What were the books of 2023 that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us? For this, the 11th-annual edition of Public Picks, section editors for Systems & Futures, Sociology, Global Black History, and Literary Fiction; series editors for Public Thinker and B-Sides; and our managing editor, assistant editor, and one of our editors in chief tell us about their favorites. Take a look back on 2023 with one of these Public Books Public Picks!
SYSTEMS & FUTURES
A Date With Language by David Crystal (Bodleian). Perhaps the nerdiest and simultaneously most delightful book I have purchased in long while A Date with Language is a classic book of days. 366 1 entries each a single page long and each devoted to a particularity, peculiarity (and occasional peccadillo) of linguistic and literary history. Births and Deaths abound, of authors known and unknown, but here recorded, eulogized, and quoted at length. And since there are many days without much of linguistic historical note, Crystal has ample opportunity and space to explore aspects of language that interest him. 12 May, National Limerick Day; 28 February, Global Scouse Day; 20 September, National Gibberish Day. One can read it as a grandmother (though not mine) might approach a book of prayer and read one page a day, always on the correct day. Or one can open it and read a week’s worth of entries all in the wrong order. Crystal nicely gives fodder to the latter style by providing cross references and an index, plus copious footnotes for those who want to know more about Chinua Achebe or Aphra Behn or International Tea Day. I use it as a reference book when I need a quick reminder of some aspect of something I’d once learned but long since forgotten, but more often I read it for the pleasure of it, as each entry is a magnificent tiny work of art. Not a single word was penned in haste, you can feel it as you read and it seems to slow the world down a beat. Perhaps taking pause was always the point of a book of days, regardless it is here achieved.
The Mona Lisa Vanishes: A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity by Nicholas Day, illustrated by Brett Helquist (Random House Studio). Rarely does one witness the birth a genre, this one so hidden in the norms of the title you’d be forgiven for missing the revolution hidden in plain sight. This is a nonfiction book written for young adults. Cruise through the young adult section of any bookstore and you’ll find 10,000 books about vampires and witches but not a true word in sight, as though we have to grow up to be readers of stories crafted from the stuff of this world. Granted, popular nonfiction does take lessons from great fiction—from character to caper—but The Mona Lisa Vanishes, like any good nonfiction book, is grounded in solid research and a striking desire to teach the reader not just about the story of the heist but the social context within which Leonardo da Vinci lived and painted. The book is two stories in one, with illustrations by Brett Helquist (of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame) that make the book feel not too grown up, but also never childish. It was only after reading this book that my own 12 year old stopped asking me why I don’t write “real” books with stories and understood at last that the world is full of stories and that books can tell these stories and also be real books. A mind was changed. Rarely does any author accomplish so much.
Public Thinker Series
The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight by Andrew Leland (Penguin). There’s something both universal and personal about this memoir by a writer who has retinitis pigmentosa (RP). I can’t claim to have the experiences that someone slowly losing their eyesight over their adult life has had. In the universal sense, though, The Country of the Blind is cartographical, mapping roads we all travel. It’s about how we navigate life, how we encounter new spaces, build deeper understandings of familiar and practiced places, how we decide which road to take, who we will run across along the way, how we react to them, how we know what to make of a scene. It’s a memoir about forms of connection and understanding amid the difficulties of connection and understanding. It is also a personal book about one man’s experience losing his eyesight in a world built for the sighted. The combo of universal and personal works because Leland is eloquent without being floral, broadminded without being superficial or wan. It’s a revelation. This memoir may appear to be about the narrowing of vision, but when you pick it up you realize it is about growing into a more expansive world.
I read a lot of short story collections in 2023, and three of them landed among my very favorite books of the year. Witness by Jamel Brinkley (FSG) confirms Brinkley’s place as a contemporary master of the short story. The ten stories in this book follow the lives of New Yorkers as they move through a city changed by gentrification, and through their own lives changed by the shifting nature of what families, friends, and partners mean to each other in landscapes of loss and difficult pasts, as in the dazzling and heartbreaking title story in which a man bears witness to his sick sister as she attempts to heal herself through incense and crystals and library books, collecting “as much information as she could, as furiously as she could, about the lives and trials, real and imagined, of Black people everywhere” as the medical system fails her and other Black women time and again. Reading this book, I was reminded over and over of the vast possibility of a single sentence to transform a story and leave the reader reeling.
The stories in Ada Zhang’s The Sorrows of Others (A Public Space Books) are set in the Chinese diaspora, from there zooming in on the lives and intimacies of individuals to reveal unspoken histories and unknown futures, as in the devastating “Knowing,” in which a girl in Texas learns of buried family secrets from her math tutor, a family friend she is told to call “Grandfather,” and though they are “not connected by blood,” they are forever linked by the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang writes meaning into silence unlike any other writer I know: “Soon the morning would … close the door on the careful quiet that roomed this conversation. I knew we might never open it again.” A must-read of 2023 from the kind of writer you’ll follow for a lifetime.
Gen Del Raye’s Boundless Deep (University of Nebraska Press) is a hallmark of boundless imagination. Stories of a family across several generations, in Japan and the US, are interspersed with crisp, short pieces—slim historical journeys and high-wire acts of compact metaphor—that throw the rest of the book into new relief. In the collection’s opener, “Hideto, in Motion and at Rest,” the narrator remembers the friend, no longer living, they grew up with in Japan, who shared in common the fact one of his parents is Japanese, and the other isn’t. A beautiful story of belonging only halfway, Del Raye writes, “I can imagine the exhaustion of this. … The private work we had always done of listing the various reasons that would make a difference. Our place of birth, our citizenship, our perfect pronunciation. Our careful schooling, our good teachers, our beautiful or terrible or forgettable faces. How we tried to believe we would never not belong to this country.” In “Synonyms for Climate Change,” a group of graduate students living in the States, and in a world hostile to their research, come to understand their roles as scientists: “I do not believe I am changing the world but I believe I am in with a chance of finding out how the world will change.” And in the book’s title story, science collides with tragedy for a grad student on the other side of the ocean in the moments before and after the Fukushima disaster. Full of such strikingly clear lines that have a great depth of meaning as the ones I’ve quoted here, Boundless Deep is a fabulous debut by a writer to watch.
And because I can’t help but cheat and include a novel, too, I couldn’t put down Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s Alice Sadie Celine (Simon & Schuster), the story of a triangle of women who, despite and because of each other, establish themselves on their own terms; and who shape their lives despite and because of the roles our world would have them play: “Sadie was an idealist and a dreamer. She lived a life of plans, but because life tended to interrupt those, in fact she lived a life of fictive imaginings. And Alice, who seemed so dreamy, was in fact a pragmatist in her way. It required little effort to be easygoing and let things roll off your back.” This book’s sharp and brilliant observations of the difference between who we think we are and who we actually become crystallize, for me, that feeling of seeing in language what you’ve felt before but never quite known so clearly from words.
Editor in Chief
Tone by Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno (Columbia University Press). From a purely literary-theoretical perspective, “tone” is the most elusive of categories: not easily reducible to formal analysis, difficult to convincingly historicize, too elusive for newer quantitative methods. Tone isn’t quite rhetoric; not quite “voice” or point of view; not exactly the same thing as style. It might even be the last holdout of an older belletristic mode of evaluation— the word that asks us still to have an “ear” for literature. Samatar and Zambreno’s text tries to encapsulate this concept that resists encapsulation. From a more strictly literary perspective, though, what is most interesting here is the tone of Tone. The book is a paradigm for how theory gets written now: in merged voices, as if courting disorientation, through unpredictable leaps of subject matter, and with a constant reference to ambient collective experience, all fusing into an anti-mastery with a nostalgia for impossible mastery. The tone of our moment, let’s say. And tones, Samatar and Zambreno demonstrate, have moments.
Other Minds and Other Stories by Bennett Sims (Two Dollar Radio). Elements of horror, noirish hard-boiled pulp, Sebaldian essayistic travelogue, Borgesian fantasy, and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s uncanny are all present in this remarkable story collection, but Sims’s writing is very much its own world, synthesizing its influences and references into strikingly original parables of the modern interface. The stories often jump off from some mundane wonder of the technological present— GPS systems, e-readers, phone trackers, Zoom squares, GIFs, etc— and then give each interface an idiosyncratic half-turn, revealing their bizarre alterations to our experiences of time, death, and the existence of others. (Sims asks us, for instance, to imagine Street View’s Pegman as an explorer traveling in a land drained of time, his puffy physique derived from a spacesuit that provides, not oxygen, but time: a bulk that is “pressurized with time, helmeted with it.”) Not that all of the interfaces Sims meditates upon are so new. The most wrenching story here might be “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,” about the interface of the book, and the horrors of a life devoted to reading them.
My Weil by Lars Iyer (Melville House). Think Minima Moralia as a stand-up routine. You’ll want to quote whole pages. And then there’s the perfect, groan-inducing title. I’ll admit it: I’m a paid-up member of the underground sodality of Lars Iyer fans. Such groupuscules are, as it happens, the subject of Iyer’s work, particularly the one we call the humanities, fast becoming a semi-covert retreat within the neoliberal academy. In My Weil, the scene is the PhD program in Disaster Studies at the fictional All Saints University, set in a Manchester that has become a fiction to itself—the vintage Happy Mondays shirts selling for fifty quid, the conferences held at the renovated warehouse now called the Tony Wilson Centre. A loose collective of graduate students, including one who’s taken the name Simone Weil (“I wanted to live deliberately,” she explains), spend their days in a fugue of theory banter, loathing for the Business Studies students who are the targets of their inner monologues, self-loathing, booze and hallucinogens. They’re waiting for the world to end, because what’s the humanities now but a kind of eschatology? More than anything, Iyer asks us to relish it: the abjection, the dead-endedness, and the comic sublimity of philosophizing from within damaged life. Because maybe, just maybe, when there’s finally no hope for the humanities (or humanity), that abjection may show you a way out.
Global Black History
Minor Notes: Volume 1, edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy (Penguin Classics). Co-editors of the new series of volumes that highlights marginalized and out-of-print African American poets, Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy present the reader with an intergenerational sampling of unsung poets that meditate on the Black experience. With a poignant foreword by former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, the book (which is not more than 200 pages) introduces a new frame for canonical thinking and teaching African American poetry. Less of a primer, it is more of a cross section of voices not often taught in survey courses or cited in the popular national discourse of Black letters and arts. Smith poses a vital question in conversation with Jericho Brown: “Why is the Black mind a continuous mind? Because the work of freedom is slow.” Framed conceptually by Smith, Bennett, and McCarthy, who each have dual roles as authors of Black arts and as literature educators, Minor Poetics presents a needed revision in the process of how the canon of Black study is determined by which authors are brought back into print and thus are taught.
The volume includes poets George Moses Horton, Fenton Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, David Wadsworth Cannon Jr., Anne Spencer, and Angelina Weld Grimké. Encompassing poets whose scope span the 1830s to the Great Depression, the book includes over 150 poems by the seven authors. The topics span the perennial concerns of the Black community from the violent history of lynching to the promise of Haiti’s Black revolution in Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Bennett and McCarthy advocate for poetry in general, making a case for why it has been neglected in American life in favor of more popular forms of literary expression. They present a new constellation of American bards, to show the continuum and power of verse in Black life across eons. New syllabi will certainly arise from this new initiative to, as they put it, “recover” uncollected poems. The space created between pedagogy and practice by living Black authors is widened by such a dynamic project of discerning minor notes and registers of American life.
Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility, edited by Ashley James (Guggenheim Museum). Reinventing the museum exhibition catalog, curator Ashley James presents a dynamic and powerful text in the book that accompanies the show she organized Going Dark, currently on display at the Guggenheim (October 20, 2023 to April 7, 2024). With attention to aesthetics, poetics, and theory as a curatorial prism, James offers conceptual consideration of whether visibility is a trap in the art world. Going Dark then becomes a set of strategies for electing what Afro-Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant has famously described as “the right to opacity.” On the other hand, it attends to formal techniques by artists and the concept of the modernist monochrome.
Urgent global questions post-2020 regarding the reckoning of race, art, and refusing representation as a goal are brought to the fore in the exhibition as an answer the controversy of Black Out Tuesday on social media. Crate-digging, the B-sides, and deep cuts are juxtaposed when we see lesser-known works by established artists in conversation with newer works by emerging and younger artists. In many cases, artists of the Black diaspora and African origin deploy tactics of darkness that work alongside formal choices by artists some of whom are of Asian descent. For deeper inquiry and reading, the book offers further study toward the conceptual questions about race, corporeality, the primordial, the unknown, and the danger of transparency through essays.
The catalog pushes the boundaries of what museum writing is tasked to do and better yet has the potential to call to action that acknowledges the perils of the dark. The volume includes contributions from Ashley James, Kevin Young, Key Jo Lee, Jordan Carter, Rio Cortez, Ayanna Dozier, Marwa Helal, Kristian Henson, Harmony Holiday, Abbe Schriber, Legacy Russell, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, and Hassan Rahim. Approximately twenty percent of the catalog is devoted to text that form essay commentaries which complements the artwork. Designed by Fahad al Hunaif, as an art object itself the book makes an argument about color and transparency. Each page is delicate and almost translucent which gives it an archival texture of a palimpsest.
The rest of the book features a selection of images of the works that are on display at the museum. It encompasses artists Sondra Perry, Farah Al Qasimi, Faith Ringgold, Doris Salcedo, Lorna Simpson, Ming Smith, Sable Elyse Smith, Stephanie Syjuco, Hank Willis Thomas, WangShui, Carrie Mae Weems, and Charles White, American Artist, Kevin Beasley, Rebecca Belmore, Dawoud Bey, John Edmonds, Ellen Gallagher, David Hammons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Tomashi Jackson, Titus Kaphar, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Joiri Minaya, Sandra Mujinga, and Chris Ofili. The dark prism presents a formal challenge to what have been prior understood as the formal limits of curating American art. The book is the key to unlocking the rationale and labor behind going dark as a strategy of retreat and reclaiming privacy amid the acceleration of predictive algorithms and financialization.
Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama (Potter). Looking to another book that challenged traditional genres in 2023 and where we read Black theory, Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam’s cookbook offers poetics and global history in the diaspora kitchen. Anchored in the cuisine of the West African coast, it presents regional diversity of flavors, colors, and fragrances embodied in the Wolof concept of Teranga. Thiam explains that the name for his restaurant was chosen from the local vernacular. “Teranga is when someone sees you coming their way and greets you with the warmest welcome, hands you a much-needed beverage or a piping hot plate of whatever they were having for lunch, then thanks you for stopping by as you go back on your way, belly and heart full.” This word understandably does not translate into English or other colonial languages. Each recipe is just that the warmest Black diaspora welcome. Simplified recipes make the traditional meals accessible building skills for the adventurous home cook unfamiliar with Black gastronomy. From Smoked Fish and Rainbow Chard Kontomire Stew to Poulet Braisé (Ivorian Roasted Chicken) to Ghanaian Shito Sauce made with dried shrimp, each page offers a portal to interconnected and neighboring West African foodways. As Thiam states “Africa is everywhere. It’s in our past, present, and our future.” With each recipe, flavors layer as skills build to form new muscle memories and central techniques paying homage to centuries of Black food science. As such he encapsulates the temporality and sensory symphony of West African food through his interpretation for the diaspora kitchen.
Black Punk Now: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Comics edited by James Spooner and Chris L. Terry (Soft Skull) Co-editors James Spooner (creator of Afro-Punk the festival) and Christ L. Terry (novelist) have compiled an anthology that arranges essays, interviews, comics, short stories, roundtables, in what feels like an archival volume of BIPOC music festivals. It is a reclamation of what eventually became corporatized about the Black punk scene through big record labels and marketing.
Structured like an LP, Terry and Spooner present the “Intro,” “Generations: Inheritance, Relationships, Grief,” “In the Pit: Solidarity, Togetherness, Creativity,” “Find Yourself: Community, Identity, Mental Health,” “Liberation: Imagination, Innovation, Tech,” and the “Outro.” Black Punk Now is an ode to the Black weirdos across America that continue to find family in collectivity and a critique of how punk often excludes people of color. The anthology is written for Black hackers and Black Power hardcore punk fans as well as newcomers.
The book records memories of the beginning of the Black punk scene in the US. The graphic novel feels appropriate for the spirit of DIY, zine-making and graphic design. The aesthetic evokes the collecting of fan ephemera from festivals, concerts, and mementos including backstage passes. In one section author Hanif Abdurraqib recalls the first punk show he attended in 2001 in Cincinnati of The Chemo Kids. However, beyond the lens of nostalgia, Black Punk Now takes stock of what was a counterculture expression emerging for many Black diasporic subjects. Alongside the exciting celebration of hip-hop’s 50 years, this consideration of Black punk culture documents the history of a social movement of refusal of the status quo and racist expectations and commodification. Accordingly Black Punk Now is not preoccupied with periodization or canonization, but rather a larger frame of reference for what and who encompasses punk culture.
My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood by Jasmin Sandelson (University of California Press). In this deeply human and touching ethnographic book, Sandelson describes the life of a network of black and brown girls growing up together in a public housing project in the Boston suburbs, and how these girls provide each other recognition, love and support as they face numerous challenges. The reader learns how they kill time together with no money to spend, how they create excitement and status by mobilizing social media, and much more. My Girls teaches important lesson about the collective dynamics that feed social resilience in a context of scarcity of resources.
The New Earth by Jess Row (Ecco). “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps. But unhappy is wholly inadequate for the Wilcoxes, the five-person Upper West Side Jewish family at the heart of Jess Row’s brilliant and staggeringly ambitious second novel. The family’s problems are too many to name (fraud, an undocumented immigrant husband, anorexia, infidelity, and incest only scratch the surface) but their foundational trauma is the death of the profoundly principled youngest daughter. When Bering is murdered by an Israeli sniper while protesting the occupation of Palestine, the family finally fractures.
When Row isn’t experimenting with a dizzying array of forms—letters, internet chatrooms, poetry, unsent emails, fake obituaries, imitation scripture—he employs an omnicompetent narrator who moves seamlessly between the practices of Zen Buddhism, the history of the Zapatistas, and the selection at Zabar’s. Row is a beautiful writer, but he is also, perhaps more importantly, a fearless one. No subject is off limits. The New Earth is proof, if proof were needed, that novels can explore the difficult and controversial like nothing else can. You want to think more deeply, more rigorously, more freely about Palestine and Israel? Start here.
Hangman by Maya Binyam (FSG). Maya Binyam’s debut novel is mesmerizing. I don’t use that word lightly—Hangman bewitched me; I fell under its spell. No summary can do justice, but I’ll try: an unnamed man travels from the unnamed country he has immigrated to back to the unnamed country he has emigrated from for a funeral and along the way he starts losing things. If that doesn’t sound compelling, all I can say is: trust me. Binyam is a skilled technician—she never uses a name, not for places, not for people—and each sentence is precise, calculated, graceful. Most impressively, especially for a young first-time novelist, Binyam is in total control. She will have you in the palm of her hand. Let her lead you to the ingenious end.
Western Lane by Chetna Maroo (FSG). If you, like me, pay attention to the Booker Prize shortlist (one, two, three Pauls!?), you might have heard of Western Lane. If you, like me, have lost faith in the ability of literary prizes to signal literary quality, you might have shrugged off Chetna Maroo’s slim debut novel. But this would be a mistake. Western Lane, about three Jain sisters growing up in 1980s England who start playing squash after their mother dies, is a quiet, elegant book. To their father’s surprise, Gopi, the youngest of the three, turns out to be quite the talent. In the midst of grief, training begins. Maroo is uncommonly good at writing about sport—she captures the hypnotic rhythms of squash—and what it feels like to inhabit a gifted athletic body. There are no pyrotechnics here—nothing radical or experimental—but Western Lane is a beautiful, mournful, and deeply moving book. Sometimes, that’s all I want.
Rivals: How Scientists Learned to Cooperate by Lorraine Daston (Columbia Global Reports). Lorraine Daston’s stunning new book—her first since Rules, which PB loved—shows just how dramatically the ground rules for scientific cooperation (and the age-old question, Cooperate or defect?) have changed through the last three centuries. The “porcupinian independence” of the 18th century “Republic of Letters” gave way to such ardent but elitist Victorian amateur ensembles as the World Meteorological Conference (the people who brought you the International Cloud Atlas) only to be succeeded by the some-strings-attached governmental funding models today.
How amazing to learn that C. S. Peirce and Max Planck both envisioned shareable knowledge as the rivalry-erasing lingua franca not just of human scientists but also, in Planck’s words, “physicists in all places, in all epochs, in all cultures … [and] also the inhabitants of other planets.” Most striking, though is Daston’s account of how the “internationalism” of the 19th century was shipwrecked by the period of the World Wars, and then reconstituted differently, as (a phrase of the postwar era) “the scientific community.” That community—the 1946 International Organization for Standardization is her clinching example—promulgates a vision of “subtracted sovereignty” that allows nation-indifferent rules to flourish. As she did in Rules, Daston concludes with a warning that intense devotion to number-driven algorithms raises the ominous possibility that a slew of data may yet skew priorities in unforeseeable ways.
The Reeducation of Race by Sonali Thakkar (Stanford University Press). Sonali Thakkar’s brilliant first book begins as a mystery of sorts. When and why did the word “equality” get swapped out of the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race, to be replaced by “educability, plasticity”? Answering that question sheds important light on how the colonialist legacy tainted the liberal anti-racism of the postwar period. Thakkar then adds a “history of cross referencing” (the phrase comes from Michael Rothberg) that maps the entanglements of anti-establishment and anti-colonial intellectuals (Du Bois, Césaire, Fanon) with the banally bureaucratic scope and force of organizations such as UNESCO.
En route, she shows how “educability, plasticity” came to serve as the central justification for a putative anti-racism that nonetheless preserved a sotto voce concept of race. A consequence—perhaps predictable but certainly not overtly intended by social scientists like Claude Lévi Strauss, Ashley Montagu, and Morris Ginsberg whose UNESCO work she catalogs—is that Jews were defined as the most plastic of races, and “Blackness” came to be seen as a stubbornly un-plastic category.
Since I have my own SF-related reasons for obsessing about that fluid postwar moment before the solidifying ideological and intellectual assumptions of the Cold War, I am so grateful to Thakkar for her plunge into those not-yet-curdled open waters.
- It contains 29 February, because some years—like next year—one needs this day along with all the rest. 29 February Janet Keagan died in 2008. ↩