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
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (Author)
(Harvard University Press)

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Foldenyi, Laszlo F. (Author), Wilkinson, Tim (Translator), Manguel, Alberto (Foreword)
(Yale University Press)

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



Into the Cyclorama
Kim, Annie (Author)
(Southern Indiana Review Press)

Symphony for Human Transport
Samuels, Lisa (Author)
(Shearsman Books)

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings
Rulfo, Juan (Author), Weatherford, Douglas J. (Translator)
(Deep Vellum Publishing)

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

The World Goes On
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Szirtes, George (Translator), Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator), Batki, John (Translator)
(New Directions)

The Manhattan Project
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Rotem, Ornan (Photographer), Batki, John (Translator)
(Sylph Editions)

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

Katalin Street (New York Review Books Classics)
Szabo, Magda (Author), Rix, Len (Translator)
(NYRB Classics)

Beasts Head for Home: A Novel (Weatherhead Books on Asia)
Abe, Kōbō (Author), Calichman, Richard (Translator)
(Columbia University Press)

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

The Essential Fictions
Babel, Isaac (Author), Vinokur, Val (Translator)
(Northwestern University Press)

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
Crowley, John (Author), Newcomb, Melody (Illustrator)
(Gallery / Saga Press)

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems
Waldrop, Rosmarie (Author)
(New Directions)

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

Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview (Russian Library)
Goralik, Linor (Author), Morse, Ainsley (Editor), Vassileva, Maria (Editor), Vinokour, Maya (Editor)
(Columbia University Press)

Remains of Life: A Novel (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan)
Wu He, Wu (Author), Berry, Michael (Translator)
(Columbia University Press)

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto
Di Benedetto, Antonio (Author), Broner, Martina (Translator)

Newcomers: Book One
Kovacic, Lojze (Author), Biggins, Michael (Translator)

Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China
Guo, Xiaolu (Author)
(Grove Press)

Sisters of the Cross (Russian Library)
Remizov, Alexei (Author), Keys, Roger (Translator), Murphy, Brian (Translator)
(Columbia University Press)

Xue, Can (Author), Gernant, Karen (Translator), Zeping, Chen (Translator), Khakpour, Porochista (Introduction)
(Open Letter)

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (WAKEFIELD PRESS)
Benet, Juan (Author), West, Adrian (Translator), West, Adrian (Introduction)
(Wakefield Press)

The War Nerd Iliad
Dolan, John (Adapter)
(Feral House)

Drilling through Hard Boards: 133 Political Stories (The German List)
Kluge, Alexander (Author), Hoban, Wieland (Translator)
(Seagull Books)

Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New York Review Books Classics)
Tsvetaeva, Marina (Author), Gambrell, Jamey (Translator)
(NYRB Classics)

Balcony in the Forest (New York Review Book)
Gracq, Julien (Author), Howard, Richard (Translator), Howard, Richard (Foreword)
(NYRB Classics)

Go, Went, Gone
Erpenbeck, Jenny (Author), Bernofsky, Susan (Translator)
(New Directions)

The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams)
He, Li (Author), Frodsham, J.D. (Translator), Rouzer, Paul (Preface)
(New York Review Books)

Chinese Poetic Writing (Calligrams)
Cheng, Francois (Author), Riggs, Donald (Translator), Seaton, Jerome (Translator)
(New York Review Books)

The Complete Old English Poems (The Middle Ages Series)
Williamson, Craig (Translator), Shippey, Tom (Introduction)
(University of Pennsylvania Press)

The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition
Pessoa, Fernando (Author), Pizarro, Jerónimo (Editor), Costa, Margaret Jull (Translator)
(New Directions)



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

The Warburg Years (1919-1933): Essays on Language, Art, Myth, and Technology
Cassirer, Ernst (Author), Lofts, S. G. (Translator)
(Yale University Press)

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

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

David Jones
Dilworth, T (Author)
(Jonathan Cape)

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

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

The Natural and the Human: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1739-1841
Gaukroger, Stephen (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity
Olen, Peter (Author)
(Palgrave Macmillan)

The Subject of Experience
Strawson, Galen (Author)
(OUP Oxford)

The Emotions in Early Chinese Philosophy (Emotions of the Past)
Virág, Curie (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher, A Catalogue Raisonn
Segers, Hercules (Artist)
(nai010 publishers/Rijksmuseum)



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

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

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



Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy
Amadae, S. M. (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

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

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

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

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

The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead
Joas, Hans (Editor), Huebner, Daniel R. (Editor)
(University of Chicago Press)

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

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

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



Russia's Path toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason, 1500-1801
Hamburg, Gary M. (Author)
(Yale University Press)

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

The Water Kingdom
Ball, Philip (Author)

False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East
Cook, Steven A. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Eisen, Lauren-Brooke (Author)
(Columbia University Press)

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

The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound?
Gat, Azar (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

A History of Judaism
Goodman, Martin (Author)
(Penguin Press)

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent into Madness during the Cultural Revolution
Hecheng, Tan (Author), Mosher, Stacy (Translator), Jian, Guo (Translator)
(Oxford University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
Sebestyen, Victor (Author)

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

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



Poppies of Iraq
Findakly, Brigitte (Author), Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Dascher, Helge (Translator)
(Drawn and Quarterly)

Vehlmann, Fabien (Author), Kerascoet (Illustrator)
(NBM Publishing)

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

The Green Hand and Other Stories
Claveloux, Nicole (Author), Smith, Donald Nicholson (Translator), Clowes, Daniel (Introduction)
(New York Review Comics)

Voices in the Dark
Lust, Ulli (Author), Brownjohn, John (Translator), Knight, Nika (Translator), Beyer, Marcel (Draft Writer)
(New York Review Comics)

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
Ferris, Emil (Author)

Sfar, Joann (Author), Gauvin, Edward (Translator)
(Uncivilized Books)

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

The Interview
Richards, Jaime (Translator), Manuele Fior (Author)

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion
Anderson, M.T. (Author), Offermann, Andrea (Illustrator)

Demon (4 Book Series)
Shiga, Jason (Author), Shiga, Jason (Illustrator)

Olympians: Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt (Olympians, 9)
O'Connor, George (Author)
(First Second)

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

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
Bui, Thi (Author)
(Harry N. Abrams)

The Don Rosa Library Gift Box Set #4: Vols. 7 & 8
Rosa, Don (Author), Gerstein, David (Editor)



The School of Montaigne in Early Modern Europe: Volume One: The Patron Author
Boutcher, Warren (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

The School of Montaigne in Early Modern Europe: Volume Two: The Reader-Writer
Boutcher, Warren (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

How the Mind Comes into Being
Butz, Martin V. (Author), Kutter, Esther F. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Making Minorities History: Population Transfer in Twentieth-Century Europe
Frank, Matthew (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost
Nolan, Cathal J. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

A History of Law in Europe: From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century
Padoa-Schioppa, Antonio (Author), Fitzgerald, Caterina (Translator)
(Cambridge University Press)

The Cambridge History of Communism: Volume 1, World Revolution and Socialism in One Country 1917–1941
Pons, Silvio (Editor), Smith, Stephen A. (Editor)
(Cambridge University Press)

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

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

The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848
Israel, Jonathan (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales
Zipes, Jack (Editor), Frank, Natalie (Illustrator)
(Princeton 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?

Leave a Reply

© 2021 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑