By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The world is alive with top 10 lists. Best of the year. End of the decade. Tops of the century. Too often, they come from critics whose tastes are jaded (and whose selections are then biased toward the strange and nuanced), whose lists are as much designed to demonstrate how cool the list-maker is, as to help the movie-goer, music-listener or reader. So here is a compilation of "Good Books Of The Decade" from someone who is not a professional critic, but reads a lot on the job:
1. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. If there was one book I wish I had written in the last 10 years, this would be it. A great yarn, superbly told, about a bunch of classic American underdogs.
2. Grant by Jean Edward Smith. I am not so willing to absolve Ulysses S. Grant for the corruption and hatreds that marred his presidency, but Smith's savvy critique of Grant's failures as the commanding general at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and other Civil War battles buys the author credibility. This tale of an unemployed veteran of the Mexican war, prey to drink and selling firewood on street-corners, rising to lead the Union Army to victory and the country through two terms in the White House, will make you re-think what you thought about Sam Grant.
3. Ghost Warsby Stephen Coll. To understand what the United States faces in Afghanistan, this book is essential. Then pick up The Looming Towers by Lawrence Wright and The Assassin's Gate by George Packer, two volumes that will carry you through the 9-11 attacks and into the war in Iraq. Top off your reading with The 9-11 Commission Report. Only then can you begin to comment knowledgeably on the U.S. response to the emergence of al Qaeda and radical Islam.
4. My research requires that I spend much of my time reading newspapers, letters and diaries from the turn of the last century. Three books written by fellow time travelers to this era stand out. Young J. Edgar by Kenneth Ackerman reveals how, during the Red Scare after World War I, an ambitious toady named J. Edgar Hoover got his start as a despicable forerunner of Roy Cohn. Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle is a wonderful retelling of Clarence Darrow's defense of a group of African-American defendants in a city torn by racial hatred in the Roaring Twenties. And Murder in the White City won Erik Larson fame and fortune for his skillful tale of a serial killer in 1890s Chicago.
5. Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. A great little punch in the nose to those who would mix Church and State; a timely reminder of how and why the Founding Fathers left the word "God" out of the U.S. Constitution.
6. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. In a decade where a two generations of great American fiction writers too often succumbed to death or decay, Pynchon came through with this funny thousand-pager, as well as Inherent Vice, which I have not read yet, but is on my bedside table.
7. Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara. At the other end of the literary spectrum from Pynchon—and with a necessary nod to John Grisham—Shaara's two historical novels of the American Revolution were the best beach-or-airplane books to hook me during the decade.
8. Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer is a grand, fresh retelling of how George Washington led the reeling American army across the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776, surprised the Hessians and won the battle of Trenton.
9. The Purpose of the Past by Gordon S. Wood. This wise collection of essays upholds the historian's ability to capture objective history—and defines the rigorous standards, historical imagination, hard work and humility required to do so. Whenever I get lost, I go back to Wood's introduction to this book, and he sets my feet on the path again.
10. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. In the course of the last decade John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Joe DiMaggio and Lyndon Johnson were lucky to have their stories told by highly skilled biographers. But this book about the dawn of the atomic age is one to haunt you.
Writers don't get to read for pleasure as much as you might think. The demands of scribbling keeps me anchored in a topic, or an era, and when I do pick up a book for enjoyment, the lures of the classics or my favorite authors compete with new offerings. And nobody sends me books. I buy them, like most folks, at airport Borders or from Amazon, usually after reading a rave review, or hearing from a friend about a book they loved. Which is just to say that my best-of-the-decade list is necessarily idiosyncratic.
I make no claims at having read all the great biographies and histories and non-fiction books that have been published since January 1, 2000—and my reading in contemporary fiction is woefully deficient. The fairer sex will notice my gender bias to great men, war and politics. And by limiting this list to the last 10 years, I leave out some truly wonderful and largely forgotten writers—Ray Ginger (Altgeld's America), Matthew Josephson (The Politicos) and Richard Ketchum (Saratoga and The Winter Soldiers)—whose 20th century work I discovered this year.
That said, I guarantee that these are really good books.