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i did a bok: 2021 reading in review

Books have always been something of a bellwether for how my life is going. As a young child, I was an avid reader. I started young and did it a lot. As addiction wracked (and almost wrecked) our family, I fell out of the habit. I rediscovered reading in my early teens, and remained a voracious reader until my own addiction issues drew me away. In the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to get it back into my life, an effort that has been both successful and tremendously rewarding. So in this post I’m going to give the following with respect to my reading in 2021:

1. My favourite book
2. My least favourite book
3. The book I found most rewarding or useful
4. The book I’d recommend most readily to others
5. My favourite academic paper of the year
6. Lastly, a list of all the books I read for some context

But before I do that, I want to say a couple of things about books and literature in general.

In my lifetime, and I think well before, reading has always carried with it a certain prestige, a kind of status above cinema, television, video games, and other media. I can understand this, and even agree with it in a sense. For me at least, reading is far more stimulating, and only the very best cinema and television come close to inducing that sense of edification that even popular fiction can provide. But for the most part, it is just media, and it is just consumed. I think some ‘high’ or philosophically minded literature, and especially poetry, offer more than just material for consumption and distraction. But even a lot of classic literature is basically just entertainment, and to be clear that is totally fine!  I just don’t think reading should have all this cultural baggage surrounding it. It’s less passive than most cinema or TV, but basically I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being a ‘reader’ as a status symbol. A lot like exercise, I think everybody should do it but nobody should brag about it. I also don’t think reading is really a hobby, but that’s a whole thing in itself.

In short, take this post in the spirit implied by the above. For me reading regularly is an important sign that I’m in a healthy place, in the same way that playing a lot of video games has been a sign that I’m not. It has little to do with the merits of the medium, and more to do with what kind of bingeing my brain can cope with at the time. Anyway, enough of the self-analysis.

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1. Favourite Book: Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

In a way this is standing in here for the whole Expanse series, which I have been reading on and off for some time, and which is well represented in the list below. It’s certainly not the best book I’ve read this year, but the sheer entertainment value of this series really helped anchor my reading as a habit, and this, the third book in the series, was an especially fun entry. And I mean ‘fun’ the way a roller coaster is fun. There are head-swimmingly enjoyable plot trajectories and turns, gripping character entrances and arcs, breathless and satisfying conclusions. I have found The Expanse to be a tremendously comforting series to return to, and I will be sad when it’s over and don’t have another ahead of me. I was torn between this and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi here, but these have given me so much enjoyment that I had to go with one of them, and Abaddon’s Gate is the best so far.

2. Least Favourite Book: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I find it’s pretty hard to read bad books, simply because there are so many good ones. Unless you’re committed to certain contemporary genres where the existing catalogue means you eventually have to dip into e.g. ropey fantasy, schlocky mysteries, or vaguely facist space marine adventures, there are enough good books written that you could read voraciously for your entire life without having to turn the page of a bad one. And this, my last book of the year, is definitely not a *bad* book. But it is an extremely baudy, puerile, and at times ridiculous example of 18th century romantic/gothic horror. Part of the problem may just be its popularity and influence, in that what was new and shocking at the time comes across as tired and cliched now. But to be honest I think it just reads like what it is: the product of a spooks-and-sex-obsessed teenage mind. There’s something vaguely pornographic and referential about it, which in itself would be fine, but it’s also kind of disjointed and obvious in places, like Lewis was trying to fit all his favourite occult and sexual fantasies in somewhere. Titillation is doing a lot of the work here, and I dunno, it just wasn’t for me.

3. Most Rewarding Book: Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed by Simon Blackburn

This was the book I got the most out of this year. It’s hard to sum up, but Blackburn’s overview of theories of truth was for me extremely illuminating, and helped me flesh out and contextualize my own epistemological position. This is definitely not a page-turner, but as analytic philosophy goes it’s highly lucid and readable, and I learned more from it than any other single philosophy text I’ve read in years.

4. Recommended Book: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I haven’t finished the series, so I’m not going to comment on them yet. But this is definitely the best book I read this year, and certainly the best book I’ve read published this century. I’m going to reserve full judgement until I’ve finished the whole Neopolitan series, but I suspect they’re going to end up being one of my all-time favourites. Just an astonishingly vibrant, compelling, and original book that’s constantly beautiful, thrilling, and profound in equal measure. I think everybody who reads fiction at all should give it a go, and it’s the book I find myself recommending to people even if I don’t think they generally share my tastes. A true modern classic.

6. Favourite Academic Paper: ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’ by Sharon Street

This is just a really excellent paper. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but it doesn’t matter – Street does an incredible job of mapping out the argumentative space and positioning people within it. ‘Journal philosophy’ isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (I actually enjoy it), but this is a really excellent example of the style. It’s tightly argued and framed, but also really illuminating in its framing. Even if you don’t agree with Street, you know where she stands with respect to others and where they stand with respect to each other from her perspective. A lot of ‘journal philosophy’ gets so lost in argument and counter-argument that it loses sight of the landscape even within its own argumentative country. Street’s piece is a perfect example of how to write within your discourse in a way that is still helpful to people outside it.

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Book List 2021:

2021 Book List

1. Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber
2. Anarchy Works, Peter Gelderloos
3. Abaddon’s Gate, James S.A. Corey
4. Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Murray Bookchin
5. Meaning and Life and Why it Matters, Susan Wolf
6. Excession, Iain M. Banks
7. Utilitarianism: For and Against, Smart & Bernard Williams
8. Red Rising, Pierce Brown
9. Moral Error Theory, Jonas Olson
10. Jaques the Fatalist and his Master, Denis Diderot
11. What we Owe to Each Other, T.M. Scanlon
12. Cibola Burn, James S.A. Corey
13. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
14. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams
15. The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
16. Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
17. Never Let Me Go, Kazao Ishiguro
18. Practical Insight Meditation, Mahasi Sayadaw
19. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin
20. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
21. The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
22. A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker
23. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
24. Virtues and Vices, Philippa Foot
25. Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey
26. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, Stephen Laberge
27. Are You Dreaming, Daniel Love
28. The Castle of Llyr, Lloyd Alexander
29. Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson
30. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie
31. Phaedrus, Plato
32. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
33. With Each and Every Breath, Thanissaro Bhikku
34. Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
35. What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula
36. Thinking How to Live, Alan Gibbard
37. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
38. Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
39. The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein
40. Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, Simon Blackburn
41. Baudolino, Umberto Eco
42. Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton
43. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
44. The High King, Lloyd Alexander
45. Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock
46. Babylon’s Ashes, James S.A. Corey
47. Flying to Nowhere, John Fuller
48. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
49. The Fortress of the Pearl, Michael Moorcock
50. Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant
51. On Having No Head, Douglas Harding
52. The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein
53. The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt
54. Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky
55. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
56. Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster
57. The Monk, Matthew Lewis

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