To be a true reader or writer today is to exist primarily in a state of longing and loneliness (sehnsucht, in the German term), because the vast majority of one’s closest associates are dead. Over the course of the 20th century the world of letters separated rather violently from the world of consequence, and so loving writing as writing requires either myopic self-delusion or an absurd appreciation for the spiritual residue of artistic impact. I don’t have the former in me, so it is the latter that drives me.
A remarkable amount of excellent archival issues came out this year, particularly in fiction and literature. The two placed in the pole position are not necessarily more deserving than many others. Rather, I chose them because they seemed to be most resonant with this year, despite being written decades ago. Both are very unorthodox Cold War retrospectives, both vaguely “documentary”-like, and yet animated by almost opposite sensibilities.
Ironically, I found Anniversaries to be a gloomier tale than Kolyma Stories, in the same way that gray is a gloomier color than black, or Faith is more enervating than Closer. Likewise, Johnson’s self-appearance in Anniversaries is more despairing than Shalamov’s varied appearances in Kolyma, because there is a certain abdication of moral authority Johnson took on in writing Anniversaries that is either disingenuous or terrifying. I think it’s the latter.
I have retained last year’s subcategories for nonfiction. They remain approximate. They are there to break the lists down into more manageable chunks. The books that posed the biggest dilemma were those on mind and cognition, which got divided between Humanities and Science depending on whether the bent was more theoretical or empirical.
Special notice must go to Jan Ziolkowski for choosing to publish the six volumes of The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity under Creative Commons and free for all to download. Like Adrian Piper’s Kantian study Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Ziolkowski’s book is a good deal closer to what academic work should be–visionary, monumental, singular–than most of what gets published by academic presses, and I hope that their publishing choice will help spread their work further.
You will notice one hell of a ringer after the top picks. After debating repeatedly, I decided to include my own book because I did spend more time with it than any other, and so it deserves to be called a book of my year. I could say more but I think I have already said it all here.
Books under “Of Interest” are there due to one or more of the following caveats: (1) I lack sufficient domain knowledge 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.
The picture above is by the wonderful Ella Baron.
Be well, read much, take care.