America faced another challenging year in 2021, Dear Reader, and so once again I sought solace in the printed word. Pandemics can linger, prices can rise, and elections may not go your way, but books are always faithful companions in turmoil. It was with that attitude that I approached 2021 and the many books it had to offer.
Given the manifest challenges we face, I focused much of my journey on books that addressed our current condition and what to do about it. Lawrence Wright in The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid examined America from a variety of perspectives during 2020. He looked at the federal government and its floundering efforts to get a handle on things, but he also looked at the virus's origin in China, as well as at local virus mitigation efforts outside of Washington. He is particularly and appropriately hard on outgoing New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who minimized the virus in the early days while saying things like "New York City's Chinatowns are open for business!" until he was given an ultimatum by his public-health staff, who told him, Wright writes, "Either pivot to pandemic planning today or they start to deal with a health department that won't follow his orders." On March 5, 2020, New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-home order, but, Wright points out, "this was at a time when New York's mayor was still urging citizens to go out on the town."
Then de Blasio over-pivoted and became one of the strictest lockdown mayors in the country, focusing his enforcement on elements of the population he did not seem to like. Wright, who also wrote a novel about a coronavirus-like disease that devastates America in early 2020, brings the same sweeping approach that he had in his novel to his riveting look at America under Covid.
America has focused a lot more on China in recent years, and one of the best guides to the changing relationship between the U.S. and China is Josh Rogin's Chaos under Heaven. The book has tremendous insider stories about infighting among top U.S. officials on China, including screaming matches and efforts to undermine rivals. Rogin also has a sharp sense of humor, writing this about a meeting between outgoing Obama and incoming Trump officials: "Flynn had met with Rice and her deputy Ben Rhodes. You don't need secret sources to know how awkward that encounter was." Stories of administration fighting, while always entertaining, are indicative of a larger struggle going on over how to manage China. As Rogin notes, "at the core of these battles was a deadly serious debate over the future of U.S. trade policy and the future of the US–China relationship."
China came up in another important book this year. Kai Strittmatter in We Have Been Harmonized presents a disturbing look at the extent of the surveillance state in China. Even after facial-reconstruction surgery, for example, Chinese citizens can't fool the ubiquitous cameras. Strittmatter also discusses the efforts to spread China's ideology among influential Westerners, writing that Xi Jinping's "volume of essays about government naturally just happens to be lying on Mark Zuckerberg's desk at Facebook HQ when Chinese reporters go past," adding that "the book, so the People's Daily reports, is thrilling readers from Cambodia to the UK."
Lest anyone think that China is new to the role of bad actor on the world stage, Lesley M. M. Blume's interesting Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, set in the mid 1940s, demonstrates that China has been engaging in intellectual-property theft for a long time. "A China-based editor, Randall Gould, wrote to [journalist John] Hersey to tell him that he had seen the story appear in the Shanghai Evening Post," Blume explains. "It would have been impossible to arrange official permissions for the reprint there, Gould said, 'because as you know there is no copyright here. China likes to steal things.'"
Closer to home, Jonathan Rauch in his thoughtful book The Constitution of Knowledge looks at the challenges to liberal democracy coming from within, specifically in the rejection of institutional knowledge developed painstakingly over centuries in favor of woke destructiveness. I agree with Eli Lake that Rauch gives the mainstream media a little bit of a pass in his analysis, but the book is nonetheless brimming with useful insights, such as this: "Because emotional safetyism has no limiting principle, it can politicize literally everything and reach into every cranny of social life."
Our current condition can be depressing, so I took some solace in reading about three impressive women. Karen Tumulty's The Triumph of Nancy Reagan not only has a great collection of Nancy's various nicknames — including "Fancy Nancy," "The Hairdo with Anxiety," and "Attila the Hen" — but also provides some color on the topic of how Nancy was always on the lookout for political threats to her husband. Tumulty tells the story of Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, unwisely trying to prevent the Beach Boys from playing on the Mall on Independence Day in 1983. Watt apparently wanted the more wholesome Wayne Newton instead. Nancy not only called up Watt to let him know that she was a fan of the Beach Boys, but she also invited them to perform at the White House. The Beach Boys dedicated their singing of "California Girls" to Nancy, and Ronnie spoke and said, "If you didn't believe that our whole family had been fans of yours for a long time, just look at Nancy."
Another woman I knew less about was Henrietta Szold, the subject of Dvora Hacohen's To Repair a Broken World. Born in Baltimore in 1860 and fluent in four languages, Szold desperately wanted a college education but was unable at the time to attend Johns Hopkins, all male at the time. That did not stop her from her work, as she helped run the Jewish Publication Society for many years and later, after a failed love affair, founded the charitable organization Hadassah. Despite a number of close calls, she never got married, and recalled, late in life, "I have led a rich life, but not a happy one."
A more recent and also impressive woman is the great Ruth Wisse, who this year published a long but rewarding autobiography, Free as a Jew. She calls the book an intellectual autobiography, but it is also a fascinating intellectual history of academia in this period. Particularly interesting is her apparent regret for her pathbreaking role in the development of Jewish-studies departments. "Instead of advancing Jewish civilization, as I had expected, the expansion of Jewish studies accompanied a decline in Jewish moral confidence," she observes.
Wisse is also quite funny. Of the neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were — finally — moving rightward in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she writes, "My veneration of these thinkers was tempered only by disappointment at how long it took them to get there." And following the leftist putsch against Seth Lipsky after he had rejuvenated the Forward as a conservative-leaning paper, she writes, "Ever since Seth's ouster at the Forward, I've called it the Backward."
Some less praiseworthy people are featured in Helen Andrews's Boomers, which consists of biographical essays on six influential Baby Boomers. Her subjects, most of whom come in for a good thrashing, include Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Sonia Sotomayor, and Al Sharpton, but she is perhaps even more critical of the Boomers as a group, determining that "the boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly. They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy."
Finally, in the realm of entertainment and sports, I'd like to recommend two books. Matthew McConaughey's Greenlights has some philosophizing that you can skip, but the stories of his family are both fascinating and outrageous. I listened to it read by the author, which added to the experience. And Paul Semendinger in The Least among Them has a unique take on baseball history. Presenting short biographies of Yankee players who had only one major-league appearance, he uses the stories of those games to share interesting lessons about different aspects of baseball history. While it's obviously more enjoyable if you are a Yankees fan, all baseball fans will appreciate his learned commentary on subjects including the designated hitter and the minor leagues.
I am hoping for a better 2022, but I take comfort in knowing that whatever happens in the year ahead, I will have books to help get me through it. And so, Dear Reader, will you.