David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2017

While the world went mad this year, I retreated a bit and did more reading than I had in some time. I have seen the pendulum of public sentiment cycle from complacency to hysteria and back twice now, and I am more fatalistic than ever about such cycles having to take their course. (My description of Thomas Pynchon’s “decoherence events” applies just as well to the Trump presidency as it does to September 11, 2001.) Being part of the collective public discourse this year was unhealthier than in any time I have ever seen.

I believe all the titles below deserve attention. The top books have been chosen based on personal significance and relevance. Appiah’s As If is a plea for a cosmopolitan pluralism (of provisional viewpoints, not of truths) based on a reading of the great Hans Vaihinger. It is a theoretical work that has far more relevance to technology than it first appears, as I try to explain in my forthcoming Bitwise: A Life in Code. Földényi’s Melancholy is a Burton-inspired chronicle that bests a thousand other intellectual histories of its kind. It spoke to me of what it is to be the sort of person who feels the need and drive to read all these books in the first place, and of the intangible benefits I gain from them. And the purportedly final version of Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a thing of beauty, drastically different from its previous editions in many regards, and one of the deepest texts of our time, fifty years after its first publication.

The greatest novel I read this year was Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, the right novel for the right moment, but not one published in 2017.

In an attempt to provide a bit more apparent order, I have created a few subcategories for nonfiction. These are quite approximate; some books could have easily gone under a different heading. They are there to break the lists down into more manageable chunks.

When it comes to books, my eyes are bigger than my…eyes. Books under “Of Interest” are there either because (1) they are too out of my areas of knowledge for me to feel comfortable recommending them, (2) I have sufficient reservations about their content but feel they are too significant to ignore, or (3) I just haven’t read enough of them. I would feel terrible not noting Slezkine’s The House of Government, but I did not have time to read most of its 1100 pages.

Be well, read much, take care.


As If: Idealization and Ideals
Kwame Anthony Appiah
(Harvard University Press)

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Laszlo F. Foldenyi
(Yale University Press)

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Sixth)
Tom Phillips
(Thames & Hudson)



Into the Cyclorama
Annie Kim
(Southern Indiana Review Press)

Symphony for Human Transport
Lisa Samuels
(Shearsman Books)

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings
Juan Rulfo
(Deep Vellum Publishing)

Homesick for Another World: Stories
Ottessa Moshfegh
(Penguin Press)

The World Goes On
László Krasznahorkai
(New Directions)

The Manhattan Project
László Krasznahorkai
(Sylph Editions)

So Much Blue: A Novel
Percival Everett
(Graywolf Press)

Blackass: A Novel
A. Igoni Barrett
(Graywolf Press)

The Essential Fictions
Isaac Babel
(Northwestern University Press)

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
John Crowley
(Gallery / Saga Press)

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems
Rosmarie Waldrop
(New Directions)

Judgment: A Novel (Northwestern World Classics)
David Bergelson, Sasha Senderovich, Harriet Murav
(Northwestern University Press)

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto
Antonio Di Benedetto

Newcomers: Book One
Lojze Kovacic

Sisters of the Cross (Russian Library)
Alexei Remizov
(Columbia University Press)

Can Xue
(Open Letter)

The Construction of the Tower of Babel
Juan Benet
(Wakefield Press)

The War Nerd Iliad

(Feral House)

Go, Went, Gone
Jenny Erpenbeck
(New Directions)

The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams)
Li He
(New York Review Books)

Chinese Poetic Writing (Calligrams)
Francois Cheng
(New York Review Books)

The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition
Fernando Pessoa
(New Directions)



Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences
Jennifer Radden
(Oxford University Press)

Dystopia: A Natural History
Gregory Claeys
(Oxford University Press)

The Rift in The Lute: Attuning Poetry and Philosophy
Maximilian de Gaynesford
(Oxford University Press)

David Jones
T Dilworth
(Jonathan Cape)

The Messages We Send: Social Signals and Storytelling
G. R. F. Ferrari
(Oxford University Press)

The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title-Pages
Alastair Fowler
(Oxford University Press)

Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno
Raymond Geuss
(Harvard University Press)

Res Publica and the Roman Republic: 'Without Body or Form'
Louise Hodgson
(Oxford University Press)

The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid
Nicholas Horsfall
(Oxford University Press)

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again
Béatrice Longuenesse
(Oxford University Press)

Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya
Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos
(Yale University Press)

The Subject of Experience
Galen Strawson
(OUP Oxford)



Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Robert M. Sapolsky
(Penguin Books)

After Digital: Computation as Done by Brains and Machines
James A. Anderson
(Oxford University Press)

The Lazy Universe: An Introduction to the Principle of Least Action
Jennifer Coopersmith
(Oxford University Press)



The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
(Princeton University Press)

Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital
William Clare Roberts
(Princeton University Press)

A Brief History of Economic Thought
Alessandro Roncaglia
(Cambridge University Press)

Paths to Fulfillment: Women's Search for Meaning and Identity
Ruthellen Josselson
(Oxford University Press)

The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead

(University of Chicago Press)

The Enigma of Reason
Hugo Mercier, Dan Sperber
(Harvard University Press)

Shame: A Brief History (History of Emotions)
Peter N. Stearns
(University of Illinois Press)

The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From
Michael C. Corballis
(University of Chicago Press)



Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.
Danielle S. Allen

The Water Kingdom
Philip Ball

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
Frances Fitzgerald
(Simon & Schuster)

A History of Judaism
Martin Goodman
(Penguin Press)

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps
Andrea Pitzer
(Little, Brown and Company)

The Habsburg Empire: A New History
Pieter M. Judson
(Harvard University Press)

The Transformation of American Liberalism
George Klosko
(Oxford University Press)

Politics in the Roman Republic (Key Themes in Ancient History)
Henrik Mouritsen
(Cambridge University Press)

Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China
Johanna S. Ransmeier
(Harvard University Press)

Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History
Matthew Simonton
(Princeton University Press)

The Cold War: A World History
Odd Arne Westad
(Basic Books)



Poppies of Iraq
Brigitte Findakly, Lewis Trondheim
(Drawn and Quarterly)

Fabien Vehlmann
(NBM Publishing)

It Don't Come Easy
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian
(Drawn and Quarterly)

The Green Hand and Other Stories
Nicole Claveloux
(New York Review Comics)

Voices in the Dark
Ulli Lust
(New York Review Comics)

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
Emil Ferris
(Fantagraphics Books)

Joann Sfar
(Uncivilized Books)

Beanworld Volume 4: Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l
Larry Marder
(Dark Horse Books)

The Interview
Manuele Fior
(Fantagraphics Books)

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion
M.T. Anderson

Demon (4 Book Series)
Jason Shiga

Olympians: Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt
George O'Connor
(First Second)

The Customer is Always Wrong
Mimi Pond
(Drawn and Quarterly)



Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment
Kristin Gjesdal
(Cambridge University Press)

Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy
Jonathan Haskel, Stian Westlake
(Princeton University Press)

The Quantum Revolution in Philosophy
Richard Healey
(Oxford University Press)

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941
Stephen Kotkin
(Penguin Press)

Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire
Kit Morrell
(Oxford University Press)

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
Yuri Slezkine
(Princeton University Press)

No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984
Matthew Worley
(Cambridge University Press)


  1. Thomas Pynchon is always great. I loved Bleeding Edge, which I read twice (your article is outstanding and I’m glad to having read it). FOr “Mason & Dixon” I’m waiting for a better state of mind.
    Your definition of the world does fit very well. And the pendulum of complacency and hysteria is a good description of what’s been going on also in other countries. I write from Italy and we live in a bubble of mystification from every point of view (including food hysteria, but this is another point…). I hope to read “Melancholy” soon – on the theme I have read Jean Starobinsky in Italian some time ago, it’s devoted to melancholy in literature and Burton is quoted everywhere. I look forward to reading your article Bitwise.

  2. Nice, I’ve gotten some good recommendations from you in the past and am sure I will again. I’ve only read a handful of these (Amadae, Abe, Nagle and The Manhattan Project) so far.

    Liked Beasts Head for Home but man, we really need a full translation of Kabe, not just the excerpt in Beyond the Curve. Look forward to reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s last two books, McGlue is one of my favorites of the decade so far.

    Prisoners of Reason was a slog (repetitive and esoteric in its thoroughness) but well worth it. I think Amadae’s criticism of the conceptual fuzziness surrounding neoliberalism somewhat misses the point (my inexpert opinion is that its distinction from neoclassicism is fuzzy because both responded to the collapse of the thirty-year compromise over new deal policies and the subsequent party realignment. Her focus also leaves little role for the backlash against the civil rights movement). Relatedly her intellectual history often feels more like straight up philosophy, for example where she takes at face value that NUTS won out over MAD as policy mostly because its internal logic was stronger. (I’m sorry if these critiques seem random, for a comparison when I read Objectivity Is Not Neutrality it always struck me that Haskell consistently took philosophers seriously while remaining firmly grounded in doing history and historiography.) On the other hand there’s a lot to be said for really getting inside the theory to take it apart. The central thesis, about the importance of Cold War Grand Strategy and its underlying assumptions about rational agency to the current condition of the state and the social contract, is convincing and as far as I can tell, original.

    One thing I found very interesting is how little she talks about libertarianism. At first I suspected that this is partly because Amadae herself identifies as a (lower case) classical liberal and wants to save her heavy ammunition for the authoritarian implications of modelling everything as a prisoner’s dilemma, but my current reading is that she’s left a lot of ground for a reassessment of what libertarianism actually is, apart from how it’s often represented by its followers. Maybe this work has already been done and I just don’t know about it yet, but I for one had previously mostly taken it at face value when libertarian or an-cap acquaintances and writers identified as “Classical Liberals” while largely subscribing to the homo strategicus concept of rationality. I can no longer do that, thanks to this book.

    One last thing, her dismantling of Richard Posner is my favorite part, and is no less devastating for how polite she is.

  3. You read all these?! Front to back?! You are my hero; can we be friends? So our reading of the past year didn’t actually overlap that much, but damn we’re in the same ballpark. Thoroughly enjoying second volume of AR Ammons Collected Poems right now. But David Jones’Dillworth, Krasznahorkai, Everett, Erpenbach, Pessoa (in that great new edition)…and now I have War Nerd Illiad book and Tower of Babel one back on my ‘must look at’ list. Can I urge you to look at Trebuchet by Danniel Schoonebeek, and Prose Architectures by Renee Gladman?

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