• Marc Johnson

The Year in Books


I did something this year that I have never done before. I kept track of everything I read. The list is eclectic, heavy on non-fiction, and while it is a long list I hope next year to make it even longer. If you love books, as I do, you may consider your own list for 2014. It’s a great way to recall that book and author you read in January and can’t quite recall in November. So here goes – my own Top Ten best reads of 2013.

The best new book I read this year was 1913 – The Search for the World Before the Great War by a British writer Charles Emmerson who takes us on a 23 city tour of the world on the brink of the war that shaped the 20th Century. As the Washington Post said in a review, “The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.”

I read or re-read four novels this year that now have a place on my all-time great list. The Great Gatsby may not be the Great American Novel, but it has to be one of the two or three contenders for that title. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece came to the big screen again this year, but it’s much better as a book. Read it again.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle at Gettysburg and I marked the anniversary by re-reading Michael Scharra’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. This is the best kind of historical fiction. The story of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Joshua Chamberlain and the battle they fought near Gettysburg in 1863 is a true gem.

I also enjoyed for the first time Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel Red Harvest, which is set in a town that sounds a lot like Butte, Montana in 1929. Capote’s novel is set in a town that sounds a lot like New York in 1958. Both are fine reads.

Two biographies rate special mention this year: David Nasaw’s fine and engrossing life of Joseph P. Kennedy appropriately entitled The Patriarch and A. Scott Berg’s equally fine Wilson, the gripping life story of the 28th President of the United States complete with all his brilliance and with all his contradictions.

Of the raft of books released in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination the best may be Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court. Dallek focuses on Kennedy’s foreign policy and the brilliant – and often brilliantly wrong – advisers who served the young president. I came away with more respect for Kennedy’s own judgment and his courage in standing up to the bombastic advice he received, for example, from his generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I also give very high marks to Ira Katznelson’s original and compelling history of the New Deal entitled Fear Itself. Katznelson goes deep behind the usual and well-known narrative of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to explain the political realities of the 1930’s with particular attention to the power southern racists Democrats had in the United States Senate and how FDR tailored his policies to fit that reality. I predict it will become a modern classic of the period that still defines American politics.

And finally another history to end the year, a book end really to Emmerson’s 1913 called The War That Ended Peace by a great historian Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan charts the policies and personalities that ruled in Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Austria-Hungry in the years leading up to The Great War. One comes away marveling at the pathetic emperors, the petty statesmen and the egotistical generals who played so recklessly with the peace of Europe until the fateful summer of 1914 when they touched off the war that ended empires, re-drew the map of Europe and the Middle East and foisted on the world the deadly 20th Century.

So many books. So little time. There are ten good reads I enjoyed in 2013. Happy New Year.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson