I read exactly one (1) generalist nonfiction book last year. Normally I am a huge sucker for the kind of books that do the rounds on the podcast circuit—pop-science, sprawling anthropological syntheses, whatever self-help thing is zeitgeisty. Now I still buy them, but I can’t summon the enthusiasm to actually get past the first chapter.
By way of contrast, I had no problem with narrative nonfiction and memoirs. I even managed a few hefty textbooks. But anything outside of specific object-level learning, I don’t want to know about.
In a possibly related development: this was the year I fell in love with the short story. Literary fiction has always felt like a raw deal. I’m incapable of persevering through a book the size of a brick in the hopes that I will maybe be able to extract some obscure payoff—I’m on my third rejection of Brothers Karamazov. But a 20-page short story? I can deal with that, no matter how dense the prose or self-indulgent the author.
I think I read ~200 short stories this year, of which, several make the cut for my favourites below.
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I tried to read DFW in my early twenties and bounced off hard. While his journalism and essays are fun and accessible—I think I’ve previously recommended ‘This is Water’, which is a banger of a commencement speech—his fiction is famously baroque.
This year I am enjoying a DFW renaissance of sorts, with an extra decade of life experience giving me the confidence to tackle his first novel and two short story collections. Of those, I recommend Oblivion, with the fairly strong caveat that even within the short story format, it’s not easy going. DFW is a maximalist, which means he will spend several pages holding forth on e.g. the intricacies of consumer marketing focus groups. As to the deeper meaning, there is no spoon-feeding. Subtext sometimes becomes text, but only in a deliberate nod/wink way such that it recursively becomes subtext again.
If you want to dip your toes, the story Good Old Neon is the star by a wide margin for me, touching on personally resonant themes such as pathological self-awareness, spiralling scrupulosity, and the language problem, i.e. the impossibility of communicating what is in your head in any meaningful way.
A big part of DFW’s appeal is basically watching him show off, both in terms of toying with genre tropes, and in getting to see the metacognition of someone much smarter than you walking through their second, third, and nth order thinking. This is satisfying in and of itself, kind of like a magician explaining a trick.1
A terrific and terrifying novel in which a black woman living in 20th century California is repeatedly pulled back through time to the antebellum South. Kindred was published in 1979, but unlike most sci-fi of the era, it has aged extremely well—it might have been written yesterday.
This is primarily a study of all the subtle and un-subtle ways in which power struggles manifest between oppressor and oppressed, men and women, spouses, families, etc. It’s rare to read a book at the intersection of so many different genres, and even rarer that it pulls them all off.
Speaking of transcendent sci-fi: the classic Golden Age is exemplified by paper-thin characters, usually male and square-jawed, who exist only as vehicles to explore an idea. This is fine for what it is, but I’ve always wished there was more scientifically rigorous (‘hard’) sci-fi that also realistically portrays the mushy intangibles of human relationships—the problem being that the former requires a kind of weapons-grade autism and the latter a keen sense of empathy.
So I was surprised to find in Logic Beach some of the most insightful musings on romantic love I’ve read in a long time, set alongside a plot in which post-human digital entities graduate from children playing with multidimensional shapes to shared consciousnesses attempting to expose the true face of physics.
This is a highly uneven book in other ways, not least of which because it lacks a real ending (when part 2?), but this is Exurb1a’s first book, and they are still the most promising self-published writer I’ve discovered recently—in the same class as qntm/Sam Hughes, who I also re-read a lot this year.
Of all the topics DFW might have covered, and given his relatively small body of nonfiction work, I feel ridiculously lucky that he just-so-happened to write enough essays on my favourite sport to fill an entire (slim) volume.
I read eight tennis-related books this year, of which six were good and three were great, but String Theory easily tops the list. If you are a tennis aficionado you absolutely need to hear DFW deconstructing the game through the lens of Euclidian geometry, commerce, aesthetics, etc.
Even for non-tennis nuts, there are some fun ideas about consciousness or lack thereof (hypothesis: pro athleticism selects for people who are able to fully embody the moment because they have very little going on in the metacognition department—uncharitably, they operate something like p-zombies or in the popular lingo, NPCs) as well as the true sacrifice that many athletes make: they are forced into a one-dimensional mold, operating monomaniacally for our entertainment so that—ironically—the experience of transcendence is only available to us schlubby spectators.
The true story of the last Japanese soldier still fighting a guerrilla war from the jungles of a small island in the Pacific, decades after the end of World War II.
There is only one man who could capture the absurdity of this quixotic quest—the warped experience of time, the relentless battle against nature, the psychological profile of a true obsessive—and that man is Werner Herzog. Watch this one-minute clip where he divulges his feelings about the jungle and you will have a good sense of whether you will love or hate The Twilight World.
The prose is ecstatic and dreamlike without quite becoming overwrought, and anyway, the book is short. I loved it.
My First Goose— a vivid and brutal short story by Leo Babel, which I read alongside George Saunders’ deconstruction (it blows my mind that Saunders has a Substack where he shares his craft, mostly for free).
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury — very beautiful, dreamy episodic stories. More like fantasy than sci-fi, deserves its classic status.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov — source of the famous three laws of robotics, which I’ve only ever heard discussed in the context of their naivety. But this collection is all about the ways in which the laws fail, and why AI alignment is really hard! Another classic that deserves its status.
Educated by Tara Westover—like a much better version of Hillbilly Elegy. Made me realise my childhood was in fact solidly middle class.
As always, I’d love to get some fresh recommendations from Deep Dish readers. What was the best book you read in 2022?