It’s no secret the book industry is in a free fall right now. And like every other industry that’s being hit by the economic tsunami rolling through the country the results have been shocking and painful. Of course the publishing industry (much like the newspaper and auto) has been on a slow decline for years, and there is no shortage of people ready to explain to you all the whys and wherefores and bad decisions that were made along the way. However, that’s not what we’re here for today! Today we are only interested in talking about good books! Because at the end of the day, regardless of the business that produces them, books are important. Language and stories are important. One might argue that there has never been a time in our history when we’ve been more surrounded by words, still, unlike the current media trend that has us all writing in the moment (often times in 140 characters or less) books allow us to step back, stretch our minds, take the long view, and stand outside of ourselves. They also require a commitment to thinking beyond the NOW, which for someone who lately is finding it a challenge to get through a Frank Rich column (lengthwise!) — let alone, say, the thoroughly fabulous 700+pp Nixonland — is proving to be a necessary exercise indeed!
Before I started at FishbowlNY I worked in publishing for a short time and one of the results is that my Facebook page is still filled with people in the industry. There has been a movement of sorts there lately (Books 4 Books is one of them, individual friends have also taken it upon themselves to write “notes”) to encourage people to buy books for Christmas — it goes without saying that things will be tight for many folks this year so what better gift than a book! Not too expensive and chosen well the enjoyment could last a lifetime. To that end I thought it would be a great idea to get the comments section here [this was initially posted on HuffPo] active with book recommendations — give us your best book recommendation and add in a few lines as to why you chose it. To get things started I reached out to a few well-known types who were generous enough to respond to the request on extremely short notice. You can find their picks below. Alas, my own favorite, Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt, won’t be released until February 19, 2009 (pre-order here!) but I am just as happy to recommend Gail Collins‘ America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, which I carted around for most of the summer and frequently quoted to anyone who would listen (or was in listening range). With her usual, often revealing wit, Collins has created a hard-to-put-down read that will leave you with not only a deep, and sometimes jarring, appreciation of the often terrible struggles women faced for most of this country’s history but also enormously grateful you were born late enough to miss most of it. Needless to say, just like her NYT op-ed columns, it’s also great fun.
And with that I urge you to read everyone’s recommendations, share your own, and buy books! Let the recommending begin!
Fred Armisen (SNL) — “The Unthinkable – Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley. An amazing book about human behavior in emergencies.”
Kevin Bleyer (The Daily Show) — “The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Sure, it’s a children’s book, but I know of a few automaker CEOs who could use a little elementary motivation right about now. They might even consider the audiobook version. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!” What better company for those long cross-country drives to Capitol Hill?”
Lesley M. M. Blume (Author) — “All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren: Beautiful, astute writing about politics, desire, and human nature. If every other book in the world got washed away but this one, I’d still read it over a lifetime and find new truths in it.”
Ana Marie Cox (The Daily Beast) — “With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant was the first non-total-trash book I picked up after the election (during which I had basically kept to junky sci-fi/horror crap) and was totally charmed: Grant is enough of an outsider to be gobsmacked when he meets “real” celebrities (like Steve Martin, Tom Waits, Keanu Reeves) and is surprisingly upfront about the quality of the movies he’s made, including the legendarily bad “Hudson Hawk.” That chapter alone makes the book worth searching out, and, for campaign reporters, the idea of being a part of vast yet organizationless disaster, one in which your job involves going where people tell you to and showing up on time to meals, and where rumors and innuendos are chased down but never ultimately revealed to make sense… well, it may seem familiar.”
Arianna Huffington (HuffPost) — “Ever since I passed out from exhaustion and broke my cheekbone, I’ve become an evangelist for the need to periodically unplug and recharge. That’s why I’m giving my always-connected friends a copy of In Praise of Slowness, a terrific book by Carl Honore, a self-professed former “speedaholic,” in which he advocates the need for a more measured, balanced existence. It’s the perfect prescription for those suffering from BBAD (BlackBerry Addiction Disorder).”
Jon Meacham (EIC Newsweek) — “Nixonland Rick Perlstein’s book on the rise of the right, is both brilliant and fun, a consuming journey back into the making of modern politics. And given the financial news of the year, I cannot help but recommend Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now a fine novel about swindlers, society and speculation. Sound familiar?”
Peggy Noonan (Columnist, WSJ) — “I haven’t bought anyone a book yet this year, but I am going to get a friend The Duff Cooper Diaries, which are so textured and delicious and human, and another Alistair Campbell’s memoirs of the Blair administration, a book that would never, could never, be written by an American political operative, and another friend will get Tim Page’s lovely biography of Dawn Powell.”
Raymond Roker (Publisher, URB) — “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, by Van Jones is a national referendum on building a vibrant and essential green economy in America. Much like NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s lauded Hot, Flat and Crowded, the message is that the U.S. has a unique opportunity to create both jobs and wealth through ecologically sound industries and innovation. I love Friedman and what he has to say, but I can’t help but be more enthusiastic about Jones’ book. With it, the green message can start reaching a more diverse audience with mainstream clout and credibility.”
Steve Ross (Publisher, Collins) — “Devil In the White City, by Erik Larson is still among my favorite examples of historical narrative nonfiction: it adheres rigidly to the facts; it illuminates an underexplored corner of our history and illustrates why the stakes–at even an international scale–were so much higher than they might seem to the casual observer; it focuses on two primary protagonists who represent the best and worst of humankind while the backdrop is textured by walk-ons from dozens of well-known historical figures, from Frederick Law Olmstead and Thomas Edison to Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill; and most importantly, is a fun and gripping read. It makes you shake your head in awe and wonder “where did he unearth this story from, and where did he find all these remarkable details?”
Salman Rushdie (Author) — “Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles gathers together the many, many pictures to whom Proust and his characters refer during his great novel-cycle In Search of Lost Time, paintings by Durer, Rembrandt, Botticelli, the Impressionists, and indeed almost every major European artist of the past six hundred years, and sets these masterpieces alongside the Proustian texts in which they occur. Proust’s responses to these masterpieces are unfailingly interesting, and the revelation of his visual world greatly enriches and opens up our understanding of his own masterwork.”
Liesl Schillinger (NYT) — “Two books I’d love to “gift” are Julia Leigh’s dark jewel of a novella — Disquiet –about a woman who returns (uninvited) to her mother’s French chateau, children in tow, fleeing her brutish Australian husband (I wish Edward Gorey were still alive to illustrate the story–it cries out for sinister animation); and the coming-of-age comedy Family Planning, by the 24-year-old wunderkind Karan Mahajan. The novel is about a 16-year-old in Delhi named Arjun Ahuja, who’s embarrassed by the largeness of his family circle (a dozen siblings and counting), even though he likes nannying the little ones. He starts a band to impress a girl, which creates a problem: how can Arjun seem “cool” to his fellow
band members if they come to his toddler-crammed house to rehearse? There’s something Nick Hornby to the tone — I love the way Mahajan sees family life.”
Rachel Sklar (Abrams Research/Charitini.com) — “After the election I promised myself I would read a book completely unrelated to politics. I bought The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz so I could fit in at literary parties, but there it sits on my shelf while I dig into Boys on the Bus by Timonthy Crouse – recently borrowed and barely put down since then. I can’t tell what’s more amazing, how much has changed since then or how much hasn’t. But what strikes me over and over again is how hard-working these reporters are and how important their job is – and that extrapolates to the whole industry. Since this is a post about buying books, however, I’ll also recommend another book I bought and would buy again: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Actually, I will buy it again, and give it to someone – people should know about this war.”
Jeffrey Toobin (CNN) — Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell : “A madcap yet strangely educational romp (honest) through the sites of pre-JFK presidential assassinations. Totally unexpected, and totally delightful.”
Brian Williams (NBC): Isaac’s Storm, by Eric Larson — “The perfect short piece of non-fiction, made all the more relevant in ’08, when we were reminded that what is past is prologue. A fantastic, evocative and transformative book.”
Sean Wilsey (Author) — “For lefty (or simply thoughtful) Christmas book shoppers I’d recommend In the Land of No Right Angles, by Daphne Beal. No writer since the big boys of the Lost Generation has better captured the blundering innocence of Americans abroad. It’s the perfect way to kiss George Bush and hegemonic America goodbye!”