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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Trump Diary: Trump Alone

Political media coverage over the last few months seems to have become more superficial than ever. I think this owes to the collective sigh of relief after the Democrats took back the House of Representatives, which took some of the pressure off of the tension between the tones of Apocalyptic Proclamation and Traditional Horse-race. So the coverage of Trump’s Game-of-Chicken government shutdown focused primarily on the latter, with a vague smidge of the former.

Which is to say that the most important stories are receiving far less coverage than facile ones. We hear much about Gillette advertising campaigns and McDonald’s lunches. We hear a lot less about John Bolton’s plans for war with Iran. This is very much the usual order of things, but as Trump supposedly represented a break with the usual order of things, the increasingly inessential nature of most media either shows how little we’ve learned or how little control we have over the doings of our own institutions.

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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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Trump Diary: Cortisol Politics

Trump brings out the worst not just in his supporters, but also in his opponents.

For years, I watched as the rhetoric of talk radio and Fox News was assimilated into the Republican party. It homogenized Republican discourse and kept up a level of anxiety over everything from terrorism to healthcare to Barack Obama himself. The left (and that elite part of the center that now considers itself part of the “resistance”) had its own sub-discourses, but aside from Obama’s fleeting inspirational moment in 2008, there was no common thread that kept Democrats, liberals, and leftists attuned to a single issue. Not even the Iraq War was sufficient. For a genuine mass left movement, you have to look back to Vietnam.

That has changed with Trump. Opposition to Trump personally has become the unifying thread. Standard Republican policies are far more terrifying under the auspices of Trump than they otherwise would be.

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Trump Diary: Midterm Election Breakdown

Midterm elections historically result in the opposition party gaining ground as voters grow disaffected with the President. No one knows whether that will hold true this year. This is partly because of the unprecedented (in modern times) degree of polarization in the electorate, and partly because of Trump himself.

It’s still worth remembering Trump’s fundamental continuity with Republican politics, if not with its leadership. Trump’s raw, resentment-driven brand of nativist politics beautifully massaged the existing Republican base that developed out of the Southern Strategy, talk radio, and the Tea Party. But his appeal is evidently so much more visceral than most any other recent politician that his approval (and disapproval) ratings have been far more consistent than George W. Bush’s were.

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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


 

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



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

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


 

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
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




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



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