A Handful of the Most Important and Interesting Books of 2016
By Jim Miller
If you just can’t bring yourself to give up on the sordid consumer frenzy and go all in for a Buy Nothing Christmas, then perhaps getting your loved ones a few good books to help them navigate the dark near-future is the next best thing.
Here is my annual list of a handful of some of the most instructive stand-out books of 2016:
1. Back in the Spring, I wrote the following about Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?:
Thomas Frank has written the most important political book of 2016, and one that should disturb and hopefully influence progressives for years to come. If you have ever found yourself not just horrified by the lunatic right but also frustrated by the hapless and compromised “left,” Frank is your man. If you want to feel good about “your side,” but are still troubled by the fact that economic inequality remains at historically high levels despite the last eight years of Democratic Presidential rule, Frank has some uncomfortable truths for you to ponder.
As always, for Frank, history is the narrative that hurts so if you want to move beyond superficial social media narratives about how the Democrats lost an election that should have been a landslide for them, this is crucial reading. If you are an activist or progressive who wants to rebuild something better out of the ashes of the present disaster, read this book first.
2. Once you’ve finished figuring out why the party of the “left” is so messed up, you should think about doing a little opposition research on the real power behind the throne. For that, go to Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer’s seminal account of the economic powerhouses who will now be pulling the levers of governance in the Trump administration.
From Trump’s education secretary to the fossil fueled plutocrats elsewhere in his administration, the incoming nightmare is a pure product of the corporate network that has been working to starve the beast, unravel the New Deal, and bring about an unregulated libertarian utopia that will be downright dystopian for the rest of us.
In his New York Times review of Dark Money, Bill McKibben keenly observes:
Mayer is telling the epic story of America in our time. It is a triumph of investigative reporting, perhaps not surprising for a journalist who has won most of the awards her profession has to offer. But she had to cut through the secrecy that these men have carefully cultivated, unraveling an endless list of front groups. And she had to do it despite real intimidation; apparently an arm of what some have called “the Kochtopus” hired private investigators to try to dig up dirt on her personal and professional life, a tactic that failed because there wasn’t any. She’s a pro, and she’s given the world a full accounting of what had been a shadowy and largely unseen force.
Know your enemy. Enough said.
3. For the clear-eyed realists and environmentalists on your list, you might consider some readings bearing witness to the sixth extinction and get them Dark Mountain, Issue 9, an anthology dedicated to exploring the meaning of life during our ongoing global existential crisis.
The editors explain their collection thusly:
As we enter dark times, these disparate voices challenge the grand narratives of recrimination and despair, so that the universe appears afresh as a collection of wonders – bewildering objects, transforming passions and moments of transcendent awe. With such humbling comes a simplicity, a singleness of vision and a return to a more honest appraisal of what it means to be human.
And, despite the largely-undeserved reputation of the Dark Mountain Collective as a band of apocalyptic cranks, there is much wisdom to be found in these pages as writers, poets, and artists struggle to find the “hope after hope.”
As Anna Tagonist wryly observes of us humans in an interview in this anthology,
I think that’s still the contradiction that runs through my own writing: we are prone to horrible rages and self- destruction, and yet we are still beautiful and imaginative and worth loving. We have fucked up pretty much every part of our ecosystem worth up-fucking, and yet we are the only species we have the option of being. We are both fragile and indestructible, stupid and self-sacrificing, fear-shot and able to party in the ruins of any catastrophe. What do you even do about that?
4. And lastly, the most important book of fiction in 2016, in my estimation, was Don DeLillo’s Zero K, a novel that thrusts the reader into the heart of the cult of the technocratic that drives the world of the global elite with its accompanying mood of unnamed anxiety. This is a social universe where we have internalized endless war, crisis, and impending doom along with the petty everyday banalities of our jobs and the all-pervasive media landscape that serves as the ongoing background of our lives. As the New York Times review of the book notes:
This is fiction in touch with the starker parables, with Kafka and Beckett, with the austerity of bare rooms and declarative, uninflected sentences. I was uncertain as I read these early pages. Had DeLillo created a world of pure abstraction where the reader would be left to float in the zero-gravity chamber of the death fable, everything to think about and nothing to latch on to? But this is only one of several canny feints in the book, which continually shape-shifts and reimagines itself. In the end, it all adds up to one of the most mysterious, emotionally moving and formally rewarding books of DeLillo’s long career.
No one has his finger on the pulse of the world we live in more than Don DeLillo; he is a prophet of the wonder and dread of our age.