This year I had better luck with my fiction reading than with my nonfiction, so I’m putting my fiction recommendations first. Books are listed in the order in which I read them:
- Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room. A stunning and vivid evocation of a delinquent San Francisco childhood that turns into an adulthood behind bars. It’s hard to convey just how good the writing is.
- Hernan Diaz, In The Distance. An anti-Western in which a Swedish immigrant wanders around the American frontier, never quite fitting in and never quite understanding what is going on around him. A portrait of loneliness.
- Octavia Butler, Parable Of The Sower. In this 1993 book Butler was one of the first to make the intellectual leap from thinking of “the apocalypse” as a discrete, dramatic event to thinking of it as the gradual and often unnoticed breakdown of systems. This insight (picked up by William Gibson in his excellent The Peripheral) helps account for some of the book’s uncannily prescient moments.
- Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven. As an enjoyer of historical fiction I’d heard about Renault’s Alexander the Great books for a while. But I was still surprised at how immediately compelling her 1969 novel about Alexander’s youth turned out to be. It is even endorsed by historians. However the sequel, The Persian Boy, was much less convincing.
- Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. Through a misguided desire not to jump on literary bandwagons, I hadn’t picked this up before, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. The writing is always remarkably precise and emotionally honest.
- Stephen King, Billy Summers. Classic American noir fiction updated to the (last possible pre-Covid) moment, with stripped-down prose precisely describing the logistics of various criminal actions. The details are everything in this kind of writing and the details here are absolutely on point.
- Jenny Erpenbeck, The End Of Days. One woman lives multiple lives through the events of twentieth-century German history. The structuring conceit adds to rather than subtracts from the realism, and the prose (translated by Susan Bernofsky) is always striking.
- Pat Barker, Regeneration. The crackling intellectual sparring between psychologist and patient makes this portrayal of a World War I mental hospital much more than an account of the human costs of war.
- Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock. “Climate-change thriller” is not yet a recognized genre of fiction, but perhaps it will become one on the strength of Stephenson’s thoroughly plausible example. The opening chapter is a particularly brilliant depiction of just how complicated overlapping unanticipated consequences can get.
- Charles Kenny, The Plague Cycle. One lesson of the last couple of years is that it is difficult to understand what happens to human societies without understanding the biological context in which they operate. Kenny’s book is an excellent introduction to this relatively new way of seeing history (see my post on his reinterpretation of Malthus for more).
- John Maynard Keynes, Essays In Biography. Keynes’ accounts of the life and work of economists Thomas Malthus and Alfred Marshall are wonderful pieces of writing: detailed, sympathetic and thoroughly engaged with the substance of their work in a way that probably only another genius economist could manage (here’s more on Malthus).
- James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History Of The Earliest States. An excellent survey of the rise of what is usually called “civilization.” Scott’s anarchist politics and anthropological background are similar to David Graeber’s, who was also interested in the history of the early states. But Scott is the more careful scholar, making clear the limits of our knowledge while Graeber reliably lunges for the tendentious over-interpretation.
- Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020. After the miracle of The Mars Room I had to read more Kushner. Like any collection of occasional journalism this is a bit of a mixed bag, but the best pieces are very good indeed: her prose is always sharp and unsentimental.
- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I wouldn’t normally expect magazine writing from the mid-1960s to age particularly well, but this classic collection of essays is not dated at all, and in fact often seems shockingly contemporary.
- J.G. Ballard, Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. From his perch in suburban England, Ballard’s outsider view on society was always interesting and original. Of course, he wasn’t right about everything, and his obsession with Freudian psychology turned out to be an intellectual dead end. But these interviews show how he saw where things were headed very clearly, not because he particularly understood technology but because he understood people.
- Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction. A collection of essays on the political culture of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, filled with insights and a catholic range of historical and literary references. Although dating mostly from the late 1970s, a very different intellectual moment, the persistence of what Jowitt prefers to call Leninism in China has kept his project relevant.