David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: literature (page 1 of 85)

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.


As If: Idealization and Ideals

Price: $55.30

6 used & new available from $7.39

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)

Price: $35.00

15 used & new available from $20.96

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel

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33 used & new available from $10.51



Into the Cyclorama

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9 used & new available from $8.25

Symphony for Human Transport

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8 used & new available from $16.77

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings

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58 used & new available from $4.22

Homesick for Another World: Stories

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15 used & new available from $10.04

The World Goes On

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31 used & new available from $7.54

The Manhattan Project

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13 used & new available from $25.20

So Much Blue: A Novel

Price: $15.99

63 used & new available from $4.00

Katalin Street (New York Review Books Classics)

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59 used & new available from $1.49

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

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35 used & new available from $4.38

Blackass: A Novel

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95 used & new available from $1.44

The Essential Fictions

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Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

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42 used & new available from $3.75

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems

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Judgment: A Novel (Northwestern World Classics)

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

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

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Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto

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Newcomers: Book One

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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

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57 used & new available from $1.46

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

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Sisters of the Cross (Russian Library)

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46 used & new available from $9.27


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The Construction of the Tower of Babel

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The War Nerd Iliad

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

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Balcony in the Forest (New York Review Book)

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Go, Went, Gone

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129 used & new available from $1.36

The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams)

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Chinese Poetic Writing (Calligrams)

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The Complete Old English Poems (The Middle Ages Series)

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The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition

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53 used & new available from $13.00



Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences

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Dystopia: A Natural History

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The Rift in The Lute: Attuning Poetry and Philosophy

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David Jones

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The Messages We Send: Social Signals and Storytelling

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The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title-Pages

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Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno

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

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The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid

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

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Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya

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Wilfrid Sellars and the Foundations of Normativity

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The Subject of Experience

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

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Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher, A Catalogue Raisonn

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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

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After Digital: Computation as Done by Brains and Machines

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

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Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

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

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64 used & new available from $1.46

Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

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A Brief History of Economic Thought

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

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The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead

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The Enigma of Reason

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Shame: A Brief History (History of Emotions)

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

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Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.

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The Water Kingdom

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

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The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

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

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A History of Judaism

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One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps

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The Habsburg Empire: A New History

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

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The Transformation of American Liberalism

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

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Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China

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

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Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History

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

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The Cold War: A World History

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Poppies of Iraq

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It Don't Come Easy

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The Green Hand and Other Stories

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Voices in the Dark

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

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

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The Interview

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Yvain: The Knight of the Lion

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

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The Customer is Always Wrong

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The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

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The Don Rosa Library Gift Box Set #4: Vols. 7 & 8

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How the Mind Comes into Being

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Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment

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Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy

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The Quantum Revolution in Philosophy

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15 used & new available from $34.39

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941

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Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire

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

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The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

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

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The Sorcerer's Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales

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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

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator)
Seagull Books

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


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

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

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

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

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

Bright Magic: Stories
Doblin, Alfred (Author), Searls, Damion (Translator), Grass, Gunter (Introduction)
NYRB Classics

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

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Borbely, Szilard (Author)
Harper Perennial

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

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

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

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

The Invisibility Cloak
Fei, Ge (Author), Morse, Canaan (Translator)
NYRB Classics

The Gradual
Priest, Christopher (Author)
Titan Books

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

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)
Columbia University Press

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

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

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)
Cambridge University Press

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

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

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

Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir
Hart, Tom (Author)
St. Martin's Press

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

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



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

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Godfrey-Smith, Peter (Author)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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

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

Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity
Scott, Michael (Author)
Basic Books

Memory and the Self: Phenomenology, Science and Autobiography
Rowlands, Mark (Author)
Oxford University Press

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

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

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography
Gordon, Edmund (Author)
Chatto & Windus

China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay
Pei, Minxin (Author)
Harvard University Press

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Russell Hochschild, Arlie (Author)
The New Press

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

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

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History
Rid, Thomas (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company

In the Darkroom
Faludi, Susan (Author)
Metropolitan Books

Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
Kloppenberg, James T. (Author)
Oxford University Press

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962—1976
Dikötter, Frank (Author)
Bloomsbury Press

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

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

America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
Bacevich, Andrew J. (Author)
Random House

Politics against Domination
Shapiro, Ian (Author)
Belknap Press

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

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

Law in American History, Volume II: From Reconstruction Through the 1920s
White, G. Edward (Author)
Oxford University Press

Reality and Its Dreams
Geuss, Raymond (Author)
Harvard University Press

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

The Ways of the World
Harvey, David (Author)
Oxford University Press

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion
Jacoby, Susan (Author)

Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises
Shaikh, Anwar (Author)
Oxford University Press

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton Studies in Political Behavior, 1)
Achen, Christopher H. (Author), Bartels, Larry M. (Author)
Princeton University Press

Democracy: A Life
Cartledge, Paul (Author)
Oxford University Press

Individuality and Entanglement: The Moral and Material Bases of Social Life
Gintis, Herbert (Author)
Princeton University Press

The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature
Shirane, Haruo (Editor), Suzuki, Tomi (Editor), Lurie, David (Editor)
Cambridge University Press

Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present
Ziolkowski, Theodore (Author)
Oxford University Press

All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin
Zygar, Mikhail (Author)

Medieval Europe
Wickham, Chris (Author)
Yale University Press

Experimental Music Since 1970
Gottschalk, Jennie (Author)
Bloomsbury Academic

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

Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind
Montero, Barbara Gail (Author)
OUP Oxford

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

Bananaworld: Quantum Mechanics for Primates
Bub, Jeffrey (Author)
OUP Oxford

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

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Tisserand, Michael (Author)

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