It’s time for my recap of notable books I read in the past year. (Previous posts: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.) The biggest difference between 2022 and years past is audiobooks, which made up 17 of the 50 books I “read” (consumed?). I had listened to audiobooks before, but very few, and only during long drives. What changed? Running. Near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, around April 2020, I began running, sprinting a mile every day during the months I was stuck at home. I continued running after that, with the distance increasing and the frequency decreasing. At the end of 2021 it was 6 miles about twice a week, and for the last 6 months it’s been 10 miles, about twice a week, with occasional jaunts of 13.1 miles. There’s a major problem with running more than 6 miles though: it’s very boring. Even the mostly riverside scenery I’m lucky enough to run through isn’t enough. Audiobooks, however, make the longer distances possible! The Eugene Public Library has a fine audiobook selection, and I’ve been listening to both fiction and non-fiction as I run. It is sometimes a surreal experience — see, for example, Energy and Civilization, below.
Two books that I’ve long thought I “should” read finally got crossed off the list; both were great. One is Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818). It’s striking how different the novel is from the version in the popular consciousness: the monster is smart and agile, and the story mostly involves the monster’s tragic rejection by his creator and the intense animosity between the two. The other is Virgil’s Aeneid, the classic Roman epic. It’s no Odyssey — there are too many tedious descriptions of battles and too much Roman propaganda. Still, a lot of the secondary stories, many of them mythological, are great, and the poem itself is often beautiful.
Also ancient, but from a very different place, is the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram (Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet – translated by R. Parthasarathy (not me!)). I’ve read this before and re-read it this year. It’s tough to assess. On the one hand, it’s often gorgeous, and it gives a glimpse into a very different world, one in which, at least for the wealthy protagonists through the first third of the story, the pursuit of pleasure is the only real goal in life. On the other hand, the story really drags in its last third, which seems there only for the sake of including all three ancient Tamil kingdoms in the narrative and extolling their virtues. In the first two parts, the story centers on newlyweds Kannaki and Kovalan; Kannaki is heartbroken as her husband leaves her for a courtesan; Kovalan and the courtesan split up; Kannaki takes her destitute husband back; the two travel to the important (and still vibrant today!) city of Madurai for a fresh start; Kovalan is falsely accused of a crime and Madurai’s king faces Kannaki’s wrath and, more importantly, the fallout from wronging a virtuous woman. The explanatory material at the end of this edition is excellent. There’s a great essay to be written comparing the moral and political themes of The Aeneid and Cilappatikaram, but I’ll move on…
My favorites of the fiction that I read this past year were A River Runs Through It (1976), Norman Maclean’s memoir of fishing and family in rural Montana, and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972), in which a man seeks psychiatric help because his dreams can alter reality. The two are, of course, very different. Both are beautifully written, though, and are much more thought provoking than one would guess given their subject matter.
The Lathe of Heaven I listened to as an audiobook. Unlike the non-fiction, most of the fiction I’ve listed to has been light or pulpy: the first three books of Richard Stark’s 1960s “Parker” novels, about an amoral criminal dealing with other criminals (The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit), and the first three books of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, a mix of police procedural and fantasy, with some comedy thrown in. All have been good to while away the miles. The Parker novels go into sometimes excessive detail about the planning of heists, hits, robberies, and getaways, but it’s fascinating to read from a vantage point 60 years in the future, when rapid communication and ubiquitous information would make all this planning either trivial or pointless. The social networks of the criminals seem especially alien, with unwritten rules about trust, roles, and recognition.
It’s hard to pick a favorite among several excellent non-fiction books I read this year, but the top spot may have to go to Energy and Civilization: A History (Vaclav Smil, 2017), which examines the whole history of human civilization through the lens of energy use. I should write more about this book some other time, especially since it intersects with my teaching activities, but for now I’ll just note that it’s breadth is amazing, from assessments of the energetic inputs and outputs of hunting and gathering, to explanations of ancient Chinese technology, to reminders of how miserable life used to be – slaves turning grain mills in Ancient Rome, for example – to the energetic costs of modern construction. The writing isn’t exciting; there’s a tendency towards long lists. I listened to most of Energy and Civilization as an audiobook while running, at times a surreal experience as a calm voice plodded through lists of names and dates or energy densities of fuels that I would have skimmed through if reading on paper. The section on the energetics of running for humans and other animals felt particularly appropriate. (After listening, I bought the physical book.) If civilization collapses and needs to be restarted, this would be an excellent book to give to the founders of the new world.
Perhaps the most captivating book I read in 2022 was, in fact, published in 2022: Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (2022), Lea Ypi’s amazing memoir about growing up in Albania during its transition from communist dictatorship to free market society. The first half is a view of the soul-crushing state. The author, then a child, takes a long time to realize for example that conversations about relatives “at university” are actually referring to relatives in political prison camps. The post-communism transition to democracy is utter chaos that descends into violence. Free is a fascinating, sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic record of a remarkable time and place.
Continuing the theme: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (2014) is about contemporary Russia – stories of crime, corruption, and extreme cynicism. It’s fascinating throughout; highlights are the stories about supermodel Ruslana Korshunova, who mysteriously kills herself after joining a self-help cult, and a chemical company head who is inexplicably sent to prison and struggles to find out why.
More contemporary anthropology: Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, by Ashley Mears (2020). A sociologist explores the world of exclusive, expensive night clubs, at which huge amount of work is expended to enable the ostentatious, wasteful spending of money. The workers are the “promoters,” constantly searching for and recruiting beautiful women whose visual appeal sets the tone of the clubs, and the women themselves, unpaid except for the free food, drink, and partying that’s part of the scene. There are many layers of aspiration and exploitation involved. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a world that I have neither the ability nor the desire to access. Unfortunately, the book is extremely repetitive. We’re repeatedly introduced to the same characters, and the same descriptions are given over and over; the book could be half its length. It gets bonus points, though, for being from my publisher (Princeton University Press).
Two about Africa: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong (2000). . Especially good for its exploration of corruption and failed government. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux (2002). A travelogue of a trip spanning the length of Africa, mostly on decrepit buses, trucks, and trains. A bit tedious and cranky, but there’s a lot of description of fascinating places I’d never want to go to, mainly due the serious threat of violence. The author can’t mask his anger about the decline of Africa since the time he was a Peace Corps volunteer, blamed (probably correctly) on corrupt governments and enfeebling foreign aid. The encounters with African friends from days past, some of whom spent time in prison, are particularly interesting.
Finally: A Biography of the Pixel by Alvy Ray Smith (2021) is a delight. It’s an odd and sprawling book: part memoir, part explanation of digital computing, and part history of computer animation. It could have benefited from a tighter focus, and this likely prevents it from being widely read or widely known, but on the other hand it has an idiosyncratic and personal charm. It’s clearly a labor of love and is refreshingly different from the standard nonfiction template. Plus, the history is fascinating and is rarely told, and the technical explanations for the non-specialist reader, though rather long, are good.
Also in non-fiction, my book! But I’ll get to that below.
I read only six graphic novels / comics this year. Two were excellent: Berlin by Jason Lutes (2001) is a 550 page graphic novel about Berlin from 1928-1933. It’s massive, complex, and full of interesting characters. Paying the Land by Joe Sacco (2020) is about about the indigenous peoples of Western Canada. It’s brilliant and captivating — as good as the author’s Safe Area Goražde and Palestine. I was worried at first — the topic could easily lend itself to cliché or moralizing, but Sacco thoughtfully investigates indigenous NW Canadian culture, the many causes of its problems, and the immense difficulty of resolving these problems. The graphic form is not only beautiful, but it helps convey the mood of the stories and interviews.
And my book
I must, of course, mention my own book, which was published this year! So Simple a Beginning: How Four Physical Principles Shape Our Living World. It has been selling fairly well, and currently gets 4.6/5.0 stars on Amazon. More importantly, it’s been great to hear from people I don’t know that they’ve enjoyed the book! I think the paperback version should come out in 2023, but I’m not sure. So Simple A Beginning exists as an audiobook, so you could listen to it while running, but you’d miss out on the illustrations! (Links: Amazon , Publisher, and my description). I’ve given a few podcast interviews, and I especially enjoyed a recent (virtual) Harvard Book Store conversation with Phil Nelson, which I’ll embed below. (To skip introductory chatter start at 5:41 . There were a lot of fun questions.)
A quick fox, based on a photo here.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, December 30, 2022