My favorite books of 2022

I read 32 books in 2022. Here are some standouts:

The First World War

The First World War, Michael Howard

I wanted to learn more about the First World War and this short book seemed like a good place to start. It’s a brisk overview of the causes and course of the war, with a great bibliography for further reading.

The Republic for Which It Stands

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Richard White

I started reading this very long book in 2021 and set it down for several months. But at some point, I needed something to read and so I picked it back up. I’m not sure what changed, but I was engrossed. This volume (part of The Oxford History of the United States) covers the time from Lincoln’s funeral to the close of the Gilded Age. Reading it, I could start to see how American society became what it is today. It’s a fascinating book, and incredibly depressing, especially the failure of Reconstruction and attempts to coerce Native Americans into the post-Civil War ideal of “home” and contract labor. The New York Times review of The Republic for Which It Stands gives a good summary.

Reading this book lead me to another of Richard White’s books, Who Killed Jane Stanford? which is his true crime investigation into the murder of Jane Stanford, founder of Stanford University and noted wack-job. The story of Stanford and her murder is completely crazy, and probably led to Stanford’s current preeminence because it ended her eccentric governance of the university.


Circe, Madeline Miller

During the pandemic, I found a podcast that combined two things I enjoy: literature and history. I remember taking a deep breath before hitting play on the first episode. It was so long, almost an hour and a half. But from the beginning, I was hooked. The conceit of exploring Anglophone literature starting at the invention of writing was too good, and the early episodes about the (quite recently recovered) ancient literature of the Middle East fascinated me. The show soon moved into Greek literature, which gave me a strong base to appreciate Circe.

You don’t need to listen to 15 hours on Greek gods and myths or get a degree in Classics to appreciate this book. It’s wonderful as a novel. But I loved getting so many of the references — not to mention seeing things from another angle not presented in the myths or The Odyssey.

I also deeply enjoyed playing Hades for the same reason. That game has some deep cut mythological and literary references!

Calhoun: American Heretic

Calhoun: American Heretic, Robert Elder

I picked this up on a recommendation from Jamelle Bouie on Twitter. My old neighborhood in Minneapolis abutted a lake named after him and my main connection with his legacy was the controversy over renaming the lake and a glancing knowledge of his role in succession and as a slave owner. This book fixed that. It covers Calhoun’s rise to prominence as the part of the second generation of leaders in the young United States, and his turn towards protecting slave power which ultimately led to succession and the Civil War. Calhoun always said he wanted to preserve the union, and proposed constitutional changes to protect minority (that is, slave owner) interests. But these suggestions always had an “or else”, and after he died secessionists took up his banner. He was treated as a founding father of the Confederacy.

In the epilogue, Elder examines Calhoun’s legacy. Controversial in his own day and condemned after the war, Calhoun’s reputation enjoyed a revival after Reconstruction failed. His theory of the “concurrent majority” has had interest from modern political theorists dealing with deeply divided populaces. For me, it was hard not to see echoes of the concurrent majority the current vetocracy of the United States government. Lately, monuments to Calhoun have been coming down: he is again an American heretic.

[I]t is not difficult to draw a straight line that runs from Calhoun through the Confederacy and Massive Resistance in the civil rights era to Dylann Roof’s evil act and the most extreme elements of our society today. But by the time that line reaches us, it is suspiciously faint, as if the forces in our history that Calhoun represents have attenuated to the point that they only exercise their force on radical extremists, instead of continuing to operate powerfully and silently in the structures of our society, our governments, and ourselves. In excising Calhoun’s name from buildings, toppling monuments to his memory, and associating him with fringe elements of our society, we should be careful not to forget his central role in our past, and unavoidably, our present. If we excommunicate Calhoun by casting him as the defender of a rejected path in American history, the antidemocratic defender of an antiquated brutality, and the father of the failed Confederacy, we will be unable to see the lines running from Calhoun’s America to our own. And if we reduce him to his defense of slavery, which set him apart even in his own day, we may miss the fact that when Calhoun proclaimed the United States, not the Confederacy, “the government of the white man,” it was possibly one of the least controversial things that he ever said.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad

Conrad is one of my favorite authors, but I haven’t actually read that many of his books. Reading a review of Maya Jasanoff’s biography The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World made me want to read Nostromo, the only book she covers in detail that I hadn’t read.

Nostromo is the story of a revolution in the imaginary Latin American country of Costaguana which is home to a gigantic silver mine. The panicked mine owner entrusts the shipment of silver to the indispensable man, head longshoreman Giovanni Fidanza, known as Nostromo. The counter-revolutionaries win the war and independence for their province, but the silver disappears without a trace. Or so it seems.

The structure of the novel is unique and challenging to read, with major action recounted in flashbacks. Yale Modernism Lab has an essay on Nostromo that discusses the structure of the novel and how it treats imperialism.

For me what stood out to me was the corrupting influence of the silver. The owner of the mine becomes so obsessed with it that he ignores his wife and ends his line. The revolutionaries seize power and go to war in order to control the mine. Nostromo becomes cynical and consumed by greed as he slowly disposes of the hidden silver, ultimately leading to his destruction. The new nation seems set to prosper under the aegis of American global capitalism, but all the main characters are destroyed in the process and the people will be exploited just like before. The protagonists are all on the Blanco side of the war, and the revolutionaries are portrayed with racist caricatures. But the protagonists are also all portrayed negatively (with partial exception for the female characters) as well. Imperialism wins, but neither side is good.

Similar to my appreciation for Circe being enhanced by learning more about the source material, I listened to the Revolutions podcast prior to reading the novel. The seasons on Latin American revolutions and the failed 1848 revolutions provided a lot of context for Nostromo.

Finally, this book is in the public domain. Rather than buying it or checking it out from the library, I got it from Standard Ebooks. I complement them on the quality of their product.

My full list of books from 2022 is below. You can also review lists from previous years: 2006, 2007, 2008 (retroactive favorites), 2009 (retroactive favorites), 2010 (retroactive favorites), 2011 (favorites), 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, Mike Duncan

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

Cosmonaut Keep, Ken MacLeod

Dark Light, Ken MacLeod

Engine City, Ken MacLeod

The First World War, Michael Howard

If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie, Christopher Ingraham

Lily the Thief, Janne Kukkonen

Why I Write, George Orwell

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Jon Ronson

Burning Chrome, William Gibson

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Archangel, William Gibson and Michael St. John Smith

This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Richard White

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter, Stephen Prothero

Circe, Madeline Miller

The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez

Wizzywig, Ed Piskor

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Inhibitor Phase, Alastair Reynolds

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Norman Maclean

Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University, Richard Whitehead

Calhoun: American Heretic, Robert Elder

Beetle & the Hollowbones, Aliza Layne

Betsy-Tacy, Maud Hart Lovelace

Ghostopolis, Doug TenNapel

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff

A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark