Some books I’ve read in the past year:
Perry Anderson, The New Old World. The guy must be 90 years old, and he is still turning out these huge, deep, beautiful, important books. Someone said that no one writes Latin in English like Anderson does, and while I don’t know much about Latin that has the ring of truth: His style can’t be described as anything but “classical.” The substantive argument here — if you fish it out from all the clever apercus and brilliant asides — is that the EU is the European elites’ end-run around popular movements, which continue to be stronger there than in the US or in most of the rest of world, but are inherently national.
David Archer, The Long Thaw. Climate change in the long view, not the next hundred years but the next thousand, hundred thousand, million. Yes, we’ve fucked up the planet that badly.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. I read a lot of graphic novels (or comics, whatever) but this is the only one I’m including here. A lovely book. A lot of us grow up in families that look,in retrospect, more or less insane, but few of us are able to describe both the insanity and the way that, from the inside, our families nonetheless worked. And she’s an iconic lesbian and all that, but this book would rock regardless.
Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection. This is a fun book. I’ve recommended it to several people and it’s been a hit every time. It’s a sort of magical-realist satire of the detective novel, bringing out the way that the detective’s central mystery is always his own fragmented self … but who cares what I think. Read it yourself and you’ll have your own strong views. It’s a book that demands theorizing.
Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here. Physicist striving to explain the nature of time. Not the worst pop science book I’ve ever read, and not the best. I have some substantive thoughts about it but they’ll wait for another post.
John Cheever, Bullet Park and Falconer. Why did I decide to read Cheever this year? A. lent me Bullet Park; it’s a fascinating artifact, a paperback from the early 70s in the small mass-market format, announcing itself a best-seller on the cover; can’t imagine a similarly literary novel looking like that today. Cheever! Well, let’s say, first, he writes brilliant, perfect scenes but they don’t scale; he gets too sucked into crazy monologues and bizarre, over the top set-pieces. (So maybe he’s a short-story writer…) And second, that he is the Chinua Achebe of the suburbs, in that his stories combine measurable tragedies governed by the understood rules of the world, with incomprehensible irruptions from outside.
Paul Davidson, John Maynard Keynes. Everybody hates Davidson. Why? I think there’s some good stuff in here.
Lydia Davis, Break It Down. A lot to like, probably, but this book was completely eclipsed in my mind by Miranda July.
M. I. Finley, Aspects of Antiquity. Essays on Greece and Rome, good stuff. Finley wrote The Ancient Economy, which gives you a sense of what to expect.
Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong. Critique of Darwinism from the left. Gestures at a lot of important arguments, like the circularity of “fitness”, but don’t really make them in any systematic way. I wish this had been a better book.
Tom Geoghegan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? This was a good book, in its way. Tom — a friend of mine, once upon a time, tho I haven’t talked to him in years — has a loopy, confessional, faux-naive writing style, all asides and exclamations, that’s uniquely seductive, or offputting if you’re expecting a conventional argument. Here it’s deployed to argue that the European model is better not just for the poor but for the middle class. It’s very convincing, for familiar and less familiar reasons — for him workplace democracy is at the heart of the German model. It’s an important argument that more people should hear — but a hard one to make just as the Euro system is falling apart and his beloved Germans seem to be to blame.
Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript. Bruce Sterling has a short story about a future where poets and artists are the dominant class in society and businessmen and engineers exist in a marginalized demimonde. This strange little book sort of argue that the Soviet Union actually was such a world — that it genuinely realized socialism in the sense that it was a society governed by language rather than quantities. Even its failure was a success, in this sense, because it ended not due a quasi-natural process of economic breakdown, but by conscious conscious choice.
James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren. Did I say we’ve fucked the planet? No, no, we’ve really fucked the planet. The section on the Venus Syndrome in this book is the scariest thing I’ve read this year, and that’s including The Road.
Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Observational science is awesome.
Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Best book I’ve read all year. If you read fiction at all, you need to read this book. I’d like to write a full post about July. But suffice to say, she somehow manages to discover human situations no one has written about before, or at least to write about them as if no one else has. So reading her stories you feel like you’re discovering our emotions, our relationships, for the first time, fresh. The two best stories here — “Something That Needs Nothing” and “How to Tell Stories to Children” — are nothing less than miraculous.
Part two is here.