Race to 2008’s best books

R.V. Scheide’s top five books: eclectic, apocalyptic and not as depressing as you’d expect

My five best books of 2008 list:

1. Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life; Timothy W. Ryback (Knopf). Ryback, co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, blows the dust off of what remains of Adolf Hitler’s extensive book collection in the Library of Congress’ Rare Books Division, providing fascinating insight into the intellectual development of the 20th century’s most diabolical figure. The Führer, a modern man with refined tastes, considered Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gulliver’s Travels among the great works of literature.

Through analysis of unpublished manuscripts, Ryback tracks Hitler’s growth as a writer, and it’s somewhat disconcerting when he points out that the student is improving. Hitler’s Private Library will appeal to anyone interested in what books mean to us, and is “must” reading for anyone who doubts the power of written words to sway the human imagination toward good or evil.

2. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago; Simon Baatz (Harper). In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the overachieving scions of two of Chicago’s wealthiest Jewish families, decided to pull off the perfect crime: They would randomly kill someone, cover their tracks and never get caught because the lack of motivation would baffle police. Their arrest just over a week later touched off a courtroom battle that rivals O.J. Simpson’s for the “trial of the 20th century.” Famed attorney Clarence Darrow turned the case into a referendum on the death penalty. Darrow won the case, meaning that Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison, not executed.

Baatz goes much deeper here, exploring the complexities of Leopold and Loeb’s closeted homosexual relationship that may have helped lead to the crime. He follows the pair through prison, where he ultimately shows us redemption is possible for anyone, even despicable criminals.

3. The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity; Robert Kuttner (Vintage). If you read one book on our current economic plight this year, make sure it’s economist Kuttner’s The Squandering of America. Not even The New York Times’ Paul Krugman can match Kuttner when it comes to delineating how the deregulatory craze that has gripped Democrats and Republicans for 30 years has led directly to the present global financial crisis, which many economists are already calling the next Great Depression. That result shouldn’t be too surprising, Kuttner notes, since most of the regulations that have been undone were specifically enacted in the 1930s to prevent another Great Depression.

It’s a heady topic, but Kuttner’s prose is clean and easy for the layperson to understand.

4. Apocalypse Then: Prophecy & the Making of the Modern World; Arthur H. Williamson (Praeger). The apocalypse, Sacramento State history professor Williamson informs us, is not just a “creed for cranks.” In his inimitable style, he weaves the phenomenon of end-times theology into the tapestry of modern history to demonstrate there’s more to the apocalypse than fire and brimstone. The way our ancestors thought about “apocalypse then” has profoundly affected our lives today, often in ways we’d never suspect.

5. Every Last Drop: A Novel by Charlie Huston (Del Rey). Listen, we all have our weaknesses. Mine’s pulp fiction, the bloodier the better. It doesn’t get any bloodier or better than Huston’s horror-noir paperbacks featuring vampire anti-hero Joe Pitt. Pitt doesn’t really want to be a vampire, see? So he serves as a sort of freelance enforcer for competing vampire clans. Every Last Drop is the fourth in the series, and once again we find Pitt neck-deep in blood as the Clan and the Society battle rival gangs for control of New York City’s underground. If you thought you knew what vampires were all about, you haven’t read Huston.