Literary Christmas Lists, Etc.

The leaks are catastrophic. The leaks are not catastrophic. Diplomacy's at risk. Diplomacy's redeemed. While we develop the questions and wait for the answers, let’s parse another, less quixotic topic than the meaning of "journalist:" year-end literary lists. These lists provide different suggestions for sources of wise analysis on the questions that keep us up at night. They remind us how many experts can spend a lifetimes on one idea, one story. These books will never see competition from blogs.


The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2010 includes many titles on or around the topic of war. Some writers mentioned here consider the question of how politics and religion co-exist. Others track what it means for America to be engaged in foreign wars. These are not writers who would be afraid of Julian Assange.

One book on the list stands out: journalist Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel. This is a book we love not only because of its style (literary non-fiction), but because it addresses the most dangerous places in the world, and does so from the point of view of a young, American woman. Griswold didn't go to Italy, India and Indonesia to find herself; she went to Sudan, Somalia, and Indonesia to find understanding about others.

Her work is personal and poetic and fierce and informed. It reminds us that religion, despite the cynics, remains less opium of the people than everyday fabric of life in most places—particularly those places where the “clash of civilizations” is as up for debate as whether stars light the night. Griswold lived the conditions of her subjects. Then she took time to analyze what she had seen. She shows us places where, like boxers, religions go daily rounds before retiring at night to lie down together.

In one of her poems Griswold wrote:

What are we now but voices

who promise each other a life

neither one can deliver

not for lack of wanting

but wanting won’t make it so

We cling to a vine

at the cliff’s edge.

There are tigers above

and below. Let us love

one another and let go

This lyricism exists in her non-fiction, too. We wish Oprah had selected The Tenth Parallel for her readers. It was the book of the year.

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