. The other half is a fragmentary autobiography. Henry Chadwick’s translation can be the main problem but I believe it is easier to spot a bad book than a bad translation.

The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (2011) and Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005) by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus is his own worst enemy. He is both convinced of his genius and constantly doubts it. The titles of both of these books are misleading. The central idea of both books is that Bob Dylan’s music is literature and should be treated as such. Marcus will never make the same point twice and when he does make a point you will be referred to another book that seems unrelated to the topic at hand (it’s because it usually is).

The Idiot (1869) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (translated by David McDuff)

“WHAT? HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE THE IDIOT? DOSTOYEVSKY UBER ALLES! KNAUSGAARD SAID THAT PRINCE MYSHKIN WAS HIS FAVORITE CHARACTER! YOU ARE THE IDIOT!” is what I expect most people’s reactions will be. Most of Dostoevsky’s works are philosophical novels (i.e. both a philosophy treatise and a novel). Notes from the Underground is more of a philosophy tract and Crime and Punishment and The Gambler are more like novels. (The Brothers Karamazov being the perfect combination of the two). The Idiot suffers as a novel because there are too many characters and it’s hard to tell who is talking to or about whom; and the plot is riddled with what I like to call “magic doors” (i.e. plot transitions that feel extremely contrived). The philosophy of the novel is shoved down your throat and only half explained. You feel bad for Myshkin most of the time. But when he manages to say or do anything you realize that he is annoying as a character and is a horrible thinker, when he is allowed to share his ideas. Maybe I am the idiot for not enjoying this train wreck.

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) by Stuart Jeffries

This book is abysmal. It is a horrible biography because it barely mentions more than a few fun facts about most of the subjects. It fails as a intellectual history because the ideas are presented and never explained. Jeffries seems to have a grasp on a few of the main ideas of the Frankfurt school but believes that if he can say “reification” and other catchphrases he doesn’t have to explain them. The entire book feels like a rough draft. Jeffries doesn’t take into account that readers of his book may want to learn about the people and ideas he supposed to be covering about instead of just reading fun facts and excerpts from their dense works.

Dishonorable mentions:

Ancient Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1 (2004) by Anthony Kenny

Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Lydia Davies)

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) by Hermann Hesse (translated by Ursule Molinaro)