It’s become a tradition of mine to talk about the 10 books that most interested or motivated me… usually, it’s a rather lengthy Facebook post, so I’ve decided to shift it over to the blog, if only because they all happen to link into my going to Europe and/or European history. Below are my books of 2014.
I read a lot of books this year, but which ones stood out? Below are the ten that I think most influenced, educated or interested me in the closing year:
1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl: This book was recommended to me by a therapist I was seeing while waiting to fly out to Prague, when the collapse of New York left me wondering “what went wrong?” Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who uses his time in Auschwitz as the basis of his book, argues that one needs to find a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. I’ve tried to stick to the book’s arguments the best I can while setting up life in Prague, and I think it’s worked so far. I’d recommend it to anyone.
2. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: Another book recommended in the aftermath of New York, this time by my boss at my last job. Carnegie lays out a lot of advice on how to present yourself to people, making first impressions and how you can carry yourself. I’ve tried the tricks he’s explained on everyone from my parents to my English students, and I have to say: it works. It really, really works.
3. Insight Guides: Prague by Hans Hofer et al: Although quite dated (it speaks of Czechoslovakia in the present tense!), Hofer’s work was a very informative and useful guide to the history, culture and architecture of Prague. I picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore in Maine, and boy am I glad that I did! Despite its age, a lot of the info holds up, and I’d recommend it easily to anyone wanting to know more about the Mother of Cities.
4. Europe: A History by Norman Davies; The Penguin History of Europe by J. M. Roberts; European History for Dummies by Sean Lang: I’m grouping these together because they all deal with the same topic: a one volume history of Europe from pre-history to the present day. If you’re someone who wants a lot of detail, I’d suggest the order I listed the books; if you’re someone that just wants main ideas, read them the other way. The three books are very readable, and give a great overview of the Continent. They’re also my “bibles” and inspiration for my upcoming “History of Europe” podcast, just as soon as I can be bothered to start it…
5. Europe 101: Art and History for the Traveler by Ric Steves and Gene Openshaw: A similar gimmick as to above (the history of Europe in one volume), but this time it’s also organized around barebrush stroke histories of Europe’s rich cultural, artistic and architectural heritages. The end chapter is a great overview of Europe today, and went a long way in convincing me that the life that could await me in Europe could be (and has been) well worth the gamble in going.
6. Prague: In the Shadow of the Swastika by Callum McDonald: A lavishly illustrated history of Prague under Nazi occupation during World War II, this book was the first that made me connect to Prague as the place I’m living in. The buildings you’re growing used to look alien all over again when you see them either bedecked in swastika banners or being inspected by Hitler himself.
7. Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis: A one volume history of the United States told from the perspective of both general questions and common misconceptions. I think I’ve made clear that a big part of my moving to Europe was disillusionment with the current state of America (at least politically and culturally); this book actually went a way in restoring my respect for our history and traditions, even if we’re losing sight of them right now.
8. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death by John Kelly: I read a little about the Black Death as a kid, and found this book in the NYPL eBook section. What a fascinating read! Tracing the plague from its origins in Asia until it finally burns out in the north, Kelly describes the spread of the affliction with all the drama of a crime thriller, and does a great job illustrating what it would be like to live through one of the worst disasters in European history. The passage about the infected ships that will be Patients Zero is especially chilling. The book did a lot to inspire thoughts for a sci-fi novel I’m considering writing…
9. Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes: An interesting dark comedy wherein Hitler reappears in modern day Germany, and is less than thrilled that his Fatherland is now a media obsessed democracy populated by foreigners and led by a woman. Managing to bring in commentary on everything from media saturation to Germany’s guilt as a country, Vermes does a masterful job of making Hitler (the novel told first person) repellent but relatable.
10. A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts: A history of New York City told through 101 objects, ranging from the Flushing Remonstrance to the Chrysler Building’s spire to the unique bodega paper cups. Roberts’ book was the first time in months that I felt nostalgic about a city I had loved all my life that had turned so sour in the end, and was the first time I realized I still had feelings about the place despite the luxury condos, heartless slumlords and cancerous gentrification. I hope this is the first sign my time in New York can be fully integrated back into my personal history.
Well, that’s it for 2014… see you in 2015! Happy reading and happy travels!