Since Public Books launched in 2012 we have published over 200 essays, interviews, and other features, including our annual “Public Picks.” Our editorial staff and contributors work hard to provide readers with thoughtful and interesting pieces, but when the workday is done—what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
I’m reading the fetchingly lightweight Penguin paperback version. Where has this book been all my life? For years, I avoided it because I thought it was about farms. Little did I know that its heroine, a masterpiece of common sense, shares my anti-bucolic sentiments: “Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy.”
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
Adopting the voice of Australia’s equivalent to Jesse James, Carey tells the story of mid-19th-century Australia. The first-person narrative can be a bit gimmicky but in addition to a rollicking story we get a great sense of the Australian landscape.
Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country
I do love a comic essayist, and Bryson does a terrific job of seeing Australia through American eyes. Since I’m American, I find reading this book more comfortable than illuminating; Bryson doesn’t make me see new things, he just expresses with great humor and verve what I’m already noticing. But when traveling, comfort is a precious commodity.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
In which one Elizabeth Bennet observes, strategizes, and sometimes misrecognizes the mating rituals of English rural society.
Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
I’m reading this third book of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series out loud to my eight-year-old son. The characters move in and out of time, space, and other characters. This kid sci-fi is also a novel about the joys and terrors of immersive reading.
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
This may be my last Pynchon, so unconvincing is the voice, so predictable is the humor, making me fear to revisit the earlier novels of his that I loved (is it him or is it me who has changed?).
Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
I initially took this off the shelf for some background on the country’s so-called economic miracle in the 1960s as it related to a translation I was working on, but then I found myself reading the book from the beginning—has any land ever been conquered by so many admirers?
John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, eds., The Craft of Translation
This essay collection includes William Weaver’s “The Process of Translation,” which manages to be both magisterial and straightforward, an exemplary teaching text from the much-loved and recently departed Bard professor.
David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood
Like everyone who has watched The Wire, I think it’s the Best Television Show Ever Written. This is the book that inspired and informed The Wire, and it’s as compelling and unflinching. It’s essential reading, I think, for anyone interested in the darkness at the heart of the American dream.
Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
I’ve been staring longingly at Ms. Davis’s new anthology in bookstores, and I’m rereading the older stories while I await the paperback. (Next year, alas, by which time I expect I’ll have read them all surreptitiously while I “browse” in McNally Jackson.)
A. K. Ramanujan, ed., Folktales from India
I’m thinking through a long essay about fairy tales and folklore, so I’m dipping into several collections to inform the piece.
Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Often described as the greatest novel about German resistance to the Nazis during WWII, the book’s biggest surprise is its unadorned style. It is, in short, a page-turner, one that dwells on the insidious brutality of Nazi rule, whose culture of petty cruelty perverts social life even as it provokes uncommon bravery in otherwise ordinary men and women.
Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, translated from the German by Jean Starr Untermeyer
Not so much a novel as a 400-page prose poem, the book is filled with long, hypnotic passages about consciousness, memory, death, and the organic connections between humans and nature.
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Everyone’s favorite anarchist anthropologist has written an impassioned history of debt (economic, moral, and religious) that argues for its signal importance in capitalist excess as well as abusive regimes of power more generally. He reminds us that money itself is a form of debt insured by the state, and illustrates how debt distorts communities and relationships of equality in order to justify all manner of brutality and exploitation.
Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
I read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and fell in love with his narrative style. I couldn’t wait to read this book and it doesn’t disappoint. Part American history lesson, part murder mystery, Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers who violently murder their younger brother’s wife and child, claiming that God told them to do so, providing great Mormon historical context along the way.
Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
I’ve been reading this book on my computer and phone, both of which have a home base on my nightstand. And I like to think that interfacing with Bateson via a screen somehow complements his subject material. Mind and Nature is truly enjoyable, interdisciplinary, and it’s a great introduction for readers interested in epistemology.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
This is a really great collection of essays. Some are hard to get through—they focus on uncomfortable, often grisly subject matter—but that is part of Jamison’s challenge and big question: can we empathize with others in situations where our personal discomfort begins to outweigh the “goodness” of our empathizing?
Justin Cronin, The Twelve
The fantasy/epic genre is my fluffy reading, the kinds of books I can steamroll through for quick enjoyment. This one, the second in the apocalyptic vampire trilogy that began with The Passage, is just begging for a movie deal.
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
I picked this up at The Strand for a dollar when I recognized the author. After reading O’Neill’s essay “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism,” I’m excited to read something from a man so well-traveled.