Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | January 4, 2011

The Best of Everything, 2010

Following is a list of “bests” I’ve compiled for 2010. These range from the personal to the professional. The immediate inspirations are Kevin Levin’s annual “best” posts, Scott McLemee’s “The Year in Reading,” and Mark Safranski’s “Best Book of 2010 (that I read).”

Accordingly, let’s begin with:

Best book I read in 2010. Seeing as how I read 320 books for my exams, this is a difficult category! As you’d imagine, I didn’t a chance to read many books outside of my exam study, so most of these come from my reading list. Since I read so many great books, narrowing this to a single entry is extremely hard, so I’m not going to do so.

Winner: Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977). I read this book in six hours in the Law Library at the Indiana State Capitol, which looks like the Beast’s library in the Disney film. Though a tough slog from first to last, the book rocked my world. Once I read it, I felt I understood the main contours of modern American economic history, of the rise of industrial capitalism, and of big business’ impact on American society. In an exam experience full of epiphanies, The Visible Hand stood out as the greatest of them all.

Runner-up: Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (1959). I’d read this book before, but re-read it for my exams. Really, I think every U.S. History graduate student should be required to read Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. Not only is it relevant to almost any dissertation topic in modern American history, not only is it just as fresh today as it was in 1959, but it is a model of how to build up a towering thesis through the seemingly mundane presentation of primary-source evidence. Chapter after chapter, Hays builds up his argument, until finally in his conclusion he gobsmacks you with the big reveal: he’s just explained a key aspect of the Progressive Movement that no one had noticed before.

Other runners-up: Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (2002); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1989); George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate over African-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (1971); Robert Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1998); C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (2004); David Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of War as We Know It (2007); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (2007).

Honorable mention: Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, Vol. I (2002). I’ve only begun this book (and had barely touched it by the end of 2010), but it promises to be as great an exploration of the human spirit as I’ve read in a long time. During 2010, Ebert became my favorite living writer. You’ll see more about him later on in this post.

Best article I read in 2010. Again, the reading list will predominate here.

Winner: Lawrence Levine, “William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation” (1984). This is cheating, because Levine’s article on Shakespeare forms the core of his masterwork Highbrow/Lowbrow. But I read it as an article, and as an article it is just as astonishing now as it was in 1984. Levine was a true all-around historian: a great writer, a great thinker, and a great researcher. All three are on display in this piece.

Runner-up: Herbert Gutman, “Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815-1919″ (1977). This article defined a generation of scholars by showing how labor history could also be cultural history. It isn’t as revolutionary now as it was in 1977, but it’s still just as scintillatingly brilliant.

Other runners-up: Lawrence Levine, “The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences” (1992); Sean Wilentz, “Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790-1920) (1984); Michael Kammen, “The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration” (1993); Gerald Gamm and Robert D. Putnam, “The Growth of Voluntary Associations in America, 1840-1940″ (1999); Walter Dean Burnham, “Party Systems and the Political Process” (1967). As you can see, I generally liked older scholarship best in terms of articles, while preferring more of a mix in terms of books. Most of the books just below runners-up level were written within the past ten or fifteen years.

Honorable mention: Mischa Berlinski, “Into the Zombie Underworld” (2009). I actually read this last year, but couldn’t resist mentioning it here. It’s the most jaw-droppingly fascinating thing I’ve read in years. Zombies are real, and they live in Haiti. If you didn’t know this, you should read Berlinski’s article. Really.

Best recording I listened to in 2010. Winner: The Magnificent Westerns (City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Nic Raine, Paul Bateman, and others). 4 CD set. Despite what the online reviews say, I thought the recordings on this set were just as good as the Hollywood originals — in some cases, probably better. The City of Prague Philharmonic is a world-class orchestra that specializes in film music. Of particular note are two female soloists who are both as good on the Ennio Morricone tracks as was the legendary Edda dell’Orso. The only thing missing, sadly, is a track from Marc Shaiman’s City Slickers score.

Runner-up: San Jose Chamber Orchestra: Ching, Kohn, Touchi (San Jose Chamber Orchestra, cond. Barbara Day Turner). This recommendation is entirely for the hauntingly beautiful Hymn for String Orchestra by Cleveland Institute of Music composer Steven Mark Kohn. I’ve written about Kohn’s work here. The performance by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra isn’t great, but it is competent. If you get the CD, make sure to listen to the piece by Michael Ching as well.

Best TV show of 2010. Winner: The Mentalist. If you’re not watching The Mentalist, you’re missing an award-worthy performance every week by Simon Baker, and writing (by show creator Bruno Heller) to match.

Runner-up: Lost. The show flagged a bit near the end, but its best episode, “Ab Aeterno,” aired in 2010.

Honorable mention: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of course, this show aired back in the 90s, but I watched it all the way through in 2010. It’s one of the greatest shows ever made, with appealing characters and moving, thoughtful storylines.

Best film of 2010. I can’t really answer this category because I haven’t seen any of the top-ranked films of the year. Also, no film I saw in 2010 made my all-time top ten list (the lat film to do that was Up, in 2009). The best film I saw this year was Inception, by Christopher Nolan. Inception is a brilliant film, but not quite a great one; it is just a bit too obsessed with its own brilliance.

For the record, I’ll post my current ranked all-time top ten list, sans comment:

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
3. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1947)
4. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
5. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
6. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
7. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
8. Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)
9. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
10. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)

Best blog of 2010. Winner: Swing State Project. If you want to understand the trends in American electoral politics at a deep and comprehensive level, there’s no better site for political analysis junkies. I’m addicted to this site and read it at least once a day, often several times.

Runner-up: Roger Ebert’s Journal. Read what I wrote about Ebert above. His blog talks about all sorts of things, like a blog should. None of them is boring.

Best history blog of 2010. Winner: Cliopatria. Honestly, with the demise of some of the big group blogs (ProgressiveHistorians, The Edge of the American West), nothing else even comes close any more. Ralph Luker’s daily link lists are a must-read for anyone interested in the historical profession.

Best blog post of 2010. Winner: Aaron Bady, “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy: ‘To Destroy This Invisible Government’. In this post and several followups, Aaron Bady shows that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange is a fascinating figure with a unique understanding of power dynamics and the role the internet plays in them. A masterful piece of work.

Runner-up: any post by Roger Ebert, really, but I’ll pick two: “The Golden Age of Movie Critics” and “The Image of a Man You Do Not See“.

Most intriguing unsolved mystery of the decade. Winner (and only real contender): the identity of the anthrax “bomber” who struck in late 2001. It’s a fascinating case: the FBI spent years fingering one scientist on whom they were never able to pin any hard evidence, then turned to another scientist who killed himself when they came to question him. They declared him the “bomber” and closed the case, only to have a Senate panel rule that their evidence against him was circumstantial at best. I suspect someday we’ll know the answer to this one, but for now the fact remains that no solid, incriminating evidence has ever been linked to any suspect.

Most disturbing newly-solved mystery of the decade. Winner (and, again, only real contender): the identity of Deep Throat. Come to find out, he was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s lieutenants who brought down the democratically-elected U.S. government in retaliation for Nixon’s attacks on his bureau. I mean, sure, Nixon did it, but honestly I think Mark Felt is an even more sinister figure than Nixon ever was.

My best blog post of 2010. Winner: Goering’s Lion. I decided to take a break from expressing my opinions online, and do a little good old-fashioned history blogging. I think it turned out reasonably well.

My greatest achievement in 2010. Winner: getting engaged! Runner-up: passing both parts of my exams and becoming ABD.

If you’ve read this far, feel free to add or link to your “bests” in the comments.


Responses

  1. J: Congratulations on getting engaged and going ABD! Fantastic news in both quarters.
    This is a great post (despite your nods to Wilentz, my feelings for whom you already know: http://academicbench.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/sorry-also-suck-it-sean-wilentz/)… I wish I had something to add, but after thinking about it for a bit, no book, film, or record qualifies as a “best of.” And that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Here’s hoping that I’ll pay more attention to quality in 2011.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks, GG! I’d forgotten that you’d written that post on Wilentz. I hadn’t read The Rise of American Democracy at the time, so I was only responding to Wilentz’s Hillary activism.

    Having read the book, I don’t think Wilentz tells the whole story, but I don’t think he’s trying to. You’re right that Wilentz ignores race, but the point he’s trying to make is that American democracy developed from the bottom up, when by the “bottom” he means white people (“Herrenvolk democracy,” anyone?). From that perspective, the Free Soil Party is important, but Nat Turner isn’t. I don’t think he was trying to retell George Fredrickson’s book, nor should he; that is, I don’t think you can criticize an author for not writing a different book from the one he wrote. It’s not the whole story, but it’s an important part of it, and I find the book invaluable. (Sadly, I can’t say the same for The Age of Reagan.)

  3. True enough. And, to cut him even more slack, he was trying to craft a narrative for a period in American history that seems resistant to such things. So: invaluable, yes. But from a guy who wrote one of the most nuanced and interesting labor history books ever (Chants Democratic), it’s a wee disappointing. As for The Age of Reagan, I haven’t even bothered. Not even sure I should…

  4. Congratulations on your professional and personal accomplishments, Jeremy. So glad to hear you are doing so well. I’m about to leave for work so I don’t have time to offer my thoughts on my “best lists.” I’ve largely moved away from reading history blogs, except for Timothy Burke’s Easily Distracted and Jeffrey Kimball’s blog, both of which I like and still follow. I’ve had trouble finding ones that feel relevant to me but of course, I work in a very different environment than most history bloggers. Rather than struggling to understand why so many writers seem timid, remote or uninformed about issues that matter to me, I’ve largely stopped searching for history blogs that tackle tough records related issues. As in so many things, I’ve just tried to accept the limitations and to look elsewhere.

    I still miss Progressive Historians, however–that one never felt timid or remote. BTW, due to some bad things that were happening to historian Tim Naftali out at the Nixon presidential library, where he has faced some fire from the private Nixon foundation, I decided to start blogging about my experiences in working with the Nixon tapes as a NARA employee. Launched the new blog on December 6: http://nixonara.wordpress.com/ I have a page there (Nixon and NARA. The Story) where I link to the key posts I’ve put up so far. Is it scary for me to blog, given the type of players involved in NARA issues (former presidents and their associates, including Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, etc.) Yeah. But I decided I had to get my story out in order to try to protect Dr. Naftali.

    MK
    on Twitter as @nixonara

  5. Maarja, great to hear from you, and I’m honored to add your new blog to my blogroll! Haven’t I been telling you for years that you should start a blog, since you have so much to say? It was a great read, and I’ll be following it in the future.

    I may or may not be dealing with records management issues here — it depends on what strikes my fancy, since this blog is less explicitly historical in nature than was ProgressiveHistorians — but please know that you’re always welcome at this site and that I value your input greatly. I can’t promise relevance, but I can promise intelligent, respectful discussion.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  6. [...] time for another year’s worth of “bests.” I did this for the first time last year, and felt like doing it [...]


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