(iStock)

Tyranny, protest, cynicism, madness, hatred, fate — so, how was your year in reading?

The books I’ve read so far in 2017 have seemed to reflect the mood of the times, or maybe just my mood at times. The authors listed here include psychiatrists, novelists, biographers, generals, historians, technologists and philosophers, and their works are ones I suspect I will long recall, for better or worse. The best book I read this year may be the most pessimistic, but it is also the shortest. Hey, silver linings.

(Yale University Press)

Most enlightening book I read this year: “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” (Yale University Press) by Zeynep Tufekci
Protest movements can launch almost overnight — a galvanizing outrage, a Facebook call-out, and you’re off. But speed is a potential weakness, Zeynep Tufekci warns in this terrific mix of scholarship and observation of protests from Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square. Movements without deep organizing often lack the leadership structures and momentum to threaten entrenched power, she writes. And beware of the corporations behind the online platforms protesters depend on. “The current digital communications gatekeeping ecosystem has been reduced to a very few but very powerful choke points,” Tufekci cautions, so causes “can be silenced by a terms-of-service complaint or by an algorithm.” [Read the review.]

Most irritating book I read this year: “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” (Random House) by Kurt Andersen
Americans display a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” argues “Studio 360” host Kurt Andersen, and it’s certainly hard to disagree. But this survey of national loopiness — featuring Cotton Mather, P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and other purveyors of secular and religious pipe dreams — is more fleeting and glib than helpful and revealing. The author Dumpster-dives through America’s timeline, salvaging whatever tidbits fit the story, while showing sage contempt for people of faith. (From the Puritans on, almost every religiously inclined community resides in “Fantasyland.”) [Read the review.]

Most revealing book I read this year: “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama” (William Morrow) by David J. Garrow
This massive biography presents Barack Obama as calculating and compartmentalizing, a man who long believed he was fated for glory and made whatever sacrifices he deemed necessary to get there. Garrow tells the previously unexplored story of a girlfriend from Obama’s early Chicago years — a serious relationship complicated by racial differences and political ambitions — and unearths a book manuscript Obama co-authored at Harvard Law School, in which he grappled with big policy debates. A departure from the sympathetic approach of major Obama biographers, Garrow offers a damning verdict: “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.” [Read the review.]

(Zero Books)

Most disturbing book I read this year: “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” (Zero Books) by Angela Nagle
This deep dive into the digital swamps of 4chan and Reddit reveals a world where nihilism, irony and absurd in-joke humor mingle with pornography, racism and misogyny and give life to the alt-right. Underlying a movement that targets women as well as religious and cultural minorities, Angela Nagle sees “the absolute hegemony of the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression and irreverence for its own sake.” She fears that the left — obsessed with privilege policing and “performative vulnerability” — is ill-equipped to fight back. A short volume but packed with unease. [Read the review.]

Most surprising book I read this year: “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” (One World) by Ta-Nehisi Coates
At this point, any book by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an insta-bestseller and borderline cultural phenomenon. But the appeal of “We Were Eight Years in Power” is less the well-known Atlantic essays (one from each of the Obama years) that make up the bulk of the book than the brief notes preceding each chapter, which he describes as “attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time.” From his early financial struggles to his discomfort with the acclaim he gained during the Obama era, these digressions are the inside story of a writer at work, showcasing all the insecurities, influences, insights and blind spots the craft demands. There are really two books here; I like the unexpected one. [Read the review.]

Most prescient book I read this year: “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” (Harvard University Press) by Samuel P. Huntington
This summer I read several books by the late Harvard political scientist. More than his famous “clash of civilizations” thesis of the 1990s, it is this lesser-known 1981 work that most clearly speaks to our time. Huntington points to the gap between the values of the American creed (liberty, equality, individualism, constitutionalism) and the government’s efforts to live up to those values as the central tension of national life. “Americans divide most sharply over what brings them together,” he explains. Battles over basic premises — who we are, what we stand for — recur in U.S. history, and Huntington predicted the next one for “the second and third decades of the twenty-first century.” Right on schedule. [Read the review.]

(HarperPerennial)

Most cosmically ironic book I read this year: “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam” (HarperPerennial) by H.R. McMaster
Two decades ago, H.R. McMaster published a damning account of how the top military advisers to President Lyndon Johnson let themselves be used by a duplicitous, self-serving commander in chief, failed to speak forthrightly to Congress and insufficiently challenged the administration’s flawed national security policies. The LBJ White House was sinking in “a quicksand of lies,” McMaster wrote. “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth.” Now, McMaster serves as President Trump’s national security adviser and risks becoming a similar cautionary tale. [Read the review.]

Most helpful book I read this year: “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” (Brookings Institution Press) by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy
First published in 2013, this book is both a biography and a psychological profile of the Russian president, focusing on the lasting influence of his time as a KGB case officer. “As he can fully trust only himself,” the authors write, “Putin applies extortionary methods to everyone else — basically mutually assured incrimination to ensure loyalty.” Fiona Hill joined the White House this year as a top Russia expert, making her insights on Putin not just useful but influential. “Putin has spent a great deal of time in his professional life bending the truth, manipulating facts, and playing with fictions,” the book explains. “He is also, we conclude, not always able to distinguish one from the other.” [Read the review.]

Most well-timed book I read this year: “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” (Oxford University Press) by Kate Manne
Though written before the flood of news reports of sexual misconduct by figures in Hollywood, the news media and politics, this is an exquisitely timed study. Rather than viewing misogyny as actions by individuals hostile to women for personal or cultural reasons, Kate Manne views it as a political force meant to “police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.” Densely written — the author teaches philosophy at Cornell University — this book still forces a rethinking: “Misogyny’s essence lies in its social function,” Manne writes, “not its psychological nature.” Women who challenge misogyny’s rules suffer a backlash, she explains; just look at the 2016 election.

Most ominous book I read this year: “American War” (Knopf) by Omar El Akkad
I did not review this book for The Washington Post. (I just read it for my book club.) It’s an entirely credible dystopian novel in which America succumbs to a resource-based civil war in the late 21st century. Omar El Akkad is a journalist who has covered war, terrorism, refu­gee camps and torture — and he places them all in a United States where the red-blue split of political coverage has hardened over time into physical and geopolitical realities. “American War” is a menacing and captivating look at the long-term perils of a divided nation. [Read Ron Charles’s review.]

(Thomas Dunne Books)

Most daring book I read this year: “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President” (Thomas Dunne Books) by Bandy X. Lee (ed.)
Many euphemisms are deployed to describe President Trump’s state of mind — erratic, unpredictable, temperamentally unfit — but this book takes a riskier stance. In more than two dozen essays, psychiatrists and other contributors find Trump’s perceived traits consistent with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy and other maladies. “Anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency,” Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy X. Lee of the Yale School of Medicine write in the prologue. Speaking out despite professional prohibitions, the authors offer conclusions both tentative and urgent. [Read the review.]

And the best book I read this year: “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century” (Tim Duggan Books) by Timothy Snyder
This is a slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and is almost as vital. A historian of interwar Germany, Timothy Snyder provides 20 insights on how to prevent, or at least forestall, the repression of lives and minds. He dwells on “the politics of the everyday” to show how people can resist — or succumb to — encroaching authoritarianism, and focuses on politicians’ abuses of language and mythology. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” he contends. Snyder is pessimistic but takes hope in revisiting history. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” he writes. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” [Read the review.]

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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