This isn't a best of list. I wouldn't pretend to have read or seen or listened enough to designate anything as the best of its kind. Rather, I've put together an idiosyncratic list of the books, films, buildings and technologies that I learned the most from in 2007.
Santiago Calatrava, The Chicago Spire. (Also here and here and here and here.) Calatrava's 2,000-foot twisting tower is a high risk, high reward proposition. It could be the point around which the entire skyline coheres--what the Sears Tower was supposed to have been but never was. Or it could be an overweening presence that Chicagoans will be faintly embarrassed about, like an impulse purchase that we later regretted. Or it could be something in between, like the fat-man-in-the-bathtub renovation of Soldiers Field that we've learned to live with. Whatever it turns out to be, the Spire is emblematic of a renewed sense of architectural daring in the birthplace of modernist architecture.
The Kindle. Tech nerds have already dismissed Amazon's ebook reader based on a quick glance at Engadget (one wag said the Kindle looked like it was designed by the prop manager for Space 1999), but avid readers love it--at least those who have been lucky enough to get their hands on one. The furious debate about the Kindle has revealed how we read in 2007. It turns out that a lot of people are already reading on screens. It also turns out that people want to read more than books on an ebook reader. They want all the disparate material they read on a PC--HTML pages, PDFs, emails, Word documents, blogs--on a device that's as portable and easy on the eyes as a hardcover book. The Kindle has the potential to be not just the first commercially successful ebook reader, but an extension of the Internet as the new center of the public sphere. In other words, the Kindle isn't the death of the book, as some have feared, but the means to turn the Internet into a book.
John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination From the Great German Poet. This was the year I started reading Goethe seriously, and he stands out from the vein of post-romantics, modernists, and post-modernists I usually read not just in the awe-inspiring equipoise of his prose and poetry, but in his exemplary life. Michel Foucault and many others have pondered how to break down the barriers between art and life, but Goethe actually did it. No wonder Nietzsche cited him as one of the prototypes of the Übermensch.
Daniel Kraus, Musician. Continuing with the theme of art and life, Daniel Kraus's documentary on the Chicago jazz musician Ken Vandermark is a clear-eyed look at the reality of a working artist's daily life. Most profiles of artists in the media arise from the appearance of an artwork and, as a result, tend to be little more than extensions of the publicity apparatus. Kraus's film doesn't try to get to the "real" person behind the work. Instead, Kraus takes a sociological approach by showing the prosaic struggles necessary to maintain a career as a creative artist in the early twenty-first century. And Kraus doesn't neglect the art: Musician also conveys the power of Vandermark's performances.
Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down. Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was more fun to read, and Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End struck closer to home, but Man Gone Down was the most moving novel I read all year. None of these novels were flawless: Wao had structural gaps, End resolved itself with a creaky plot device, and Man could have been 50 pages shorter. But each was distinguished by its narrative voice: Diaz's logorrheaic free indirect style, Ferris's innovative second person, and Thomas's realist first person. But of the three I think Thomas's novel will turn out to be the most influential and enduring. Plus, Thomas understands the vernacular of the tradition in which he's working better than Diaz or Ferris. Lots of novelists have tried to emulate the nineteenth-century novel form, usually by foisting all kinds of colorful minor characters upon the reader in misguided imitation of Dickens. Thomas takes an entirely different tack, combining Richard Wright with William Dean Howells--existentialist dread with a keen appreciation of New York City as spectacle. Man Gone Down is about seeing and invisibility as well as the city as a place of constant threat and unsuspected opportunity.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Okay, so this is a DVD release of a made-for-TV miniseries, but Criterion's DVD package is a major event in the film world nevertheless. (Besides, this has been an extraordinarily busy year for me and I haven't seen nearly as many films as I wanted to. DVDs have pretty much been my cinema for 2007.) Fassbinder's 15-hour adaptation of Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel is demanding on several levels, not the least of which is Fassbinder's manic dramatic sensibility. In its eccentric, excessive ambition, Berlin is one of the touchstones of modernist European cinema. Because of its formidable length and poor video transfers, it's never been accessible to a wide audience. The Criterion DVDs solved the poor video transfer problem, at least.
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise. I'll have more on this book in a future post--I'm nearly done reading it. It could have been called Everything You Want to Know about Modern Classical Music But Were Afraid to Ask Lest You Have to Sit Through a Clanking, Screeching Avant-Garde Work for Four Orchestras and a Barking Dog. This book has made a lot of "best of" lists because Ross managed to execute the daunting task he set before himself--tell the history of the twentieth century through its music, and make the history a pleasure to read. More importantly, he makes us actually want to listen to those unloved experimental pieces from classical music's post-Stravinsky period.