When it comes to music, there’s something that makes me want to keep up to the minute. As far as books? Not nearly so much. I’m an utterly voracious reader, but as one of the books on this list stresses, the day-to-day, or even year-to-year, surges of novelty and innovation can be a serious distraction from paying attention to the deeper questions. Moreover, I’m a haunter of bookstores (mostly of the used variety), and much of what I end up reading is dictated by what I stumble across that looks interesting. So, with that in mind, here are the books that found me this year:
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Absolutely riveting, profound, transporting – and not subject to accurate summarization. Don’t be put off by the misplaced idea that it’s somehow ‘experimental’ – ultimately, it’s a ripping sci-fi/historical adventure made only more engrossing by some technical wizardry.
China Mieville – The City and the City
I’ve progressively lost interest in Mieville since the Marxist post-racial fantasmagoria of Perdido Street Station, but this one sent the ticker back up at least momentarily. Mieville isn’t much of a stylist, so it’s all about the ideas and plot. In this case, the idea is what makes it worthwhile – two cities that share the same physical space but are separated through elaborate social codes, enforced by a mysterious higher power. A great metaphor for so many things about city life.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Fooled By Randomness; Malcolm Gladwell – Blink; Leonard Mladinow – The Drunkard’s Walk
Probably one of the most fascinating intellectual trends of the past ten to twenty years (though I’m not really sure about that timeframe?) has been the advance of the idea that after all, humans are not rational beings, and that we need to confront our own irrationality and learn ways to deal with it. This idea has often been most accepted when presented in terms of neuroscience and mathematics, but I’m invested because this is essentially the point made by Freud a century ago. I don’t think anyone has made that connection in a really public way yet (and I’ll have more to say in particular about Taleb’s dismissal of “theory”) but these books may ultimately promise redemption for recently set-upon psychoanalysis.
Ian Buruma – Inventing Japan
Short, sweet, and profound summary of how Japan got to where it is now, with a particular focus on identity and discourse. Probably the single book I would recommend for non-specialists.
Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space; Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Henry Lefebvre – The Production of Space
This year, particularly since starting my fellowship, has been all about kicking free of my focus on any strict theoretical framework. I’m swimming in ideas – and these books have been the most important for my trip through the territories of critical geography.