The Long Highlights of My 2019 Reading
What happens on the day after the apocalypse? When all your plans go up in smoke, what do you want for your future? How do you make sense of your past? In my new game Snake People, now funding on Kickstarter, players create a world of cataclysm, memory, and mortality. Choose your species, choose your apocalypse.
Thanks to my Traveller's Notebook system, I keep pretty good track of books I read. Having done a 2018 reading recap a year ago, I thought I'd share some highlights from 2019. Even though I tried to limit it to books which I felt merited highlighting or discussion, the list ended up pretty long. As I did last year, I created thematic groups, although I sometimes struggled in grouping. I've done my best.
While you're here, I'm not the only one who does this! Check out my colleagues’ posts: Ted Lee's Writing that Influenced Me and My Work in The Year of Our Lord’s Abandonment 2019 and Eira Tansey's 2019 media highlights.
In reviewing and grouping my lists of books, I found it incredibly difficult to group these books in a way that didn't bring them all together somehow under some larger header. All these books, including fiction, are about life. I felt these all:
- spoke directly in some way to the forces which brought me here to be who I am today (including white supremacy's effect on my life),
- that they spoke to what I needed to reflect on if I want to become the person I aspire to be,
- or that they were a place where I learn more about the lives of others.
Essays from Pain to Justice to Joy
These books are collections of writings by women or nonbinary femmes, many by women of color, which touch on so many subjects that it felt incomplete to categorize them. Most are essays, some are episodic enough that I felt I could include them. Some are academic. Some are autobiographical. Some discuss racial or disability or gender or environmental justice. Some may not seem to but absolutely do.
- No Time to Spare by Ursula K Le Guin (2017). This essay collection, adapted from Le Guin's blog, was one of the first books I read in 2019. Meditations on aging, on cats, on writing, and on life. Reading it felt like sitting down for a cozy chat with an older friend. With my mother dead, I am grateful for the older women in my life, including the writers.
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984). This book contains such a wide variety of essays and speeches that it is impossible for me to describe the full effect of reading it. I'm glad I own a copy as I will need to reread.
- This Bridge Called my Back eds. Cherrie Moraga and Anzaldúa (1981). I'd read some of these essays before (a couple are also in Sister Outsider), but the book contained a wide varieties of histories, ways of seeing, and ways of writing which I never experienced in the cultures of whiteness in which I grew up.
- What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte (2018). An essential collection of histories of Appalachia. Stories of resistance. Stories of eugenics and white supremacy. Stories of exploitation and betrayal. Grief. Beauty.
- Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018). As a disabled person, I have a fraught relationship with the word “care.” However, in this book, the concept of care comes from within the disability community and imagines an entirely different kind of world, where care is collective and weakness is not seen as less-than.
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (2018). What the title says. A book she describes as a book “by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women,” while one that doesn't let white women off any hooks. Connects to Lorde's “Uses of Anger.”
- Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed (2017). I listened to much of this book while driving to and from a friend's wedding. I wish I'd read it years ago, even though it's only a few years old.
- Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula K Le Guin (1989). I opened and closed my year with Le Guin. “The Space Crone” filled and broke my heart.
- The Undying by Anne Boyer (2019). Incredibly beautiful and painful. Essays on personal illness and collective narratives around cancer. I saw my friends and my mother in this story. I wondered if I saw my future self.
From fragility to domination, these books dealt with effects of white supremacy on those living in the United States, including on white people.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2010). I had read excerpts and reviews, but not the book in total before this year. I'm very glad I did.
- White Fragility by Robin di Angelo (2018). Very worthwhile and something I have recognized in myself and need to address. I've also read critiques of its own whiteness problem.
- White Rage by Carol Anderson (2016). Turning the concept of “black rage” on its head, Anderson identifies the deadly force of white rage throughout US history, starting in Reconstruction. Thorough and extremely painful histories, I often had to put it down and breathe before picking it up to continue.
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2015). I have owned this book for several years, but like many books on my shelf, kept thinking that because I owned it, I didn't have to prioritize reading it. After reading The New Jim Crow, I immediately picked it up for my next read.
- They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers (2019). Using documentary evidence and oral history, Jones-Rogers shatters the commonly-held ideas that white women who owned slaves were somehow innocent actors or so put upon by the patriarchy as to be inherently harmless. A must-read, especially for white women. We must unlearn the myths of our own racial innocence.
- Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament by Melissa Florer-Bixler (2019). Because of the church I grew up in, I have a lot of emotional and spiritual baggage with these scriptures. I'm grateful that Melissa came to State College and spoke about/read from her book. (nb, because she is writing for a Christian audience and interpretive tradition, Florer-Bixler uses the term “old testmanent,” rather than Hebrew scriptures, something she explains further in the intro)
- Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (2015). On the flip side, I love the parables, even as they may confound me. I am very grateful for Levine's Jewish interpretation of these texts and the ways she exposed anti-semitism in some interpretations which have developed over the years. Her work challenged and refreshed my relationship with these short stories by Jesus. (I need her to do a sequel with the parallel of the talents, though!)
- Inspired by Rachel Held Evans (2018). It took me a few months after her death to actually read Inspired. Much like the two books above, it reinvigorated my relationships with these scriptures.
- Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann (2014). This book and the following could also go in the next section. There's still much I need to do to practice rest and say no to the always-on culture.
- The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951). After reading Brueggemann, I knew that I needed to read a Jewish perspective. This classic text remains meaningful nearly 70 years later.
- Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider (2015 revision). This one's technically a reread, as I read an updated version of this 1978 classic when I was in college. A moral challenge combined with frustrating moments when he hands over his judgment to economists and their unChristian assumptions about what will bring about good in the world. Can't wait for the revision without microloans.
Connection, Disconnection, and Daily Living
- Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim (2018). Gentle. Necessary.
- How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Jenny O'Dell (2019). Did any of my friends not read this in 2019? Part of my journey toward unlearning the idea that my value is based on productivity and striving.
- Emergent Strategy by adrienne marie brown (2017). Planning work for the labor forum moved this to the top of my list. I am grateful for her reflections on change and how we respond to it.
- How to be Bored by Eva Hoffman (2016). Picked this up on a whim. In a world where it's almost impossible to be idle, can we re-learn rest and even boredom? Can I better become who I want to be by knowing when to disconnect?
- Moral Boundaries by Joan Tronto (1993). As I mentioned above, I have a fraught relationship with Care Ethics. Tronto is one of the best writers I've found on the subject. She challenges racial and class assumptions found in others’ writing on care theory and “women's morality.” She demonstrates the political power of care.
Militarism and Nuclear War
- Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang (2018). I would recommend skipping some of the earlier chapters if you're already familiar with the overall relationship between military and sci-tech. Very worth reading and possibly deGrasse Tyson's most meaningful work.
- Domination and Resistance: The United States and the Marshall Islands During the Cold War by Martha Smith-Norris (2016). The most emotionally challenging book I read this year. A must-read for anyone interested in nuclear history, US colonial history, US military history, or even just history. At points, I had to put it down every few pages to let out silent screams. I knew many things about the harms done in the Marshall Islands, and yet this book revealed how little I knew.
- How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks (2017). I'm including this, not because it's good, but because it's extremely bad. An example of what can happen to someone who cares about human rights but lacks a strong moral compass and ability to question historical context. For example, she ends by concluding that the military is so good at stuff compared to other public works programs that they should be in charge of much more. She is either ignorant of or ignores the ways in which public works programms have been systematically stripped in the last 30 years while military budgets increased. A person I know who works for the department of defense described her faith in the military's competence as “child-like.” Worth reading only as an example of how not to be.
- The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland by Gretchen Heefner (2012). Between 1961 and 1967 the United States Air Force buried 1,000 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in pastures across the Great Plains. This is the story of land grabs, the growth of the military-industrial complex, and an often-overlooked angle of the Cold War.
- Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (2013). Brown reveals the toxic underbellies of two model atomic cities—Richland, Washington and Ozserk, USSR.
Science, Technology, and Society
- Artificial Unintelligence: How Comptuers Misunderstand the World by Meredith Broussard (2018). A must-read for anyone working in technology or affected by it, which is everyone.
- The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (2019). An examination of the shift from conspicuous consumption to the reproduction of upward mobility through lifestyle and cultural capital.
- Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields by Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steve Rubin (2018). This book by two Pennsylvania authors hits extremely close to home. Beautiful, painful, educational—another way of encountering my neighbors and hearing their stories.
- Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media by Sarah T. Roberts (2019). While some chapters are more compelling than others, a must-read for anyone who wants to know what's really happening in the world of content moderation. Sometimes it's algorithms. Mostly, it's people.
- Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash by Edward Humes (2012). Of mixed quality, but an incredibly important read after China has stopped taking our waste and our assumptions about recycling are exposed.
The Non-Profit Industrial Complex
- The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan (2017). After reading Giridharadas's Winners Take All at the end of 2018, I picked this up at the beginning of 2019. An excellent complement to the book and worth reading for anyone interested in the NPIC/the ways philanthropy upholds the status quo.
- “Alms Dealers” by Philip Gourevitch (2010). Cited by Callahan and an examination of the ways in which international aid is caught up in war, whether wars of US aggression or upholding existing conflict and injustice.
- The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (2019). With a ghoul in the main cast and a ghoul society under the city, this was obviously on my must-read list. I was drawn in by his world-building. It differed enough from many fantasies that I read to make me feel like I was entering a new kind of world. I have had that experience with Le Guin, but Ryder-Hanrahan's is much darker…and contains ghouls.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014). I'd meant to read this since it came out, but the end of the world is an incredibly painful read for me. I cried during the opening of the pandemic. It was beautiful, strange, and compelling.
- Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (2019). I was lucky enough to have picked this one up just before one of my many fall trips. It kept me entertained while in California. Gideon is a ridiculous delight.
- The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher (2019). Machen Weird meets Southern Gothic. The reborn dolls somehow aren't the most horrifying thing. Includes a character based on a dear friend which left me yelling “actually yes she is” in the middle of the Philly airport.
- The Deep by Rivers Solomon (2019). Memory, grief, sensory overload. A haunting and compelling story of the weight of cultural memory.
- Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019). Self-aware without being self-conscious, the story of a 1920s Mexican girl who awakens a Mayan God of Death weaves together the hero's journey and journey to the underworld. I kept picking it up for several days after finishing, craving more story.
- The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (1994, translated 2019). An uncanny fable. I felt grief. I felt beauty. I felt loss.
- This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). Followed The Memory Police directly and this beautiful, humorous, creative fable felt like a balm to that grief.
- Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix (2014). What if a store-that-is-not-IKEA were not just a labyrinth designed to control customer behavior but something more sinister? I devoured this over Christmas.
- Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987). I've owned the Xenogenesis Trilogy/Lilith's Brood for years, but finally sat down and read the first book as I closed out the year. Like her other books, it challenges my conceptions of what science fiction can be.
Looking to 2020
This came out much much longer than I'd intended. 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same. I made a lot of bookstore trips in 2019, while traveling, and while I read a number of those books, I still have about 2/3 of them unread on my shelves…and 40 books or more out from the library.