This year, we sought (fleeting) clarity and (meager) solace in books. Some were published this year, some were not. Either way, they felt relevant. Here are some of our favorites.
I Like to Watch, by Emily Nussbaum. Few things provide more comfort these days than escaping for an hour or two (or….more than that, we don’t judge) into some really good television. But what makes television good? Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s top television critic since 2011, dives into that question with a collection of essays that elucidate her philosophy as a television critic. While much of the work is previously published, reading it all together is a powerful look at the television canon, and the essay she writes on what to do with the work of monstrous men is one I’ve been mulling over for months. Read more about Nussbaum’s book—and listen to our conversation on the Mother Jones Podcast—here. —Becca Andrews
In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. I have never read anything like this book, and I doubt I ever will again, though not for a lack of wanting to—that is, unless Machado takes another victory lap, but I suspect that she’ll be onto something new and just as stunning with her next work. The collection of short stories that preceded this also played with form and language in a fresh, unique way. Machado’s latest is a memoir of domestic abuse, and she writes about her experience with startling clarity. She ushers her readers through the fairytale of falling in love, and then through the dark, insidious ways that love can sour into something closer to hate, and ultimately into a cycle of abuse. The result is honest and affecting, and though this was clearly a wrenching, emotional work, Machado’s labor will no doubt serve as a saving grace for many. —BA
The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom. I’ve been thinking about The Yellow House ever since I finished it, and I expect it’s a book I will continue to return to for years. Sarah Broom examines the concept of home in all its wonderful, loving, vexing, stinging, gut-wrenching complexity. In The Yellow House, the reader is taken to New Orleans East, where Broom grew up, far beyond the New Orleans that tourists know (by which I mean the French Quarter). Broom is an unflinching writer, and she hews to the truth, especially when it’s uncomfortable. The result is an affecting memoir about family, inequality, blackness, and the power of place. With this book debut, Broom has established herself as a great Southern writer, and she now has a much-deserved National Book Award under her belt for her efforts. —BA
Republic of Lies, by Anna Merlan. This one was high on my list of books I gifted this year, in part because Anna Merlan is a damn good writer, and also for her deep knowledge and the profound empathy she shows her subjects. As she told me in April, “I started realizing that a lot of people were united in a belief in conspiracy theories because something bad had happened to them, and they were sort of looking for answers that mainstream explanations for things didn’t provide.” You can read more about the book and Merlan’s work here. —BA
The Beautiful Ones, by Prince and Dan Piepenbring. I kept my expectations low when I first heard about this book. Since Prince left no will when he died, responsibility for his estate fell to a trust, and this sounded like a quick way for that trust to make some easy cash. Scan a few documents from the archives, plop them into a book with little thought, and rack in cash from the diehards like me.
But then I read the excerpt in the New Yorker. Piepenbring had begun working with Prince several months before his death, and the first section of the books consists of thoughtful reflections on their time together. From there, the book reproduces the handwritten beginnings of a memoir manuscript that Prince had begun sketching out, followed by carefully curated photos and other archival material from Prince’s vault, telling a story about his early days of fame rather than trying to expound on all the greatest hits. Don’t miss Prince’s rant about Ayn Rand. —Pat Caldwell
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. After reading To Kill a Mockingbird so many times in high school that I eventually grew sick of it, Furious Hours, about a book Harper Lee didn’t write, was not at the top of my must-reads. But Casey Cep’s book doesn’t just explore what happened to Lee in the aftermath of her debut novel; Cep reports out the wild true crime story that was set to be Lee’s Mockingbird follow-up. Along the way, Cep builds out riveting details about everything from WPA-era Alabama to the surprisingly engaging history of life insurance in the United States (trust me). —PC
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. Corey Robin’s book lands crosswise to the standard liberal line on the man who is now our longest-serving justice. The argument here is that Clarence Thomas, rather than some sock puppet of his more expressive ideological allies, is best understood as a Black nationalist whose legal philosophy is structured by a profound racial pessimism and racialized misogyny. Robin is one of our sharpest explicators of the right from the left, and the case he makes is round and convincing. Racism is abiding, Thomas believes, in Robin’s analysis, and our politics and our laws are not up to the task of fixing what’s in the gnarled souls of its citizens. It is a bleak view of the country and its people, and the jurisprudence flowing from it has been bleaker still, particularly in the realm of voting rights. But the fact that Robin’s corrective is still necessary some 30 years after the Thomas confirmation—that the judge is still seen in progressive quarters as some indolent mute and not one of the key architects of modern conservatism—suggests that a worldview shaped around the genteel racism of smiling white liberals can’t be rejected out of hand. This is all part of the nettlesome irony of Clarence Thomas. While he might be grotesquely and self-servingly wrong about conservatives and race, the course of his own career is evidence that in many discomfiting ways he is right about liberals and race. —Tommy Craggs
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. She Said is about sexual harassment and the start of the #MeToo movement. It is also a tutorial in investigative journalism, with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey describing how they reported out the story of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment and assault. The book comes with a real-life villain, heroes, and an actual lesson: Weinstein might have kept getting away with it but for dogged journalism and brave women. Consider Laura Madden, a noncelebrity who went on the record with the Times while fighting breast cancer. I pumped my fist when the story finally broke in the book’s narrative.
Right away She Said describes Kantor writing an email to a reluctant source that is carefully crafted to encourage cooperation. Later the authors describe how they got a key Weinstein company official, Ashley Judd, Weinstein’s own lawyer/spokesman, Lanny Davis, and others to provide vital information. And they mention potential sources with whom they struck out. They detail the New York Times’ editorial process, pressure for editors to publish, near all-nighters, competition from Ronan Farrow, and intimidation efforts by Weinstein and his lawyers. —Dan Friedman
Jim Marshall: Show Me the Picture, by Amelia Davis. If you could pick a single photographer to represent the musical scene of the ’60s, Jim Marshall would be on the short list—and he’d probably kick a few asses to get to the top spot. Marshall was everywhere—Greenwich Village, Monterey Pop, the Haight, Woodstock—shooting a body of work that was raw, relaxed, intimate, and (pardon the overused word) iconic. What really makes this greatest-hits collection stand out is all the reminiscing from the frenemies who revered the artist beyond the asshole. “Hey, man, who brings a gun and a knife to a rock concert?” someone asked Marshall in 1968. His reply: “I do.” —Dave Gilson
I Was Their American Dream, by Malaka Gharib. Malaka Gharib’s debut graphic memoir cheerfully busts open stereotypes about immigrants and immigration stories. In a zine-y, Roz Chast-y style, she recounts her experience as the daughter of a Filipina mom and Egyptian dad growing up as an American kid in SoCal, illustrating the challenge of figuring out her identity in a multicultural society that’s still confused by people who don’t fit into neat ethnic boxes. “If I had to make up a term for myself,” writes Gharib, now a journalist at NPR, “it would be…Falafel Surprise (inside there’s a little chunk of Spam, ha-ha-ha!).” —DG
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. The story of a mother of 10 disappeared by the Irish Republican Army in the early 1970s, Say Nothing is a perfectly constructed murder mystery set in Northern Ireland’s bloodiest era. But it’s more than just a true crime page turner; it’s a haunting examination of how the Troubles turned Republican figures like Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and IRA bomber Dolours Price into celebrities while a strict code of silence protected them from reckoning with the morality of their actions—and their effects on their victims’ families. Yet with time, the open secrets at the heart of Radden Keefe’s narrative prove impossible to keep buried forever. As Brexit and BoJo threaten to upend Northern Ireland’s two-decade peace, this tale still has plenty to say. —DG
Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino. The recurring and terrifying theme of Trick Mirror, an essay collection by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, is the way the internet has harnessed our lives for a certain type of online performance. In beautiful and intriguing prose, Tolentino teases out the process whereby the internet thwarts the larger ambitions it opens up for us—reflections as relevant to our increasingly digital personal lives as they are to our increasingly digital politics. Tolentino’s essays extend into real life, too, some of which tackle tricky questions of feminism and #MeToo, recall her own turn on a reality television show, and investigate the influence of her evangelical education in Houston. —Pema Levy
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer. There are times when a biographer and subject seem destined for a kind of greatness, and such is the case with journalist George Packer and his subject, the brilliant, temperamental, never-quite-on-the-pinnacle diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who died in December 2010. While reading Our Man, I found myself wanting to stop strangers and tell them about it. It’s as compulsively readable as a beach book, but one that is a master class on post–World War II American history and foreign policy, presidents and power, and the sometimes remarkably petty inner workings in the stratosphere of Washington political and social life. Do you end up liking Holbrooke at the end? I’m not sure that it matters. But you do end up dazzled by what Packer managed to do and in grief over what we’ve lost. If you want to hear a conversation with the author, listen to our podcast here. —Marianne Szegedy-Maszak
American Origami, by Andres Gonzalez. American Origami is an immensely haunting book. It’s designed to look like a nondescript stuffed manila folder, inside of which photographer Andres Gonzalez has assembled a heartbreaking and chilling collection of artifacts from some of the nation’s most devastating school shootings. His images depict maps of Columbine drawn by the shooters; notes, teddy bears, and flowers left at Newtown; images of victims’ personal belongings. Gonzalez’s photographs of the schools and areas around town stand as eerily silent recitations, provoking the reader to reflect on the memories encased within the walls of a school. And that’s really what American Origami is about—the memory of a place, of a nightmare that, for so many of us, has faded into fog. Put in the context of the ephemera and personal missives, Gonzalez’s photos are like uneven, ugly scars on an otherwise sublimely banal landscape. The real gut punch comes in the form of portraits of people connected to the shootings, like parents of victims, journalists who covered the shootings, and the pastor who presided over Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold’s funeral. I know, it’s a tough sell —a photobook on school shootings. But of all the photobooks to cross my desk this year (and there have been a lot), this is one that’s really stuck with me. —Mark Murrmann
How to Hide an Empire, by Daniel Immerwahr. Perhaps you know the Rudyard Kipling poem “White Man’s Burden”? It’s used in high schools to teach kids about the age of imperialism, of great European powers poring over maps and subjugating the globe. The sun never sets on the British empire, yada yada yada. But what I didn’t know until I read Immerwahr’s revelatory new book is that Kipling wasn’t writing about the British empire at all; he was writing about the American one. By the beginning of World War II, 19 million people—more than 1 in 10 Americans—lived in American colonial possessions. By the war’s end, there were more people living under American jurisdiction outside the mainland than on it. Immerwahr pulls back the curtain on the American empire, from the Philippines to Guantanamo Bay, and John Lennon to Osama bin Laden, and offers a fresh new look at how American colonialism changed the country and the world. Read this back to back with Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth (see below) for full course credit. And take a peek at an annotated map from Immerwahr here. —Tim Murphy
The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, by Greg Grandin. It seems as if we’ve spent the past four years saying the same things about Donald Trump in different ways, so it’s refreshing to find a book that says something genuinely new about the man and the moment in American history. Grandin, a Yale University history professor, identifies Trump’s big, beautiful wall as a pivot point for the national identity. Tracing the shifting of the American frontier—from the brutality of Andrew Jackson, to the Spanish-American War, to the fall of the Berlin Wall—Grandin argues that relentless expansion served as a release valve for destructive, extremist impulses. Trump forced the nation to turn its energies inward. Now, as he puts it, the “furies…have nowhere left to go.” —TM
The Impeachers, by Brenda Wineapple. Everyone wants to talk about Richard Nixon, but the presidential impeachment you should read about to understand the Trump era is the very first one. Wineapple cuts through a century and a half of revisionist baloney (blame John F. Kennedy) to tell the real story of Andrew Johnson and the “Radical” Republicans who came up one vote short in their attempt to remove him from office. It’s an infuriating story, brilliantly told, that bursts the gauzy little lies about compromise and moderation Washington loves to tell about itself. —TM
How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell. I have never considered myself the kind of person who would enjoy “a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy.” I enjoy the attention economy. I like doing things. I do not typically enjoy things that started off as “talks.” (That is, in fact, the genesis of this book.) I run the other way when I see phrases like “neoliberal techno manifest-destiny.” But I loved How to Do Nothing. Part manifesto, part artistic odyssey, Odell, an artist and writer in Oakland, makes a compelling case that fixing the problems of today means logging out of your apps and reconnecting with the offline world. —TM
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Alison. “If you ask Google how to structure a story,” Alison writes in her transformative book, “your face will be hammered with pictures of arcs.” For centuries, we’ve been taught that narratives follow the dramatic arc: rising action, growing tension, a peak, and then falling action. “But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison writes. She reveals how works by some of our greatest writers, from Gabriel García Márquez to Anne Carson to Clarice Lispector, mimic other natural patterns instead: waves, shells, honeycomb fractals, tree trunk radials, streaks of color, and snail trails. In his story “Jealousy,” for instance, French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet abandons temporality and focuses on diagramming a house and depicting the objects and movements of the inhabitants within. The portraits, Alison writes, build to a “furious kaleidoscope,” one that maps a “chronic, vibrating state of jealousy.” This book will introduce you to works you’ve never heard of, and also change your interpretation of better-known stories; Alison’s reading of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance, pushes the novel’s symmetrical structure beyond gimmick and into something sublime. The questions many of these texts ask, Alison points out, are not “what happens next?” but “why did this happen?” and “what grows in my mind as I read?” —Maddie Oatman
The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esmé Weijun Wang. Wang’s Whiting Award–winning collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, primarily chronicles her experiences living with schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, and late-stage Lyme disease. The book is lyrical, meticulously researched, and brutally honest. Wang paints a portrait not of recovery but of resilience. I loved it so much I couldn’t help but DM Wang on Twitter to tell her so, and it seemed just as important to share this treasure here. —Laura Thompson
Know My Name: A Memoir, by Chanel Miller. Anyone who read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement, published three years ago under the pseudonym Emily Doe, knows that Miller has a singular knack for finding the words to express the rage and powerlessness of a sexual violence survivor in America. While Miller’s statement sparked outcry about Brock Turner’s brief jail sentence and the deference he received as a white Stanford athlete, the fury that builds over the course of Know My Name is not directed at Turner, or even the judge who sentenced him, but at a justice system that requires victims to go through hell all over again just to hold perpetrators to account.
Know My Name is both electrified by this outrage and transcends it. The book achieves a rare clarity amid the torrent of painful, post-#MeToo news stories as Miller fights to cope and reclaim her power in the years after the assault. Most of this effect comes from her powerful choice of words—the “victim closet” where she waited to testify in court; the fantasy of red-painted banners unfurling around her in the courtroom as she tells the prosecutor that, no, she was never interested in Turner; the comparison of healing to the way that as a child, she could only barely lift a gallon of milk, and now it’s so easy, she can do it one-handed. It’s a brutal read, but a vital one. —Madison Pauly
Year of the Monkey, by Patti Smith. In 2019, punk rocker Patti Smith published her fourth book of the decade, Year of the Monkey, a memoir about her travels the year Donald Trump was elected president. Don’t expect another Just Kids; this book is not a cohesive story. It’s a rambling tale full of dreams and mirages during a tragic year in the author’s personal life. At times, Smith seems not to tell her own story but to wander through a web of allusions, stringing together a plot based on a random and perhaps fabricated conversation with a stranger about Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666. While bits of the story are soaked in fantasy, like the talking hotel sign and the beach full of discarded candy wrappers, the skeleton of the plot must be true, since the pages are filled with Smith’s own Polaroid photos of places she’s been. Even as Smith mourns death and meditates on her own demise, there’s something comforting in this glimpse of her life, in the image of the bedraggled boomer slinking through Manhattan as the sun rises on a Trump presidency. —Abigail Weinberg
The Mastermind, by Evan Ratliff. Some nonfiction books impress with the sheer legwork of the author, others with the mind-boggling nature of the subject matter itself. Rarely have the two come together in combination as in The Mastermind. Ratliff’s subject, and obsession, is Paul Le Roux, a chubby South African computer nerd turned international drug kingpin whose seeming addiction to the badassery of the don life pulls him from a legitimately lucrative prescription-drug scheme into increasingly unlikely and inadvisable ventures: logging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, buying black-market gold in Ghana, cocaine trafficking in Latin America, smuggling meth from North Korea, and warlording/tuna-fishing (actually) in Somalia. Ratliff dutifully globetrots in Le Roux’s footsteps, interviewing a comprehensive array of mercenaries and investigators to tell the almost implausible story of the criminal’s rise and fall. The only unsatisfying part of the tale is its ending—and yet it’s the only reason you’d never heard of Le Roux until Ratliff had the good fortune of uncovering his story and bringing it to life. —Aaron Wiener
The Queen, by Josh Levin. Is there a more famous archetype than the “welfare queen” where so little is known about the real person from whom it’s derived? Reagan rode the myth of the welfare queen to the presidency; Clinton ended welfare as we knew it thanks to her notoriety. But who was Linda Taylor, the woman who became the legend? Josh Levin painstakingly pieces together her life story, digging through her myriad aliases, places of residence, birthdates, and even races. The short answer is that she was a hopeless con-woman, as criminal as the caricature of her, if not worse. But she was also a wild outlier—hardly representative of welfare recipients as a group—as well as a tragic figure, a victim of racism and mental health problems, and a compelling subject for a biography. In picking apart her life, Levin picks apart the crude myth that changed the course of American politics by applying a cheap epithet to a troubled woman. —Aaron Wiener
Race for Profit, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. If redlining was the source of the vast housing disparities between white and black Americans, then its end in 1968 should have begun to reverse the problem. But according to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, that was when things started to get worse. The exclusion of African Americans from homeownership was replaced by what she calls “predatory inclusion,” a government scheme that sought to extend credit to poor urban areas but actually handed over control to extractive sellers and lenders, who saddled buyers with repairs they couldn’t make and debts they couldn’t pay that sank inner cities deeper into poverty and disrepair. Race for Profit is a cautionary tale for the current moment, as Democratic presidential candidates call for forms of reparations to address the lingering effects of redlining. Crafting a policy framework is the easy part. Combating decades of housing discrimination and holding the private market to account—that’s the hard work that the government didn’t even pretend to undertake in the 1960s. —Aaron Wiener
Fleischman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I will read literally anything that bears Brodesser-Akner’s byline on it—slap her name on some cereal box copy and I’m buying it, baby. Fleischman was everything I needed this summer. It’s a satisfying fiction about marriage, divorce, sexual attraction, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, but it holds some uncomfortable truths within its page-turning narrative. It was a little personally unsettling—stories about divorce are scary for the newly-ish wed—but I have no regrets about scarfing it down like it was the last novel ever to be published. —BA
The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner. Angsty, self-focused white men, aimless debate, Middle America, liberal East Coasters dismissing Middle Americans: All these zeitgeisty elements are heavily featured in Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, despite its setting in the 1990s, back before 4chan, the alt-right, and prove-me-wrong bros, when IRL right-wing trolls hunted for the analog lulz. Lerner tells parts of his own familiar story through Adam Gordon, a 17-year-old savant high school debater, and his pedigreed psychologist parents who left New York City to raise their son in Topeka, Kansas. Lerner paves a complicated path from ’97 to the fantastic absurdity of contemporary politics in this layered page-turner. —Ali Breland
IRL, by Tommy Pico. Whether inviting over a stranger from Tinder or perusing headless torso pics on Grindr, courtship now begins online—so how do you write a love poem? And how do you write a love poem in New York City, after growing up on a small reservation in southern California? Tommy Pico takes the right approach: a rambling yet composed text message epic, with abbreviations (“ppl”), wordplay (“thot process”), and millennial realism (“Jumpy / says snuggle and Party Photog / says cuddle n I don’t traffic / in euphemisms for fuck / so, stop.”). While fishing for hookups with selfie bait to distract himself from loving a boy called “Muse,” Pico swipes between past, present, and future, as well as the sublime, the mundane, and the tragic, evoking the gender violence of colonization as much as the bops of Kelly Clarkson. If you are gay and under 35, you’ll probably agree that Pico is a genius, and learn a lot about “NDN” country. “There is no such thing / as ‘Indian,’ but now / there’s no turning back.” —Delilah Friedler
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. In this epistolary novel, narrator Little Dog traces his refugee family’s wounds, from the raw horrors of the Vietnam War to the buried lesions of immigrant life in suburban Connecticut and the bruises of depression and addiction. Not in the mood for something heavy, I steered clear of this novel for too long. But Vuong’s bold experiments with form, though often jarring, make this book well worth the read. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote a novel that looked like a broken vase on the ground?’” he told an audience during a reading at DC’s Politics and Prose bookstore, “to insist that in between the shards exist entire lives. And that in fact, if one is broken, one is still in possession of a complete story. That felt more important to me than to write the monolithic tome of cohesion we expect so many great American novels to perform.” Even as the structure unravels, the book triumphs at the line level: Vuong’s playful similes, recurring animal imagery, and persistent engagement with language are the marks of a masterful poet. (Read my former colleague Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn’s interview with Vuong here). —MO
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. I swallowed Normal People whole in one night. The novel deftly plumbs psychological depths to portray the intimate connection between Connell and Marianne, who through high school and college can’t seem to let one another go. I was fascinated to learn that the Irish-born Rooney, who names JD Salinger, Jane Austen, and Karl Marx as influences, uses her fiction as a way to explore “care ethics,” to place relationships at the center of moral frameworks rather than an individual decision-maker. But I suspect her books are wildly popular for a different reason; as Rooney said on a podcast earlier this year, “If there’s a well-enough rendered sense of sexual tension, the reader will read almost anything.” —MO
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. On the heels of Whitehead’s wildly successful literary debut comes a tale of a Black boy, Elwood, whose life is upended after he waves down a car to get to school, only to be arrested, wrongfully accused of stealing the car, and sent to a reformatory. At Nickel Academy, he endures captivity and abuse disguised as education. Elwood is an idealist who seeks out justice in the most unjust circumstances, even as he endures beatings, even as he watches a strong, towering peer disappear like many other boys. The depravity at Nickel Academy draws on the real horrors of the Arthur Dozier School for Boys, a Florida boarding school founded in 1900 where children endured beatings and forced labor. More than 100 kids died there over the course of 50 years, and, in recent years, researchers have unearthed dozens of graves on the school grounds. Whitehead’s measured depiction of survival lends a timelessness to Elwood’s voice, so that his may, like those of other Black boys, live on. —Edwin Rios
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Devastating accounts of pre–Civil War bondage remain an indelible part of the American story. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel, The Water Dancer, serves as a reminder that there is power in refusing to forget past horrors. Coates’ story follows Hiram Walker, a precocious young man born into slavery whose mother is auctioned off and whose father is his slavemaster. Hiram possesses an uncanny photographic memory but struggles to recall much about his mother. After his white half brother drowns in a horse carriage accident, Hiram teleports himself to safety. He discovers he shares a magical power with Harriet Tubman—instant teleportation driven by what Coates calls “our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses.” For Hiram, his power draws on the pain of losing his mother. Coates, who beyond his award-winning nonfiction was also instrumental in the revival of Black Panther, combines a deep knowledge of history with a touch of magical realism to exquisitely tell the story of a young man’s escape and his struggle with the ability to bring freedom to his enslaved brothers and sisters. The Water Dancer is a love story, a meditation on the psychological toll that family separation had on enslaved people, and an illustration of the power of choosing to remember. —ER
Early Work, by Andrew Martin. If thirtysomething Henry David Thoreau camped at Walden Pond because he wanted to “live deliberately,” thirtysomething Peter, the protagonist and narrator of Andrew Martin’s Early Work, moves to Charlottesville, Virginia, to do the opposite. White, male, and well off, Peter has dropped out of Yale’s English graduate program to follow his girlfriend of many years, Julia, to her medical residency and, as best the reader can tell, to pursue a life devoid of ambition. “I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life,” he discloses.
Peter’s days full of smoking weed, illegally streaming cable, and sporadically attempting to write fiction are interrupted by Leslie, an intriguing wild child and fellow writer whose aspirations seem to be only as high as Peter’s. What unfolds is a familiar tale of adultery, beautifully told, with an unfamiliar tone of dissociative candor. Peter and Leslie’s infidelities take their toll, and the book ends without moral lessons or redemption. If one’s 30s are a make-or-break moment for careers and relationships, Peter opts for break as he eschews his prefrontal cortex in favor of his lizard brain.
To me, Martin’s novel is A Christmas Carol for the millennial set. As someone who turned 30 this year, I spent all 240 pages of Early Work running Peter’s inner monologue against my own, praying to confirm that I’m not coded, as Peter is, to let life pass me by. Read it in the days leading up to the new year for its breezy plot, sharp writing, and uncomfortable themes. —Kara Voght
The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope (1876). You know this guy. You unfollowed him on Twitter last week.
He had read much, and, though he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his readings certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men’s thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself;—but he thought that he thought. He believed of himself that he had gone rather deep into politics, and that he was entitled to call many statesmen asses because they did not see the things which he saw. He had the great question of labour, and all that refers to unions, strikes, and lock-outs, quite at his fingers’ ends. He knew how the Church of England should be disestablished and recomposed. He was quite clear on questions of finance, and saw to a “t” how progress should be made towards communism, so that no violence should disturb that progress, and that in the due course of centuries all desire for personal property should be conquered and annihilated by a philanthropy so general as hardly to be accounted a virtue. In the meantime he could never contrive to pay his tailor’s bill regularly out of the allowance of £400 a year which his father made him, and was always dreaming of the comforts of a handsome income.
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin (1963). I was led here by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), an invigorating yet cautionary letter to the author’s son. Baldwin similarly addressed his nephew in this book’s long opening essay, which details how racism grinds Black people down, while positioning them to aptly perceive the nature of white folks, whose dark fantasies blind us to seeing ourselves. This book, now 56 years old, defined for me the racial problematics of this past decade; I read it after marching for Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, yet before understanding how my own relatives’ moral timidity was part and parcel of overt state violence. Baldwin is brilliant on the West’s suppressed humanity, which creates interpersonal tensions that I now perceive in my own life. “The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars…the white man came to the Negro for love,” he writes in the more religious second essay. Baldwin’s pulling of the title from an old Black spiritual—“God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, but fire next time”—feels prophetic today. —Delilah Friedler
Being Wrong: Adventures In the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz (2010). I think the reason this book is such a satisfying read nine years after it was published is precisely because it is not about being Extremely Online. It isn’t about Twitter, Trump, partisanship, or lying. Instead, Schulz writes about a very basic, very human need to always be right.
In Being Wrong, Schulz writes about the experience of discovering one has made a mistake. It’s not really self-help or pop science, because Schulz draws on philosophy as much as social science, and her playful self-awareness takes the edge off a high-minded subject. She focuses on the universality of wrongness, with examples that range in consequence. And that’s why I found so much to draw from for 2019. It helped me better understand why half the electorate might reject the facts in front of it as fake news and why there is still such a strong constituency for science denial. It helped me better understand why everyone is always yelling at each other on the internet that someone else is wrong, and why it feels so satisfying to join them.
By the end of Being Wrong, Schulz builds a compelling case that it would be braver and more interesting to live more freely with our mistakes. —Rebecca Leber
Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton (1922). In this era of grift and decadence and rich people behaving badly, there’s something kind of lovely and timeless about Glimpses. Wharton’s 1922 novel is about two upper-crust friends who decide to get married to live off the wedding presents their rich friends give them. They bounce from a villa on Lake Como to a palazzo in Venice, and everything’s going great. But there’s a twist! They’re terrible. Double twist! So are all their friends. You merely adopted the Styles section hate-read; Wharton invented it. —TM
Lenin’s Tomb, by David Remnick (1994). Reading about the spectacular collapse of a global superpower and the birth of modern Russia felt relevant in 2019 for reasons I can’t quite place. But at its core, the roving reportage of the Washington Post’s man in Moscow (now the editor of the New Yorker) is about memory—how history itself is preserved inside and outside institutions, and the struggle to define it for posterity. (Also, who knew young Boris Yeltsin was such a badass?) —TM
The Old Testament, New Revised Standard Edition (~1200–165 BC). I made a mistake, almost every day, for many months last year. I read the Bible. Well, specifically, I read the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Old Testament. Mainly on my phone, on an app called Bible Gateway—or on my computer, prompted by a daily reminder email from said app Bible Gateway, with a picture of George H. W. Bush as a banner on the email. Why? I don’t know. It got stuck in my routine. I go through bouts of Catholicism, and at some point I decided that reading a small bit of the Bible every morning would be a good idea. (In three months, I’ll start going to church again, per my cycle, and confess for this sinful post.) Once Bible time had been added to my morning, it was impossible to remove. The NRSV is a great, literal Bible for scholars, so I picked that one. That was dumb as shit. Basically, this meant I’ve read the whole Old Testament and I don’t know any of the good quotes because those are all sourced from the King James version. It has not helped me understand any Faulkner at all. The NRSV is not the version my Catholic family uses, nor is it quite right for my Jewish heritage. And it’s not the translation by Robert Alter, whose book on biblical interpretation I adored. (I read Alter after I had finished reading the Hebrew Bible, after which I realized I didn’t understand anything God said, hence this freakout.) There were highlights, and small quotes I hold dearly, and lessons learned—Old Testament God is more like nature or a primal force and I can rant to you if we meet in a bar about why I think that’s significant. But I regret stupidly taking a bunch of time reading stuff like the Book of Numbers, which is basically a thousands-year-old census. The only thing that section helped me figure out was a Final Jeopardy question. So, hallelujah, I guess. —Jacob Rosenberg
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard (1987). I picked up Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in a bookshop on a whim this year for the title alone—my childhood is American. Fire up the Philip Roth. Give me Don DeLillo. Cover me in 2000s-era Harper’s cover stories. I had not read the subgenre in years: the flailing to define anything and everything as a symptom and an explanation and a metaphor for America. So, I bought it. I thought Dillard would recount deeply personal experiences. In defining America, would she be defining herself? I thought she might bear her soul.
She did not.
Dillard’s memoir is not an argument or an ooze of personal information. It is a detailed description, one that I found oddly refreshing. I forgot you could write about your own life without an answer to why the hell any of it happened. I forgot that the details of your experiences don’t have to make sense. And I forgot you could write about yourself without judgment. Dillard seems to just remember her life, without the need to confess her sins or give importance to each step: One of my favorite chapters was about Dillard’s obsession with a book called Field Book of Ponds and Streams. —JR
Pedigree, by Patrick Modiano (2005). French novelist and Nobel Prize–winner Patrick Modiano offers comfort in his total uniformity. The books are always the same. His narrators search for a lost identity in post–World War II Europe. Who remembers what and why and how? The searchers are not often mentioned to be Jewish but are, in fact, Jewish, and their Jewishness haunts them. The whole point is overlaying the one-dimensional conceits of a detective novel onto a bombed-out Europe, asking, Who am I? And of course, Who are we?
Modiano’s allure is the fullness and complexity of emotions in political turmoil unmentioned. That felt fitting this year. As a reporter, I saw a few things that were devastating—but when I tried to explain to my friends and family, they didn’t seem to grasp the reality of the situation. The best you could get was pity.
When I picked up Modiano’s memoir Pedigree—slim, mysterious, short, and fantastic—I was feeling this frustration. He does what I couldn’t in two sentences. In wondering what his (Jewish) father must have felt during the Occupation, he wonders: “Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he didn’t really know what he was?” Yes, all of it. —JR
The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein (2017). How often did Democratic candidates talk about “redlining”—the practices that kept Black families segregated in less desirable neighborhoods, far from their white counterparts—during the 2016 presidential election? I wasn’t a journalist then, but I can hardly remember more than a passing reference to it. Now, the majority of Democrats seeking the White House have made remedying decades’ worth of housing discrimination a key plank of their campaign platforms.
Rothstein’s 2017 book, published halfway between our previous electoral cycle and the current one, gave policymakers the vocabulary they now rely on. The segregation across American cities wasn’t the result of de facto segregation—the simple choice of white families and Black families to live apart—but rather the result of government decision-making, first set in motion by the federal housing policies of the New Deal and upheld through every level and branch of government. Though the discriminatory laws came off the books during the civil rights era, the legacy persists, Rothstein argues, amounting to a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”
It’s hard to predict whether the housing equity policies will survive the primary process. But encountering The Color of Law on the eve of this election year served as a grim but necessary reminder of how far-reaching, long-lasting, and harmful such policy decisions can be. —KV
Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine (2010). Children are indoctrinated from infancy to believe that boys and girls are inherently different—look no further than the elaborate gender reveal fad. Neuroscientists don’t actually know the extent to which biological sex differences correlate with cognitive differences between males and females, but, as Cordelia Fine suggests in Delusions of Gender, the answer is probably not much.
In her 2010 book, Fine dismantles spurious scientific findings that, for example, women are innately nurturing and men innately aggressive. She explains the far-reaching consequences of a gender binary that prompts parents to scold their young sons for playing with dolls. Gender differences can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; for example, when students believe that boys are better than girls at math—either because a teacher tells them so, or because the dearth of female mathematicians causes them to believe it—girls score lower than boys on math tests in controlled studies. But it’s easy to manipulate these findings: When girls are told that they’re better at math, they score as well as or higher than boys.
As the gender-neutral “they” gains popularity, Fine’s book reminds us that moving toward a more gender-neutral world, especially where malleable children are involved, opens up the opportunity for all people to lead self-determined lives, free of rigid gender roles. —Abigail Weinberg
The Odyssey, by Homer/translated by Emily Wilson (~8th century BC; translation published in 2017). I never read the ancient myths I was assigned to read in school, finding them unrelatable and obsolete. But Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey—believed to be the first English translation by a woman of the original—brings the story to life in ways I never thought possible.
Though written in iambic pentameter, Wilson’s words are simple and easy to read, defying the notion that ancient tales should distance themselves from the reader through antiquated language. Instead, the Odyssey, and Wilson’s translation in particular, challenges the idea that we have progressed incalculably from our Bronze Age origins. Many writers better versed in the classics than I have expounded upon how these tales relate to modern life; I will simply say Odysseus’ wrath at those who are hostile to strangers feels jarringly relevant to the current condition. —Abigail Weinberg
Lit, by Mary Karr (2010). If you’re thinking that the third(!) memoir of a poet you’ve never heard of doesn’t stand a chance on your ever-more-daunting “to read” list—well, so did I, until I read the first page of Lit, where the concept of truth was immediately turned upside down. How is it that the story of an out-of-control alcoholic ripping apart her marriage one whiskey at a time, fighting her way into rarefied academe, grappling with the failures of her mother and the failures of her own motherhood, takes on a kind of universality? The only reasonable answer is that Karr’s writing is that good, that witty and compelling. I could do without the neat little package that this complex tale suddenly wraps up into (spoiler: it’s God!), but the rest of the book manages to speak to anyone interested in the way the human psyche works. —Aaron Wiener
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (2017). A war-torn Middle Eastern city. Curfews and checkpoints and militants. Mortars falling ever closer. And then, a door opens. In this case, a physical one that takes refugees instantly to another part of the world—and takes Exit West from a hyperreal love story to a magical-realism tale of escape. These doors begin popping up everywhere, giving desperate people in war zones an exit hatch and depositing them into Western locales—Greece, London, Marin County—that are peaceful but universally unwelcoming. The plight of refugees—on either side of the door—is as relevant now as it was when the book was published in early 2017. But the escapism grows ever more tantalizing. Who among us, amid the increasingly bleak headlines of 2019, didn’t wish we could step through a door into another time, another place? —Aaron Wiener