So after less than two weeks it is pretty clear that 2018 will be at best just as bad as 2017, and that is at best. Let’s be honest, it’s going to get a lot more awful before it gets better and it’s not going to get better. We had a good run but actually the run wasn’t even all that good and the only reason we’re remembering it fondly is we’ve forgotten how it felt before everything fell apart. I guess what I’m saying is everything is terrible and only getting worse. Would you like to distract yourself from how horrible everything is but also not hate yourself for suddenly realizing you just watched eight straight hours of “golden age” television, which apparently means elves fucking their sisters?
Good news: Books still exist. I read a bunch of them last year, and these are the ones I enjoyed the most. It is an idiosyncratic list based on my own personal tastes but guess what, I am the one writing this post, what else would it be based on? In any event, there will certainly be something here for you to enjoy. I am not going to tell you too much about each title because I think we all know that the more you read about a book in a review the more you feel as if you have already read the actual book and therefore don’t need to pick it up. These are all good books, and they all deserve to be read. Note: This list is roughly in order of when I read them last year, so don’t think they are ranked or weighted any other way. Okay, here we go.
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy: Patricia Lockwood is one of the great original voices of this new century and she is in total control of it here. I am wary of memoirs in general and “my wacky family” in particular, but every time this book feels like it is in danger of becoming a little too, uh, Sedarious, she pulls back and goes in a completely different direction.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness: What philosophers refer to as the “hard problem” of consciousness is particularly hard if you’re not very bright and your eyes immediately glaze over when anyone starts discussing it, but that never happens in this incredible story of how octopods–“the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”–offer an entirely different model of awareness. Also, there is a visit to Octopolis. Octopolis!
Andrew Gant, O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music: Gosh was this a terrifically enjoyable book about the choral music of England. But don’t take my word for it, listen to America’s young composer boyfriend Nico Muhly, who explains exactly why it’s so great.
Jack Viertel, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built: This one probably requires a little advance knowledge of the shows Viertel discusses within, but if you have that this is an incredibly worthwhile and enjoyable tour of what makes a musical work and why. Niche but good niche.
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe: Without a doubt the book which gave me the most pleasure last year and the recommendation I made that got the most, “Wow, thank you”s in response. Please read this book.
Judith Matloff, No Friends but the Mountains: Dispatches from the World’s Violent Highlands: I am not sure that I 100% buy the thesis that there is something about elevated terrain that makes conflict more likely–the ground seems perfectly capable of holding its own–but the eight locales Matloff investigates are all fascinating and worth reading about.
Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World: If you’ve got the bad cold that’s going around right now you should read this book in between the constant nose-blowing and napping to see what a real flu is like, you big baby. Anyway, we’re due for another pandemic any day now so you might as well be prepared.
Richard McGregor, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century: McGregor’s examination of the intrigues and conflicts between the United States, Japan and China in the postwar era would be disturbing even if we had competent people handling the situation right now. Since we don’t, it’s both frightening and depressing. “Frightening and depressing” is probably not a blurb that is going to move a lot of books but this is a terrific analysis of the relations that underpin the most important area of 21st century politics.
Masha Gessen,The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia: Telling the story of post-Soviet Russia through the lives of several participants who came of age during the new era is a great and novel way to make the changes and reversions seem considerably more real than a routine recitation of events. Because I am an idiot it took me about 200 pages of dealing with Russian nomenclature to keep track of who was who but you are much smarter than I am, so you should have no problems.
Bettany Hughes, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities: Incredibly absorbing. The pages are dense with information yet the work is never overbearing; you finish every chapter feeling smarter and, even more importantly, newly curious.
Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads: Wu’s history of advertising proves beyond a doubt that while things have always been bad they are so much worse now.
Henry Marsh, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon: If you have not yet read Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery please immediately go do that. If you have, you know that when you finished you wished there were more. Well, now there is!
Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Because I am an idiot (see above) my ability to grasp even the most basic concepts of biology and neuroscience is at best theoretical, so this book was extremely slow going for me. This is not the author’s fault: He could have come to my apartment and tried to explain it to me using apples and puppets and it still would have taken hours for any of it to sink in. That said, after repeated, focused readings this was one of the most interesting and informative books I read last, or any, year. Hopefully I die before there is new science that renders all of this moot and someone needs to re-explain how the frontal cortex works to me.
Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment: I feel like everyone I know was reading this at some point this year, and probably for good reason. I was less interested in the Buddhism part of this book than I was the Science part, but it does a great job of explaining how the two things map on to each other. (Also, no disrespect to Robert Wright, but reading this book after reading the Sapolsky book gives you the proverbial feeling of watching “Wheel of Fortune” right after watching “Jeopardy”: For half and hour you were a moron but now you’re a genius.) What I will say in favor of this book is I came away from it wanting to be a better person in terms of the way I look at the world around me. Obviously that did not last but I still feel twinges of it every now and again. If you enjoy this I would also recommend Beyond the Self: Conversations Between Buddhism and Neuroscience, by Matthieu Ricard (the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama) and neuroscientist Wolf Singer, which expands out on some of the same issues.
Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol 1: 2017 was the year I finally “got” graphic novels. I know, I know, you were right, I’m sorry. Anyway, this was one of the first that I read and oh my God it is a tour de force, I cannot even convey how many different and amazing things are happening here. This book was so good that it made me nervous that Ferris will not be able to keep all the balls in the air for Volume 2, but anyone who could pull off all the thing she pulled off in the first part is certainly capable of doing it again. If you still have some residual bias against “comic books” that was beaten into you by parents or educators when you were younger please read this book to shed yourself of them.
Guy Delisle, Hostage: This is also a terrific example of how graphic novels do things that prose alone cannot. Tonally the opposite of Monsters, Delisle’s story of a 1997 kidnapping and captivity in the Caucasus creates a gripping intensity through simplicity and repetition.
Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics: New York City In The ’70s books will probably be with us until the last person who talks about how much better it was when hookers in Times Square would run up to you and stab you in the arm with heroin-dipped safety pins dies, but while there are plenty of “fun” stories (of these, Richard Boch’s The Mudd Club and Duncan Hannah’s forthcoming Twentieth-Century Boy are the gossamer accounts and Douglas Crimp’s 2016 Before Pictures a little less breezy), Phillips-Fein’s examination of what actually happened during the city’s fiscal crisis, and how the choices that were made then are still affecting the way we experience everything now, both in New York City and nationally, should be required reading for everyone who lives in this city and this country. Clear, uncomplicated prose gets a bad rap these days because people confuse complexity with depth, but Phillips-Fein’s intensely readable book makes it obvious what a disservice we are doing to people’s ability to understand the forces that control them when we try to show how erudite we are.
David Hepworth, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars: In case the majority of selections on this list didn’t clue you in already, I’m an old white man. And as an old white man with an old white dad who raised him listening to the old white music that we now refer to as “classic rock,” this book should be catnip to me, and guess what, it totally was. For many of you this book will seem almost as distant as Andrew Gant’s history of English church music, but it is well worth reading if only to see what stardom looked like in the days just before you were born.
Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do: Beautiful in both form and content this is the third example I discovered this year of how graphic novels work on a completely different level from regular narrative.
Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News: American history is an ongoing series of lies about race told to people who want to believe them. Here are the program notes.
Martin Salisbury, The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970 : You can’t judge a book by its cover but you can judge a book of covers by the covers in the book. Hahaha, get it? You probably don’t, because unless you clicked the link above you aren’t quite sure what the book in question is about. Sorry. Anyway, this is just a terrific collection of (mostly) British and American book covers as they evolved from protective wrappers to advertisements to works of art. I spent hours with it and I’m sure I will keep coming back to it for inspiration this year and many more, if we have many more.
Well, that was 2017. If you have somehow also read all these books, don’t worry! I’ve also read some books that are coming out over the next few months, and these are the ones I suggest you pre-order right now:
Emma Glass, Peach: This short debut novel is almost certain to be the book everyone is talking about over the next few months and with good reason: It’s terrifying and disturbing and sticks with you long after you’ve finished it.
Anneli Furmark, Red Winter: If internecine leftist political strife in late ’70s Sweden does not sound like something that appeals to you let me tell you that you are not alone. BUT Anneli Furmak’s story of an affair set during that period and the effects it has on the lives of the people connected to its two main characters is heartbreaking and universal. This is another one where the art adds an entirely different component to the weight of the tale.
David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906: If you’re a fan of one-volume histories and you want to know more about what was undeniably Britain’s century this is the book for you. David Cannadine is one of our greatest living historians and he covers as much in these 600-odd pages as it is possible to cover in 600-odd pages.
Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State: This book does a nice job of explaining the seemingly inexplicable affection even people from places outside of Austin seem to have for their state. If you’ve read Wright’s two most recent pieces in the New Yorker you should have a good idea of what you’re going to get from this one: It’s a loosely organized tour around Texas from a native guide. The tourism slogan for Texas used to be, “It’s like a whole other country,” but recently the country has become way too similar. Here’s a glimpse at our possible future, if we do indeed have one.
Witold Szabłowski, Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny: This collection of reports about people who “are now free but who seem nostalgic for the time when they were not… provides a fascinating portrait of social and economic upheaval and a lesson in the challenges of freedom and the seductions of authoritarian rule.” So, you know, maybe not a great distraction from what’s going on right now, but something that will at least help you understand it a little better.
Finally, Penguin Classics has a spate of reissues pegged to Black History Month that should be released on February 4th. I am most interested in Claude McKay‘s Amiable with Big Teeth, but Parul Sehgal took a crack at a couple others in the Times today and they also look good. Now don’t tell me you’ve got nothing to read.