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Christmas Reading

December 22, 2011

I’m looking forward to heading down to North Carolina for Christmas tomorrow. The holidays always bring time with family, good food, quail hunting, and time to read some new books as well as set my reading agenda for the coming year. (Books are always a big part of the gifts that I receive at Christmas, and a big part of the gifts that I give.) For G&L readers who, like me, see books as a vital part of the holiday season, this post outlines some of the best books I read in 2011, as well as some of the reading I have planned for the new year.

Due to a major writing project of mine (which I will, ahem, mention below), I read fewer new books during the past year than I typically do; a lot of my reading consisted of research for that project, or for other professional endeavors. Of the new books about terrorism that I read in 2011, two stand out as particularly worthwhile:

  • Peter Bergen, The Longest War. These days, Bergen and I can be seen as two opposite poles of an argument regarding where the U.S. stands in the so-called “war on terror.” Bergen has said that this war is over; one of his overarching conclusions in The Longest War is that, contrary to my own arguments, the mistakes made by the U.S. over the past decade “have not been as profound as al-Qaeda’s.” (Bergen and I even had the opportunity to debate the issue of whether the U.S. is safer a decade after the 9/11 attacks at the National Press Club in early September.) Despite our differences in outlook, I both respect Bergen and also highly recommend this volume as one of the best histories of the U.S.’s decade at war with Islamic terrorism. I owe one of my editors a more comprehensive review of this book, so look for me to have more to say about it soon.
  • J.M. Berger, Jihad Joe. This well-researched book tells the story of more than thirty years’ worth of Americans who have been drawn to Islamic militancy. I wrote a review of Jihad Joe for the Indian publication Pragati; for those interested in Berger’s book, my review can be found here.

I did a lot of reading on regions relevant to contemporary struggles with violent non-state actors. A few stand out as particularly worthy:

  • Thomas J. Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I read Barfield’s history of Afghanistan for the first time last year, and re-read it in 2011. It is the single book that I’d recommend most highly to readers interested in getting a general sense of Afghanistan’s history; it is both crisply written and also one of those very rare books that has a smart argument or observation on virtually every page.
  • Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble. Tells the story of the Afghan-Soviet war from the Soviet perspective. It’s a perspective we don’t normally get, and Feifer’s book makes for a breezy yet informative read.
  • Ali Ahmad Jalali and Lester W. Grau, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. Not a narrative; instead it consists of a series of vignettes explaining mujahidin tactics in their fight against the Soviets. The authors were able to compile the book based on interviews with mujahidin fighters that were conducted in the 1990s, between the Afghan-Soviet war and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Extremely helpful if you need a better understanding of warfare in Afghanistan at a tactical level.
  • I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali. Another book that I re-read in 2011. I honestly came away less impressed after the second reading than I was after the first, in large part due to the less-than-fluid narrative that pervades the book. That criticism aside, this is a useful and impressive history, and if you want to understand Somalia, you have to start with Lewis.
  • Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.
  • Kidane Mengisteab & Okbazghi Yohannes, Anatomy of an African Tragedy. A less impressive work than some of the other histories that I have just recommended, but in my mind the best available history of Eritrea. That nation’s fate is indeed a tragedy, and one of the saddest parts of the tale is the initial enthusiasm that was so widely expressed for the new state following its independence from Ethiopia. Eritrea’s independence was recognized in 1993; even in 1996 we could see such headlines as “Eritrea Wins the Peace” (National Geographic), “Eritrea: African Success Story Being Written” (New York Times), and “Eritrea Offers Key Lessons in Nation-Building” (Christian Science Monitor). That country serves as an important cautionary tale in light of the raw enthusiasm we saw for the various regime changes that 2011 brought; we may see more such changes in the coming year.

In addition to my reading on national security, there are a couple of other books that I found particularly useful in the past year:

  • Michael Lewis, The Big Short. David Rothkopf has written that Lewis’s contribution “is still probably the best book about America’s 2008-2009 financial crisis.” I agree; for those still struggling to understand what went wrong, Lewis’s volume is lucid and engaging.
  • Paul Pierson, Politics in Time. Yet another book that I read for a second time in 2011. A remarkable exposition of path dependence, a political science concept holding that early decisions in a sequence matter more than choices that come later. I found this concept, and Pierson’s elucidation of it, highly useful for understanding how early paradigmatic mistakes made in our fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates have continued to bedevil us.

Earlier I alluded to my major writing project of 2011. It culminated in a book, Bin Laden’s Legacy. If you’re interested in learning more about my new book, here are links to reviews from J.M. Berger, Diana Wueger, Crispin Burke, and Adam Elkus. I also gave interviews on the book to Andrew Exum, National Review Online, and Spencer Ackerman, among others.

I found that, especially as I undertook that grueling book project, I needed more mental downtime in 2011 than is typically the case. As such, the past year brought far more leisure reading than I usually undertake. Some of the highlights include Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won!, a highly engaging account of the 1986 New York Mets; He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back, which tells the entertaining story of the 1979 NASCAR season that catapulted stock car racing into a national phenomenon; and Christopher Buckley’s Supreme Courtship. I also became obsessed with the work of Michael Connelly, reading basically everything he’s written. Prior to becoming a crime novelist, Connelly was a reporter on the crime beat for a decade. This experience gives an air of realism to Connelly’s work, in addition to his masterful ability to build suspense. I normally am not a fan of popular fiction — I was unable to even finish David Baldacci’s Hell’s Corner after realizing that it was basically a pre-novelization of a movie that I wouldn’t want to watch in the first place — but I’ve found Connelly engrossing. Some of the best Connelly books are Void Moon, City of Bones, The Poet, and The Lincoln Lawyer.

I have a few books queued up for next year already:

How about you? What books are you looking forward to reading in the new year?

  1. Aaron Ellis permalink
    December 22, 2011 9:04 pm

    The new Deng Xioaping biography; also ‘India After Gandhi’.

    And just to plug my own reading list…

  2. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross permalink
    December 22, 2011 11:29 pm

    Thanks, Aaron. That’s a good list. I’ll give it a shout-out on Twitter.

  3. Charlie Brown permalink
    December 23, 2011 8:52 am

    Not all these are new, and in particular order, but here are ten:

    1. Goodarzi, ‘Syria and Iran’
    2. Tabler, ‘In the Lion’s Den’
    3. Martinez, ‘The Violence of Petrodollar Regimes’
    4. Dobos, ‘Insurrection and Intervention’
    5. Parsi, ‘A Single Roll of the Dice’
    6. Panjwali, ‘The Shia of Samarra’
    7. Badrawi, ‘Al Azhar and the Arab World’
    8. Menza, ‘Patronage Politics in Egypt’
    9. Iskander, ‘Sectarian Conflict in Egypt’
    10. Stacher, ‘Adaptable Autocrats’

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