Saturday, January 2, 2021
reading in 2020 (books edition)
As I look over the set of books I’ve piled up in my house, the other thing that strikes me is that, in the years these books have been accumulating, both the relationship of books to the culture and the nature of reading itself have been rearranged. Like I wrote three years ago:
Because really what I read in 2017, in most of the last several years, was the internet. Not even, in any real sense that registers, individual documents hosted on the network, or the work of authors I can clearly identify. Just the endless scroll.
…it’s like that but more so, now.
The last book I read in 2020 was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which has this bit (chapter 30):
So how you feel about your time is partly or even largely a result of that time’s structure of feeling. When time passes and that structure changes, how you feel will also change— both in your body and in how you understand it as a meaning. Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all.
The moment’s structure of feeling has changed, and you can tell it in just about every text you encounter. It’s also pretty hard to stop encountering texts even if you want to. The stuff is inescapable and much of it has a quality of self-replicating churn that makes me feel kind of queasy about the entire enterprise of human thought.
I wonder if it felt something like this when literacy really took off as a technology in the first place.
Anyhow, what booklike objects did I read this past year?
February: I ordered a copy of Sönke Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes. Note-taking was on my mind a lot over the course of the year, and I spent too much time reading other people’s ideas about it. By July I managed to post some notes on the idea of the Zettelkasten that serves as a partial review / summary of Smart Notes and related things.
May: I binged my way through Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries. Popcorn SF, socially anxious heart-of-gold protagonist. I started The Elephant in the Cornfield: The Politics of Agriculture and Climate Change, by Chris Clayton, which I should probably revisit.
October: Meghan O'Gieblyn’s Interior States (essays), Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds (a novel), Ron Chernow’s Grant (biography). The first two were quite good and I still haven’t finished the Grant biography.
December: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse. I liked some characters and scenes and ideas in this, and didn’t exactly love it as a novel. Mileage might vary.
And then The Ministry for the Future. Near future SF, barely a novel at all for a lot of its length. A book that seems more deliberately pitched to be read right now than a lot of short-shelf-life fiction is just by accident. Among other things, it’s partly an argument that the end of ecocidal capitalism is achievable, partly a claim that eco-terrorist violence is likely (and quite possibly necessary) as the climate struggle intensifies, and partly a fantasy that cryptocurrency might have some kind of pro-social role to play in engineering a survivable economy. I will be thinking about this one for a while.