Year’s end lists generate a great deal of ambivalence, at least for me. “Best of” lists are useful, but, for novels or television, frustrating. Catching up is impossible, and the pleasure of reading someone else’s list of the best to offer from the last twelve months is generally vicarious. It’s nice that someone gets to read/watch these wonderful things! “Best music of the year” lists are much more enjoyable (here’s Erik Loomis’s eclectic, very knowledgeable list at Lawyers, Guns, and Money). I can catch up much more quickly, and the joy of discovery outweighs any lingering shame that I am no longer as au courant as I was in college. Film lists are somewhere in between. Especially in December/January, many of the critics’ picks are not widely available to the common viewer, but one can at least plan on seeing whatever makes its way to a streaming platform or to one’s public or university library.
What I find much more valuable are people’s reflections on the best books they read during the year prior: not necessarily books published that year, but books that finally maneuvered their way to the top of the to-read pile. Even if I do not end up reading these books, reading about them broadens my awareness of what’s out there (at least if it’s a good list) and I can file away some notes on what books might be useful if I need to research a particular topic. (Here’s a good example at Crooked Timber.)
So beneath the fold I’ll talk about a few books that I feel are worth flagging, and I’d like to invite you to do the same in the comments. What books that you read merited the notice they’ve received or deserve to be better known (and perhaps also more widely read)?
- Jonathan Holloway’s Jim Crow Wisdom has already been widely praised, but it certainly deserved whatever warm words it has received. At once brisk and tender in its double curation of history and memory, it is a book I would love to teach someday.
- I try to keep up, more or less, with contemporary poetry: reading it provides a sharp change of pace from monographs and primary sources, and generally can be squeezed into the interstices of a day. Some of the best I read this year was Mary Szybist’s immaculate Incarnadine (which includes the best love poem for two academics I’ve ever read, or for any couple that works often at home), Natalie Díaz’s bracing When My Brother Was an Aztec (here’s a great sample poem), and the harrowing The Performance of Becoming Human by David Borzutzky, which folds Chile and Chicago in a kind of tesseract-like collapsing of time and space. The single best poem I read, though, is Aracelis Girmay’s long poem about the childhood of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. You can hear her read a part of it here.
- The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is worth much more comment than I can give it here, but, if read primarily as a character study it is perhaps one of the most complete and vital literary performances of the past decade. The story of a young man from Newark who worked his way into Yale, did spectacularly well, then fell back into the drug trade in Newark, ultimately murdered by rival dealers, it brushes against numerous questions that it wisely decides not to answer. The author, Jeff Hobbs, instead focuses on putting the pieces together of a life, and creates a Gatsby-like story about the worthlessness that lies at the heart of some ambitions once achieved.
- Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism? and James Livingston’s Fuck Work (his original title; it is published under the more temperate No More Work) likewise deserve much more substantial analysis. Both are very short, and if you can get your hands on them, more than anything else I read this year, I encourage you to pick them up.
- I read both of Eula Biss’s books, On Immunity and No Man’s Land. Some have compared her to Joan Didion, but the more apt predecessor is Susan Sontag. Her astonishing ability to maneuver through extraordinarily complex moral and intellectual tangles is an intimidating standard for intellectual historians.
- I am obviously really late to this, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is nuts! Why anyone would teach Looking Backward instead of this as an example of GAPE utopian novels, I don’t know. (I mean, I understand the reasons, but Herland is flat-out amazing.)
- Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a divisive novel, but I was enraptured. It and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 were the only really transcendent novels I read this year. Hopefully next year will be better!