My top pick is not surprising. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, László Krasznahorkai’s self-declared completion to his life’s work, is a monumental portrait of catastrophe, and though published in Hungarian in 2016, it feels absolutely of the moment, a depiction of a scattering world in which everything is devalued and no one has the resources to make sense of things. I wrote about it at great length for Music & Literature, and while I avoid the present trend of deeming any and every work of writing to be essential and crucial, I do think that Krasznahorkai’s quartet of novels will endure.
Otherwise, it seemed a bit of a lean year for books compared to the riches of 2018, and some of the best books below, like the two Laura Ridings from Ugly Duckling Presse, actually date from 2018. It’s wonderful to see another book from the always-brilliant Barbara Maria Stafford, and some very strong archival work in philosophy and classics appeared. (Sara Humphreys’s book on Athenian kinship is magisterial.) Melanie Mitchell’s book on artificial intelligence is perhaps the best survey of the state of the field I have read and is strongly recommended to all.
Many powerful forces encourage us to devalue knowledge, and to devalue even the very pursuit of knowledge. In an age of fear and encroaching chaos, this pressure grows stronger. It is my article of faith that whatever meaning can be gleaned from life nonetheless resides in expanding our epistemological horizons as far as they can go, and confronting the new frontiers even if we tremble in so doing. It is the only antidote to the myopia of lived experience.