My Year in Reading, 2019

Inspired by the “A Year in Reading” essays published by The Millions, I have written by own “Year in Reading.”

Having spent most of 2019 writing my forthcoming biography of Abe Shinzō, I spent a significant portion of my year reading books in Japanese and English on Abe, Japanese politics, and East Asia. To my chagrin, a lot of that reading was targeted as I sought particularly facts and references instead of cover-to-cover reading. There are, therefore, several recent books that I consulted for research that I hope to revisit next year, including Nick Kapur’sJapan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo; Sheila Smith’s Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power; Ezra Vogel’s China and Japan; Richard Samuels’s Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community; and Jeremy Yellen’s The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War. One recent book I did finish was Brad Glosserman’s Peak Japan, which, in the course of presenting a recent history of Japanese politics and society, makes the provocative argument that Abe represents a peak before Japan’s terminal decline. This is hardly a complete list, and it is a testament to a wave of high-quality writing on Japan that has been published in the past several years.

One book on Japan that I did finish – and loved – was Anna Sherman’s The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City. This is an unusual book. I don’t recall ever having read a book that combined memoir, history, and travel writing in quite the way that Sherman does. Her prose is beautiful and spare, and I think she successfully avoids the clichés that characterize a lot of writing about Japan. I certainly learned a lot about Tokyo in the process.

Meanwhile, as far as political biography goes, one of the most invaluable books I read this year was Robert Caro’s Working. Part-memoir, part-manual, I found it to be full of useful tips not just for writing a biography but for pursuing any major research project. Caro provides an intimate look at the art of finding and organizing facts to tell a story.

Otherwise, I can identify two major themes in what I read this year, which interacted in unfortunate ways. First, as it happens I read a lot on interwar Europe, Weimar, and Nazism. The Death of Democracy by Benjamin Carter Hett – the title of which would place it as part of a recent wave of books on democratic breakdown – was actually a phenomenally useful account of the political calculations of the major players in the terminal stage of the Weimar Republic. This story is often told as a series of stylized facts about right-wingers who thought they could “control” Hitler, but Hett fleshes out these facts to show the calculations of Hindenberg, Schleicher, Bruening, and others – what they wanted to achieve and why they turned to the Nazis to do it. (Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, which I also read this year, provides an unusual, novelistic look at a critical episode early in the Third Reich, when business leaders threw their support behind Hitler.) One theme I was particularly interested in, especially after reading Hett, was how Germans went from voting in large numbers for the Social Democrats and Communists to complying with the Nazi regime. Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free is a haunting look at the rationalizations and reasoning used by ordinary Germans to justify their obedience, which, despite Mayer’s occasional cultural essentialism, suggests that there was little that was uniquely German about this process. Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich is a more conventional academic history that I nevertheless found extremely valuable for understanding how the Nazis appealed to ordinary Germans. Like Hett, Fritzsche fleshes out the stylized facts of the transition from Weimar to Third Reich, and shows how the Nazis were able to use dissatisfaction with the turmoil of the Weimar Republic to appeal to Germans who otherwise did not share Nazi ideas. Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End was a virtuoso depiction of how domestic and international chaos in central and Eastern Europe produced the insecurity that ultimately led to the Third Reich.

Of course, there was plenty of violence and coercion – and perhaps the single best book I read in this vein was a novel, Richard Tres’s The Man Without a Party: The Trials of Carl von Ossietzky. A novelistic biography of the left-wing newspaper editor who imprisoned after the Reichstag fire and was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935, Tres’s novel is deeply moving account of Hitler’s war on the political opposition in the early days, a bloody purge that is perhaps underappreciated. (Ossietzky is also a minor character in Jason Lutes’s magisterial graphic novel trilogy Berlin, the last volume of which was published this year, prompting a re-read of the entire trilogy.) After watching the first season of the TV series, I also read Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin, a fine police procedural set against the backdrop of left-right conflict in the late Weimar Republic.

I also read a haunting depiction of the end of the Third Reich, A Woman in Berlin, the diary of a woman in Berlin during the last days of the war. The diary shows not just the brutal treatment of civilians by the Red Army – prompting thoughts about collective punishment and how much one should sympathize with the anonymous diarist and her neighbors – but also how Germans abandoned their Nazism as the Third Reich crumbed around them.

Another vein in my reading this year was on the American “deep state,” at least the deep state as it was once understood. David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard, Jefferson Morley’s The Ghost, and Garrett Graff’s Raven Rock – perhaps I should also include John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life – all showed the sordid compromises that the American state made in the name of combating the Soviet Union. Both Talbot and Morley – as well as another book I read, Eric Lichtblau’s The Nazis Next Door – show the uncomfortable truth that in no small way Nazis passed the torch of anti-communism to Americans, and all too often Americans were willing to enlist Nazis to help in the effort. Maybe these compromises were necessary, but as these books show, too often they were made without oversight or even in defiance of duly elected leaders. The de facto alliance between the United States and “former” Nazis – including those who remained in powerful positions in West Germany itself – is a shameful chapter in American history that ought to be more widely known. It is precisely this kind of behavior that has fueled America’s addiction to conspiracy theorizing, which is ably documented in another book I read this year, Anna Merlan’s Republic of Lies.

Finally, I read a lot of novels out loud to my five-year-old son. We read five Roald Dahl novels, including Matilda and The BFG, neither of which I had read before, and also re-read Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is probably my favorite. We finished The Hobbit, which we had started in 2018 but put down for a break, and started The Lord of the Rings, which we are about halfway through as the year comes to an end. Re-reading both has been a pleasure, not least because I had not read The Hobbit since I was young and could really see the influence of J.R.R. Tolkein’s experiences in the First World War on his writing.

As I prepare to send my own book out into the world in 2020, I am looking forward to engaging with my own readers. I am also looking forward to having a bit more time for leisure reading, and have a growing stack of books waiting for me.

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