Ding-dong, booklist! Like last year, this is a purely objective ranking of the books I read in Anno Domini 2021. The original languages are (English) Greek, French, Russian, Italian, Latin, and Pirate. The forms include the novel, the play, history, philosophical essays, and self-help. The chronological range is slightly more than two thousand years.
Naturally, the ranking is scientific and impartial, and no coherent disputations can be made.
This year I made more liberal use of not finishing books, and I heartily recommend it. I read more and I enjoyed more what I read. There was only one real stinker this year, and I think that was the fault of the translator.
Without any further ado, allons y
The Plague (trans. Stuart Gilbert): This was the only failure of all the books I read this year, and, as I said above, the problem was just the translation. I started reading the novel in French and the flow was easier, the characters emerged more readily from their actions. Unfortunately my French wasn’t quite up to the task of reading the novel and I eventually gave up.
Foundation’s Edge: This book is fine, but nothing more. There aren’t really interesting ideas like in the original trilogy, and it lacks the feeling of scientific necessity contained in the first books, I, Robot, and some of his other work.
Silas Marner: Again, this book is fine, but it suffers from that maudlin tendency of the Victorians to focus on Dear Little Things. Not only is there a Dear Little Old Man, he has a Dear Little Child! I got the feeling Eliot didn’t quite trust herself to make bold statements, so she stuck to a story where the viewpoint and morality was too obvious; too trite. The foul of spirit are also incompetent, the poor are all good at heart, etc. I suspect our own era of literature will suffer the same fate.
Madame Bovary (trans. Eleanor Marx-Aveling): This had rather the opposite problem of Silas Marner: the characters are too venal. Second-Empire Normandy could never quite grab me because it was such a dreadful place full of dreadful people. Perhaps this can be justified as “literary realism” but I finf most people I know much less reptilian than les madames et monsieurs de Yonville.
Again, the problem may have been reading it in English, as so much of Flaubert is purportedly the prose.
Portnoy’s Complaint: Here’s the thing. Portnoy’s Complaint is a tour de force. Nothing but a man’s Oedipal whinings to his therapist, sustained over three hundred pages, cleverly structured to reveal information in a way both psychologically convincing and dramatically taut.
You really feel that you’re in the psychologist’s chair, listening to a real, human figure, with complex and interwoven neuroses. You see at the guts-and-gears-level just how this wretched little man came to be.
There is only one difference between you and the therapist. The therapist is paid.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: The question is “how does science work?”
Kuhn’s answer is “idk. People have different ideas, and they run with them until they can’t”.
Kuhn is right on all points. This is a perfect work of philosophy and is absolutely convincing on perhaps the key question in the philosophy of science.
But I found it hard to imagine disagreeing with him. Of course science is built from theories that are proposed and defended until our human judgement concludes them worse than other competitors, all things considered. That is how all belief works. So why read the book?
I wonder if anyone else could get anything out of it. Perhaps I’m just spoiled from knowing Econ, which is more obviously Kuhnian than, say, physics.
Peter the Great and the Emergence of Modern Russia: Fine book, reasonable amount of information, but not detailed enough or conceptually ambitious enough to really stand out.
Count Zero: The Neuromancer books are each 700 pages of world fit into around 270 pages of paper. They are bewildering; you would have a hard time answering basic questions about the plot as you read it, and you couldn’t easily recall which events happened to which character. They are very good.
We are now at the point of this list that was all more than worth my time.
The Red and the Black, Part I (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff): This was compelling. But, like with Madame Bovary, I had trouble with how awful everyone was. Was France really this awful? Are they still like that? What is going on?
Puck of Pook’s Hill: What a strange premise. Puck, the oldest old thing in England, befriends a group of early 20th century children and takes them on a series of psychedelic adventures through the history of Britain, interspersed with quite abstract poetry, some of which is considered Kiplings’ best.
But there was a problem. An anthology is always a little distant from the reader and hard to engage in. So is a frame novel. In a framed anthology, those distances compound.
Candide (trans. Henry Morley): This is a delightful little story, but a lot of the humor is satire of Liebnizianism. If you ran into Liebnizians more often, maybe that would be funnier, but I myself have never encountered one.
On The Road: I think perhaps the reason this retained its stature over the years was that so many of the secondary figures also became famous (William S. Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg) but deep down this is a report of a few road trips across the United States made by someone who was not particularly insightful.
Logic & Mysticism: A book of essays, some technical and some popular, on Language, Logic, and Mathematics. All of them were more or less right, except for the giant gaping hole in Russell’s mathematics. My undergraduate advisor once said that Russell was the single philosopher to have had the best reasons to have believed nothing but the wrong.
The Coup: In this book, John Updike imagines how it would feel to not be from a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, but to instead be a zealous African dictator. It has the hallmarks of Updike in his later career: the surrealism, the luxurious prose, and the truly shocking objectification of women.
Mona Lisa Overdrive: What can I say? The plot was tighter than Count Zero’s.
She: Rider Haggard invented the blockbuster movie just as much as Spielberg or Lucas. He’s always a lot of fun, and many consider She his strongest work, though I didn’t find Aisha quite as compelling a character as Allan Quartermain, Umbopa, or Henry Curtis. Too theatrical for the page. With the right treatment, this could make an excellent movie, though I don’t think they’d do it because of the ferocious racism.
Normal People: Sally Rooney has said that her writing style was heavily influenced by the composition of emails,and you can tell. It is easy to get through 200 pages of Rooney’s prose in a day. Some of her characters, over the course of those 200 pages, will become interesting. I wish Connell and Marianne the best.
A Room with a View: I wish I had liked this book better, and I almost did. It was only that I didn’t care very much for the characters, especially the governess-figure, and I knew from too early on that The Boy and The Girl would end up together, with The Gentleman foisted out.
Strangely, though I didn’t like the book as much as I might’ve, it made me excited to read more of Forster (I have read some work of his in the past).
Goodbye, Columbus: These stories are quite fine, especially the titular novella, but I would appreciate it if Phillip Roth could perhaps once or twice make an attempt to write about someone other than himself. Maybe just develop a secondary character; a love interest or something. Who knows.
A Separate Peace: Knowles did a good job of what he was trying to do, but I couldn’t help wishing his novel of lost innocence in the second world war had centered on Catholic rather than WASPish aristocrats. I know one ought not fault an author for her choice of subjects, but the great artist should bring the most delicate feelings out of her culture: its psychological fulcra. Guilt, dread, helplessness? These are Catholic emotions.
Like all WASPs, the book is at its best in court.
Ethan Frome: Good God has Wharton made the Berkshires seem dull; I promise never to go there again. Of course, that is a premise of the novel. But need it be?
The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America: This is a book about how violent crime rose (~1969) and fell (~1994) in America. Will it tell you why? No. No one knows. But it will tell you how.
One thing I hadn’t known before reading was that the late 20th century crime wave was two largely unrelated events. The first was a wave of crimes by twenty-somethings starting in 1970ish, and then, as it waned, a second wave rose up after Snowfall, committed by 1984’s teenagers. Criminality is more generation-dependent than time-dependent, and has almost nothing to do with macroeconomic conditions. Take from that what you will.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (trans. William Weaver): What a trick this little novel has. A clever trick! But does it need to be done more than once? Not really.
It is prey to a general critique of the postmodern. In abandoning the formal strictures of the modern novel, the postmodernist, attempting to open up the bounds of discourse, leaves herself unable to discuss anything but the modern novel itself [I know of one exception: “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas”].
The Idiot: No, not the Dostoyevsky, this one is about a girl at Harvard in the 90s. Even though the action is in quite the recent past, it feels foreign from the view of 2021. The interconnection of the internet has made the world a very small place.
This book has lots of wonderful elements, the usual observations on language and society you see in literary fiction, all which work together to develop the theme.
But the plot doesn’t have very much narrative force and the characters don’t have much flesh to them. Sometimes critics have described the book as being written at a distance from the characters, but it’s more precise to say they’re through a fog, or perhaps on the other side of an email exchange [cough cough this was intentional].
The Remains of the Day: I guess, “ohh ho ho, you thought the premise of the book you were reading was this, but then it turned out to be that” is the formula for every Kazuo Ishiguro and, yes, it is a formula. Still, a good formula is good as much as it’s formula, and the naturally cautious placement of Ishiguro’s word choice well matches the novel’s clinically shy hero, so the book turned out well. Form, content, etc.
Overall effective and sometimes insightful.
Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A compact monograph on exactly what the title promises. Race and Slavery in the Middle East will interest a reader to just the extent that race and slavery in the middle east could.
Perhaps the most fascinating detail to me was the strict distinction Middle Eastern slavers drew between Ethiopians, who were heirarchically on par with other non-Muslims, and the Zanj, assigned to only the most menial tasks.
Can’t ever catch a break, those Zanj. But at least they (supposedly) enjoyed a dance.
The Edible Woman: Margaret Atwood, more than most other feminist writers of her era, turned out to be correct. That is, her focal topics really were the matters of renegotiation after the sexual revolution: the roles of men and women within the marriage, the place of marriage (vs. other ends) within a woman’s life-cycle, and how romance could proceed both within and around its traditional bounds.
It’s all here folks, at the moment of its highest tension, enjoy!
Lots of little English department type literary elements as well, for thems what likes that sort of thing.
The End of The Affair: Most Graham Greene novels were conceived by spinning two wheels on a pointer. The first wheel has locations on Earth. The other has emotions to feel toward God.
In this case, the first wheel fell on “London” and the second on “Jealousy”.
Wouldn’t you like to know how that turned out?
The Same Door: These are good Updike stories; the sort that you would have been excited for if you saw his name on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post or Playboy. Between the lines you can see Updike’s Angstroms coming together, and his own marriage falling apart.
The Picture of Dorian Grey: There are several versions of this book, and unfortunately you have to read parts of both of them to get the best experience.
The history of TPoDG is this. Wilde published a novella serially that was quite explicitly gay. This couldn’t be distributed too widely without running afoul of censors, so when Wilde developed his original serial into a novel, that was all cut out. But lots of interesting parts of the story were added in place of the homoeroticism.
I recommend making your own word document by taking the original gay version and pasting in the new straighter chapters and sections (there is public information on which chapters were additional). The plot should remain consistent.
The Phantom Rickshaw (and other Eerie Tales): The highlight of this collection is The Man who Would be King. You should read The Man who Would be King. I hope you are already familiar with its general outline. Strangely, none of these tales are especially eerie.
The Art of Fiction: John Gardner, who wrote Grendel along with this essay on the production of fiction, had a tawdry affair with my 9th grade French teacher. Just putting that out there.
This book is a delight.
The Conquest of Happiness: This is Russell again, in the toga of the ancient philosopher more than the tweed of the modern. This book will help you to be happy. Or, it will at least help you to understand happiness. That is the premise. It certainly made me feel better. I think it will be much more effective to philosophically inclined males who don’t have any actual problems. For others it will be only an intellectual curio.
The Moviegoer: I am not someone who generally spends much time with Kierkegaard, but I will spend time with Walker Percy.
Catholics, man. Something about Catholics being morose gets me, and it gets me every time. Deeply funny.
Eothen: This is sometimes informally subtitled “the Splendour and Havoc of the East!” and you will see why. I believe it is widely considered that in the pages of Eothen Kinglake invented the modern travelogue. You can also see why Eastern travel was not more common at the time. Between the desert robberies, the armed cults, and the plagues, a traveler would have a hard time seeing the sights and a travel agent would have a hard time finding anything to advertise. My God what a wonderful tale.
The author also wrote an 8 volume account of the invasion of the Crimea, deeply hostile to Emperor Napoleon III, apparently because of a personal gripe with L’empereur. Strange.
Sense and Sensibility: I wish I had liked this better, and I will admit that out of the Austens I have read (P&P, E, NA, and S&S) it is my least favorite. It is funny, but for me there were a few distinct faults.
First, the time in London feels as if it is only waiting, because in London they had nothing to do, and (ironically) they had to get back to the country for the action to restart. Second, I will not tell you any more than this, but it is pretty obvious which boy is Bad and which boy is Good, so there isn’t much left to wonder about as you’re in the middle third of the book.
The third fault is that between the two girls (one is Sense and the other Sensibility) Sense is not any fun. Sense should be more fun. Sensibility shouldn’t be the only cheeky one. Austen herself was both level-headed and witty, so I’m not sure how she got this one wrong.
The Warden: Apparently Trollope wrote 3,000 words of fiction every single day. That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?
The Warden has, more than anything, a sensibility. That sensibility is that morality is easy, except when it comes to politics, which is very hard. As an econ nerd, I agree!
Go Tell it on the Mountain: This is sharp. In particular, the female characters are really inhabited rather than perceived, in a way rare among male writers.
Near the end, there is a passage of the sort common in High Modern Authors: taut, surreal, internal, barely attached to the world, reminiscent of Yeats or Sibelius: The sort of passage that can’t be interrupted or you have to start all over again.
It’s impressive when well executed and here it is executed very well.
The Good Soldier: Ford’s reputation has taken quite a tumble relative to his near contemporaries, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because he never went to quite the stylistic extremes of the Joyces on one hand and the Hemingways on the other.
But this is great if you’re looking for an unreliable narrator whom you can nevertheless place some trust in, if you’re looking for broken characters with consistent and traceable fault lines, if you’re looking for carefully timed releases of information outside chronological order, and you do not want to hear about Jews or Butlers. In many ways Ford was a forerunner of trends in later literary fiction once writers tired of the experiments and extremities of his own time.
The Death of Ivan Ilych and other Stories (trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude): These stories are all very good. Hot political takes coming right up, whatever your ideology.
Franny and Zooey: This is the funniest story that has ever been written about genetics.
Freedom and Resentment(and other Essays): These are classic essays in the analytic style. A classic analytic essay has three parts:
- Introduce a famous tension of mind, logic, or metaphysics.
- Then ask a totally different question about what words people use.
- Try to convince these are really the same.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of the book’s central essay, the question is “can man be responsible for his actions?”
And the rephrased analytic question is “when do we say agents are responsible”
Strawson argues that when we say agents are responsible for their actions has little to do with metaphysical liberty and everything to do with when people can be modeled as rational, goal-directed agents. The mad are as metaphysically free as you and me, but when they wrong you, how angry can you really get?
Strawson quite effectively reduces the original Big Question to “Suppose it turned out man was an automaton. Would it suddenly become silly to get angry at him?”
Strawson thinks the answer is no. See how convinced you are.
Vile Bodies: When I was younger, I liked Waugh very much, but I didn’t understand why he had such a reputation as a prose stylist, because I saw no way that his prose was different from anybody else’s. I only knew that I laughed at the jokes and the actions formed vivid images.
Now I know better.
The Handmaid’s Tale: This is a book that was right to have been about Protestants. If it were about Catholics, it would not have been nearly as good.
The Quiet American: This novel is about clueless American interventions in Vietnam escalating to bitter war, unsupervised agents empowering zealous dictators, and brutal means failing to secure the noble ends which supposedly justified them.
It was published in 1955. Wow, right?
The characters are also clever, and the ambiance sublime.
The Roman Market Economy: If you want to understand the Roman economy, this is the place to learn. I myself had no idea their banking system was so developed, and this convinced me just how important peace and stable government are to a modern commercial society. Now, the Romans never industrialized, but my God they got close. There is also interesting general information about trade and communication in a pre-industrial world.
The Once and Future King: I am treating the parts of The Once and Future King that follow The Sword in the Stone as one book, though they are in some sense three.
This is a very unusual volume. Usually novels with highly complex characters show those characters’ traits through their actions. Then, because the characters have revealed themselves through their actions, the narrator adopts a light touch.
Not so with The Once and Future King.
The action shows how Lancelot’s ugliness and skill led him to a rigidity of principle. It then shows these principles fail against his natural impulses and fill him with guilt, and the way this guilt leaves him weaker from his belief in his own weakness.
Then, the narrator will say “Lancelot’s ugliness and skill gave him rigid principles. When these ran aground on his natural impulses, the resulting guilt left him convinced of his own weakness, which made him weak in reality”
This remains a classic of fantasy because it is so singular and so excellent. Nothing will ever be made that is very similar to it, both because that would require tremendous skill and learning and because it would require a writer to adopt what one might call faults.
Aristophanes, Four Comedies (several translators): It appears to be more difficult to translate French, Greek, and Chinese than any other languages, and as far as I can tell the reason is that these are (or, were) the most civilized peoples in history. That is, their experiences were more defined by their own societal constructs than by nature or base impulses, and since we do not share their cultural constructs, when they make references, analogies, and double entendres it is unintelligible. Greeks thought in festivals, histories, local personages, and electoral systems just as Saxons thought in the changing of the seasons.
Here, the translators are heroes, preserving Aristophanes’ singular voice while making it intelligible to a modern audience (with the liberal use of footnotes)
But Aristophanes himself shouldn’t be ignored. He was a comic genius. In the structure of the plots and the frenetic pace of the wordplay he most reminded me of 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and Preston Sturges.
It is a curious thing that the first recorded instance of the Miles Gloriosus comes as a subversion of the archetype (the comically short Lamachus). In all likelihood this implies the existence of a rich tradition lost to history that Aristophanes played on. But, perhaps Aristophanes in his genius saw the evolution of the form before it had evolved. Perhaps Lamachus (the historical Lamachus) was actually just really short.
Brekekekex, koax, koax!
Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: Philosophers often refer to the character Kripke adopts in this novel as “Kripkenstein” because it is not quite Kripke’s endorsed belief, but it certainly isn’t Wittgenstein (the ostensible victim of Kripke’s exegesis). But the kayfabe is fine. Kripkenstein, like Uzbek and Reza, is quite an insightful philosopher.
The central conceit is this: suppose we try to follow a rule that we ourselves impose. Well, can’t we choose what the caveats are? Then, what’s the difference between a rule and a mere inclination?
And how is this different from talking?
The Secret Agent: I continue to believe that Conrad is the worst prose stylist in the English canon, but he may also be my favorite of its authors. Late in the novel, there is a scene between a character and his wife that has such tragic force, such loneliness, such fate and mathematical necessity, I had to fight not to cry. That’s even though I could point out stylistic oddities in nearly every paragraph.
The Golden Ass (trans. E.J. Kenney, though I flipped back and forth between different translations): This is the only complete novel we have from the Roman world. It is one of the wackiest anythings.
Basically, right at the beginning, the author says “I am going to convince you that this book is one thing, and then it will turn out to be something different, but then you’ll realize the change was obvious all along”
And then he does that!
It is also hilarious; I tried to read this in secret at my desk at work and gave up after several failures to suppress my laughter. Very much NSFW, btw.
Some Prefer Nettles (trans. Edward G. Seidensticker): There’s a rather obvious symbol at the center of the book (these porcelain dolls) that organizes the writer’s thoughts on modernity, human life, empire, and sexual relations. But that’s okay because the obvious symbol is so cool and freaky and fascinating. Despite the novel’s focus on some of the most foreign features of traditional Japan, I felt more familiar with the protagonist than I have with anyone in quite a long time.
Homage to Catalonia: The strength of Homage to Catalonia, like much of Orwell’s non-fiction, is that he lived one of history’s most interesting lives. Normally in dystopian fiction, the melding of the personal with the political is implausible, and has to be forced through set-pieces like Savage’s congress with Mustapha Mond. They can also have the flaws of the picaresque, presenting a catalogue of portraits without quite enough narrative drive to pull them together (1984). Or, they can lose plausibility. Extrapolating contemporary trends instead of creating a convincing world (Fahrenheit 451).
But Homage to Catalonia avoids this; Republican Spain really was just the dystopia that Orwell depicts, and Orwell really was right in the center of it, and he really did see all of its remarkable sides.
Treasure Island: Try to imagine improving Treasure Island. You can’t. The premise is absurd.
Read this if you haven’t; it will not take long.
War and Peace (trans. Ann Dunnigan): War and Peace is the best, the finest, and the greatest book that I have ever read, of any kind. It is not only insightful, emotionally arousing, and pivotal in the history of literature, it evinces an understanding of social science rivaled by few books (or bloggers) today, despite the lack of data at Tolstoy’s disposal, several hundred pages devoted to personal gripes that Tolstoy had with great-man-theorists of history, and Tolstoy’s own efforts to shape his work into religious propaganda.
I recommend the Anne Dunnigan translation. I tried several before starting, and hers was by far the most readable.
The last hundred-odd pages turn to a long discourse on, among other matters, freedom and our social norms. In it, Tolstoy notes whether we call an action free or determined is really just a matter of our attitude about it, which will consist of how much we focus on the events leading up to the action, whether the actor was far in the past, and how well we understand the actor’s relationship to the world. This determines the role of freedom and responsibility in our laws, so metaphysical freedom vs. necessity is not what we care about, morally.
Practically Strawson’s thesis a century before Strawson wrote.