2022 Books in Review

The list of books we read is more personally revealing than a scattering of curated comments and status updates. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that I spent hundreds of hours reading almost every word of these books, in the process irrevocably altering my brain and my trajectory through the world. Maybe because in my circles we consider reading books virtuous, I’m not too afraid my reputation will be sullied if I made unpopular choices.

This year I read 31 books I liked (except one). I have hate-read plenty of books, and think it’s important to do that — e.g Mark Regnerus, Nicholas Wade, Christian Smith, Jonah Goldberg (follow the books tag for all related content, or connect on Goodreads). But this year the review are (almost all) positive. There are a lot of books still to read, including from this year! Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments, or comment on these books or my reviews.

I also used reading technologies in new ways. I listened to a couple of these as audio books, at accelerated speeds, which is a great advance (when appropriate). Aside: did you know young people today have no idea that speeding up a recording should be expected to raise its pitch? The ability to listen to text — or even music — at higher speed but at the same pitch is normal to them, unthinkable to me. And I read some books using a rapid sequential visual presentation (RSVP) app that is unfortunately now defunct (now trying out Outread on iPhone). This is a good technology for focused, fast, reading as well (it flashes one word or phrase at a time at a speed you set). I have on occasion gotten PDFs of books from a pirate site and uploaded them to a speed reader — when depriving the author and publisher of royalties isn’t an issue, like old books or books I already bought or books I’ve been asked to review, etc.

Here’s the list, with my capsule reviews.

Nonfiction

The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide
by Steven W. Thrasher

This is the book that brilliantly connects HIV and COVID19, to all viruses and the social inequalities they thrive on, and climate change, personhood, activism and identity, and gay Blackness. In short, the book for this moment. Must. Read.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson

Race in America doesn’t have to be just like caste in India or antisemitism in Germany for this book to be great and full of powerful insights. The role of the other groups besides Black and White is one place where the comparison breaks down. But the features of race in America that are so strongly related to caste come through brilliantly in Wilkerson’s systematic composition. Can’t be dismissed and should not be ignored.

An Immense World
by Ed Yong

This book blew my mind. It changed the way I see (literally) the world. Ultimately it offered a scientific definition of the self based on the relationship between one’s body and one’s senses of the environment (Chapter 12). I listened to the audiobook read by the author, and it was fantastic. Don’t skip this one.

Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy
by Adam Tooze

A romp through the economic history of 2020, “writing to be overwritten.” If interest rates, fiscal policy, trade balances, and financial instruments are not your thing, you can skim about half the book and still get a lot out of it (I did).

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s
by Margaret K. Nelson

Margaret K. Nelson has written a penetrating and insightful account of how social norms and institutions lead to family secrets, which in turn shape our experiences of family life. Whatever the complicated reasons people have for creating secrets, their consequences unfold unpredictably and unevenly across the history of a family and the society at large. Just as family secrets generate both inclusion and exclusion – who knows, who doesn’t, and where the lines are drawn – they also reflect the inequities of the wider society. It wasn’t just tormented individuals, but a tormented 1950s society itself, that so often commanded, “We will never speak of this again.”

This book is a romp. If you like liberalism you’ll love it. Even if you don’t, it’s a good pitch. Highly readable.

Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender
by Stef M. Shuster

Great for understanding the context of medical standards and decision making regarding trans medical issues. Recommend!

Divorce, American Style: Fighting for Women’s Economic Citizenship in the Neoliberal Era
by Suzanne Kahn

Suzanne Kahn offers a fascinating, thorough, and highly readable study of divorce in the history of 20th Century U.S. feminism. The women that emerge, whom she labels “feminist divorce reformers,” fill a unique position at the intersection of the developing U.S. social safety net and the burgeoning feminist movement after the 1960s. They are the women who came to feminism not just in the era of rising divorce rates, but through the unique tangle of hardships that divorced women experienced. Full review.

How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America
by Priya Fielding-Singh

Read this excellent book if you want to understand families, food, and inequality in America – and if you enjoy wonderfully written ethnographic research.

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
by Martin Hägglund

This book is deeply engaging and thought provoking on a personal as well as political level. If you want a way in, you could start with Chris Hayes’ podcast interview with Hägglund. His work centers the meaning of time, connecting Marxist labor theory with an existential take on living life, and the imperative of democratic socialist politics.

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information
by Alberto Cairo

Good example and explanations of good and bad charts. But muddled with different kinds of lessons – about data quality, about reasoning and psychology, about science and evidence. A good read but a little unfocused.

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future
by Kate Brown

This book is brilliant and devastating. The archival research is amazing, the stories of scientists and activists and farmers and teachers and nurses are highly compelling. The outcome and conclusions are tragic and clear: we haven’t learned, yet.

The Rainbow After the Storm: Marriage Equality and Social Change in the U.S.
by Michael J. Rosenfeld

An excellent sociological history of marriage equality in the USA. Rosenfeld shows how the historical context of rapidly changing public attitudes toward homosexuality, driven by gays and lesbians coming out of the closet, and social science research on sexuality and families, created the political opportunity structure for victory in the courts. A compelling and data-rich read from a social scientist who was involved as an expert witness. (Assigned in a graduate course on family and modern theory.) Highly recommend.

Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern
by Jing Tsu

Gripping history of a mind boggling subject: the coding of Chinese. It’s cultural, technological, political, geopolitical, and literary. That the Chinese language survived the 20th century was not an assured outcome. That it will lead the next century of global society’s descent into data is not either. Great book.

Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began
by Art Spiegelman

These books are incredible and upsetting and inspiring.

Burn: New Science Reveals How Metabolism Shapes Your Body, Health, and Longevity
by Herman Pontzer

This book is excellent. I learned so much about the human metabolism and its functioning in our social and technological environment. Also, extremely well written. I tore through this book.

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It
by Richard Reeves

There are lots of good ideas in this book, but one of them that has gotten a lot of attention — starting boys a year earlier in kindergarten — is not. One good one is the idea of increasing men’s representation in health, education, and care jobs, as much as prioritizing women entering formerly-male occupations. Also, how the left sometimes bashes masculinity indiscriminately, ceding territory to the right’s embrace, which favors the toxic. It’s true that working class, and especially Black working class, men are taking a lot of historical developments on the chin, and Reeves is right to call attention to it (though what looks like gender in his analysis is sometimes more about class and race). Anyway, an interesting read.

Fiction

Our Missing Hearts
by Celeste Ng

“The brain of a librarian was a capacious place.” This novel is darkly engrossing, and makes previous Ng novels better, too. (I listened to the audiobook, read by Lucy Liu, which was great, too.)

The Every (The Circle #2)
by Dave Eggers

This is not a good book. Not creative or interesting. The characters are flat. I spent a month reading half of it. He seriously phoned this one in.

Crossroads (A Key to all Mythologies #1)
by Jonathan Franzen

A tour de force. Franzen’s life course fiction is excellent.

The Parade
by Dave Eggers

Makes me think of The Stranger meets Beyond the Pale. Not sure what to think of it. Definitely read it in a sitting with no regrets though.

Fairy Tale
by Stephen King

I listened to this one. It’s very long. Could cut it in half.

Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng

Glad I read the book before I watched the series. Excellent.

Our Country Friends
by Gary Shteyngart

Great pandemic fiction. When you’re ready.

The Searcher
by Tana French

I read all her books. Say what you want, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson

This is the only Einstein biography I’ve read, so I can’t compare. But this one definitely answers the question, “What’s the deal with Einstein, anyway?” I might not agree with all of Isaacson’s interpretations, but it’s a comprehensive story compellingly told, and highlights elements of Einstein’s character and development that resonate well for this 50+ would-be/erstwhile scientist. That is, I am inspired that Einstein had a happy and productive intellectual, personal, and political life long after his major scientific accomplishments were behind him. Also, I never took physics, and now I know much more about it.

Etc etc etc

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s