twenty-six books

By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA - Book view 3, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Once a year I make the same New Years resolution to myself. Basically it is always, always the same one about books and reading — I am unimaginative in my ambitions, or maybe just simple — and always that I want to finish more of the former in the process of doing more of the latter. (In a basic sense this is a resolution about my free time: I want more of it, and to better use what I do have.) I always set a number, but this number barely ever matters anymore. To read more, I tell myself, is noble enough. I tell myself this and am able to believe it likely because every year I miss the number, sometimes by a little and sometimes by a lot. To be a professional of any sort often means setting innumerable goals for yourself, I think, very few of which are ever all that noble and very many of them you will completely miss anyways. So the pile of books I didn’t finish or didn’t get to has, for this reason, never really bothered me all that much. Reading more is less of a quantifiable act than a state of mind. Like I said, this is just what I tell myself.

This year I hit the number. 26 — a book every two weeks. What follows is what I remember from the first 26. 

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Technically I started off the year by juicing the numbers: I’d started this one in 2019, but finished it early in the year. (Count it.) Tolentino is funny, observant, and clever. This books is “popular” among media types, and Amazon charged a steep price for the Kindle version. It is a good collection of essays. The whole book could have been about being on a teen challenge reality show, though, and I wouldn’t have minded. 

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Diaz, as I understand it, has been “cancelled.” For a time in 2018 he was the poster boy for male entitlement in the hot-shot-literary-icon industry, and the subject of a long viral Slate essay to that effect. I’d long assumed everyone in the academic literary world was a sicko anyways. The book was really good. 

Them by Jon Ronson

An earnest dispatch from the front-lines of conspiracy theorists, libertarian freaks, and anti-Semitic characters, perhaps rendered a bit out-of-date by the fact that many of the subjects of the book, like Alex Jones, have gone on to become fascists. 

The Body by Bill Bryson

This book weighs a billion pounds. 

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

“The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” 

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe 

Took about a month to read this book, because it is long and dark and dense. It is a thorough and personal account of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It accuses many Northern Irish politicians of being implicated, or at very least tacitly aware of, the murder of Jean McConville, who may or may not have been a British spy. Keefe has a very close relationship with the CIA and the Pentagon, and so I can’t discount the idea that this entire book is a CIA plant. Keefe did not help his case by allegedly concealing this coziness from key sources, who later said they might not have helped him if they had an inkling that he was a freelance spook. (I’m not saying he was a freelance spook.) He also didn’t help his case by immediately following this book with Winds of Change, a podcast about the CIA planting cultural propaganda throughout the world. 

The Hike by Drew Magary

Magary’s first book Postmortal is a favourite of mine. This one is good too. 

Teardown by Dave Meslin 

This book is a bit like hanging around in a government town bar at 7pm, in that you are invited to entertain ideas about voting and democratic reform that they swear will fix things! but which will never be permitted by capitalism’s ruling classes.

The Crying of Lot 49  by Thomas Pynchon

The start of an earnest quarantine attempt to dive into the work of Thomas Pynchon. Lot 49 is often held up as the place to start before diving into some of the longer, weirder works. Good book. 

The Gonzo Papers by Hunter S Thompson

It’s fashionable to dislike Hunter Thompson now, I’m told, in the same way it is endlessly fashionable to dislike DFW, Phillip Roth, Gay Talese, etc. etc. I do not totally understand this. Viewing books as essential talismans of people you dislike is the wrong way to view books and people, and does a good job at revealing neither to you. So this book — an anthology, really — is full of pieces that are flawed, rough, crusty and mean. Many of them sing regardless, or maybe purely because of it.

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell 

Every so often a book comes along, and without you noticing sneaks up on you and kicks you in the head. How to Do Nothing was such a book. The two concepts on which it revolves — first, that the source of much of our malaise has roots in the hyperdrive speed, and depersonalized attitudes, we communicate with; second, that the first, and perhaps only, antidote to this is to open yourself to a bioregionalist’s interpretation of life, and to understand the outside world not in the abstract but as a thing you can explore — came around for me at the right time, which is to say I was stuck on my balcony amidst a global pandemic feeling myself go slowly crazy. It was a reminder that the scale at which we often think of life — countries, cities, generations, provinces — are insufficient vectors for finding meaning. Nothing a top-level government will ever do will make you “happy” in any truly human sense of the word. It isn’t built for that, or at least it isn’t anymore; the best it can do is a gross, sickly feeling of winning, and know that those aren’t the same thing at all. The news will never make you happy, only a winner; look instead to the crows, the birds, the trees, the sun, the neighbours. 

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller

Fish don’t exist!!!! I recommend this book to everyone. 

Inherent Viceby Thomas Pynchon

A wild romp around L.A. and Las Vegas with a bunch of criminals with weird names and a pot-smoking detective and what’s not to love about all that, huh?

Crapalachia by Scott McLanahan

We have this common idea of the rednecks of America, and we have our own ideas of rednecks here, in Canada and Ontario and all over. More often than not, we let these ideas be political, to the point where sometimes we can see nothing else. We work backwards as we create these communities in our heads, until they are backwood reactionaries who never had a chance to set us straight. Crapalachia, a book set in the hills, reminds us otherwise. 

The Vietnam Project by JM Coetzee

Like 100 pages long.

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Like 400 pages long, I think??

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean 

A classic for a reason. 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

It’s a tough time for public libraries, in part because few people truly understand their functions in a given community. This story, at once about the burning of the LA central library in the 1980s, the creation of public libraries as an institution, their future, and Orlean’s own process of rediscovery, further radicalized me in favour of the library. 

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.”

Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh

Thus kicks off a journey through most of Moshfegh’s bibliography. Everything after pales in comparison, mostly, to Homesick for Another World. It is a collection of stories from a modern master of the art form. These stories hurt, put you back together, and then hurt some more. They are disgusting, violent, depressed, and beautiful all in tandem. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh

A book about doing drugs and having long naps. Someone pointed out that this book frustrated them, for the narrator was undeserving of the redemption she was given. But aren’t we all, really? 

Stories V! by Scott McLanahan

The universe of this book is shared with Crapalachia, all of which seems nested firmly inside McLanahan’s head. They are stories, like Crapalachia, of people who want better but can’t get it, want to do better but can’t, who want to be better but for the life of them can’t. 

Ripped by Greg Kot

A journalist’s look at how music went from CDs to MP3s and streaming. This is dad rock in book form. There are several long chapters that are just oral histories of Wilco. By the third Wilco chapter you sort of say to yourself, maybe this isn’t the kind of oral history of Jeff Tweedy that the author is after. I digress. 4/10. 

Marigold by Troy James Weaver

Less of a book than a snippet of notebook pages about wanting to kill yourself. Half poetry, half prose. Not sure this one worked. 

Silence by Erling Kagge 

This is a book about the value of silence, which is apt because it says nothing. It’s very clear that we live in a world that needs to shut up. This book won’t exactly prove that point very decisively, or anything — actually, it won’t prove anything at all. It’s more a reflection, like a TED talk turned into a book, without the tech-y optimization overtones of, well, actual TED talks. This works to its credit, but for a book written by a famed explorer, it’s short on much deep reflection. 

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Parts of this book are ostensibly about the business of psychedelics — how university researchers are conducting trials that, all indications are, could push psychedelics into the medical mainstream. It is a story about how drugs become capital-M Medicine, and about the difference between Medicine and medicine. 

I noted it while I read, but there does seem to be a deep tension over capitalism in this book. Since so much of it is about how psychedelics — mushrooms and LSD are the main two that Pollan studies — are being onboarded into modern western medicine, there is room to explore a key question: is it ethical to make money on the sort of changes psychedelics, which Pollan begins to view by the end of the book (correctly, in my opinion) as gifts provided to humanity rather than random chemicals, can produce? Occasionally it takes this book’s theses in two directions: the first, that the commercialization of psychedelics is good, insofar as it makes them accessible, controlled, and able to be studied; second, that it might be bad to see psychedelics, as so many people do, as a commodity, a profit engine, or a thing to be tightly controlled, for their value is a more transcendent transaction that money, or science, can express. Few books will have done as much for the psychedelics legalization movement as this book — it will convince you of its urgent necessity, and Pollan does an excellent job with it — but in it we can also see the roots of some future conflict, where psychedelic gifts are caught in a tug of war between the mystics and the moneymen. Time will tell which one Pollan is. 

Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh

The first thing I knew about this book was that it had been accused of being lifted from a celebrated Polish author. A convincing case to this effect is out there, should you want to seek it out. That aside, the book was a bleak, dark, biting piece of work. I almost don’t care if it was ripped off or not. Almost. 

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