One of the great, which is to say terrible, consequences of the massive proliferation of diversions afforded by having the whole internet in your pocket everywhere you go is the absence of the long, unbroken stretches of time that are the sole requirement for reading books.
It's perfectly likely that we all consume a good deal more writing than we used to. The problem is that it's broken up into increments of tweets, posts, takes, and, when we're feeling generous, essays. These are the forms we can ingest in between and during our many other tasks. They can be skimmed, gleaned, interpolated, and deduced from the reactions of our friends and enemies.
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They can also be read and considered in full. But they don't have to be, a fact that privately flummoxes most journalists every bit as much as the shrinking industry or the constantly lowered bar.
The fact that someone felt it necessary to invent the abbreviation TL,DR says it all.
Books demand a bigger commitment. The laptop must be closed. The phone must be silenced. The music must (or should) be turned off. Books are the last of the great art forms that can't be even partially appreciated while also doing something else. We have to make time for them, and making time has never been more challenging.
Work is demanding. Money is tight. Rivals for attention abound. Plus there's the whole thing where it's somehow easier to watch 12 consecutive hours of TV than it is to budget 100 minutes to see a movie.
All of this is to say that several members of our staff expressed shame and chagrin that they hadn't managed to read more than a small handful of new books all year. An anecdotal survey of friends and acquaintances outside the building revealed a similar dilemma. As with much of contemporary existence, dire conclusions are yours to draw.
But we submit that this list invites a more salubrious inference: Here are 20 books that rewarded the time and attention they demanded. They rose above the clamor to engage, challenge, and delight us.
Oh, yeah: delight!
In pop culture, reading has long had to battle the stigma of being vegetables or medicine or whatever other boring metaphor you prefer to employ. But our top 20 books of 2017 beguiled us with the lasting thrill of ideas, analyses, and inventions too big to fit in any other form.
We hope you'll consider buying and reading a few of them, if you can find the time.
(Also, it surely means something that most of these titles are nonfiction, but that something probably has to do with the nature of working at a paper that was weekly and became fortnightly, but is also, as ever, a daily, hourly blog. It's not that we don't love fiction, but it may be that it felt like a luxury we couldn't quite afford. We'll do better next year.) SEAN NELSON
by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay, whose previous collection of essays, Bad Feminist, launched her into the public eye, is back with this book of short stories about women that society has taught us to either fear or to hate. From sisters whose intense bond is the result of being abducted as children to a woman stripping to put herself through college, Difficult Women brings to life characters who don't just survive the shitty circumstances and violence that plagues their lives, they overcome and sometimes even embrace them. Like all of Gay's work, Difficult Women takes on race, gender, and class, but this collection is more experimental than much of her previous work, with varying length, tenses, and elements of magical realism woven throughout. It's powerful, haunting work from Gay, exactly as we've come to expect. KATIE HERZOG
The Mother of All Questions
by Rebecca Solnit
The Mother of All Questions is Rebecca Solnit's excellent companion piece to Men Explain Things to Me, but it digs even deeper into the semiotics of sexual violence and power found in rape jokes, for example, or in the pages of Lolita. Twelve prescient essays with a wide range of subjects make connections between feminism, cultural erasure and silence, casual mansplaining, and examples of state-sponsored violence against women around the world. And though not every question can be easily answered, as the nuance in Solnit's writing proves, it's critical to human development that they be asked. And as the first tidal wave of the #metoo movement begins, this book is pretty much required reading. AMBER CORTES
by Laurie Frankel
Based partially on her own experiences, Laurie Frankel's This Is How It Always Is is about the trials, tribulations, questions, and unbridled delights that come along with raising a trans child. Though Poppy is only one of the family's five children, and though the socially constructed disconnect between her genitals and her gender enter the realm of public concern for 2 percent of her life, Frankel focuses the story on the mother's concerns about Poppy. That's because the world seems to be focused on concerns about Poppy. What will the first day of school be like—for a girl who has a penis!? What will a sleepover be like—for a girl who has a penis?! Can a 5-year-old even really know whether or not they're a girl with a penis? If they don't, should you encourage them one way or the other? Frankel lets you know, and she does so in way that shows how cruel people can be to each other, and how selfless. RICH SMITH
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History
By Kurt Andersen
In a year littered with portentous books about how terrible the world is now and how it got that way, this one is indispensable. The thesis is that the propensity to ignore factual evidence and invent one's own subjective reality is not only not new, it's the foundational principle of the American experiment. Andersen argues that the willingness to favor belief and individualism over rationality and empiricism is the true essence of that old saw "American exceptionalism." And he's not just whistling "Dixie" with that subtitle—though the Confederacy does get a chapter. Other examples include the Protestant Reformation (a "proto-American" uprising), Jamestown, colonialism itself, Salem, the War of 1812, P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Mormonism, alternative medicine, gaming, Burning Man, the anti-Vietnam counterculture, pro-gun activists, Christian evangelicals, and, oh yeah, the 45th president of the United States, currently priming the Fantasy Industrial Complex toward a second term. Fantasyland is a stunning achievement—cogent, compelling argument written in a tone just droll enough that you don't quite feel like stuffing the hardback down your pants so it will weigh you down when you jump off a bridge because nothing will ever get better. SEAN NELSON
In the Long Run We Are All Dead
by Geoff Mann
The title of my favorite book of the year is taken from one of the most famous passages in the history of economics: "This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead." The book's subject, John Maynard Keynes, wrote those words in 1923. What they mean is this: The future is unknowable. In this respect, and this is something author Geoff Mann brilliantly points out in the first third and best part of his book, and something Kshama Sawant would not like to hear, even socialism is not at all a known known. We have no certainty that a socialist society would be a happy one. We are, at best, and we need to be honest about this, making a guess. Judging from what we know, socialism with a functional democracy should make us happier. But there is no economic system in the world that can clear the fog from the future. Mann, a political economist and professor at Simon Fraser University, also has a brilliant section on the Haitian Revolution and Hegel's master-slave dialectic in the context of postwar development economics. CHARLES MUDEDE
The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir
by Ariel Levy
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Ariel Levy is perhaps best known for her profiles of famous people, from filmmaker John Waters to feminist Andrea Dworkin to schlubby talking head and occasional presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. But in The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy turns the microscope on herself, writing about giving birth halfway through a pregnancy, alone in a Mongolian hotel, to a baby that survived only a few minutes. The book is an expansion of "Thanksgiving in Magnolia," a 2013 New Yorker essay about that experience. But in The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy goes deeper, into romance, ambition, travel, alcoholism, and, especially, her marriage to her wife, a relationship that ultimately did not survive much longer after their child's tragic birth and death. This work is Levy grappling with the realization that her life will not be what she thought it was going to be. It's raw and emotional, and it will make even the cynics among us tear up. KATIE HERZOG
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
by Jessica Bruder
(W. W. Norton & Company)
A fascinating work of deep ethnography and compelling journalism, Nomadland takes a dismal but necessary trip through a hidden American subculture living on the road, and shows us that the retired, camper-van friendly, vagabond "nomad life" is not all it's cracked up to be. If a society can be judged on how it treats its elders, Nomadland shows us we've already lost: These transient, older Americans, victims of the recession and barely scraping by, live in RVs and are exploited as a cheap labor force by companies like Amazon (who calls these senior citizens their "camperforce" and has them do hours of heavy labor in hot fulfillment centers all over Texas). But it's not all gray skies over this itinerant America: Author Jessica Bruder catches on to the undercurrent of resilience in these people, a striving not just to survive but to make better lives for themselves. AMBER CORTES
Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary
by Pat Thomas
As leftist US political activists go, the late Jerry Rubin was Paul McCartney to the late Abbie Hoffman's John Lennon. For many years during LBJ and Nixon's fraught reigns, these two agitators—with a little help from their radical friends—were rewriting the activism handbook, with liberal doses of humor, absurdist stunts, folk and rock music, and theatrical high jinks added to the agenda. One of the infamous Yippie defendants (aka the Chicago Eight) of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial of 1969, Rubin eventually transitioned from guerrilla tactics to self-improvement/human-potential programs (est, yoga, meditation) to pioneering social-networking events. Pat Thomas's biography revivifies Rubin's eventful life and many transformations via several interviews with his comrades, enemies, and family members, hundreds of photos, documents, letters, and ephemera, and cogent analysis of his impact on American politics and culture. DAVE SEGAL
by Claire Dederer
A funny memoir about despair, Love and Trouble is also a portrait of Seattle in the 1970s and '80s. But at its core, it is a young woman's sexual coming of age, including a scene in a sleeping bag when she's 13 and a stoned adult man climbs in and presses his dick repeatedly against her naked thigh, under the stars, on Bainbridge Island. What was that? The question haunts the book. As does Roman Polanski. "Is it because I have a thirteen year old daughter, the same age Samantha Gailey was when you raped her? That seems kind of, I dunno, obvious." And yet the narrator is no innocent: Her ability to sleep with many men in college makes her "feel kind of crazy with power." She "never stopped... like shark." It is a vivid, hilarious, daring self-portrait of a book. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
Afterglow: A Dog Memoir
by Eileen Myles
Every dog lover is accustomed to the condescending disdain of people who believe the bond you share with your beloved animal companion is imaginary, pitiful, or in some way a debased substitute for the vaunted human love they alone have mastered. To such people, I can only recommend a few hours with Afterglow, a memoir of dog love by the celebrated poet Eileen Myles that gets inside the glorious, edifying perversity of the human-canine relationship like no other book I've ever seen. Written with the discursive frankness that distinguishes Myles's poetry (and with none of the corn syrup you might expect from the words "dog memoir"), the book argues for an expansion of the vocabulary of love and life by showing that vocabulary in action—from a consideration of the muscles in a pit bull's anus to a transcendental meditation on the nature and texture of sea foam. And many other paths besides (e.g., gender, plaid, Kurt Cobain). The time we spend with Myles and Rosie—as with all time spent in or around love—reframes a universe deeply in need of reframing. SEAN NELSON
by Franklin Foer
I didn't fully appreciate the monopolistic, anti-democratic, and freakishly utopian ambitions of the four big tech firms until Franklin Foer laid them all out in this helpful, historical look at the origins of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. In a snooty, sort of tweedy tone that I don't mind one bit, Foer reveals the CEOs of those companies as sham populists—Harvard grads who keep careful watch of their gates even as they decry the so-called gatekeepers of knowledge, entertainment, social advancement, and commerce. His prophesy of The Big One—the cataclysmic tech event that brings down an unknown pillar of society—still keeps me up at night, even if it hasn't made me randomize all my passwords. RICH SMITH
Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium
by John Corbett
(Duke University Press)
For 12 years, music critic and record-label owner John Corbett wrote a column called Vinyl Freak in Downbeat magazine that spotlighted ultra-obscure records that he thought deserved greater recognition and appreciation. The man's knowledge is deep and vast, and his tastes epicurean and rarefied, so the column yielded a treasure trove of hot tips for people into strange and wonderful music—especially that in the out-jazz, avant-garde, and experimental realms. This book collects Corbett's columns, adds annotations to them, and includes some autobiographical chapters about the pleasures and pains of being a record collector and the bizarre tale about how he became the overseer of Sun Ra manager Alton Abraham's voluminous archives. If you're a record nerd, Vinyl Freak is a valuable resource that you'll want to consult often as you seek to accumulate more life-giving artifacts from music's fascinating fringes. DAVE SEGAL
Some poets conclude that life is suffering while observing a bird trying but failing to flee a dark and dusty attic. In Anastacia-Reneé's (v.), one speaker concludes that life is suffering while a paternalistic doctor sticks his whole hand inside her vagina during an STI test in the high-risk pregnancy wing of the health clinic as he slings racist slurs her way. I say this not to diminish poets who write about birds (in fact, one of my favorite poems in (v.) employs the elusive baby pigeon), but rather to highlight Anastacia-Reneé's interest in writing poems about the stuff that's hard to say, the stuff that's embarrassing to say, and the stuff that doesn't necessarily make friends. See for reference: her class critiques of activism, her suspicion of extreme Michelle Obama fans, and her liberal use of puns. You might think I'm joking on that last point! But I'm not. People hate puns, but she uses them so well. She'll often draw your attention to the "mourn" in morning or the "cyst" in systemic, as if the English language itself had foretold the troubles her speakers face. Her use of pun as prophesy and escape hatch points to a sad irony in poetry: You might be able to escape the fixed meaning of a word, but you can't escape fate. RICH SMITH
by Patricia Lockwood
Comedians aren't funny, as anyone who isn't currently rushing Phi Gamma Delta could tell you. But Patricia Lockwood—a poet, essayist, and occasional political reporter—is very funny. It took me a few pages to abandon my expectations of a strong narrative thread for the pure linguistic pleasure of Lockwood's sentences and storytelling abilities—but once I did, I laughed harder and with more frequency than I ever had while reading a memoir about someone born in the 1980s. (If you can read the story titled "The Cum Queens of Hyatt Place" with a straight face, then you died frowning long ago.) As she describes her extremely unique Catholic upbringing and her entrée into the literary world, she renders the sacred profanely and the profane sacredly so deftly and with such intelligence that it's impossible to imagine even her most pious targets taking offense. But it's not all gags. Her contemplative, deeply reflective moments punch just as hard as her jokes. RICH SMITH
by Ben Blum
The unlikely story of a math prodigy and a bank robber, the math prodigy being the author of the book and the bank robber being his Army Ranger cousin, Ranger Games sets out to answer what it is that elite military training does to a young man's mind. Is it true what the cousin says, that Army Ranger training traumatized him? (It does sound awful: People pouring Tabasco sauce in their eyes and stabbing their earlobes with knives just to stay alert after days of sleep deprivation in freezing conditions.) Or was there some other explanation for the cousin's role in robbing a Bank of America, in Tacoma, shortly before he was supposed to deploy to Iraq? The book becomes a quest to figure out the truth—and each time it circles back to the robbery, something new emerges. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
by Sarah Schulman
(Arsenal Pulp Press)
If we all don't take time to learn, understand, accept, and practice the thesis Sarah Schulman puts forth in this "undisciplined" and yet scholarly piece of popular psychology, then we're all going to tear each other apart in a little less than three years. Her idea is this: People/states/countries in uncomfortable but not abusive situations too quickly embrace the rhetoric of victimhood and then use that self-subordinated position as an excuse to justify their cruel actions. (See for reference: Trump voters/white nationalists, criminalizing HIV in Canada, the Israel/Palestine conflict.) According to Schulman, the only way to solve this problem of conflating conflict with abuse is for all parties involved to keep calm and talk it out in person (NOT online or over the phone). If that doesn't work, parties must seek what she calls "accountable witnesses"—friends, family, community leaders, other nations—to arbitrate the conflict. That's it. That's the process. It's harder than it sounds, because it requires us to be in the same room with each other and to agree on one version of reality—but at this point, anything sounds better than Twitter. RICH SMITH
The Best We Could Do
by Thi Bui
In her debut graphic-novel memoir, Thi Bui, on the verge of first-time parenthood, traces her feelings of both fear and love back to her family, who were refugees after the Vietnam War and came to the United States in a boat. Bui's light pink and blue hues of watercolor splashed over her illustrations give a sensitive touch to the memories and emotional worlds that she and her family inhabit. Like in Persepolis, you'll learn about how the trauma of war, political instability, and sudden migrations can tear a family apart, through the lens of her parents, whose captivating life stories make it impossible to put the book down. AMBER CORTES
by Morgan Parker
In this collection, which was included on several of this year's "best of" and "most anticipated" lists, and which won Rich Smith's Favorite Title for a Book of Poetry Award 2017, Morgan Parker uses Beyoncé's hyper-visibility as a celebrity to explore the many facets of black womanhood. The poems are melancholy, highly allusive, formally various, tonally dramatic, introspective, vulnerable, and just plain good. In a swirl of beautiful and horrifying imagery, of glam blues and glum smiles, of contradictions and paradoxes, Parker ultimately puts forth a potent thesis about the nature of the authentic self: "It's the least static thing in the world." RICH SMITH
By Jami Attenberg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A formal, tonal, and colloquial breakthrough for the author of several very fine novels (The Middlesteins, Saint Mazie). This one feels major because the craft is invisible, revealing the doubly impressive craft of seeming informal. Meanwhile, it's also direct and funny and sad and involving and complex and personal and universal, and many other things besides (including short!). It's about a New York woman knocking on the door of 40, trying to convince herself that she has refused, rather than failed, to live up to traditional cultural expectations for a woman of her age and station. Not much happens, but because the real topography is internal, a million things happen. Andrea's ambivalence is heroic. Her inner monologue—more like an inner interrogative—is part inquiry, part fortress. She's the kind of character people like to accuse of excessive "self-regard." But that's the price Andrea, and everyone, pays for singleness. Attenberg emphasizes the part of "regard" that simply means to observe; like when Kristin Hersh sings: "I keep looking in the mirror / afraid that I won't be there." The self is the subject, because guess what? The self is the subject. It may not be pretty, but look around. SEAN NELSON
by Hillary Clinton
(Simon & Schuster)
Who knows what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had presented her candidacy as an aspirational message about the first woman in history to break a monumental barrier? She admits in this book that her team never figured out how to tell that story, or even women's liberation generally: "I wish I had claimed it more publicly and told it more proudly." Instead the campaign focused on everyone, "women and men," as she always said, being "stronger together." It's full of detail that resonates in the #metoo movement. There's a blind date she had to slap because he would not take no for an answer. There's a guy working with her on Jimmy Carter's campaign who grabbed her by the turtleneck and pulled her toward him and hissed, "Just shut up." And don't get her started on Matt Lauer. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
BESTIES: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House), We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World), The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Riverhead), The Raincoats by Jenn Pelly (Continuum), Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers (Dey Street), The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone (Workman Publishing Company), Bunk by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press), Ugly Time by Sarah Galvin (Gramma Press), Catcall by Holly Melgard (Ugly Duckling Presse), Other Russias by Victoria Lomasko (n+1), Boyfriends by Tara Atkinson (Instant Future), Nature Poem by Tommy Pico (Tin House), While Standing in Line for Death by CA Conrad (Wave Books), Unreal City by D.J. Bryant (Fantagraphics), Why Poetry by Mathew Zapruder (Ecco), My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics), Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Lenny), Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield (Dey Street), The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel (Harper), Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (Simon & Schuster), Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (Harvill Secker)