Worst Books of 2017 – Nonfiction!
It’s always tricky, in any given year, to guess the trends of deplorable nonfiction. Back in January, for instance, I assumed that American publishers would kick into overdrive and flood the market with insta-Trump books, but there was only a trickle: that particular tsunami is obviously coming next year (something to look forward to for the 2018 Stevereads list! Yay!). In the meantime, 2017’s basket of nonfiction deplorables was a varied lot, ranging from incompetent history to navel-gazing faux-memoir to science-denying crackpot religionism. So, in no special categorical grouping, here are the worst nonfiction works of the year:
10 Ripper by Patricia Cornwell (Thomas & Mercer) – Our Worst Nonfiction list this year starts off with an author eagerly taking her second shot at appearing here. Patricia Cornwell, not content with earning the richly-deserved ridicule of historians around the world fifteen years ago when she first published her “definitive” solution to the identity of Jack the Ripper, here adds hundreds of equally-ridiculous pages to her original and tries it all again. With identical results.
9 Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi (OneWorld Press) – It’s never a good sign when somebody compares Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse with Weimar Germany, but that’s one of the many threads running through this infuriating book by the normally-not-infuriating Conradi: that the most important element of the development of today’s dangerous, tyrannical Russia is the venal megalomania of one man but rather the callous, clueless misunderstanding of poor wayward Russia by the West. Virtually every argument and even every digression in the book is equally addled.
George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin Hayes (Oxford University Press)
Washington’s Farewell by John Avlon (Simon & Schuster)
The Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming (Da Capo Press) – As the multiple listings hint, 2017 – like every other year, alas – saw a bumper-crop of George Washington hagiographies, and since hagiography is by its very nature a desperate literary form, it’s also necessarily an inventive one … new grounds for superlatives must be constantly scouted out, newer and even more hysterical claims must be made about the saint in question. Rhodehamel’s book is a simple soup-to-nuts saint’s life, but the other three worst offenders this time around try a little specializing. Avlon gives us a Washington so wise in the ways of the world that the prescience of a quick address he wrote in 25 minutes stretches for centuries; Fleming becomes the 356th author to claim for Washington the wide array of tactical and strategic genius he obviously, manifestly didn’t possess; and, most hilariously of all, Hayes tries to present Washington the bookworm, Washington the indefatigable reader, Washington always with his nose in a book, Washington browsing the Philadelphia book-stalls whenever he got a bit of spare time. In short, a Washington who, far from being a hoof-mouthed and nearly-illiterate Tidewater dolt, was a voracious man of literature. It would be nice to think even the Washington hagiography-industry couldn’t get any more absurd, but 2018 lies in wait for the unwary.
7 How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell (Simon & Schuster) – This memoir by former Lucky beauty editor Marnell starts off very nearly eliciting sympathy for the prep-school misfit and budding drug addict she describes herself as having been. But as the story advances into tales of drug-binging, forum-grandstanding, and doctor-manipulating, the sympathy fades. And then the author’s grating, passive-aggressive narrative blathering crushes that fading sympathy into the dirt.
6 Man’s Selection: Charles Darwin’s Theory of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design by Marc Watson (Afflatus Press) – One of the most familiar lies of fundamentalist religion in the last century is the claim that Charles Darwin was himself a science-denying fundamentalist Christian, and Watson’s noxious collection of cherry-picked quasi-scientific Chicken McNuggets is the latest example, trotting out all the standard agenda items: that Darwin was propounding special-creation theology, that atheism is a religion, that science is a giant conspiracy, etc. – all of which is both predictable and infuriating.
5 In the Swarm by Byung-Chul Han (the MIT Press) – The only virtue of this preening, anile gaseous
anomaly about Internet-something-something and digital-something-something is its brevity: its Chicken-Little warnings and whinging complaints about the greatest technological innovation in human history already feel dated; its insights into the perils of Internet-driven group-think range from boot-in-the-face obvious to free-wheelingly unhinged, and the whole thing (again, mercifully, only just as long as the author’s poor widdle attention span could sustain itself) comes across as the Whatever-Shall-We-Do ramblings of a generously caffeinated college freshman. The year saw many fairly good books on roughly this same subject (minus, for the most part, the ridiculous straining for profundity), and the subject deserves many more such books. Little squibs like this it can do without.
4 Introduction to Islam by Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University Press) – The sheer number of books from major presses in 2017 whose sole intent was to paint a friendly picture of Islam to the Western world was almost high as the number of innocents who died in 2017 at the hands of Muslim terrorists. There were books trying to explain the Muslim world; there were books trying to explore the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood; there was even a book celebrating the fashions of the various items of clothing Muslim women must wear on pain of disfigurement or death. But this slim volume by professional Islamic apologist Ramadan is both a representative example and the worst of the bunch, justly celebrating the glories and subtleties of Islam while the whole time down-playing or ignoring outright the serious problems large segments of the Islamic world have with, shall we say, adjusting themselves to the non-theocratic rest of the planet. The result is this mealy-mouthed introduction to roughly 45% of Islam.
3 Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi (St. Martin’s) – Spoiler: it doesn’t.