Best Big Idea Books of 2015
From a meditation on grief to reassessing the Holocaust, here are the books that made us think in 2015, even if we did not agree with their arguments.
Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art—Julian Barnes
Moving from Romanticism to Modernism, from Delacroix to Hodgkin, the essays in this collection reveal a novelist with a painter’s eye, or at least an eye for what painters cherish and what we cherish in their work. Against those who argue that if you can put into words what a visual artist was attempting, you wouldn’t need the art, Barnes contends that “it is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence. And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.” Spoken like a writer, but few writers are as eloquent about what they see as Barnes is. Any honest artist would welcome this commentary.
The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path—Jay Michaelson
A rabbi, a practicing Buddhist, and a Daily Beast contributor, Michaelson has crafted a splendid series of meditations on joy and sorrow, grief and happiness. A decade in the writing and completed after the death of the author’s mother, this book challenges the reader’s easy assumptions at every turn, and with every weapon at hand, from a sutra to a Leonard Cohen lyric. Eschewing easy answers, Michaelson urges his reader to embrace hardship and tragedy with as much enthusiasm as we chase after happiness, and more than anything he cautions against chasing after anything. Instead, he suggests, we should wait quietly, letting ourselves fill up with contradictory emotions that do not cancel each other out but compliment one another. If he opposes anything, it is the idea of the perfect: As another Jewish/Buddhist sage once put it, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking—Adam Briggle
If your idea of a philosopher is some ivory tower denizen with nothing but contempt for real-world issues, you need to meet Adam Briggle. A philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, Briggle and his Denton neighbors successfully defeated attempts at hydraulic fracturing in their area. But this David and Goliath story of the little guy versus the vested interests of the energy business does not stop there. The fascinating part of the story is how Briggle encouraged the use of philosophy’s tools in a practical issue, an issue that he realized lent itself superbly to philosophical investigation precisely because there were competing arguments of merit on both sides. His account of that debate resulted an invaluable, and truly inspiring, book.
America’s Bitter Pill—Steven Brill
Due to its publication date (Jan. 15), Brill’s book has almost been forgotten by the end of the year. However, this blockbuster examination of costs in our medical system—a follow up to his Time cover story—is engrossing, horrifying, and, for too many Americans, unsurprising. An “exacting yet readable” look into the band-aid of a health-care “system” Americans operate with.
Black Earth—Timothy Snyder
There were few books as hotly contested before they even published as Snyder’s Black Earth. Seen by many as an attack on the “unique-ness” of the Holocaust, Snyder continued his work focusing the public on the crimes and horrors of Eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century. His new book, among other things, discusses “the collaboration of Eastern European peoples in the murder of Jews, the role of the Soviet Union in laying the groundwork for genocide, and the contacts between fringe right-wing Zionists and the Third Reich.”
Let There Be Water—Seth Siegel
For most of 2015, the drought affecting the western United States was one of the biggest stories. Almonds became enemy No. 1, and Hollywood celebrities determined to keep their lawns green got shamed. Siegel’s book could not have been more timely, as it sets out the ways Israel has coped with a scarce resource, and how the world can follow its lead.
Cyberwarfare, and its mass implications, have long been an issue of concern at The Daily Beast. In his new book, Koppel explores the ease with which the U.S. could be crippled by an attack on its power grid. The findings? That the U.S. is completely unprepared.
Between the World and Me—Ta-Nehisi Coates
What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said? Some loved it. Others, not so much. Toni Morrison famously declared, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Coates is certainly one of the most talked about writers in America today, and everything from his essays on reparations to the criminal-justice system resonate deeply with readers. His new book was an unvarnished and often incredibly raw examination of how the world shaped him.
Opioid usage in the U.S. has skyrocketed, and given vast swaths of the population it affects, the drugs (particularly heroin) have become the new focus of those obsessed with drug usage in America. Through a series of essays, Quinones sets out to capture all aspects of this epidemic that appears to be crushing small-town America. The users, the makers, the pushers, and the collateral damage.