Each year around this time we send our readers into summer with a thoughtfully curated list of the titles appearing over the past 12 months that dazzled, moved, and challenged us most. This year we might add: that helped us reflect on a global public-health crisis, comforted us in our grief and anxiety, or simply served to pleasurably while away a lot of extra time indoors. For the 2020 edition of Public Picks, then, we’ve asked our editors for Technology, Literature in Translation, the B-Sides series, Videogames, TV, Global Black History, Higher Education, Literary Fiction, and the Public Thinker series to tell us what’s kept them going. We hope you’ll find some sources of solace, welcome distraction, and inspiration here as well.
Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin (Polity). Technology has always been deeply entangled with realities and fantasies of production. Emerging technologies, whether we call them AI or not, are no exception. Examining the tech-industry hype with a critical gaze, Benjamin takes that cue and argues that race itself is a technology, a productive force that architects social and racial hierarchies into the technological infrastructures of everyday life. Her engaging and fascinating analysis is a sociological tour de force that introduces the concept of the “New Jim Code” to show how technology is never neutral. One of the strongest features of this book is that it is not pessimistic, but channels an energy that is as hopeful as it is powerful.
digitalSTS: A Field Guide for Science and Technology Studies, edited by Janet Vertesi and David Ribes, coedited by Carl DiSalvo, Laura Forlano, Steven J. Jackson, Yanni Loukissas, Daniela K. Rosner, and Hanna Rose Shell (Princeton University Press). Science and Technology Studies (STS) has become a vital tool for understanding the link between technology and society—and as such has become ever more important in our increasingly computerized world. digitalSTS is a vivid collection that assembles new thinking not only on digital scholarship but also on how digital technologies can be used for research and critique. Covering a wide range of sites and cases, as well as methodological approaches, the essays are essential reading for technology scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike.
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock (MIT Press). Long awaited after the bombshell 2018 essay “Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice,” Costanza-Chock’s first monograph complicates the narrative of design’s good intentions and unpacks how universalist design principles can reinforce harm against particular communities. Although fundamentally problematizing design’s complicity with the matrix of domination (white-supremacist heteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism), this book does not condemn design per se, but argues that it can be a tool for liberation and ecological justice when it is community led.
Literature in Translation
- A Luminous Republic, by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mariner)
- Four by Four, by Sara Mesa, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore (Open Letter)
- UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, by Sarah Brouillette (Stanford University Press)
- Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, by Phillipa K. Chong (Princeton University Press)
For much of this year, my reading interests have been pulled in two rather different directions: contemporary Spanish novels and studies of literary institutions. I’m in the middle of deciphering how, exactly, I think these two interests relate to one another. But in the meantime, I thought I’d suggest a few eye-opening books that are helping me figure it out.
A couple of freshly translated novels, by Andrés Barba and Sara Mesa, look at the world through the eyes of children. Instead of turning tales of children into simple allegories for our times, these novels pay attention to the kind of critical perspective children can offer adults. Different bodies make for different forms of knowledge. Whether having to make sense of the motivations of a group of “violent” kids, as in Barba’s novel, or having to explain why certain students are being removed from a wealthy boarding school, as in Mesa’s, the adults in these novels often find themselves one step behind their youthful counterparts—an experience with which any parent can empathize.
But what are some of the institutional mechanisms by which novels not written in English, such as Barba’s and Mesa’s, make it into the anglosphere? Two new books, by Sarah Brouillette and Phillipa Chong, look at two different yet integral gears that help make the clock of the English-language publishing market tick: UNESCO’s various postwar literary programs and fiction book reviewing in the anglophone world. The books diverge dramatically in methodology: Chong’s book is a work of cultural sociology, a study whose “goal is to provide a phenomenological portrait of reviewing,” while Brouillette’s book is part intellectual history, part literary criticism, but wholly focused on placing one of the centers of global cultural policy against the backdrop of economic history. If they share anything at all, it is literary-institutional radiography of the highest quality.
The Corner That Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (NYRB Classics). Lolly Willowes (1926) is her weirdest book (as Ivan Kreikamp showed) and Kingdoms of Elfin (1977) her most charming. But bang in the middle of her career, Warner hit her stride with The Corner that Held Them (1948). Say that it’s about several generations of quietly desperate nuns in a fenland convent and you’ve only lightly stroked the pelt of this feral, enigmatic beast of a book. Its innards are something altogether strange and wonderful.
What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, by Adam Becker (Basic). A j’accuse of sorts, showing in remarkable detail how ossifications of orthodox power hierarchies can stultify even areas of seeming intellectual free play—say, theoretical physics. Originally published in 2018, What Is Real? shows the high cost of Werner Heisenberg’s flirtation with Kantian phenomenology and mystical theories of how observer consciousness might alter reality. Over four crucial decades, the “Copenhagen interpretation” developed into an ultimately coercive and repressive effort to explain away certain unavoidable contradictions where quantum physics and relativity met.
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton University Press). The heaviest birthday present I ever gave myself arrived on June 18, 2019: paperback publication day for The House of Government (Eileen Kane praised its 2017 hardback incarnation back in 2018). Almost every snapshot from the following beach week shows me clutching Slezkine’s heartbreaking anatomy of the self-destructive currents of true belief that turned Leninist hope into Stalin-era horror. When I think about Pacific surf, what comes immediately to mind is the kids raised in the apparatchik apartment block that Slezkine anatomizes: groomed for power and high ideals—and completely screwed.
Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019). In a gaming landscape where expansive open worlds have become the dominant paradigm, Disco Elysium thinks small: the entire point-and-click detective RPG takes place in a few blocks of a vaguely European city-state still picking at the scars of an abortive communist revolution. But the true world of the game is smaller yet: it’s a hilariously written, incredibly innovative representation of consciousness, forcing you to spar verbally with a raucous pantheon of detective Harry Du Bois’s inner voices.
Telling Lies (Annapurna Interactive, 2019). No game in the history of games has ever been more prescient: in its complex meditation on the personas we craft, the emotional voids we try to fill, and the gaps that we can never quite breach when we communicate over webcam, Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies captures everything wrong with the Zoomification of daily life. You play as a hacker sifting through surreptitiously obtained video calls between four interlocking characters, all played by real-life actors. It feels powerfully voyeuristic, alive with dead space.
In Other Waters (Jump Over the Age / Fellow Traveller, 2020). Whereas other games think of the “map screen” and the “bestiary” as secondary to the core experience, Gareth Damian Martin’s In Other Waters makes them literally everything: the whole game takes place within a 2D pilot’s interface, full of radial menus and chunky yellow buttons, as you guide a stranded xenobiologist through a teeming alien ocean where she collects strange specimens and unfurls a greater mystery. But the layers of mediation between you and her intensify the experience, allowing the player’s imagination to cocreate the world.
How to Get Away with Murder, created by Peter Nowalk (ABC, 2014–20). I was a Grey’s Anatomy fan, but my interest flagged when Cristina moved to Europe, then died with Derek. I was a Scandal fan, but my feminism couldn’t handle Olivia’s attachment to Fitz’s mediocrity. Then, in late 2019, in the throes of a terrible throat infection and nostalgic for my hometown of Philadelphia, I embarked on a fateful binge: I finally started watching How to Get Away with Murder. Almost immediately, mere minutes into the series premiere, I realized that HTGAWM is Shondaland’s crown jewel. And as law professor Annalise Keating, the show’s ball-busting yet deeply emotive lead, Viola Davis is that crown jewel’s crown jewel.
Each season begins with a new murder before flashing back to the interpersonal catastrophes that led up to the bloody event, with the professor and her intrepid team of law students, the “Keating Five,” solving other cases, having steamy affairs, and lying to each other throughout. And somehow, amid it all, the show manages to carry on a pretty nuanced set of conversations about race, class, gender, and sexuality. HTGAWM recently concluded its sixth and final season, so now is a great time to binge the whole series. Just try to ignore the fact that its version of Philadelphia looks a lot like Los Angeles.
The Expanse, created by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Syfy and Amazon Prime, 2015–). My current favorite sci-fi show, The Expanse, has been nominated for multiple Hugo Awards (and even won one, in 2017), yet I didn’t know of its existence until this year. Like its predecessor Battlestar Galactica, the show is filmed in Canada and features a number of wonderful actors from the region, plus the always-stunning Shohreh Aghdashloo of Iran, whose deep, gravelly voice plays its own starring role.
Based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey, The Expanse’s action spans Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets, all of which have, where possible, been colonized by humans, who now fall into an interplanetary class hierarchy: Belters on the bottom, Dusters (or Martians) in the middle, and Earthers on top. When a mysterious “protomolecule” disrupts the solar system, an interstellar crisis of space-operatic proportions ensues.
At the center of the story is the ragtag crew of the Rocinante, a retrofitted Martian gunship. The Roci’s inhabitants hail from Earth, Mars, and the Belt, so there’s as much drama on the ship as there is out in space. It takes a minute for the cast to gel, but trust me, once you make it past the first episode, you’ll be bingeing one of the smartest shows currently on TV.
Global Black History
To Exist Is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande (Pluto). To Exist Is to Resist makes a critical contribution to Black feminist scholarship by foregrounding the long history of Black women’s organizing, intellectual production, and community activism in Europe. From Switzerland to France to the United Kingdom, and through essays, testimonies, and correspondence, the contributions to this volume highlight the rich array of strategies and visions that constitute Black feminist praxis in Europe.
Sudan’s “Southern Problem”: Race, Rhetoric, and International Relations, 1961–1991, by Sebabatso C. Manoeli (Palgrave MacMillan). Read primarily as a site of civil war, Sudan is rarely at the forefront of discussions about Pan-Africanism or Black internationalism. But for Manoeli, it is precisely this peripheral location that makes Sudan an important site for examining the flow of these movements’ ideas in the Cold War period. The author makes a compelling case for a new history of the civil war in Sudan, one that decenters militarization and foreign aid, and instead foregrounds the narratives that the government and rebels crafted to gain legitimacy in international opinion.
Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, by Bryan Alexander (Johns Hopkins University Press). “Imagine a future academy after a pandemic has struck the world.” Academic Next is a very important book. Written before the pandemic, published a few short months ago, in the before times, when the pandemic remained a hypothetical event, Academic Next will live as the first book about the transformational, traumatic effects that have changed US colleges and universities in the first quarter of 2020. For Alexander, US higher education exists in a dynamic and ever-changing context of geopolitics, demographics, climate change, technology, and, yes, public health. He makes it clear: the pandemic may be a “black swan” event, but the pressures of transformation are formidable. The imminence of the change Alexander predicts? It is already in the rearview mirror.
Weather, by Jenny Offill (Knopf). Impeccable timing, to release this book in early February. Awful timing, on my part, to read it in mid-March. The setting: Brooklyn (naturally), sometime around now; that is, when the only reasonable response to the future is some variety of prepping. The protagonist: a university librarian, married with child, greeting every sign of the end of days—bodily, political, environmental—with mordant one-liners, as if running a vaudeville routine in a monastery. At the end of the novel, an achievement: she goes for a walk, her dread in temporary abeyance. Unable to do that myself, I found myself even more trapped with my panic. Very much, and not at all, the novel for right now.
Vivian, by Christina Hesselholdt, translated from the Danish by Paul Russell Garrett (Fitzcarraldo). Maybe the closest I’ve ever come to daily proximity to a great artist was with Vivian Maier, the photographer whose enormous oeuvre was largely created while she worked for decades as a nanny in the Chicago suburb where I was raised. Not that I knew it, or her; almost no one did, at least until 2007, when some of her work was auctioned off; it began to gain fame shortly after her death, in 2009. (As for that work, think Garry Winogrand, but with an acerbic wit that is at once mocking and self-mocking.) I’ve wondered if I ever saw her with her Rolleiflex, or she me.
Hesselholdt’s novel—narrated in a panoply of voices, from Maier’s complacent employers to the troubled European relations from whom she fled into willed anonymity—imagines just that: the ways in which photographer and unwitting subject intersect, the hunger of the artist to both vanish and appropriate. Vivian is a multiply refracted picture of the causes and costs of that hunger, of the damaged émigré artist who hid in suburban attics in order to live a perfectly vicarious life. So with Hesselholdt herself, who teases out the vicariousness of her own project, the maps and guidebooks a Danish novelist needs to capture a country and a time—the American Midwest, the 1960s and ’70s—she otherwise doesn’t know. It’s a novel that courts sentimentality but finally resists it, and in fact ends with the novelist interrogating her recalcitrant subject, who refuses to submit.
Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (New Directions). A torrent—at a first read it is viscerally gripping, particularly at the level of its extraordinarily elongated yet propulsive sentences and its lurid, complex murder plot. Only later does one begin to come to terms with how formally ingenious it is in broader terms, particularly in its way of narrating the damaged sociality of austerity, narco-cartel predation, and state corruption as represented by the tattered remains of an oil economy in a small Veracruz town. There were many novels about the pathologies of male violence this year, but this one, an entirely new compound of different strains of modernist practice, will, I think, last with me longest.
B. R. Cohen
Public Thinker Series
American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865, by Jeremy Zallen (University of North Carolina Press). Maybe I’m jaded, but in my experience, calling a book academic means calling it good for libraries and grad seminars, not for home shelves or friendly conversations. Jeremy Zallen’s American Lucifers could be mistaken for one of those so-called academic books except that it’s basically riveting. Put it on your shelf; tell your friends. People used a whole lot of things to make light before electricity came around, like whales, pigs, and pine tar. Getting those resources was brutal. Children, women, and enslaved laborers did a lot of it. Child laborers would glow from making phosphorous-tipped matches. Workers’ jaws would fall off from too much toxic exposure. Zallen explains it all.
Recollections of My Nonexistence, by Rebecca Solnit (Viking). Rebecca Solnit’s new one is a memoir of gender, writing, and violence. The writing is affecting, the subject matter is hard. Unflinching might be a good word. I don’t know how she does it. Solnit has 21 books, by my count, and all of them stand out for their consistent deliberations on hope, grief, encouragement, and sincerity. This is by no means an undernoticed book, but if we’re talking about thinking in public, we’re talking about Solnit.
Public Picks 2019
Literature in Translation
Blood Sisters, by Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee (Deep Vellum). The first novel by feminist poet Kim Yideum tells the story of a young woman in 1980s South Korea, navigating college life, the emotional consequences of political turmoil, and the terrifying burden of histories of violence wrought by patriarchy and cultural conservatism. As she deals with the traumas of a family member’s death, a friend’s suicide, and her own sexual assault, there is something powerfully irrefutable about the narrator’s untethered unloading of confessions, observations, and scathing rage. Lee’s multifaceted translation captures the character’s contradictions—expressing the uncontrollable forces of sorrow, apathy, confusion—and the hope that having a voice is a way to freedom.
They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears, by Johannes Anyuru, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (Two Lines). From the opening scene—amid the chaos and horror of a terrorist attack at a bookstore in Sweden, the narrator, a girl strapped in a bomb vest, experiences an intense disorientation—this novel unfolds layer by layer, only to reveal evermore overlapping layers. The story shifts back and forth between present and past and future, between planes of reality, between flashbacks, from the point of view of the girl, now in a psychiatric clinic, to a writer who is mysteriously compelled to return again and again to the clinic to hear and bear witness to the girl’s troubling story of time travel. A powerful exploration of memory and trauma, class warfare, racism and xenophobia, family and love, identity and ideology.
China Dream, by Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Counterpoint). The tragedy of this satire is that many of its absurdities are real: the novel follows the trajectory of Ma Daode, a Chinese party official in a newly appointed position tasked with replacing citizens’ private dreams with president Xi Jinping’s national vision of a communal China Dream. Soon, however, this dream is disrupted and the trajectory begins to fall when Director Ma’s own thoughts are overtaken by nightmarish flashbacks to his personal memories of the Cultural Revolution, memories that propel him to increasingly erratic and desperate behavior. It’s a bleak dystopian comedy, but Ma’s rendering also allows for a sense of cautious tenderness.