by Seth Rogovoy
Herein follows an annotated list of the books I read in 2017. Not a Top 10 list, not limited to books published this past year, not even a list of recommended books (although it should be clear in most cases which books I do recommend).
I’ve put an asterisk (or two) before books that I thought merit special attention or that in some considerable form or fashion stood out from the pack and/or changed my way of thinking.
Please share your own reading lists and/or recommendations.
“The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton
de Botton writes, “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves” and “What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.” He also quotes Pascal as having written, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” He connects the seemingly contradictory dots between these two statements in his wonderful musings on the how and why of travel.
“How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton
de Botton pulls off the amazing feat of making you feel like you will never need to read Proust after reading this book, while simultaneously making you want nothing more than to dive into the original. More than about Proust, however, this is a book about reading and literature, how to approach both, and by extension, a theory about the role of art in our lives.
“Wanderlust: A History of Walking” by Rebecca Solnit
“Rome” by Robert Hughes
Hughes takes on a monumental task, exploring the history of Rome from its pre-Roman days through today, through politics, religion, the intersection of politics and religion (such an essential aspect of Rome’s history), as well as, of course, its art (Hughes is best known as an art critic). He is a great storyteller, bringing emperors, barbarians, popes, and the average Roman to life. He’s also surprisingly funny and sometimes downright mischievous, especially when writing about true believers.
“Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million” by Martin Amis
A dazzling, impressionistic history of Stalin’s reign of terror, in the greater context of Russian and Soviet history, woven through with an intellectual memoir of his father’s (Kingsley Amis) cohort and their relationship to Communism and the Soviet Union, as well as of his own posse of New Statesman-affiliated, New Left intellectuals (e.g., Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes).
“The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism” by Geoff Nicholson
* “White Sands” by Geoff Dyer
A witty, dazzling anti-travel travel memoir. Contains one of the single-most hilarious set pieces, about a nightmarish week in Norway. Along the way, Dyer takes the reader on erudite side-trips through Adorno, Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman and outsider art.
“The Art of Stillness” by Pico Iyer
Iyer writes about going deep within to nowhere as a path toward equanimity and contentment. Along the way he invokes Leonard Cohen, the Dalai Lama, James Turrell, and Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Sabbath.
“Confusion” by Stefan Zweig
A gripping psycho-sexual thriller and also a literary game – note that the word “confusion” appears on almost every page, even in nearly every paragraph.
“My Struggle, Vol. 2” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I found volume 2 of Knausgaard’s opus much more human and humane than volume one. Here, he talks mostly about relationships, early marriage, and parenthood (and the impact the latter has on the former) and masculinity and femininity with disarming candor and humor, the lion’s share of it at his own expense. In some way, the book also works as an explanation for why and how he came to write “My Struggle.”
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” by Nathan Englander
** “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem” by George Prochnik
If George Prochnik set out to write a kind of literary history or interpretation, he did himself ten times better in what is a monumental intellectual memoir. On its surface, he writes about Gershom Scholem’s life and history, especially with regard to Israel, Zionism, Jerusalem, and his abiding intellectual friendship with Walter Benjamin. Prochink also interweaves his own story – his “searching for Gershom Scholem,” which includes his own struggles with confronting the ideology and reality of living in Jerusalem and Israel. A masterpiece.
“New People” by Danzy Senna
“The Dinner” by Herman Koch
Oren Moverman’s movie version (which led me to read Koch’s original novel) greatly improved on this somewhat pedestrian story by fleshing out an almost non-existent backstory.
“Pretend I’m Dead” by Jen Beagin
A new, wry fictional voice in a class-conscious work of social and cultural satire.
“On Writing” by Stephen King
Nothing about writing is revealed in this book other than what a self-satisfied prig is the author.
“Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee
“The Hairy Ape” by Eugene O’Neill
I was pleasantly surprised by O’Neill’s poetry in this work (which I only read in preparation for seeing the brilliant production starring Bobby Cannavele at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan), with its shades of Shakespeare and Joyce.
“Selection Day” by Aravind Adiga
I typically eat up this sort of social satire, especially when it involves immigrant populations in the U.K. I was therefore surprisingly disappointed, especially given the raves with which the publication was met,
“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen
“This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression” by Daphne Merkin
Let’s just say that I found this book to be about something other than what the subtitle indicates.
* “Moonlight” Michael Chabon
* “Against Everything” by Mark Grief
Grief is a brilliant, thoughtful, and witty cultural critic, a Walter Benjamin for our times.
“How to Be Bored” by Eva Hoffman
“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing
A beautiful exploration of loneliness and its meaning via reflections in visual arts, with particular attention paid to Hopper and Warhol among others.
* “Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith
A remarkable fusion of natural history – including a detailed study of octopus evolution and behavior, with a good dose of how evolution works, all pitched toward the lay reader – with philosophical speculation about the development of “consciousness” vs. mere autonomic reactions (octopi exhibit many hints of the former). Godfrey-Smith reviews the history of the philosophy of consciousness and reconsiders it in light of new discoveries of octopus consciousness and his own personal observations of octopus behavior. Simply brilliant.
“Pretentiousness: Why It Matters” by Dan Fox
A book-length essay celebrating the creative freedom that stems from self-invention, especially in efforts to move beyond confines of class and culture.
“Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich” by Norman Ohler
White Supremacist Punks on Dope. Including and especially Adolf Hitler himself (who was zonked on speedballs for the better part of a decade). Ohler suggests nothing less than that Nazi Germany was an entire nation hopped up on methamphetamine.
* “Between Them” by Richard Ford
A haunting, tender memoir of Ford’s parents. Or, more accurately, a search for his parents, for the truth behind what he remembers about them, and, ultimately, about the impossibility of really knowing the people closest to us in our lives.
“Fascism: A Very Short Introduction” by Kevin Passmore
“Hitler” by Volker Ullrich
“A Night in the Old Marketplace” by I.L. Peretz
“The Noonday Demon” by Andrew Solomon
“4 3 2 1” by Paul Auster
“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan
“White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga
“Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose
“Scum Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas
“The Jewish Wedding Now” by Anita Diamant
“Mazal Tov! The Rituals and Customs of a Jewish Wedding” by Michael Shire
“What Is It All But Luminous” by Art Garfunkel
Anything but luminous.
“A Horse Walks Into a Bar” by David Grossman
The most difficult and painful standup routine in literature.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
“The Doorpost of Your House and On Your Gates” by Jacob Bacharach
“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes
“Testimony: A Memoir” by Robbie Robertson
In which Robertson sets the record straight, correcting so much bad information that has been floating around since Levon Helm’s tendentious autobiography. Especially strong on his own childhood and early years as a working musician in Toronto and touring throughout North America with Ronnie Hawkins, on the way toward the coalescence of The Band.
“Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London,” by Lauren Elkin
“Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” by Paul Fussell
“Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative” by Austin Kleon
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit
“Mythologies: The Complete Edition” by Roland Barthes
“The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism” by Kristin Dombek
ON DECK FOR 2018
“Forest Dark” by Nicole Krauss
“The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” by Masha Gessen
“The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff
“Lou Reed: A Life” by Anthony DeCurtis
“Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941” by Stephen Kotkin
“Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi” by Thomas Weber
Works by Georges Perec, Milan Kundera, W.G. Sebald