David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Books of the Year 2012

So many books, so many books. I consciously tried to expand my reading horizons this year, which has helped to swell my reading list to unmanageable lengths.  Sifting out worthy entries in disciplines with which I’m not especially familiar is not at all easy, so sometimes I just have to go on faith that apparent hard work, diligence, and care have resulted in an enlightening end product.

Krasznahorkai’s Satantango is certainly for me the book of the year, though in its way Lucan’s Civil War was as well, and I was very happy to have William Bronk‘s later poetry collected.

I have hardly read all of all of the nonfiction selections–I’ll be lucky if I ever read the Bailyn book cover to cover–but they have all been of note to me at least as reference or inspiration. Some stragglers from 2011 have snuck in as well.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Reviews on a couple are forthcoming.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links–this was just by far the simplest way to get thumbnails and metadata.)



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Galley Slave (Slovenian Literature)

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Bursts of Light: The Collected Later Poems

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Marginalia on Casanova: St. Orpheus Breviary I

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Every Short Story by Alasdair Gray 1951-2012

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The Snail's Song

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An Ermine in Czernopol (New York Review Books Classics)

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Berlin Stories (New York Review Books Classics)

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Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

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Happy Moscow (New York Review Books Classics)

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Civil War (Penguin Classics)

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Petersburg (Penguin Classics)

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Tyrant Banderas (New York Review Books Classics)

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The Person I Am Volume One (Laura (Riding) Jackson series Book 1)

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The Holocaust as Culture

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Mathematics: (French Literature)

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The Museum of Abandoned Secrets

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Black Paths

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Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition

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Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography

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Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850

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Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

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The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition

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Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature

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German Philosophy of Language: From Schlegel to Hegel and beyond

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Reality: A Very Short Introduction

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American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas

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Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives

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Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

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More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India

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The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction

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Governing the World: The History of an Idea

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  1. what did you think of Alan Ryan’s On Politics? Was it worth the time?

    • For me it was, though there were parts I read more closely than others, as tends to be the case with 1000 page books. It’s a seriously synoptic work, which means that it goes quickly and there will always be plenty to disagree with in its summaries. His main goal is to provide a linear account connecting political theory and philosophy to history, and I think he does a pretty good job, especially when he gets onto the French Revolution through to Hegel and Marx.

      The general quality of his thought is pretty high and I like much of what he has to say. Still, I would not call it an essential or revelatory book in the way that, say, I found Polanyi’s The Great Transformation to be. The difficulty, as always, is that the historical picture resists any easy summary and so the linkages between politics & practice inevitably seem dubious, especially when read alongside a book like Tim Blanning’s great and more surprising Pursuit of Glory, or Sheldon Wolin’s more incisive Politics and Vision. Ryan is circumspect and charitable in his writing, acknowledging these problems, so that the problems are not with Ryan’s skill and insight, but with the underlying nature of the project. Ryan’s concerted moderation makes him less challenging to one’s preconceived notions than Polanyi, Blanning, and Wolin.

      I think that Mark Mazower’s review captures some of Ryan’s strengths and weaknesses, though I think omitting Habermas and Carl Schmitt is no great sin.

  2. You might also be interested in Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling. “He sets the emperor’s story into the context of the political system and the changing relations between the senate and the emperor during Caligula’s time and finds a new rationality explaining his notorious brutality.”

  3. Despite all of the books here that I would like to read or should read or would read if I were doing that instead of this, it strikes me as funny that the only book that we both read this year was the first volume of Carl Barks.

    I have been thinking about the Eric Kandel and would enjoy a note or two about it. And the Szentkuthy is good? I figured.

    • One of these days I will write some epic essay on Carl Barks and the dark, fatalistic conservative mindset at work in those stories. I only found out this year that Barks himself was in dire personal straits during 1947-1951 or so, generally acknowledged to be the peak of his genius.

      The Szentkuthy is fascinating, but like Dwight below, I’ve had trouble figuring out what to say about it. It’s defiantly odd.

  4. A great list for me to explore, especially the nonfiction (some of which I read this year as well).
    I’ve been meaning to write on the Szentkuthy. I loved it but have had trouble writing anything on it. I’ll correct that next week.

  5. The Person I Am Volume One (Laura (Riding) Jackson Series) — Holy cats, how did you find these!? I’ve seen no reviews, no excerpts, no notices…. Are they more Anarchism Is Not Enough or more Rational Meaning?

    I suspect Riding’s reliability as a self-witness, but she can’t be much worse than Graves.

    • Volume 1 is more Anarchism, Volume 2 is pure Rational Meaning and other late stuff. I found them while searching on LRJ on Amazon, which I do from time to time on the assumption that, indeed, new stuff from her will not be noticed anywhere.

  6. I, too, read the books by Burnyeat, Momigliano, Gass, and Moore.

    How did you find the Gass? For me, it was the best volume of essays he has yet produced (though A Temple of Texts is hard to beat for its title essay).

    Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on the Ian Mclean book, as I am considering whether to invest the time to read it.

    • I thought Life Sentences was more inconsistent than Temple and Fiction/Figures…the Kafka essay, for example, didn’t work for me. Gass takes chances and sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. Maybe I’ll feel differently after reading Middle C.

      Did you like the Moore? It impressed me, not the least because that sort of book linking contemporary and older philosophy doesn’t seem to get written any longer, at least not with such polemical style. Definitely the best book by a Deleuze fan I’ve read in ages.

      The Maclean book is excellent scholarship in the Warburg tradition: exquisitely researched and methodically organized, with absolutely no concessions to trendiness or a broader audience. So it is considerably denser than Andrew Petegree’s The Book in the Renaissance or Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know, but more enlightening to its target audience. The scope is broad but Maclean does not waste space. The period isn’t a particular specialty of mine, so I extracted from it what was useful for me while admiring his general tenacity and focus, but I would not recommend it to someone without *some* background in the period–I’d recommend those other two books first, even though I think Maclean is more impressive piece.

      • What I most enjoyed about the new Gass volume were actually the more autobiographical essays. Unique and surprising from a writer like Gass. The essay involving his night escapades in the library especially prejudiced me, however. One only has to fantasize about living in a library for a sentence or two to win my deathless interest and appreciation.

        Thanks for the advice re: Maclean. I’ve read neither Petegree nor Blair. Perhaps I will begin with them.

        As for the Moore, yes, I liked it for the same reason. Nice to read about the history of philosophy as if it weren’t either a bargain-bin for concepts or an alternate reality.

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