Wasserstrom: Making a China Book List — and Then Checking It Twice

Three more of the books on China from 2012 that made an impression on historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom. (Asia Society)

This is the traditional time of year for two things that I never thought had much to do with one another — until now. New Year's resolutions, which I tend to avoid making. And book-of-the-year lists, which I'm addicted to reading and sometimes create or help to create, as I did in this post on 2012 China must-reads that evolved from a Q & A with Ian Johnson.

What's the link between these activities? Well, due to a severe case of list-maker's remorse following the publication of Johnson's and my exchange, I almost decided to break my pattern of eschewing resolutions by resolving to stop reading books-of-the-year stories. Or, rather, to stop reading them for the rest of the year after I had gone public with a list.

The remorse wasn't because I had doubts afterwards about the quality of the books I endorsed, but was rooted in the frustration I felt as I kept reading lists into late December and noticed the appearance on some of these of books that I had read and liked a lot, but had neglected to mention. I also came across references to works that I hadn't even known about, but which seemed so appealing that I chided myself for having remained ignorant of them so long — and hence missing the opportunity of reading them and figuring out if they belonged on my list.

I will, however, go into 2013 in the same resolution-free state that I have entered most previous years. What's made this possible is realizing there's another way to deal with my dilemma: write a second piece really late in the year that gives me an excuse to praise some additional books. For example, a blog post that plays on Santa's alleged tradition of going over his end-of-the-year list a second time.

So, here’s my mini-bonus list of five additional worthy 2012 titles relating to China. Since I gave shout-outs in the original exchange to seven books (ones by Stephen Platt, Richard Kraus, Geremie Barmé and co., Michelle Dammon Loyalka, Elizabeth Perry, Janet Chen, and Pankaj Mishra), this brings the total to a nice even dozen. (Or, since I seconded Johnson's endorsement of Han Han's This Generation in our exchange, I guess it actually adds up to a baker's dozen of endorsements).

1) William J. Dobson's The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. This is a smart, wide-ranging book that I enthused about in a review for Pacific Standard. It is not just about China, but what it says about that country is insightful. I was glad to see it earn a place on Prospect Magazine's best-books-of-2012 list. (I was also pleased to see Yu Hua's China in Ten Words on that same list, but I'm ignoring that title here, since it came out in the U.S. in 2011 and I wrote about it late last year.)

2) Yan Lianke's Lenin's Kisses, translated by Carlos Rojas. This is one of the titles that only came to my attention after Johnson's and my exchange, when it was flagged in a New Yorker look back at the year's best books. One phrase in the mini-review the New Yorker ran caught my attention — this said the book showed Yan "at the peak of his absurdist powers." It also mattered to me that the staff writer who picked the book was one of the Beijing-based journalists I most enjoy reading: Evan Osnos. I ordered Yan's novel for my Kindle immediately and am now halfway through it. It's living up to the build-up Osnos gave it. And it comes with a smart introductory essay by Rojas, dealing with issues of authoritarianism and satire as well as with translation, that should be required reading for anyone wrestling with the complex issues raised by, and varied responses to, Mo Yan's Nobel Prize win and his comments on censorship.

3) John Garnaut's The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo. This is another book I started late in the year due to its praises being sung by a Beijing-based journalist I rate very highly — in this case, Johnson. I had been meaning to get around to reading this instant e-book for a few weeks already when he and I had our exchange, but it was his selection of it for our list that made me actually order and start it. It was just the sort of lively and informative read I expected it to be.

4) Paul French's Midnight in Peking. This book, which came out in other parts of the world in 2011 but wasn't released in the U.S. until 2012, was, as I said in a tweet, my "guilty pleasure" China read of the year. And since both works deal with murder cases, albeit ones committed many decades apart, it pairs nicely with Garnaut's e-book.

5) Sabina Knight's Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Like all the best books in this series, Knight's covers a great deal of ground in a lively and opinionated but deeply informed manner. In the case of this book, it wasn't seeing it on an end-of-the-year list that reminded me how much I liked it, but rather having Chinese literature specialist Charles Laughlin point out on Twitter that neither Johnson nor I had mentioned any books in his field.

P.S. I also had a case of list-maker's remorse relating to another recent book-related post, which pointed to five titles I was looking forward to reading in 2013. What triggered the remorse in that case? Learning that Peter Hessler has a new collection coming out soon that includes some chapters on China. Need I say more?

About the Author

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is author of China in the 21st Century (2010) and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (2012). He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.