2019 Book List

Published on 31 DEC 2019

I try to read a bit in my spare time. So, a few thoughts on each one (in the order I read them). This is the first time I’m doing this (peer pressure from Alex); some of these memories are almost a year old and I’ll have to get better at taking notes along the way.

Charles Bukowski – Women

Hank Chinaski just can’t quit. I’m a huge Bukowski fan and this one was my favorite, but you still need to read Ham on Rye and Post Office before getting to Women.

I sat and watched the clock. It was like working in the post office again. Time was motionless while existence was a throbbing unbearable thing.

Edward Luce – The Retreat of Western Liberalism

A short but thought-provoking book by a journalist about the decline of liberal values in, of all places, people who call themselves liberal. Luce focuses on identity politics. “Fascism is based on group rights. Liberal democracy is founded on individual rights.”

Nikolai Gogol – Dead Souls

“Perfectly true,” Koroviev agreed with his inseparable companion. “And a sweet chill numbs your heart to think that a future author of a Don Quixote or a Faust, or, the devil take me, a Dead Souls may be ripening here, right before your eyes! Eh?”

I read this book because of that line in The Master and Margarita, one of my favorite books. A Russian classic, Dead Souls was worth reading to have read it, but a little too absurd for me.

Maggie Nelson – The Art of Cruelty

Maggie is my favorite author and she can write about anything. Poetry, diary, analysis, philosophy, fiction. The Art of Cruelty responds to Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and its Double (talk about worlds collide; in 2018 I read all seven volumes of Anais Nin’s diary, who worked with Artaud). She discusses how to (or if one can) differentiate violent or graphic art that brings people together or just indulges our can’t look away feeling. This book lead to a lot of deep thinking and conversations with friends. Even though art is way outside my ken, I found it applicable to my life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Remarks on Colour

I read this because of Bluets (another Maggie and possibly my favorite book of all time).

Goethe is not alone in turning to color at a particularly fraught moment. Think of … Wittgenstein, who wrote his Remarks on Colour during the last eighteen months of his life, while dying of stomach cancer. He knew he was dying; he could have chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the sun. He chose to write about color.

Funny enough, my favorite part of Remarks on Colour was the passage where he’s sassing Goethe for his work Theory of Colour:

  1. Goethe’s theory of the constitution of the colours of the spectrum has not proved to be an unsatisfactory theory, rather it really isn’t a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted with it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline of the sort we find in James’s psychology. Nor is there any experimentum crucis which could decide for or against the theory.
  2. Someone who agrees with Goethe believes that Goethe correctly recognized the nature of colour. And nature here is not what results from experiments, but it lies in the concept of colour.

Josh Bernoff – Writing Without Bullshit

A useful framework for business writing. Ironically, too long.

James Joyce – Penelope (Ulysses)

You have to read all seventeen preceding chapters (sections? books? episodes?) of Ulysses before you are allowed to read Penelope. But once you’ve read them all once, you can read Penelope as often as you wish.

Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman

I read this for a book club in Berlin but didn’t like it. Some of the character development felt lazy.

Shoshana Zuboff – The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

An epic. Zuboff not only has a cutting-edge take on the tech industry and its effects on society, politics, and mental well-being; she’s an exceptional writer too. The book has 704 pages and I disagreed with 2 of them. I’ll set my differences aside.

Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind

I danced around Arendt for a long time. Both Maggie Nelson and Shoshana Zuboff heavily cite her. Plus Ben Folds has this album, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind”. So I felt it was finally time. This book is heavy but I enjoyed it.

Error is the price we pay for truth, and semblance is the price we pay for the wonders of appearance.

David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: “Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotestquerie, and human completeness”

I seem to come back to this essay about once a year. I don’t know why, maybe because it’s one of the shorter things that DFW wrote, or that it tells a story about the unglamour of professional sport and that hits close to home. This line always gets me:

You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.

The context is that, after four years on the pro tour, Joyce holds a world rank of 79th, and most people have probably never heard of the 79th ranked anyone. (In cycling, I was perhaps among the top 10,000 of the world? So nowhere even close.)

Bill Kovach – The Elements of Journalism

I read this because, besides having an interest in journalism due to cycling (that’s a long story), we started a podcast at Parity and I landed the host role. There’s no way around it - it’s a corporate podcast - but I did want to approach it with some form of integrity. So I started to read books about journalism and interviewing. This was a perfect start. “Good stories lead you to the truth; they don’t tell you the truth.” I always try to remember that; ask questions that will lead the guest to his or her own truth.

Dean Nelson – Talk to Me

Continuing on my journalism reading, this was a great intro that is specific to interviewing. It gave a lot of tips on how to prepare, how to structure, how (and more important, when) to challenge an interviewee, a task that I completely failed at when I interviewed Richard Stallman.

Charles Bukowski – Love is a Dog from Hell

It sure is.

Andreas Antonopolous – The Internet of Money, Volumes 1 and 2

I was trying to schedule an interview with Andreas for our podcast and read these books as research in case it worked out. It didn’t. They are transcriptions of his talks, which are a great intro to blockchain, but not much new for me.

Antonin Artaud – The Theater and its Double

Artaud has had enough of masterpieces. He wants to shake things up and make people uncomfortable. He blames Shakespeare for “this disinterested idea of the theater which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.” Artaud criticizing early 1900s theater leads right into David Foster Wallace television criticism.

Charles Bukowski – Factotum

The least-known of the Chinaski series (Ham on Rye, Post Office, Factotum, Women) and for good reason. The other three books are better.

Studs Terkel – The Good War

Terkel is a legend. All the reviews of this book say it is, “the most powerful single document of the American experience in World War II”. To which I thought, “yeah, right.” But Studs pulls it off. This book will make you laugh and cry. I read through all my highlights in this book trying to pick one to share here but I want to share them all.

What bothers me, I’m seventy-five years old, and God knows I’m not a religious man. I do go to services. Everybody has his reasons. I pray for peace. But I realize what’s going on all over the world, the suffering. What has man learned? I saw people with the indomitable will to live. But as long as some men want power, we’re gonna have wars. And all this praying …

Larry King – How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere

Waste of time.

Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

The subtitle sums it up perfectly. What’s tough about this book is just how damn ordinary Eichmann seems. I read this book around the same time I started getting more interested in Soviet history and learned about Nikolai Yezhov. Eichmann is scary because of the damage one can do by shuffling papers. Yezhov kind of makes you question humanity itself.

Maggie Nelson – The Argonauts

Maggie’s newest book. I’ll read whatever she writes. Part of why I love her work is that she is so different than me but so precise in her writing that it always connects. The Argonauts is about her marriage to her transsexual partner and the birth of her child - about as outside my knowledge space as one can get - but I couldn’t put it down.

People say women forget about the pain of labor, due to some kind of God-given amnesia that keeps the species reproducing. But that isn’t quite right - after all, what does it mean for pain to be “memorable”? You’re either in pain or you’re not. And it isn’t the pain that one forgets. It’s the touching-death part.

I love this “you’re either in pain or you’re not.” It reminds me of those cycling crashes where I ended up in an ambulance or the hospital. I remember that there was pain, but the pain isn’t the primary sensation associated with those experiences.

Christopher Achen – Democracy for Realists

I only read the first four chapters of this. The author made strong arguments backed up by empirical data - people do not make good decisions when voting and random events like a drought or an earthquake tend to have large effects on election outcomes.

Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

A fun page turner, but I just don’t like science fiction.

Anna Akhmatova – Final Meeting

2019 was the year I started reading more poetry, perhaps mostly due to limited time for novels. Started with who else but Maggie Nelson and then Bukowski. Akhmatova’s collection is dark, but what else could it be when writing in Stalinist Russia when her son was in a prison camp?

Marina Tsvetaeva – My Poems

Similar to Akhmatova, a poet from the Lenin and Stalin times. She killed herself after the NKVD forced her to work as an informant.

Vladimir Nabokov – Speak Memory

Common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

Woof, that’s in the first paragraph! Nabokov’s autobiography, I read the first chapter in his restored home in St. Petersburg. Like most autobiographies that focus on childhood, I find that the author is too far removed and the memories feel manufactured or made dramatic. There is, however, something engaging about sitting on a bench on Bol’shaya Morskaya while reading stories about Nabokov riding his bike to school down that road.

Henry Miller – The World of Sex

An early Miller work about the experience of an American in Paris. As an American who moved to France about 80 years after Miller did, his cultural observations still hit home.

Meaningful acts require no stir. When things are going to wrack and ruin the most purposeful act may be to sit still. The individual who succeeds in realizing and expressing the truth which is in him may be said to have performed an act more potent than the destruction of an empire. It is not always necessary, moreover, to mouth the truth. Though the world crumble and dissolve truth abides.

Nikolai Gogol – Collected Short Stories

More Gogol; I always struggle with short stories and Gogol is a little too absurd for me. That said, The Nose is quite good.

Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish

Can I just say that I’m thankful to have not been executed in the 1500s? Sarcasm aside, Foucault investigates the role of the prison - in particular the Panopticon - in society.

Police encroachment on justice and the force of inertia that the carceral institution opposes to justice are not new, nor are they the result of a sclerosis or of a gradual shift in power; it is a structural feature that characterizes punitive mechanisms in modern societies.

Boom.

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin

I thought the story of professor Pnin was a little boring, but Nabokov is such a master of sentence construction that it makes up for it:

A few days later she sent me those poems; a fair sample of her production is the kind of stuff that émigré rhymsterettes wrote after Akhmatova: lackadaisical little lyrics that tiptoed in more or less ana paestic tetrameter and sat down rather heavily with a wistful sigh.

Chris Voss – Never Split the Difference

A pop self help book on negotiation. He does give practical examples and guidelines; I think I’m just a hopelessly bad negotiator though.

Susan Sontag – Stories

I picked this up at a bookstore in Paris because I loved the first sentence. “Everything that surrounds my meeting with him has the color of shame.” I liked that first story - Pilgrimage, about how she and her friend went to meet their favorite writer in high school - but no matter how hard I try (and I try a lot) I just don’t like short stories.

Richard Pipes – The Russian Revolution

A near thousand pager that took me a few months to slog through, but worth it. I believe that this is the most important event of the 20th century and is wildly misunderstood (or worse, forgotten).

Noam Chomsky - On Anarchism

A collection of essays about anarchism. I loosely followed Rothbard anarchism for a few years but didn’t go too deep in it. I found a lot of criticism of the state to be valid, which is what attracted me to anarchism in the first place, but also knew that in my lifetime nation-states aren’t going anywhere. I enjoyed Chomsky’s deeper investigation that addressed the moral problems of the state, but also those of capitalism.

Anarchy as a social philosophy has never meant “chaos” — in fact, anarchists have typically believed in a highly organized society, just one that’s organized democratically from below.

The basic principle I would like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified — it has no prior justification.

Chomsky is not against power structures or organizational structures; they just need to justify their existence (most of which today do not).

And finally, as my colleagues will know, I appreciate this:

And if you ever find a comma misplaced, somebody ought to criticize you for it.

Toni Morrison – Beloved

Masterfully written; she jumps between character perspectives mid-chapter, morphs through time and space, and weaves fantasy and reality. I could practice for a thousand years and never write anything half as good. But - and I do realize how privileged of a statement this is - it is difficult to identify with a pregnant, runaway slave and I don’t think that any number of readings can make me fully appreciate how great this book is.

Steven King – On Writing

One of the best writing guides I have read. I think if you follow this and Strunk & White then you have everything you need as a writer. It’s short, practical, and has useful examples and guidelines to follow. “First, tell the story to yourself. Then, remove all the parts that aren’t the story.”