Reading List - 2023


The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

An aging butler taking a road trip in 1950s England seems like a thin premise for a novel, and yet Ishiguro makes it into a profoundly moving work of literature. The bulk of the story is told through the narrator’s recollections as he drives through the English countryside. He begins the journey fully committed to a particular ideal of being a “dignified” butler, which he expounds on in great detail. But by the end of it, cracks have appeared in his belief system – we see just how much damage his unwavering commitment to his ideals has caused to his personal life, just as we learn more about the shortcomings of the lord that all of this butlering was done for. At its heart, this is a novel about the ideas we build our lives around, and about what happens if these towers of ideas that we’ve built up no longer support us.


Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – Scott McCloud

I’ll admit that I haven’t explored the medium of graphic novels a huge amount in my life, but maybe this will change now that I’ve read Understanding Comics. It illustrates the artistic and philosophical principles behind sequential art (iconography, time and motion, the idea of closure, etc), all in the form of a comic. It then goes beyond the mechanics of comics into deeper ideas about the creative process itself. I think everyone involved in any sort of artistic field, irrespective of one’s interest in comics, would benefit from reading Understanding Comics.

Exercises in Style – Raymond Queneau (tr Barbara Wright)

Queneau’s “exercises” themselves – the same short story retold in a hundred different styles, ranging from Haiku to “Mathematical” – and Wright’s classic translation are both an absolute tour-de-force of language. I don’t usually go for this kind of modernist literature, but I couldn’t help smiling at the cleverness of it all. I read a modern edition that additionally compiles Queneau’s previously unpublished exercises and includes new exercises from contemporary writers in such styles as “Beat” and “Cyberpunk.” For the most part, I could take or leave this added material.

Red Plenty – Francis Spufford

Red Plenty is a gripping historical novel about the management of the Soviet economy in the 1960s. No, I’m not kidding. Except it’s not exactly a novel – there’s a mix of fictional characters and real historical figures, with the latter’s dialogue largely lifted directly from primary sources. The narrative chapters are further interspersed with meticulously researched nonfiction chapters on Soviet economics. It’s not an easy topic to make into an engaging narrative, but Spufford achieves the impossible here. He was also clearly passionate about getting all the details right, going so far as to commission his own English translations of primary sources when he realized his lack of Russian knowledge was a barrier. (Even Spufford’s bibliographical footnotes are so inviting and enthusiastic that now I have a dozen more books I want to read about – who’d have guessed – science and economics in the Soviet Union.) Without a doubt, this is the best work of fiction I’ve read about the Soviet Union by a Western writer (sorry, Amor Towles).

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories – Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of stories written in the style of 19th-century fairy tales, set in the world of Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The stories are beautifully crafted in Clarke’s signature style, with a deceptively light tone hiding heavy themes. All in all, it was a delightful read, and I just wish it wasn’t so short. (I also definitely found myself missing the labyrinthine footnotes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.)

I particularly liked “Mrs Mabb,” “Mr Simonelli,” and “Tom Brightwind.”

Venice Observed – Mary McCarthy

An absolute masterpiece of travel writing by one of the great essayists of the 20th century. Venice Observed, written over the course of a year that McCarthy spent in Venice in the 1950s, humanizes and contextualizes a city that can too often seem like a cliché. It certainly changed my mind about Venice – after all, it may be a “tourist trap,” but it’s an honest one, having essentially invented the concept of the “tourist trap” in the 17th century. The first half of the book, focusing more on the city’s history, was just one fascinating insight after another. A highlight for me was the essay on how each of Venice’s principal islands essentially functions as a microcosm of Venice in a different time period. The book’s second half veered more into art history, which was still interesting but didn’t grip me as much.

Zeno's Conscience – Italo Svevo (tr Peter Palmieri)

Zeno’s Conscience is a classic of modernist literature that seems to have lost some of its popularity – I’ll admit that I only picked it up because I was in Trieste, where Italo Svevo is something of a local hero. (And I’m glad I did!) The novel is more of a collection of stories, all told through the same framing device of a patient’s diary written for his psychotherapist (a pretty novel concept for 1927!). The patient in question, the titular Zeno, is a mess, but a highly self-aware mess, and he is constantly rationalizing his various compulsions and anxieties, such as his almost daily attempts to quit smoking just because “I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last.” Zeno, as a character who is both profoundly flawed and tremendously observant, provides a perfect foil through which Svevo can satirize early-20th century Triestine society, as we see Zeno’s misadventures in the worlds of romance and business. In the end, “La vita non è né brutta né bella, ma è originale!” (“Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”)


The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe – Michael Pye

A clever and enjoyable work of pop history about the cultural influence of North Sea civilizations (in particular, Vikings, Frisians, and the Hansa) on Europe from the 7th through the 17th centuries, countering the traditional European narrative of cultural innovations largely stemming from around the Mediterranean. Pye has done his research, and the primary sources he cites provide remarkable glimpses of medieval lives not too different from our own, neatly organized into chapters covering topics ranging from the book trade to “love and capital” to Medieval fashion (an unexpectedly delightful chapter). My one major complaint is that the book often tries to provide simple causal explanations for complex phenomena (I call this the “Jared Diamond style” of pop history). I get why Poe does this – it certainly makes for a “neater” narrative – but it feels insincere and takes away from an otherwise excellent read.

A Very Old Man: Stories – Italo Svevo (tr Frederika Randall)

A collection of Svevo’s last writings, mostly prose fragments that continue the story of Zeno’s Conscience. I’m grateful that these writings have been published and that readers have one last opportunity to enter Svevo’s Trieste. It’s still remarkably witty writing, and Svevo still has his way of making you root for Zeno despite his obvious flaws, but the fragmentary nature of these pieces and the open plot contradictions between them (clearly, Svevo was trying a few different approaches, and at the time of his death, hadn’t fully decided on which path to take) make it a less satisfying read than Zeno’s Conscience.

Revitalizing Endangered Languages: A Practical Guide – ed. Justyna Olko, Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages is a unique and much-needed addition to the literature on language revitalization – a volume that combines academic rigor with practical advice, sprinkled throughout with real-life examples from revitalization projects worldwide. The scope is comprehensive, covering everything from sociolinguistics to grant writing. Particularly interesting to me were the sections in the beginning on planning revitalization projects and setting goals – much of the existing literature seems to come with pre-existing notions of what the goals of revitalization are, and it was interesting to see this book interrogate these notions. I will say, though, that I was not very impressed by the chapter on revitalization technology, which seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

Jewish Languages from A to Z – Aaron Rubin and Lily Kahn

I was heartened to see a comprehensive look into Jewish languages - delving far deeper than just Hebrew and Yiddish – aimed at a lay audience. As far as I can tell, this is a condensed and simplified summary of Rubin and Kahn’s earlier edited volume, the Brill Handbook of Jewish Languages, comprising longer passages about languages with a significant attested history (Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, etc.) and shorter sections about poorly-attested Jewish languages. Every chapter illustrates some primary sources, often providing a fascinating look into historical Jewish culture in areas as far removed as South India and the island of Curaçao. Unfortunately, I found some linguistic details here to be simplified to the point of being sloppy and sometimes misleading. I was particularly confused by how the authors conflated distinctive Jewish spoken languages (e.g., Judeo-Tat, the various Judeo-Aramaic varieties, etc.) with languages that just happened to have been written once in Hebrew (e.g., “Judeo-Maltese”), leading to (in my eyes) a far too broad definition of “Jewish languages.”

Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki – Martin and Rebecca Cate

About as well-written and nicely laid-out a book as can be made about tropical cocktails and the culture around them. In contrast to Jeff Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, which is an excellent work of largely primary research but a little confusingly laid out, Smuggler’s Cove is a very readable synthesis of existing source materials on the history and theory of tropical cocktails and of the Cates’ personal experiences in running an acclaimed tiki bar. The recipes are, of course, top-notch.


Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books – Aaron Lansky

Outwitting History is an enjoyable and fast-paced read about Lansky’s monumental efforts to preserve Yiddish literature starting in the 1970s. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not quite genuine about it. I’m sure that Lansky’s account is generally truthful, but some of the anecdotes had such clichéd, Hollywood-y dialogue (especially in the later sections) that it made me question how many of these events really happened the way the book describes them. By the end, it felt a bit like an advertisement for the National Yiddish Book Center (don’t get me wrong, though – I appreciate their work, and they can certainly use such an advertisement).

The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation – Cory Doctorow

The Internet Con is a long essay about the virtues of interoperability as a way to curb the power of the tech industry. It was well-written and well-argued, with some clever anecdotes, but it didn’t leave much of an impression overall.

The Island of the Day Before – Umberto Eco (tr William Weaver)

As someone who loved The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, reading The Island of the Day Before was my biggest literary disappointment of the year. Eco set out to write a novel where the universe functions according to 17th-century conceptions of science, and this aspect he accomplishes remarkably well. There’s no denying that it’s a thought-provoking book. The problem is that this may have come at the expense of some of the novel itself. Most of it (spoiler alert) takes place with the main character all alone, and long stretches of the story occur entirely in his head. We get some of the intrigue of The Name of the Rose and some of the colorful exploration of Baudolino, but not nearly enough of either to support the length of this novel. By the end, reading it felt like a chore.


Users – Colin Winnette

I picked up Users after attending a reading of one chapter of the novel. Unfortunately, the passage I heard was one of the liveliest, best-written parts, and the rest of the book was somewhat of a letdown after that. The premise is timely (it’s all about the unintended consequences of technology), but most of the characters felt more like sketches than fully fleshed-out people, and I was not entirely convinced by the direction the plot went in. I’m still waiting for a great satire of the modern tech industry, but this wasn’t it for me.

The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum – David Sider

A comprehensive, if bone-dry, examination of the history and contents of the charred papyri excavated from the Villa dei Papiri that I read while following the “Vesuvius Challenge.” My biggest takeaway was that far more information has already been decoded from the papyri using traditional methods than I’d expected.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection – Michael Chabon

The premise – a Sherlock Holmes mystery set during the Holocaust – was intriguing enough to pick it up, but, though elegantly written, it felt far too short and lacking in substance, and certainly not much of a detective story at all. A shame, as I’d really enjoyed Chabon’s other novella, Gentlemen of the Road.


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