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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: The Four Frontispieces

I read Lanark as a very young adult and, like many others, was marked by its naked emotion, honesty, and despair. Gray’s death at the end of last year, after a long and successful career as an artist and writer, struck me hard. As a celebration of his life and work, I am posting an essay written for an anthology on Gray’s artwork which never materialized, on the sources of the frontispieces for Lanark’s four books and the uses to which Gray put them.

Revisiting Lanark at twice the age I was when I originally read it, I can step back from my heart and better see how intricately Alasdair Gray had crafted the inhuman machinery into which Duncan Thaw and Lanark fall. Coded with symbolic meaning, the four prints constitute Lanark’s most forceful allusions to modern history—and deliver Gray’s rejoinders to that history.

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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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BITWISE Q&A with David Auerbach

I’m proud to announce that today, Pantheon Books is publishing BITWISE: A LIFE IN CODE. The New York Times Book Review kindly says, ““[Auerbach] writes well about databases and servers, but what’s really distinctive about this book is his ability to dissect Joyce and Wittgenstein as easily as C++ code.” I’m grateful that the book has been so well-received.

I did a Knopf Q&A around what inspired me to write it, as well as my thoughts on technology more generally.

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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.

BOOKS OF MY YEAR

As If: Idealization and Ideals

Price: $25.60

32 used & new available from $9.19

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)

Price: $35.00

15 used & new available from $22.33


A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Sixth)

Price: $29.95

20 used & new available from $20.20

 

LITERATURE

Into the Cyclorama

Price: $14.95

20 used & new available from $3.71


Symphony for Human Transport

Price: $4.78

8 used & new available from $4.78


The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings

Price: $13.22

23 used & new available from $5.11


Homesick for Another World: Stories

Price: $14.86

74 used & new available from $7.39


The World Goes On

Price: $17.98

43 used & new available from $7.70


The Manhattan Project

Price: $32.07

7 used & new available from $28.07


So Much Blue: A Novel

Price: $13.49

63 used & new available from $2.31


Katalin Street (New York Review Books Classics)

Price: $11.59

34 used & new available from $5.79


Beasts Head for Home: A Novel (Weatherhead Books on Asia)

Price: $26.00

36 used & new available from $3.65


Blackass: A Novel

Price: $13.83

63 used & new available from $4.00


The Essential Fictions

Price: $21.95

24 used & new available from $13.77

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

Price: $13.00

59 used & new available from $5.19

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems

Price: $18.95

39 used & new available from $12.22


Judgment: A Novel (Northwestern World Classics)

Price: $18.95

41 used & new available from $2.51



Remains of Life: A Novel (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan)

Price: $29.00

29 used & new available from $2.98


I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like: New and Selected Stories

Price: $18.14

46 used & new available from $3.78

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto

Price: $18.00

18 used & new available from $4.90


Newcomers: Book One

Price: $18.00

27 used & new available from $4.39


Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

Price: $17.24

51 used & new available from $1.96


Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Price: $10.79

38 used & new available from $3.90


Sisters of the Cross (Russian Library)

Price: $13.07

50 used & new available from $1.75


Frontier

Price: $10.93

3 used & new available from $10.93


The Construction of the Tower of Babel

Price: $14.95

21 used & new available from $8.70


The War Nerd Iliad

Price: $18.73

23 used & new available from $13.72


Drilling through Hard Boards: 133 Political Stories (The German List)

Price: $20.61

29 used & new available from $18.73



Balcony in the Forest (New York Review Book)

Price: $15.95

35 used & new available from $5.51


Go, Went, Gone

Price: $14.38

75 used & new available from $6.19



The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams)

Price: $22.95

17 used & new available from $16.58


Chinese Poetic Writing (Calligrams)

Price: $18.53

9 used & new available from $2.99


The Complete Old English Poems (The Middle Ages Series)

Price: $61.94

23 used & new available from $52.43


The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition

Price: $18.99

43 used & new available from $11.82

 

HUMANITIES

Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences

Price: $32.02

13 used & new available from $27.39



Dystopia: A Natural History

Price: $87.96

7 used & new available from $87.96


The Rift in The Lute: Attuning Poetry and Philosophy

Price: $69.78

14 used & new available from $36.01


David Jones

Price: $161.35

13 used & new available from $18.73

The Messages We Send: Social Signals and Storytelling

Price: $36.95

16 used & new available from $23.34

The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title-Pages

Price: $42.95

14 used & new available from $38.91


Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno

Price: $27.49

35 used & new available from $21.47



Res Publica and the Roman Republic: 'Without Body or Form'

Price: $42.84

10 used & new available from $42.84


The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid

Price: $67.13

19 used & new available from $63.05

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again

Price: $44.95

10 used & new available from $20.00


Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya

Price: $65.00

3 used & new available from $54.35

Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity

Price: $81.53

1 used & new available from $81.53

The Subject of Experience

Price: $14.57

1 used & new available from $14.57


The Emotions in Early Chinese Philosophy (Emotions of the Past)

Price: $82.53

17 used & new available from $78.53

Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher, A Catalogue Raisonn

Price: $197.01

7 used & new available from

 

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Price: $4.99

1 used & new available from $4.99



After Digital: Computation as Done by Brains and Machines

Price: $31.93

7 used & new available from $31.51


The Lazy Universe: An Introduction to the Principle of Least Action

Price: $40.39

20 used & new available from $36.39



 

THE SOCIAL SCIENCES

Prisoners of Reason

Price: $24.49

27 used & new available from $15.60



Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Price: $16.99

27 used & new available from $7.89



The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

Price: $13.90

52 used & new available from $4.25


Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

Price: $42.00

16 used & new available from $18.00


A Brief History of Economic Thought

Price: $60.94

20 used & new available from $53.51


Paths to Fulfillment: Women's Search for Meaning and Identity

Price: $29.25

27 used & new available from $20.29


The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead

Price: $61.75

1 used & new available from $61.75


The Enigma of Reason

Price: $60.00

18 used & new available from $19.50


Shame: A Brief History (History of Emotions)

Price: $24.95

23 used & new available from $19.53


The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From

Price: $30.00

30 used & new available from $7.96


 

HISTORY AND POLITICS


Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.

Price: $12.49

115 used & new available from $2.13


The Water Kingdom

Price: $14.92

15 used & new available from $11.09


False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East

Price: $22.38

43 used & new available from $10.99



The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Price: $16.99

1 used & new available from $16.99


The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound?

Price: $26.78

20 used & new available from $22.78


A History of Judaism

Price: $45.82

5 used & new available from



One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps

Price: $20.23

55 used & new available from $6.99


The Habsburg Empire: A New History

Price: $13.17

1 used & new available from $13.17


What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home

Price: $25.75

51 used & new available from $1.77

The Transformation of American Liberalism

Price: $48.42

21 used & new available from $35.00


Politics in the Roman Republic (Key Themes in Ancient History)

Price: $56.12

14 used & new available from $56.12



Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China

Price: $51.50

14 used & new available from $46.98



Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror

Price: $9.99

1 used & new available from $9.99


Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History

Price: $45.00

29 used & new available from $24.19


Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928

Price: $9.99

1 used & new available from $9.99


The Cold War: A World History

Price: $75.00

5 used & new available from

 

COMICS

Poppies of Iraq

Price: $18.03

31 used & new available from $12.67


Satania

Price: $18.49

45 used & new available from $12.00


It Don't Come Easy

Price: $22.95

22 used & new available from $10.53


The Green Hand and Other Stories

Price: $24.08

27 used & new available from $8.85


Voices in the Dark

Price: $23.59

34 used & new available from $5.31


My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

Price: $28.00

54 used & new available from $19.95

Pascin

Price: $17.99

14 used & new available from $9.55


Beanworld Volume 4: Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l

Price: $16.99

25 used & new available from $5.71


The Interview

Price: $17.69

48 used & new available from $6.01


Yvain: The Knight of the Lion

Price: $17.99

61 used & new available from $2.23


Demon (4 Book Series)

Price: $39.96

1 used & new available from $39.96


Olympians: Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt (Olympians, 9)

Price: $9.19

58 used & new available from $4.25


The Customer is Always Wrong

Price: $20.43

31 used & new available from $0.06


The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Price: $20.49

86 used & new available from $10.00

 

OF INTEREST





How the Mind Comes into Being

Price: $53.00

13 used & new available from $49.00




Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment

Price: $24.00

1 used & new available from $24.00





Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy

Price: $20.50

61 used & new available from $1.12


The Quantum Revolution in Philosophy

Price: $49.95

4 used & new available from $45.80


Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941

Price: $26.41

40 used & new available from $19.95


Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire

Price: $43.87

13 used & new available from $43.87


The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost

Price: $28.59

38 used & new available from $17.51





The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Price: $26.19

69 used & new available from $5.86




No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984

Price: $61.64

8 used & new available from $32.59



The Sorcerer's Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales

Price: $12.80

46 used & new available from $2.42

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.

生命诚可贵,
爱情价更高。
若为自由故,
两者皆可抛。

 

Books of the Year

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage (The Hungarian List)
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator)

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary
Goodstein, Elizabeth S. (Author)

Fiction

Between Dog and Wolf (Russian Library)
Sokolov, Sasha (Author), Boguslawski, Alexander (Translator)

Fragments of Lichtenberg (French Literature)
Senges, Pierre (Author), Flanders, Gregory (Translator)

Bottom's Dream (German Literature)
Schmidt, Arno (Author), Woods, John E. (Translator)

The Last Wolf & Herman
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Batki, John (Translator), Szirtes, George (Translator)

Zama (New York Review Books Classics)
Di Benedetto, Antonio (Author), Allen, Esther (Translator), Allen, Esther (Preface)

Bright Magic: Stories (New York Review Books Classics)
Doblin, Alfred (Author), Searls, Damion (Translator), Grass, Gunter (Introduction)

Iza's Ballad (New York Review Books Classics)
Szabo, Magda (Author), Szirtes, George (Translator), Szirtes, George (Introduction)

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Borbely, Szilard (Author)

Berlin-Hamlet (NYRB Poets)
Borbély, Szilárd (Author), Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator)

Loving (New York Review Books Classics)
Green, Henry (Author), Robinson, Roxana (Introduction)

Caught (New York Review Books Classics)
Green, Henry (Author), Wood, James (Introduction)

Back (New York Review Books Classics)
Green, Henry (Author), Eisenberg, Deborah (Introduction)

The Invisibility Cloak (New York Review Books Classics)
Fei, Ge (Author), Morse, Canaan (Translator)

The Gradual
Priest, Christopher (Author)

The Doomed City (Rediscovered Classics)
Strugatsky, Arkady (Author), Strugatsky, Boris (Author), Andrew, Bromfield (Author), Glukhovsky, Dmitry (Author), Glukhovsky, Dmitry (Foreword), Andrew, Bromfield (Translator)

A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings (Translations from the Asian Classics)
Li, Zhi (Author), Handler-Spitz, Rivi (Editor), Lee, Pauline (Editor), Saussy, Haun (Editor)

The Lights of Pointe-Noire: A Memoir
Mabanckou, Alain (Author), Stevenson, Helen (Translator)

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays
Hazzard, Shirley (Author), Olubas, Brigitta (Editor)

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989
Beckett, Samuel (Author), Craig, George (Editor), Fehsenfeld, Martha Dow (Editor), Gunn, Dan (Editor), Overbeck, Lois More (Editor)

Soft City: The Lost Graphic Novel
Pushwagner, Hariton (Author), Ware, Chris (Introduction), Herbert, Martin (Afterword)

Pascin
Sfar, Joann (Author), Gauvin, Edward (Translator)

Mickey's Craziest Adventures (Mickey Mouse)
Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Keramidas, Nicolas (Artist)

Dungeon: Monstres – Vol. 6: The Great Animator
Sfar, Joann (Author), Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Stanislas (Author), Keramidas, Nicolas (Author)

 

Nonfiction

The Face of the Buddha
Empson, William (Author), Arrowsmith, Rupert (Editor)

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

Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath
Tocqueville, Alexis de (Author), Zunz, Olivier (Editor), Goldhammer, Arthur (Translator)

The Voynich Manuscript
Clemens, Raymond (Editor), Harkness, Deborah E. (Introduction)

Europe since 1989: A History
Ther, Philipp (Author), Hughes-Kreutzmüller, Charlotte (Translator)

In the Darkroom
Faludi, Susan (Author)

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

Politics against Domination
Shapiro, Ian (Author)

The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere
Smith, Eric (Author), Morowitz, Harold J. (Author)

The Poet's Voice in the Making of Mind
Meares, Russell (Author)

Reality and Its Dreams
Geuss, Raymond (Author)

The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
Stigler, Stephen M. (Author)

The Ways of the World
Harvey, David (Author)

Democracy: A Life
Cartledge, Paul (Author)

The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature
Shirane, Haruo (Editor), Suzuki, Tomi (Editor)

Medieval Europe
Wickham, Chris (Author)

Experimental Music Since 1970
Gottschalk, Jennie (Author)

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Harari, Yuval Noah (Author)

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