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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, December 23, 2011

My top 12 books of the year

I'm unlikely to read many more books before the year is out, and the ones that I really must read for professional purposes don't look as if they are going to make any list of mine of favourite or top or "best" books.

So here is a short list of my best books of the year, the ones that I found especially illuminating or enjoyable. It's my top 12 for 2011.

Few of them actually appeared for the first time in 2011 - in fact, I think only the first one did. My reading is seldom that up to date. However, they are all books that I read for the first time in 2011. Thus, you won't see Moby Dick on the list, even though I actually did read it in 2011, because I'd read it before.

Here goes, in a rough order:

1. The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker. This was the real stand out. A huge book crammed with interesting information and reflections. Superbly written, and simply a must read for anyone with interests remotely similar to mine. I've written about the book sporadically in a couple of earlier posts, and I'll be writing a proper review of it for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.

2. The Emotional Construction of Morals - Jesse Prinz. One of the best works on moral philosophy that I have ever read, and certainly the best case that I have ever seen for moral relativism (of a very sophisticated kind that avoids the obvious problems with cruder forms). This book was enough to shake me up and make me think that some sort of moral relativism might be the best theory after all. I'm still thinking about it.

3. The Slap - Chris Tsiolkas. This is my work of fiction of the year. I've only just read it, after watching the TV version religiously over the eight weeks that it played and then being lent the novel by a friend. There's a lot to say about the book, and maybe I'll find an opportunity to say more elsewhere, but this is a splendid portrait of how we live now.

4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanne Clark. To my shame, I only got around to reading this extraordinary fantasy novel in 2011. You'll need to do nothing but read it for a full week, unless you're a much faster reader than I am, but it's worth it. An immersive experience.

5. Collected Stories - Saul Bellow. This might deserve an even higher ranking, but a large proportion of it is one of my favourite stories by anyone, ever, Bellow's novella A Theft. I'd already read this several times. Bellow's fiction requires a certain level of concentration - don't read these stories while distracted - but the pay-off is worth it. Beautiful, compelling depictions of character in action.

6. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification - Michael Martin. I'd never actually read this from cover to cover, though I'd certainly dipped into it quite a bit. It really is a masterwork of modern philosophy.

7. Against the Day - Thomas Pynchon. Another book that will take you a week of doing nothing else. To be honest, I wish I could rank this a bit higher, but Pynchon is always a mixture of enjoyable and frustrating. I had to read Against the Day, at last (since it was published a few years ago now), in order to give a talk on Pynchon early in the year. I probably need to read it again so it makes more sense the second time, but when am I going to find another week? Pynchon's works do repay re-reading and re-re-reading.

8. Beyond Humanity? - Allen Buchanan. This book on the philosophy of enhancement technology is by one of the authors of From Chance to Choice, still probably the one must-read book in the field. The earlier book notwithstanding, Buchanan has some new, provocative, and important things to say.

9. Diamond Eyes - A.A. Bell. This won the Norma K. Hemming Award, for which I was on the jury. It's simply a page-turning thriller with a mix of science-fiction and fantasy elements. Not necessarily something I'd read again, but I loved it.

9. Power and Majesty - Tansy Rayner Roberts. I loved this as well. It would also have been a worthy winner of the same award, and it gained other honours (an Aurealis Award, for a start). Roberts is at the top of her game right now.

11. The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman. Again, a book that I'm ashamed not to have read before. It's as compelling, moving, and complex as they say.

12. The Weight of Things - Jean Kazez. Jean and I have had our quarrels and continue to have some disagreements. I must say, though, that she writes beautifully and thoughtfully. This relatively little book about the problem of "the good life" is thoroughly enjoyable, even if you find stuff to disagree with.

Some honorable mentions. First, Paul Cliteur's The Secular Outlook. I'd previously read the manuscript when it was sent to me to see if I might give it a back-cover endorsement (I did so enthusiastically). I was pleased to read it again this year in the form of the published book. It was good to have it in time to draw on it for my own work this year. It's an important contribution to secular thought, and you might like to seek it out. The only reason it's not on my list is that I'd read the manuscript.

Second, Mike Carey's X-Men story Age of X, which is now available in trade. The edgier reinterpretations of the X-characters are a joy to behold. It's almost a pity that they had to be brought back, at the end of the story, to the "normal" reality of the franchise. But Age of X did pay off for the on-going X-Men myth-cum-soap-opera.

Third, and now I realise that I'm being unfair to Philip Kitcher's big new book on moral philosophy, The Ethical Project. I've written a review of this for The Philosophers' Magazine, and have praised it quite highly. I think I need some time for my thoughts about it to bed down, before I can decide just how important a contribution to the field it is. But it probably belongs on the top 12 list somewhere, in which case I'd have to look at the last couple of items on the list and decide which to throw out. Just take it that the book is deserving of a place there.


GTChristie said...

With Kitcher a baker's dozen, then.

I never read fiction (maybe I'm deprived?) so I wonder what the top dozen non-fic might have been. And I wonder occasionally what "high fiction" contributes to the life of the mind. I know it's an idle question, but ... why do you read it, Russell? Nothing against it; I just never could connect.

Russell Blackford said...

That would be a long answer. If you track down the notes of my Pynchon talk, you'll see me raising the same question.

Tim Dean said...

Looking forward to reading the Prinz and Kitcher books - as both relate closely to my own research. I suspect they're both pushing in the same direction as I am (I'd better finish my PhD before all the good points have already been made!) although it seems I might differ from Prinz in arguing that emotional variation does have a biological origin.

Kitcher's also looks fascinating - I'm very sympathetic to the pragmatic naturalist approach in general and the idea that moral systems evolve over time to enable new solutions to problems of social living.

Just a bummer that Australian book stores don't appear to stock either one. If they wonder why they're losing revenue to overseas online outlets...

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, #12 was a big surprise! Thanks so much for reading and for your nice comments. I have your new book on order, by the way, and look forward to reading it.