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
Kwame Anthony Appiah
(Harvard University Press)

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Laszlo F. Foldenyi
(Yale University Press)

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Sixth)
Tom Phillips
(Thames & Hudson)



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

Newcomers: Book One
Lojze Kovacic

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)



Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Robert M. Sapolsky
(Penguin Books)

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)



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

The Water Kingdom
Philip Ball

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

Demon (4 Book Series)
Jason Shiga

Olympians: Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt
George O'Connor
(First Second)

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


The Last Wolf & Herman
László Krasznahorkai

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Szilard Borbely

Berlin-Hamlet (NYRB Poets)
Szilárd Borbély

The Gradual
Christopher Priest

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

Joann Sfar

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



The Face of the Buddha
William Empson

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

In the Darkroom
Susan Faludi

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

Reality and Its Dreams
Raymond Geuss

The Ways of the World
David Harvey

Democracy: A Life
Paul Cartledge

Medieval Europe
Chris Wickham

The Great Convergence
Richard Baldwin

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