Well, it was a slow-time coming, but I guess I should call it: 2017 was the year I officially became a political junkie. Not that this was in any way an accomplishment. These days, ignoring headlines takes more effort, not less.
Then again, if your reading year has included not one but two books about Mitch McConnell, and you are eagerly awaiting the final volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography the way you once were excited for the latest Harry Potter—well, maybe it's time to admit you have a problem. So here goes.
* As usual, I will sometimes use the word “read” interchangeably with “listen to” since most of them were audiobooks.
Writer Who Dominated My Reading Year: Robert Caro
In this era of hot take think-pieces written in hours, and books published as quickly as possible fact-checking be damned, reading Robert Caro is downright refreshing. His work famously takes him years to write, and it's immensely satisfying listening to well-researched stories that make politics seem fascinating and complicated. Not complicated in the "arcane senate procedure way" though there's plenty of that too (and which Caro actually manages to make fairly understandable), but complicated in a "bad-men-doing-great-and-terrible things" kind of way.
Anyway, in 2017 I read two more books in Robert Caro's epic Lyndon Johnson biography series, Means of Ascent, and The Passage of Power (yes, I am reading them all out of order). The Passage of Power is my favorite so far, which spans six years—LBJ going from the most powerful man in the Senate, to the least powerful man in the executive branch, and being ridiculed by Kennedy and the glamorous people of Camelot, and then swept into office under terrible circumstances.
I also thoroughly enjoyed On Power, a collection of excerpts of Caro's speeches, and a superb introduction to his work. And speaking of which...
Best Author Talk
...oh hey, look who I got to meet! One of my highlights this year was attending a lecture by the historian Robert Caro at the Newark Public Library. I am also happy to report that he has an excellent sense of humor. He and his wife Ina graciously signed the WWLBJD? bumper stickers [see photo] that we presented them (printed by me, designed by my friend Tim).
Author I Would Most Like to Get a Beer With: Alyssa Mastromonaco
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea, by Alyssa Mastromonaco.
I tore through this on a plane ride, wishing it had come out about 10 years earlier when I most needed career advice. Alyssa Mastromonaco was Obama's White House Deputy Chief of Staff for three years (the "type of job...no one teaches you to want") and her memoir is a funny and fascinating reveal of what it is like to have one of the most high pressure gigs in the world. If you really can't get enough of what it was like behind the scenes in the Obama White House, I also enjoyed the funny memoir Thanks, Obama. My Hopey Changey Years in the White House by David Litt.
Literally Me, by Julie Houts.
Works in this genre tend to feature writers whose artistic ambitions start and end with publishing a book that would sell well in an Urban Outfitters, but this book thoroughly delighted me. Houts is a clear-eyed satirist on a very specific (and easily mockable) genre of women's culture, and an elegant draftswoman. Once I got to her illustrated essay about a group of women in an Uber Pool who wind up ushering in the apocalypse en route to Coachella I was hooked.
Best Book I Should've Already Read By Now
1984 by George Orwell. I was one of the thousands of people who helped make this 68-year-old book a best seller in 2017. Go figure.
Book I Read Because I Was Going to Watch the New TV Series the Book Was Based On, And Then, Upon Finishing It the Book, Never Felt In the Mood to Watch the TV Series
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Nothing against Margaret Atwood or Elisabeth Moss, by the way. I just never had the emotional energy.
Best Audiobook (and Most Specific Title)
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Like all of Bell’s comedy his memoir is funny, engaging, and thought-provoking. It got me through several hours of mural painting.
The Hike, by Drew Margary
I was ready to write this book off as bizarre torture porn, but the last 30 minutes or so were as fantastic as everyone said they were.
Most Infuriating, but for Different Reasons
The Long Game, by Mitch McConnell and The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell by Alec Macgillis
"I want to know how Voldemort became Voldemort," I explained to my fiancé when he asked why on earth I wanted to read such a book. (He replied, "Well, I don't want to know. And I will refer to him as He Who Must Not Be Named.")
Anyhow, if your view of McConnell is of a man with no ideas or principles other than winning elections and sabotaging Democrats, his memoir The Long Game doesn't do much to convince you otherwise. (He devotes an entire chapter to his ”heroic" act of attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and offers three vague sentences on how he'd have fixed it; in fact, his ideas for fixing any problems facing Americans are largely absent.) Fortunately, Alec McGinness' book The Cynic is a fascinating and necessary accompaniment to his memoir, which dives into the harsh political calculations behind the decisions McConnell breezes over.
Other Good Books
What Happened, by Hillary Clinton
Yes, I read it. No, I did not think it was "too soon." As the comedian Billy Eichner put it on Twitter: "Everything we pretend to know regarding laws/policy/diplomacy-Hillary's lived it her entire life. Not wanting her 2 cents is just plain dumb."
Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders
Parts of this book made me impatient, but others put a shiver down my spine.