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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
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)

 

LITERATURE

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)


Frontier
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)

 

HUMANITIES

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)


 

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

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 SOCIAL SCIENCES





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)


 

HISTORY AND POLITICS


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)

 

COMICS

Poppies of Iraq
Brigitte Findakly, Lewis Trondheim
(Drawn and Quarterly)


Satania
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)

Pascin
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)


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)


 

OF INTEREST








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.

生命诚可贵,
爱情价更高。
若为自由故,
两者皆可抛。

 

Books of the Year

Fiction

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

Pascin
Joann Sfar

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

 

Nonfiction

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

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

Fiction

Thought Flights
Robert Musil
(Contra Mundum Press)

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

The Complete Works of Primo Levi
Primo Levi
(Liveright)

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 (5)
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)

Nonfiction

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: A Revolution Derailed
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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