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Reading List: Q1 2023
This list has evolved from pure cardinality (hey, look at my library backlog) to a graph of reading connections and referrals. Any time you promote content for a decade, it shifts from update and cadence to professed allegiance to content creators. With the increased competition for attention, content spend and the scarcity of proper marketing for books, my low-gain amplification of authors’ signals is my contribution to the cause. And if it helps those authors earn a living wage, or explore their next projects, it is rewarding in multiple aspects.
In my meta-reading reading I stumbled upon this quote from Alix Harrow that perfectly captures my intent in relaying small vignettes of reading reaction:
that's what reading is supposed to be, i think--an exchange, an enmeshment. it's like the inverse of that over-quoted but very [...] good ishiguro line: "stories are about one person saying to another: this is the way it feels to me. can you understand what I'm saying? does it feel this way to you?" if that's writing, then reading is the act of answering: no, it's not like that at all or i hear you or, yeah, that's exactly how it feels.
The first quarter of the year has three pairs of books from new authors - Jeffrey Lee Campell, Cathrynne Valente, and Rebecca Roanhorse.
1 “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man,” Charles Barkley, non-fiction, finished January 12.
Barkley tackles race, race relations, community and how to move all of these past sticking points. Carefully measured parts interview, Barkley monologue and erudite observation, I found the book equally impactful today given it’s almost two decades old. First published in 2005, some of the material does not stand up well over time: Obama seems like a good political candidate, but Barkley dismissed having a black man as President; Bill Cosby is held up as a community standard bearer before we knew all of his standards. The rest of it, however, is invariant and should be equally informing and alarming. A great way to start my “less sci-fi, more sci” in 2023.
2 “The Fuzzbox Diaries,” Jeffrey Lee Campbell, music/biography, finished January 21.
A wonderful set of vignettes of life in New York City, the travails of a pit musician, the economic rollercoaster of a professional sideman and journeyman guitarist – all of whom are the author. Having heard stories and apocrypha about Broadway subs and touring musicians, Campbell’s book was a superb confirmation that what you see on the Billboard charts is 0.1% of what the music world is really about, and the truly hard work happens in the trenches (or the sub-stage spaces on 44-48th Streets in Midtown NY).
3. “Darwin Among The Machines,” George Dyson, non-fiction science, finished February 4
Written in the early days of the internet, before machine learning, Google and large language models, it’s a useful history of computation and the interplay between theoretical computer science, the theories of brains and minds, and the computable. Further convinces me that there is no Fermi paradox of sentient AI; if it was capable of producing itself it would have already.
4. “Space Opera,” Cathrynne Valente, sci-fi, finished February 5
In the liner notes, Valente gives propeller beanie tips to Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and the Eurovision song contest, but this novel draws from, remixes, samples and amplifies so many things I love that I finished it in one day; it’s going to be one of my favorite books of the year. Whether it’s the Rent-like “one great song” or the Star Trek “Kirk has sex with aliens” or non-stop music references that would make Peter Frame blush, I laughed, made predictions, and resurfaced old DJ memories from the 1980s.
5. “Terraformers,” Annalee Newitz, sci-fi, finished February 6
Newitz takes the most long-range, daunting issues of climate change, sentience, personhood, and long-term market economies and extrapolates sixty millennia out in a wonderful, loving, and challenging book. If “Scatter, Adapt and Remember” is a handbook for avoiding species level extinction, then “Terraformers” is about creating new species and human experience with dignity and grace. Mild spoiler alert: there is public transportation that is sentient. Newitz uses this as a proxy for the worst of our last few centuries (slavery, indentured servitude, and the economic push-down of the lower economic classes) and is just one shining light out of the book.
6. “Deathless,” Cathrynne Valente, fantasy, finished February 8
On the heels of “Space Opera” I opened “Deathless” without a lot of context. It’s a magical, deftly told story of Koschei the Deathless of Russian folklore, with a heavy remix of the siege of Saint Petersburg and a few extra episodes. While not my usual fare, I enjoyed this other aperture into Valente’s range and found myself drawing parallels to both the “old country” folklore handed down by my grandparents’ generation and Cory Doctorow’s “After the Siege” that gave me the historical hook.
7. “Chokepoint Capitalism,” Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow, business, finished February 10
Continuing Cory’s previous volumes about content creators and building audiences, “Chokepoint” is a masterclass in what happens when audiences and content are on opposite sites of a tightly controlled gateway – whether it’s in advertising, music, streaming, e-books or concert venues and tickets. It’s a superb analysis of the “new” thinking about monopolies and short term, capture-oriented customer benefit (versus long term harm from rising prices and lock-in) and the various business models that create K-shaped economies. It’s not just a diatribe, though – the second half of the book is a functioning workbook for how to change the system with the closest to a “win win” that might be possible in these spaces. I didn’t want to like this book as much as I did – I was biased to find it anti-corporate and anti-technology, when in fact it is wholly focused on the individual consumer.
8. “Squeeze Plays,” fiction, Jeffrey Marshall, finished February 11
Picked out of a list of Princeton authors’ books, and chock full of things I find worthy of ridicule (pay for play charity, shell companies, and preppy Northeast Corridor legacies) I dove in and found the beginning of the book a solid story about three very different corporate executives. The writing style is a composition of metaphor and bounces from early-90s era devices to modern themes without checking for canonical consistency, and by the ¾ pole I didn’t like any of the characters. Just when I was hoping for a dramatic reveal or conclusion the book just ended. It’s a fair effort that stretches credulity at times and is full of D- and E-plot side rails that become annoying as none are ever resolved.
9. “Do Stand So Close To Me,” Jeffrey Lee Campbell, music, finished February 20
The musical autobiography of Sting’s guitar player on a marathon around the world (twice) tour that included the “Human Rights Now!” shows. It’s a prequel to “Fuzzbox Diaries” and goes into the depths of touring, life with a rock star, and band dynamics in a wonderful way; Branford Marsalis, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen make cameos.
10. “Black Sun,” Rebecca Roanhorse, sci-fi/fantasy, finished February 26
A magical mash up of pre-Columbian history, Sun-worshipping religions and palace intrigue. The first three chapters were slow going, and then this accelerated into a Dune-like messiah tale (replete with book excerpts to start the chapters). Eager to read the second in the series (which I did two weeks later, see below)
11. “Flash Boys,” Michael Lewis, business, finished March 7
Another of Lewis’s finely researched, well related stories that would have been a long slog but instead turned into driven exploration of high frequency trading, Main Street vs Wall Street and the sometimes undesired impacts of regulation meant to help the average consumer. I’ve adored nearly all of his books since “Liar’s Poker” uncovered the world of bond traders and “Flash Boys” his quality trend.
12. “Fevered Star,” Rebecca Roanhorse, sci-fi/fantasy, finished March 22.
A few of the side plots from “Black Sun” remain unresolved, teeing up the end of the trilogy, but the deep themes of loyalty and vengeance play out strongly and well in the middle volume. I stand by my analog to “Dune” and am thoroughly captured and captivated by Roanhorse’s writing.