Since I spent a great deal of 2017 immersed in books about the Vietnam War, my reading was slightly erratic this year. I still haven’t gotten to Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” or George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” both works I hope to tackle over this Thanksgiving week. So I won’t be doing a best-of list: This is not a year in which I’d presume to be able to pronounce judgment on the whole field of books that were published since Jan. 1, 2017. Instead, this is, in no particular order, a list of the books that helped me most in 2017, even if they weren’t necessarily all released this year.
“An American Family,” by Khizr Khan: It’s no surprise that a lot of people feel grim about the American experiment these days (and about the limitations on the promise of that experiment to begin with). The Khan family would probably be justified if they expressed exceptional bitterness: An American war killed their son, and the current American president has demonized Muslim immigrants like them both generally and personally. Instead, Khizr Khan’s memoir is an endorsement of the value of optimistic hard work in pursuit of the values of citizenship. It made me want to be a better American.
“American War,” by Omar El Akkad: By contrast with “An American Family,” “American War” is a portrait of the United States after its collapse. I don’t know if El Akkad’s scenario by which America descends into presidential assassination, secession and endless war necessarily holds up to close examination. But his portrait of how one young woman, Sarat, is radicalized, abandoned and ultimately destroyed by the people willing to use her is profoundly painful — and deeply relevant, even if the circumstances are dramatically different from the ones we actually face.
“Manhattan Beach,” by Jennifer Egan: Female pluckiness and ingenuity can be overrated as character traits in fiction, especially if they’re the sole personality qualities assigned to a protagonist. But part of what I loved about Egan’s novel about a young woman who becomes a diver in a New York shipyard during World War II was the reminder it gives that moments of turmoil can also be times of great opportunity for those willing to seize the initiative. There’s horror in a period like World War II, of course, but there’s also wonder, and chances for reinvention, if you’re able to look for them.
“The Future Is History,” by Masha Gessen: We’ve spent a lot of 2017 discussing what Russia did or didn’t do to the United States during the 2016 presidential election. So it felt clarifying to take a step back and read Gessen’s sharp book about what has been happening to Russia over the past couple of decades since the end of the Cold War. It’s a stark portrait of what happens when the promises of democracy, market capitalism and social liberalization fail to materialize, and a clear argument for why people might turn back to a past that looks horrendously unappealing to outsiders.
“George Washington’s Journey,” by T.H. Breen: Given how profoundly strange the Trump presidency has been, I found it immensely useful to travel back several hundred years and read Breen’s history of how our first president went about inventing the institution in the first place. Breen’s account of Washington’s travels around his new country explores how Washington navigated the titles Americans wanted to give him, the rituals they wanted to use to receive him, and the ways in which he wanted to interact with his constituents. It’s a reminder that things could have turned out far differently depending on Washington’s temperament and sense of what the country needed.
“The Rules Do Not Apply,” by Ariel Levy: I understand the compulsion to try to understand, in every detail, why horrifying things happen, and so much of 2017 has felt consumed by that process. But Levy’s memoir, which focuses in particular on the loss of her son and the breakup of her marriage, insists that we surrender, at least momentarily, that desire. It’s a book about feeling humbled before fate, about thinking that you can achieve anything through your own will and then finding out how terribly mistaken you are. This is not a happy book, but it’s a beautifully written one, and it helped me get out of my own head.
“The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson: I re-read “The Argonauts,” Nelson’s account of the birth of her son and her partner’s transition, several times in 2017. Like Levy’s memoir, it’s a very well-done exploration of marriage and motherhood, though in a different direction. But what I value most about it is Nelson’s refusal to accept certainty and clearly delineated political positions about sex, gender and parenthood. We live in an age addicted to unambiguity. It’s nice to be reminded of the value of uncertainty in strident times.