David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2018

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.

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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



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 Archipelago

Newcomers: Book One
Lojze Kovacic Archipelago

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



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



Prisoners of Reason
S. M. Amadae Cambridge 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 Liveright

The Water Kingdom
Philip Ball Vintage

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 Candlewick

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

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2016

2016 was a year of chaos for me as it was for many others. This list is provisional rather than a source of eternal endorsements. No, I did not read all of Anwar Sheikh’s Capitalism, but what I did read seemed serious and substantive enough to make it worthy of mention. Despite the inconsistencies of John Hands’ Cosmosapiens, I find it makes enough points about the traps of scientific orthodoxy to make it a provocative and worthy read. And there are books like Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns that I simply didn’t get to.

I chose three books above all others as those that helped me get the most distance and perspective from the immediate tumult. Each of them did so in a very different way. Goodstein’s Simmel study is one of the few serious philosophical studies of Simmel and a major work, dedicated to showing his obscured influence through the 20th century and placing him alongside Musil as an eerily prescient prophet. It made a suitable epilogue to my commentary on Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.

Trentmann’s Empire of Things is an absorbing attempt to apply Annales-style ecological analysis to modern history and particularly the process of consumer consumption. It crosses Braudel with Veblen, yet the result sometimes approaches Simmel in its portrait of the self-reinforcing drives of consumption. As a portrait of larger ecological processes guiding our world, it pulled me away from the enveloping yet wholly reactive world of news and politics.

And Krasznahorkai’s chronicle of his travels in China is also a provider of needed distance, walking the path he has charted out that weaves between order and chaos, familiar and foreign, human and inhuman, beauty and suffering, profound knowledge and profound ignorance. He mentions Hungarian revolutionary Sándor Petőfi’s poem “Freedom, Love,” written with Hungarian which in Fu Yin’s translation (the book claims Lu Xun, but I believe this is inaccurate) became one of the most well-known poems in Communist China. With that irony in mind, it seems fitting to quote it here.

Szabadság, szerelem!
E kettő kell nekem.
Szerelmemért föláldozom
Az életet, Szabadságért föláldozom Szerelmemet.

Liberty and love
These two I must have.
For my love I’ll sacrifice
My life.
For liberty I’ll sacrifice
My love.



Books of the Year

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary
Elizabeth Goodstein Stanford University Press


Between Dog and Wolf (Russian Library)
Sasha Sokolov Columbia University Press

Fragments of Lichtenberg (French Literature)
Pierre Senges Dalkey Archive Press

Bottom's Dream (German Literature)
Arno Schmidt Dalkey Archive Press

The Last Wolf & Herman
László Krasznahorkai New Directions

Zama (New York Review Books Classics)
Antonio Di Benedetto NYRB Classics

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Szilard Borbely Harper Perennial

Berlin-Hamlet (NYRB Poets)
Szilárd Borbély NYRB Poets

Loving (New York Review Books Classics)
Henry Green NYRB Classics

Caught (New York Review Books Classics)
Henry Green NYRB Classics

Back (New York Review Books Classics)
Henry Green NYRB Classics

The Gradual
Christopher Priest Titan Books

The Doomed City (Rediscovered Classics)
Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Bromfield Andrew, Dmitry Glukhovsky Chicago Review Press

The Lights of Pointe-Noire: A Memoir
Alain Mabanckou The New Press

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays
Shirley Hazzard Columbia University Press

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989
Samuel Beckett Cambridge University Press

Soft City: The Lost Graphic Novel
Hariton Pushwagner New York Review Comics

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel
Isabel Greenberg Little, Brown and Company

Joann Sfar Uncivilized Books

Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir
Tom Hart St. Martin's Press

Mickey's Craziest Adventures (Mickey Mouse)
Lewis Trondheim IDW Publishing

Dungeon: Monstres – Vol. 6: The Great Animator
Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, Stanislas, Nicolas Keramidas NBM Publishing



The Face of the Buddha
William Empson Oxford University Press

Deep Learning (Adaptive Computation and Machine Learning series)
Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, Aaron Courville The MIT Press

Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath
Alexis de Tocqueville University of Virginia Press

The Voynich Manuscript
Yale University Press

China's Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay
Minxin Pei Harvard University Press

Europe since 1989: A History
Philipp Ther Princeton University Press

Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900
Frederick C. Beiser Oxford University Press

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History
Thomas Rid W. W. Norton & Company

In the Darkroom
Susan Faludi Metropolitan Books

Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization
Branko Milanovic Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press

The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything
Michael,Gross-Loh, Christine Puett Viking

Politics against Domination
Ian Shapiro Harvard University Press

The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere
Eric Smith, Harold J. Morowitz Cambridge University Press

Reality and Its Dreams
Raymond Geuss Harvard University Press

The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
Stephen M. Stigler Harvard University Press

The Ways of the World
David Harvey Oxford University Press

The Sleeping Sovereign (The Seeley Lectures)
Richard Tuck Cambridge University Press

Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises
Anwar Shaikh Oxford University Press

Democracy: A Life
Paul Cartledge Oxford University Press

Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present
Theodore Ziolkowski Oxford University Press

Medieval Europe
Chris Wickham Yale University Press

The Great Convergence
Richard Baldwin Harvard University Press

This Vast Southern Empire
Matthew Karp Harvard University Press

Experimental Music Since 1970
Jennie Gottschalk Bloomsbury Academic

Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s
Michael C. Heller University of California Press

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution
Michael J. Klarman Oxford University Press

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2015

I was dissatisfied with my 2015 reading. A number of projects and situations contrived to cut down my reading time drastically, and so this list feels even more provisional than most years, a grab-bag of things that stood out for me stood out for me personally rather than a considered ranking. I think in a better world we would all do books of a given year 5 to 10 years down the line, and the resulting lists would be far more well-considered. Maybe 25 or 50 years would be even better.

I was pulled into a number of projects and situations that obliterated both my concentration and reading time, the biggest being my Facilitated Communication investigation, which consumed an entire quarter of the year. That would not have been so bad by itself but a handful of other similar matters made it difficult to do as much comprehensive reading as I would have liked. I’ve resolved to change that this year.

So, wish a bit of disappointment and shame, I am attaching a “Promising Nonfiction” section of books I haven’t yet assessed. These are books that due to their subject matter, pedigree, author, or some other factor struck me as being worth investigating, but which I didn’t have time to do so. Note that it is entirely possible that some of these books are terrible–they just merit a look in my mind. (Example: Cesar Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows would have been on the promising list, but I did get time to take a look at it and it did not fulfill its promise. On the other hand, I am near-certain Noel Malcolm’s latest tome of scholarship is brilliant, but simply didn’t have time to get to a work so far outside outside my current area of focus.) If any readers have opinions on them, please chime in.

Book of the Year


Thought Flights
Robert Musil Contra Mundum Press

The Blizzard: A Novel
Vladimir Sorokin Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Horse of a Different Color: Stories
Howard Waldrop Small Beer Press

The Librarian
Mikhail Elizarov Pushkin Press

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
Barbara Comyns NYRB Classics

A General Theory of Oblivion
Jose Eduardo Agualusa Archipelago

The Wake: A Novel
Paul Kingsnorth Graywolf Press

Kvachi (Georgian Literature)
Mikheil Javakhishvili, Mixeil Javaxiesvili Dalkey Archive Press

Eyes: Novellas and Stories
William H. Gass Knopf

Book of Numbers: A Novel
Joshua Cohen Random House

The Door (NYRB Classics)
Magda Szabo NYRB Classics

Callimachus: The Hymns
Oxford University Press

Silvina Ocampo (NYRB Poets)
Silvina Ocampo NYRB Poets

Eileen: A Novel
Ottessa Moshfegh Penguin Books

A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel
Marlon James Riverhead Books

The Tale of Genji (unabridged)
Shikibu Murasaki W. W. Norton & Company

Macbeth: Third Series (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
William Shakespeare The Arden Shakespeare

The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Hackett Classics)
Jackson Crawford Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Incidents in the Night Book 2
David B. Uncivilized Books

Dungeon: Monstres – Vol. 5: My Son the Killer
Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim NBM Publishing

Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer
Sylvie Rancourt Drawn and Quarterly

The Eternaut
Hector German Oesterheld Fantagraphics Books

Fatherland: A Family History
Nina Bunjevac Liveright


World Philology
Harvard University Press

Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science
Martin Meisel Columbia University Press

The Pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter
Myles Burnyeat, Michael Frede Oxford University Press

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution
Timothy Tackett Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press

Physics: a short history from quintessence to quarks
J. L. Heilbron Oxford University Press

Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations
Douwe Draaisma Yale University Press

The World the Game Theorists Made
Paul Erickson University of Chicago Press

Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural
Shadi Bartsch University of Chicago Press

European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche
Frank M. Turner Yale University Press

Orientation and Judgment in Hermeneutics
Rudolf A. Makkreel University of Chicago Press

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement
Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky Oxford University Press

Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil's "Aeneid"
W. R. Johnson University of Chicago Press

The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution
Tony Hey, Gyuri Pápay Cambridge University Press

Greek Models of Mind and Self (Revealing antiquity ; Book 22)
Anthony A. Long Harvard University Press

Track-Two Diplomacy Toward an Israeli-Palestinian Solution, 1978-2014
Yair Hirschfeld Woodrow Wilson Center Press / Johns Hopkins University Press

Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe (Science Essentials)
Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Simon Mitton Princeton University Press

Promising Nonfiction

Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity
Rebecca Lemov Yale University Press

A Sense of Power: The Roots of America's Global Role
John A. Thompson Cornell University Press

Realpolitik: A History
John Bew Oxford University Press

Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco
Lawrence Rosen University of Chicago Press

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception
George A. Akerlof, Robert J. Shiller Princeton University Press

A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change -- and the Limits of Evolution
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Oxford University Press

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945
Nicholas Stargardt Basic Books

A Country Called Prison: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation
Mary D. Looman, John D. Carl Oxford University Press

The Black Mirror: Looking at Life through Death
Raymond Tallis Yale University Press

Violence All Around
John Sifton Harvard University Press

Barbarism and Religion: Volume 6, Barbarism: Triumph in the West
J. G. A. Pocock Cambridge University Press

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Nikolaus Wachsmann Farrar, Straus and Giroux

China Under Mao
Andrew G. Walder Harvard University Press

The Third Reich in History and Memory
Richard J. Evans Oxford University Press

The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism
David M. Kotz Harvard University Press

Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes
Richard Davenport-Hines Basic Books

The Country of First Boys And Other Essays
Amartya Sen Oxford University Press

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Michael Dylan Foster University of California Press

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