Putting this list together, I was somewhat surprised by how few books I managed to finish this year. I’m going to blame my PhD for it.
I’m somewhat pleased that just under 50% of the books I’d read for fun were written by women (12/26). There are two books I’d started to read but haven’t quite managed to finish in time. The first is Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which I’m slowly burning through. I find that after getting stuck into it, I can’t get myself to read more than a few pages at a time – I tend to get lost in them and go back to re-read. That’s okay. The other is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which I’m rather engrossed in, but I just don’t think I’ll finish before midnight tomorrow. That’s okay too.
As far as books for work go, I haven’t read very many from start to finish. This is unfortunate, because usually I’m more than interested in what I’m reading – but I have a huge range of sources to deal with, so I’m reading bits and pieces depending on what I need to write about. So while there are only 11 books on the list, I’d read bits and pieces of many. Not to mention countless journal articles. I think next year I’d like to keep track of the smaller things I read, just to have a clearer picture of my reading habits. I’m also 90% through a half-dozen books that I intend to finish when I find the time to.
Looking back on my reading, the absolute standouts for me were Hustvedt’s Blazing World and What I Loved, Stax’s Swimming Through the Darkness and Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup.
I had the privilege to meet Siri Hustvedt and have dinner with her (and others) at the International Margaret Cavendish Society conference in Trondheim. She’s an incredibly warm, erudite, and funny woman. She was kind about how starstruck I was meeting her, and she came to see my paper. She signed my copy of Blazing World too.
Mike Stax’s book was a bit of an impulse purchase that I’d regretted in the moment after I bought it, and it took me a while to get to it. I think it sat on my bedside table for a solid two years. Once I got to it though, I could hardly put it down. It focuses on the story of a promising young LA musician who suffered a mental break during a spiritual journey to India, went from having a skyrocketing career in music to homelessness in his old age. Likely, it was a result of untreated schizophrenia and drug use, but then, there are too many gaps in the story to really know what happened.
I have a bit of a solid reading stack waiting for me next year. I’m particularly looking forward to Bolaño’s 2666, Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, Catton’s The Luminaries, and Tokarczuk’s Books of Jakob (in Polish, because it’s my only way of not forgetting the language). Now that I’ve written this out, I see they’re all pretty thick, so might be a slow burn kind of year.
Anyhow, without any further ado, here are the books I’d read this year.
1. George Martin – A Game if Thrones
2. Sarah Bakewell – At the Existentialist Cafe
3. Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
4. Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities
5. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century
6. Guy de Maupassant – the Best Short Stories
7. Italo Calvino – Mr Palomar
8. Judith Butler – Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
9. Sophie Wahnich – In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution
10. Esther Leslie – Walter Benjamin
11. Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism
12. Siri Hustvedt- The Blazing World
13. Olga Tokarczuk – Podróż Ludzi Księgi
14. Adam Mickiewicz – Pan Tadeusz
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky- the Brothers Karamazov
16. Angela Davis – Women, Race & Class
17. Bhaskar Sunkara (ed) – the ABCs of Socialism
18. Siri Hustvedt – What I Loved
19. Mike Stax – Swim Through The Darkness
20. Otessa Moshfegh – Homesick for Another World
21. Doris Lessing – the Grass is Singing
22. William Gibson – Neuromancer
23. Stanisław Lem – Solaris
24. Arundathi Roy – the Ministry of Utmost Happiness
25. Mary Norris – Between you and me: confessions of a comma queen
26. Ryu Murakami – In the Miso Soup
1. Margaret Cavendish – Philosophical and Physical Opinions
2. Margaret Cavendish – Poems, and Fancies
3. David Cunning – Margaret Cavendish
4. Walter Charleton – Natural History of the Passions
5. Walter Charleton – the Ephesian Matron
6. Emily Booth – ‘A Subtle and Mysterious Machine’: the Medical World of Walter Charleston (1619-1707)
7. Laura Linkler – Lucretian Thought in Late Stuart Engletian Thought in Late Stuart England
8. R.W. Sharpless – Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics
9. John Norris – The Theory and Regulation of Love
10. W.J. Mander – The Philosophy of John Norris
11. Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth, and Shaun Lehmann- How to fix your academic writing trouble
This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.
I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.
It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.
The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.
Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?
In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.
I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.
But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.
Not all works demand such context, perhaps.
This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.
I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.
The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.
It’s been a busy week, so I have a super long queue of things to read waiting for me, so I imagine next week’s transmission might be much longer. This week the best thing I read was Richard Flanagan’s extraordinary address to the National Press Club republished at the Guardian //
I also recommend every one of the things below.
Paul J. Griffiths on how to be an intellectual at First Things // Ben Roth is Against Readability at the Millions // Dan Chiasson on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the New Yorker // Hope Reese interviews Michelle Dean on literary criticism by women at Jstor Daily // A pretty neat looking computer game version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden // Justin Richards on walking in Epoché Magazine //
This week went by quickly, but your morning will go by even quicker if you have a browse of this sweet reading material.
In case you missed it, I posted about Freud psychoanalysing Descartes.
Other great things to read:
Julie Sedivy on whether mind-wandering is bad for you at Nautilus // A neat collection of cool homes at the Atlantic // Jaz Hee-jeong Choi on how we can adapt society to loneliness at the Conversation // Richard Marshall reviews Mitchell Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy at 3:AM Magazine // A very cool interview with Peter Adamson on the APA Blog // Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a computer game //
I read a lot online, as we all do. I thought it might be helpful to offer up a digest of some of the most interesting things I’d found over the last week. I’ll aim to publish these on Sunday mornings, to provide some nourishment for the mind at the end of the week. Mind you, not all of these are published in the last week – it’s rather a list of thing I’d read in the last week that you too might enjoy.
I’m also quite keen to expand the net I use to catch things to read. If you have a hot tip, definitely leave it in the comments.
Evan Smith on How to survive in the humanities without permanency on the AHA ECR Blog // Tom McCarthy reviews Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in audiobook format read by George Guidall at The New York times // Peter Adamson on medicine in the ancient world at Philosophy Now // A cool interview with Brandon Terry and Tommie Shelby about their new edited book on King’s political philosophy at Jacobin // Jessica Roberson on the dismissal of the quality of literary work by women at the JSTOR Blog //