What were the books of 2022 that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us? For this, the 10th-annual edition of Public Picks, section editors for Disability, Global Black History & Theory, Sports, and Higher Education; series editors for Public Thinker and B-Sides; and one of our editors in chief tell us about their favorites. Round out your year with one of these Public Books Public Picks!
Disabilities of the Color Line: Redressing Antiblackness from Slavery to the Present, by Dennis Tyler (NYU Press). For too long, a conceivable but unfounded myth has been endemic in disability studies: the idea that Black thinkers have distanced themselves from affiliations with disability in contesting the racist construction of Blackness as inherently disabled. Disabilities of the Color Line puts this theory to bed once and for all, establishing a robust record of Black intellectuals’ sustained and complex engagement with disability as both a stigma and a literal condition that white supremacist legal and political systems impose upon Black people. Even as the writers and activists at the heart of Disabilities of the Color Line—from David Walker to Charles Chesnutt to Mamie Till-Mobley—demand a recognition of the traumatic and deadly machinations of racialized disablement, they do not reject affiliations with disability. Rather, Tyler shows, they “avow the disabled beauty and abundance of Black life—a life that, though conditioned and constrained by the color line’s longue durée, is so precious and resilient it cannot be torn asunder.”
Public Thinker Series
On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays, by Emily Ogden (University of Chicago Press). “I am skeptical of what I love, and of whether I love it or have been pretending, all this time, to be the kind of person who would.” The premise of this Public Books article is to endorse books, which usually happens by explaining what the book is or does; but with Ogden’s collection of short essays, my impulse is to say less rather than more, so readers can find them on their own. I will admit, nonetheless, that her use of language kept making me think: I didn’t know words could go together that way, I didn’t know moods and experiences and fears and loves could be explored as Ogden does it. I am not skeptical of how much I love this book.
Editor in Chief
The Longcut, by Emily Hall (Dalkey Archive). No first paragraph of a novel this year drew me in like this one, and no novelistic voice this year stayed with me so long. Hall’s short but dense first-person novel is a Gertrude Steinian take on the life of the contemporary artist, the day jobs and anxious performances of self, the theoretical blind alleys and, as her narrator calls it, the sheer amount of just dicking around. Most of all, it takes the deadpan voice of so much contemporary autofiction and estranges it into loops of hallucinogenic comedy. Syntax is Hall’s subject: its bizarre logics and the shame of how we get coiled in it; how recursive and bizarre and finally impossible syntax becomes when we talk about art, and how much warping syntax can do. Best of all, perhaps: like Bernhard’s The Woodcutters, this is a novel about art that ends, exhilaratingly, with an artist breaking into a run.
On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays, by Emily Ogden (University of Chicago Press). I savored each one of these short ruminative pieces, not least because they are so brilliantly atopical. That is, they are not limited to anything so narrow as a “topic,” but they are also so free to play with several topoi, or spaces, that are both lovingly described and also lifted off from: various little runways Odgen uses to ascend. Take the tour de force of “How to have a breakthrough,” which starts in the gilded cave of John of Patmos, the Greek Orthodox shrine visited by pilgrims and tourists, and then lifts off to think of other kinds of protective covering, from the apotropaic charms so common in Greece to the wrappings in which we place our possessions, our scars, and our loves. When we touch down again at the essay’s end, we’re in an American backyard, mulching and digging, moving between the need to cover up and the need to break through to the vital dirt. (Along the way, we hear from several other voices, including the too-little-known poet Mona Van Duyn.) So many of these essays dip and soar, between their takeoff and landing, with deceptive ease; but for all their elegance, there’s a tough sinew to the thought that keeps them up in the air.
Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year, by Donald Moss (Routledge). I don’t look forward to the Covid literature of the future; I don’t yet see how it could tell me anything useful, revelatory, or galvanizing. Maybe it’s just that, on this topic, I prefer escapism, and thanks in advance for your cooperation. But the poetic assemblages collected here by the psychoanalyst Donald Moss were, for me, an unexpected exception. Starting in March 2020, having taken refuge outside New York and conducting his sessions virtually, Moss made it his practice to extract one sentence from each session, and then construct out of those sentences, denuded of context, a daily poem. The result is 189 poems of peculiar beauty and range— the sounds of distress in all its many registers, mordant and epigrammatic and ingenious. It’d be hard to imagine a better record of pandemic life, because it’d be hard to imagine a form that better manages to respect what’s been both its specificity and its commonness, the special way Covid amplified the full range of usual human unhappiness.
Global Black History
The World We Make, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit). In the second installment in her Great Cities Trilogy, fantasy author N. K. Jemisin delivers another apocalyptic page turner that envelops the reader into a world at the precipice of peril. This time, instead of battling a tentacular monster set to crush Williamsburg, an alien named R’lyeh threatens New York City. Enter the human avatar avengers, a multi-ethnic cast of characters we encountered in the first book in the series, The City We Became. Each of the boroughs is personified by avatars who have evolved in character development from the prequel. Padmini Prakash, who represents Queens, is a graduate student of Tamil heritage who faces deportation to India; Bronca Siwanoy, who is the Bronx, is a Lenape woman in her in her 60s with a PhD and works at a community arts center; Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a single mother, is a candidate for mayor of New York; Manny, who represents Manhattan, is in the midst an identity crisis; and the primary avatar of New York City, NYC (pronounced “Neek”) Asilyn Houlihan is Staten Island, the daughter of a cop, and is estranged from the rest of the avatars. Expanding the universe beyond the boroughs, Veneza is Jersey City. Jemisin deftly addresses the racial politics of the housing crisis and gentrification as part of the threat of xenophobic white supremacy, personified, too, in New York City.
A prolific sci-fi author, she is a worldbuilder whose universes mirror our contemporary ongoing urban crises. Jemisin does not shy away from issues of race, and provides an allegory of the current struggles facing an increasing inequal New York City as a microcosm of a world under threat by fascist monsters. Jemisin dedicated her book The Fifth Season, “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” In doing so, she crafts a genre of her own by representing those who have been systematically silenced. The World We Make is an optimistic book full of action and hope as a parable about inequality and social difference at the end of the world.
We Slaves of Suriname, by Anton de Kom (Polity). At long last, the revolutionary Black diasporic text Wij slaven van Suriname has been translated into English. This long-awaited version of the book, which is a classic in the Dutch-speaking world and Caribbean, was published by Polity this year. Anton de Kom was a Dutch resistance fighter who died in a concentration camp in 1945 during World War II. He was born in the former Dutch colony in South America Dutch Guiana, now Suriname, to an enslaved African. Exiled to the Netherlands in 1933 for being a political dissident, he wrote We Slaves of Suriname on the history of Black life and struggle in the Dutch Caribbean. The book is a classic of anticolonial Black leftist thought, which provides the first book of Surinamese history written by a Surinamese person.
In his time and his native country, De Kom faced bitter censorship, but that is no explanation for why it has taken so long for this text to appear in English. Renewed attention to his legacy has been championed by those fighting for the advocacy of Black lives in the Netherlands and the former Dutch Empire. De Kom tackles the history of abolition and slavery, the status of Maroon communities, and the contours of colorism in post-emancipation society. De Kom paints the horizon for Black Suriname’s future with his stylistic sensibility that is a vision for a truly sovereign nation. This translation of We Slaves of Suriname will hopefully lead to other translations and reoriented global attention to the perspective and experience of the Dutch-speaking world, which comprises a significant and often overlooked part of the Black diaspora in the Anglophone world.
More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry, edited by Kayo Chingonyi (Canongate Books). Taking the role of editor as an MC, Zambian-born Black British professor, poet, and DJ Chingonyi presents the reader with his intergenerational lineup of poets that he sees as a dream mixtape of Black British voices. The book is a follow-up to the groundbreaking 1998 anthology The Fire People, edited by Lemn Sissay, which was written in a very different political moment. The 21st century volume includes authors such as Jason Allen-Paisant, Raymond Antrobus, Janette Ayachi, Dean Atta, Malika Booker, Eric Ngalle Charles, Dzifa Benson, Inua Ellams, Samatar Elmi, Keith Jarrett, Anthony Joseph, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa, Rachel Long, Adam Lowe, Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Louisa Adjoa Parker, Roger Robinson, Denise Saul, Kim Squirrell, Warsan Shire, Keisha Thompson, and Kandace Siobhan Walker. Encompassing poets whose roots span the Black diaspora in Britain from various Afro-Caribbean experiences and across the African Continent, the book includes almost 100 poems by 34 authors.
The prism of Black vantages forms a challenge to xenophobic and rampant white nationalism in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, where the simple fact of representation is not sufficient. While Black literature in the UK has thrived and sustained itself with the foundation of independent publishers, presses, and bookshops that form the pulse of the literary community, hopefully it will not be another 20 years before the next mainstream anthology of Black British poetry is published. This year marked a continuation of the shift in the membership and diversity (race, gender, sexuality, age) of the Royal Society of Literature with a record number of Black inductees and inductees of color, including Chingonyi and Sissay. Each champions the sound of new Black voices and amplifies the transatlantic Black poetic voices of the past that are overdue recognition.
Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation, by Camonghe Felix (One World). Dyscalculia is described as a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to comprehend mathematics. Writer and poet Camonghne Felix titles her latest book on heartbreak and psychic vulnerability for this condition because of her missteps and blunders in loving perhaps too deeply. She reckons with disproportionate asymmetries of unrequited love and betrayed trust. Giving us a mathematics of Black life and love, from the first page the reader is pulled into the deep end of a powerfully honest memoir of what it means to be lovesick. Felix reflects in hindsight on the miscalculation of the romantic investments and emotions of others. She fearlessly explores personal childhood trauma, abuse, and the magnitude of negotiating pain and shame. It is all part of process of potential healing, of which writing might prove part of the antidote.
A heartbeat ahead of the reader, Felix writes her prose as poet does, pacing a rollercoaster narrative of desire, longing, and passion. The National Book Award-nominated author reorders the terms of endearment by pushing the reader to question the orders of emotional measurement we are conditioned to consider as universal. Shifting in and out of focus. she shows us that how to love is all relative. Felix’s narrative is as much about the wounds and scars of what it means to love as it is about self-preservation as a political act for Black women.
Rickey: The Life and Legend of An American Original, by Howard Bryant (Mariner Books). The latest from sportswriter and cultural critic, Howard Bryant, is an outstanding biography of Rickey Henderson, arguably the greatest player in baseball history. Bryant tells the story of Henderson’s extraordinary 25-year Major League career, skillfully situating the abundantly talented Henderson within the context of the longer history Black migration and community formation. Henderson was a stylist: a trickster figure who developed his own unique playing style, while insisting on getting paid for his prodigious achievements. Bryant shows how Henderson epitomized the experiences of the Black athlete who was resented by fans and the white sports establishment during the 1980s as salaries for athletes were escalating. Though Rickey is a treat for baseball fans, readers interested in Black history will be enriched by Bryant’s entertaining and incisive book.
Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports, by Clayton Trutor (University of Nebraska Press). Clayton Trutor’s book is an atypical sports history. It eschews the model of sport history that celebrates the efforts of visionary businessmen who pioneered the arrival of professional sports franchises. On the contrary, Trutor offers readers a counterhistory of futility, showing how unsuccessful Atlanta has been as a sports city. He argues, contrary to the promises of civic elites, that professional sports in Atlanta did not bring communities together or become durable cultural institutions. In the process, Loserville offers a nuanced account of Atlanta’s history of race, sports, and development. Sport and society historians and readers interested in Atlanta’s racial history will enjoy this book.
There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life, by Jafari S. Allen (Duke University Press, 2022). At once an intellectual history, a manifesto, a self-reflexive ethnography, and a memoir, Allen’s book is a genre-defying text that revises our understanding of the Black experience. His kaleidoscopic analysis of the intellectual output and the cultural practices—what he calls “Black gay habits of mind”—have contested racism and homo and transphobia. The book beautifully conveys the paradigm shifting worldmaking projects of Black queeractivists, artists, and thinkers during the 1980s and 90s, even in the midst of the cataclysmic impact of the AIDS crisis. There’s a Disco Ball Between Us is a tour de force that offers a completely new understanding of Black life and the Black Freedom Struggle
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). What a delight to find out that everything you thought about a 10,000 year span was wrong. Even better when it turns out that you had Hobbes and Rousseau for company, not to mention Jared “Guns Germs and Steel” Diamond and Yuval “Sapiens” Hariri. All of them, by Wengrow and Graeber’s persuasive telling, shoehorned the actual cultural diversity of thousands of communities large and small into a single misleadingly teleological progression. The delights of this massive book are often tiny and specific: what really went down when Cortez sought allies in Mexico (democratic deliberations in anti-Aztec cities); what 16th century Jesuit texts reveal about North American theories of freedom and autonomy. But the overall claims are huge: societies developed in contradistinction to their neighbors; seasonal political forms differed hugely from one another; there is no proven correlation between the rise of agriculture and oligarchic bureaucracies. “Corn kings” and Cahokia (now East St. Louis) will never look the same again.
A Brief History of Equality, by Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press). Piketty’s new book—cut from the same cloth as Capital in the 21st Century and Capital and Ideology, but so much shorter—has two abiding historical lessons. The first is that “the most fundamental transformations seen in the history of inegalitarian regimes involve social conflicts and large-scale political crises.” His examples are good ones: it was the peasant revolts of 1788—1789 and the events of the French Revolution that led to the abolition of the nobility’s privileges. Similarly, it was not muted discussions in Paris salons, but, instead, the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791 that led to the beginning of the end of the Atlantic slavery system. In the course of the 20th century, social and trade-union mobilizations” ushered in a true wave of mid-20th century income-levelling. Whether or not Piketty is correct about equality’s continuing rise in the subsequent half-century, his second lesson rings true as a bell: “Human societies constantly invent rules and institutions in order to structure themselves and to divide up wealth and power, but always on the basis of reversible political choices.” Like water finding its level, the wealth that has been pooled up by the few may yet flow out to the many. The wrong life can be righted, if enough people are willing to reverse the political choices that apotheosized the 1%
Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, by Laura Ypi (W. W. Norton & Company). The best thing to come out of my 12 hours in Albania this summer was not the ancient Roman synagogue in downtown Saranda. It was Laura Ypi’s book: half childhood memoir, half disquisition on what freedom meant in the late torqued socialism of post-Hoxha Albania. The book begins with a persuasive glimpse of a childhood carved out beneath the shadow of Stalinist pillboxes, and ends with some hard truths about what that upbringing trained her to see about the capitalist, plutocratic London that is her current home.
The English Understand Wool, by Helen DeWitt (New Directions). A delightful bagatelle? Certainly. A lesson about human nature worth pairing with her 2000 debut, The Last Samurai, which Toril Moi praised so eloquently in Public Books? Could be!
Identitti: A Novel, by Mithu Sanyal, translated by Alta L. Price (Astra House). Recently translated from German to English, Mithu Sanyal’s novel Identitti tackles the topic of ethnic fraud in academia. This dark comedy follows revelations that an academic rockstar public intellectual, Saraswati, is not Indian, but, instead, a white German woman. Inspired by the Rachel Dolezal story but still relevant to recent revelations about “pretendians” and fictive claims to Black and Latinx ancestry in higher education, Identitti offers useful commentary on the nature of identity politics within academia in the age of social media.
A Primer for Teaching Digital History: Ten Design Principles, by Jennifer Guiliano (Duke University Press). With the substantial role it has played in higher education since the onset of the pandemic, teaching with technology is an area in need of robust scholarship. For humanities faculty, A Primer for Teaching Digital History fills this gap with a well-organized and comprehensive guide to assignments, digital tools, and pedagogical approaches that assist with teaching not only history but also literature, art, music, and culture. Guiliano’s eminently practical guide is as valuable for experienced digital pedagogies as those just getting started.
Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color, by Lorgia Garcia Peña (Haymarket). While Lorgia Garcia Peña first came to national attention in 2019 for her high-profile tenure denial at Harvard, she was well known in Latinx studies, Caribbean studies, and ethnic studies for her groundbreaking scholarship, inspiring teaching, and mentorship of early career scholars. She draws on this vast experience in Community as Rebellion to advocate for remaking universities into spaces of liberation for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian American women. Part personal narrative, part theoretical meditation, part political analysis, Garcia Peña’s book offers trenchant critique of the university today, along with hope for the possibility of imagining otherwise in higher education.
Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, by Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University Press) In the face of overwhelming forces—pandemics, systemic racism, the mainstreaming of fascism—finding agency and a way to make a difference can feel futile. Undeterred, Ruha Benjamin’s Viral Justice offers a framework for understanding seemingly small and individual decisions as ones that can be powerful, and perhaps even change the world. Weaving together memoir, family history, and political analysis, Benjamin provides a look into another possible world: a more just and equitable one.