What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in January
Critics and Guardian readers discuss the titles they have read over the last month. Join the conversation in the comments
I n this series we ask authors, Guardian writers and readers to share what they have been reading recently. This month, recommendations include a tender book about food and bodies, an eye-opening tech novel and the work of the great French writer Colette . Tell us in the comments what you have been reading.
Saba Sams, writer
I was given Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson for Christmas, and it was a gorgeous book to read over the feasting period. Johnson frames the particular act of cooking as far more than a means of producing something delicious, though of course it is that too. In Small Fires, cooking is understood as a way in which we experience our own physicality, a mode where the body and the mind can be united. The recipe becomes a site of both subversiveness and nurture, a way to care for ourselves and the people around us. I love to read about the body and I love to learn about food, and this tender little book allowed me to do both.
Last week I listened to a wonderful, expansive conversation between Lola Olufemi and Preti Taneja on the London Review Bookshop podcast from April last year, plus since then have been reading Taneja’s Aftermath . It’s another radical, formally-experimental book of non-fiction, this time about Usman Khan – murderer of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt – whom Taneja taught creative writing to in prison for three years. Aftermath is an incredibly moving lament that engages with grief and hope, with history plus memory, with the UK’s endemic racism and the culpability from the state. The book is arranged in small fragments to allow – as Taneja explains in the podcast – the reader some space to reflect. Aftermath is a heavy and necessary work.
Lastly, some fiction. I have just started Maeve Brennan’s short story collection The Springs of Affection , a new edition of which is soon to be published by Peninsula Press . The book was first published posthumously in 1997 and had since fallen out of print. This latest edition is introduced by Claire-Louise Bennett, and the stories – of which I’ve read only the first three – are so far precise, off-kilter and entirely consuming. Each is a tiny, icy lesson in how to write very well. I see myself keeping this selection on my desk, in order to dip into when my own mind is feeling hazy.
Send Nudes by Saba Sams is out in paperback now (Bloomsbury £9. 99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop. com . Delivery charges may apply.
Simone, Guardian reader
I have been reading Dave Eggers’ The Every , the sequel to The Circle. It has such a good ending, and there are so many terrible ideas for apps. It made me think about how advanced our apps already are and how accepted they are. It was eye-opening for me
John Self, critic
This month I had a whale of a time reading – and in some cases re-reading – books simply by Colette, the French writer who was born 150 years ago this month, and is perhaps best known for Gigi , which was made into a musical with Audrey Hepburn and a film with Leslie Caron. Colette wrote dozens of books, most of which slot into the sort of length – 70 to 100 pages – you can read on a lazy afternoon. The complicated, burdensome nature of love was her specialist subject. The particular books I liked best were Chance Acquaintances , where the narrator lights up at the opportunity to interfere in a husband’s waning love affair; My Mother’s House , where Colette pays memorial tribute to her formidable mother Sido (“I have come late to this task. But where could I find a better one for my last? ”); and Ripening Seed , the tale of adolescent sexuality that was so shocking to readers back in 1923 that the editor of Le Matin – who also happened to be Mr Colette – had to stop serialising it midway through.
But Colette’s masterpieces are probably Chéri and The End of Chéri – about an ageing courtesan as well as the beautiful young man she has schooled in the ways of love – which have just been rereleased in new translations. Colette’s books are sensuous in description and loving in their passion for the landscape where they’re set. She furthermore had quite a life: her first books were taken and published by the girl first husband under his own name; she had an affair with the teenage son of her second husband when she was 47 (and another affair with Napoleon’s niece); and she was the first woman in France to become given a state funeral. Reading Colette sent me spiralling out into related work, including Truman Capote’s The White Rose , where he writes regarding his meeting with Colette within 1947, arranged by their mutual friend Jean Cocteau. “I had told him, with youthful maladroitness, that Colette was the only living French writer I entirely respected – and that included Gide, Genet, Camus and Montherlant, not to mention M Cocteau. ”
In new fiction, I was cheered this particular month by Martin MacInnes’s mysterious novel of sea and space exploration, In Ascension , and by Elizabeth McCracken’s novel about her mother, The Hero of This Book . A more loving and moving tribute to its subject is hard to imagine. These books gave me the tingling feeling that 2023 is going to be a pretty good year for fiction.
There is much we can learn about leadership, solidarity and actualizing a bold vision from V (formerly Eve Ensler), the Tony award-winning playwright, author and activist. Her iconic play The Vagina Monologues has been published in 48 languages and performed in more than 140 countries, and was the spark that inspired her to launch her transformative organization V-Day , the global activist movement to end violence against women, gender expansive people, girls and the planet. V-Day—which has raised over $120 million for grassroots anti-violence groups, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and safe houses around the world—celebrates its 25th anniversary this February and recently premiered VOICES , an audioplay and campaign grounded in Black women’s stories of the African continent and diaspora. V is also the founder of One Billion Rising , the largest global mass action to end gender-based violence within over 200 countries, and a co-founder of the City of Joy , a revolutionary center for women survivors of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with Christine Schuler Deschryver and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr . Denis Mukwege.
V, who has been named one of Newsweek ‘s “150 Women Who Changed the World” and the Guardian ‘s “100 Most Influential Women, ” is the author of several books, including The Apolog y and the New York Times bestseller I Am An Emotional Creature , and she has just published Reckoning , a powerful memoir already named by Publishers Weekly as one of their Top 10 Memoirs of the Season. In Reckoning , V draws upon 45 years of her life as an artist and activist, sharing poetry, letters, essays and notes from the girl journals that take readers with her across the world along with a range of issues—from atrocities happening to women, to the climate crisis, to homelessness, activism, family and more. She writes candidly about her journey overcoming abuse and self-hatred to find her own voice plus power, which she drew upon to fuel her transformational writing and activism. She writes, “I’m not a sightseer. I have spent my days in prisons, theaters, shelters for the unhoused, refugee camps, detention centers, women’s centers, cafés, and clandestine locations. There, I have learned the world mainly through the faces, bodies, scars, and tales of women who have suffered the greatest injuries but who still manage to transform their pain into radical action, new forms of leadership, art, gardens, medicine, and healing. ”
In the following interview, V talks about her timely brand new book and shares insights on leadership, self-love, turning “pain into power” and much more.
Marianne Schnall: Each of your amazing books represent a different stage of your life and new reflections and life lessons. What does your latest book Reckoning mean to you? What are you hoping readers will take away from this book?
Sixth is v: This book is exactly what it says it is: it’s a reckoning, it’s an accounting. I think what Covid did for those of us who were privileged enough not to be on the front lines working in hospitals and restaurants, is lock us in with ourselves—with our minds, with our past, with our ghosts, with our memories—and with the whole world at our own fingertips. It was this intense period, for me at any rate, associated with deep reflection, looking at the world inside me and the one outside of me. And I started to think, maybe this is the time to look at my work over these last 45 years and try to see, what are the themes? What are the things I’ve been preoccupied with and what are the various forms of writing I have used to reckon with them—poetry, articles, monologues, letters. Would there be value in bringing them together?
This book is about reckoning emotionally, psychologically and politically. For me, they’ve never been separate. I think it’s clear that reckoning is the call of the day. It started to happen over Covid, a pandemic, a respiratory disease that was literally choking the breath of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of people. We saw George Floyd with the brutal knee on his neck, those diabolical nine public minutes, which took his breath. We saw fires burning all over the West where wildlife gasped for air. We saw a failed infrastructure in the richest country in the world that will had no ability or will to provide its citizens with healthcare. We noticed the poor, Black and Brown people and healthcare workers who were trying to keep us all alive be sacrificed.
How are we living in the country that has never reckoned with its own history, never dealt with the fact that the land we live on was actually stolen out from under the Indigenous people who lived here, and we killed them and gave them diseases and devastated and denied their traditions and moved them off their sacred land, which they were stewards of? Then we moved right into the particular 400 years of slavery and lynchings and killings plus destruction of African Americans, which moved right into Jim Crow, which moved right into mass incarceration. So there’s a massive reckoning that began to happen during Covid. And I wanted this book to be the offering to that reckoning.
I wanted this book to trigger individuals, not in a way where they’re overwhelmed and they can’t function, but where they feel , they feel the moment we’re in and they feel what other people are feeling in this moment. I needed it to inspire them to look into their own history. For example , as a white person, what is your connection to the history associated with white supremacy in this country? How have you benefited from it and how do you continue to benefit from it? What is your responsibility? How are you going to be part of transforming that history and moving us into a future of freedom and equality?
Schnall: You have been an incredible leader throughout your life and spent time working in close connection with grassroots leaders, and you’ve inspired many women to become community and political leaders. One powerful example of that is Agnes Pareyio, who opened the V-Day Safe House for Girls in Kenya 20 years ago and was recently elected to the Kenyan parliament. There’s also Célia Xakriabá and Sônia Guajajara who were selected to the Brazil National Congress and Rada Boric was elected to the Croatian parliament. How has V-Day and your work inspired and catalyzed women across the globe to become leaders?
V: We’re really seeing now how women leaders who have devoted their own lives to transformation of the grassroots are actually getting chosen to governments and accruing a new kind of power. But it’s not about power for power’s sake. I listened to Agnes’ first speech within Parliament. It was so radical and true to the people she represents, and I was like, “They don’t know what they’re in for. ” Same with Rada. These women are the real deal—the Cori Bushes of the world. They’ve been on the frontlines, have engaged in the deepest struggles, faced the greatest hardships and are now transforming their communities. They can’t be controlled or manipulated because they’re not motivated by money or the need for fame plus status. What drives them is the simple desire to make sure that what happened to them and their particular community doesn’t happen to anyone else.
V: The new culture starts with the end associated with patriarchy—it is a culture of cooperation, not domination, where art is central. It respects feeling, going slowly and healing things. This honors, serves and cherishes the Earth, and understands that we are not separate from the girl. A culture of interdependence and reciprocity. A tradition that refuses extraction plus exploitation. That strives regarding equality, inclusion, diversity and shared wealth. A lifestyle of play and dance and magic and mystery. Where no one is left out and loneliness is a memory and there is no arriving or even competing. A culture exactly where we are not products but in a collective process. A world where each of us—each of our lives, our gender, the identity, our purpose—is a work of art, always evolving, only existing in the becoming.
Schnall: In one of our previous interviews, you told me, “My whole life I’ve been told that I’m too emotional, too extreme, too dramatic, too intense, too alive—and I started to think, ‘What if I actually saw that as my advantage plus saw that as our strength and saw that will as my gift? ’” And I think women today, particularly women looking to become frontrunners or advance in their work and careers, may feel pressure to act in ways that aren’t authentic to them in order to succeed, which might include hiding emotions and parts of themselves they think may be seen as “too much. ” What advice do you have on being your authentic self and why being “too much” is actually a source of strength?
V: I’ve always been informed I was too much: too extreme, too emotional, too worried, too. I heard someone say recently that sensitivity has gotten bad PR. The heart, when it’s open, is one of the most brilliant, insightful, intuitive, wise organs. It’s a means to understand the globe, and yet we have been taught not to trust it. We’ve subsumed the heart to the altar associated with science and intellect. We can know all kinds of things, but if we’re not connected to what we know, if we’re disassociated from what we know, what does it actually do for us? Information and theories are empty and rather pointless if we are not connected to them in a way that gets us to act.
The only thing that actually matters is action. You can talk all you want about caring for people, but what are a person doing to manifest that will? You can say you really believe in ending racism, but what are you doing to be actively anti-racist? You can say you really support women and trans women and non-binary people being safe, being fulfilled, having platforms for their voice and creativity. What have you done to make that happen? Those who have very intense emotions end up being the people who bring about the most powerful actions. People who are outraged, people who are upset, people who are passionate plus sorrowful, people who allow on their own to feel grief—they are often motivated to create something beautiful and new.
I learned through various programs, through therapy, through writing and activism, that I could direct my intensive feelings to bring about positive change for other people and myself. I could make beauty and family and plays out of those emotions. Empathy will be the core of our survival.
Schnall: You’ve written plus spoken so much about overcoming self-hatred, which I know is a relatable struggle for many ladies and girls. What advice do you have on finding self-love?
V: Capitalism is dependent on self-hatred. It feeds away it. So the first thing to know is that a lot of your self-hatred is manufactured. Capitalism as well as the agents of social media and advertising keep us in a state of ongoing comparison where no one ever feels like enough. Then we are encouraged to buy and consume products to become enough.
I think we need to ask ourselves, when do we truly really feel valuable? For me, I know I feel better when I am connected to community, to the collective, when I have gone outside my limited self. I feel valuable when I have been part of something that has made someone’s life better or a group of lives much better. I know where my bliss lies. And I think everybody has to find that. I ask people often , “When are you happy? ” Pay attention: “When do you feel good? ” I love who I am and who I have been in this V-Day movement—in deepest connection with my sisters. There is no greater feeling than solidarity. That is bliss.
Schnall: What is your call to action?
V: Don’t be afraid to behave on what you believe. Don’t be afraid to stand up and say what you feel. We need everybody’s voice right now. We need everyones vitality right now. We need everybody’s action. It can’t just be a few people who are doing it. When you put up a building along with two people, it takes years. Whenever you build it with a hundred people, it takes a few days. And we’ve got to build a new planet, so we need everybody involved in this story.
For more about Sixth is v and her work visit V’s site and V-Day .
This interview has been edited intended for clarity and brevity.
Nearly six months after he was brutally attacked, Rushdie is recovering and releasing a new novel, with the literary world rallying to his side.
In “Victory City, ” a new novel by Salman Rushdie, a gifted storyteller and poet creates a new civilization through the sheer power of her imagination. Blessed by a goddess, she lives nearly 240 years, long enough to witness the rise and fall of her empire in southern India, but the girl lasting legacy is an epic poem.
“All that remains is this city of words, ” the poet, Pampa Kampana, writes at the end of her epic, which she buries in a pot as a message for future generations. “Words are the only victors. ”
Framed as the text of a rediscovered medieval Sanskrit epic, “Victory City” is about mythmaking, storytelling and the enduring power of language. It is also a triumphant return to the literary stage for Rushdie, who has been withdrawn from public life for months, recovering from a brutal stabbing while onstage during a cultural event in New York last year.
The attack on Rushdie shook the fictional world. For decades, Rushdie has been revered not only as a novelist, but as a free speech icon who faced death threats over his book “The Satanic Verses, ” yet continued to write and speak out against intolerance. After he was attacked last summer, fellow writers and cultural figures expressed outrage and gathered for vigils in his honor, sharing personal stories about him and reading passages from his novels.
Now, with the release associated with “Victory City, ” writers are again rallying around Rushdie to champion their work. Many see it like a moment to celebrate Rushdie’s exuberant and playful imagination, to turn attention back to his fiction and to savor the fact that Rushdie is here to see the reception of their novel. Some say the particular book’s overarching message — that stories will outlast political clashes, wars, the collapse of empires plus civilizations — has taken on a heightened resonance in light of what Rushdie has endured.
“He is saying something quite profound in ‘Victory City, ’” said the novelist Colum McCann, a friend of Rushdie’s. “He’s saying, ‘You will never take the fundamental act of storytelling away from people. ’ In the face of danger, even in the face associated with death, he manages to say that storytelling is one currency we all have. ”
Salman Rushdie’s Most Influential Work
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“Midnight’s Children” (1981). Salman Rushdie’s second novel , about modern India’s coming-of-age, received the Booker Prize, and became an international success. The story is told through the life associated with Saleem Sinai, born at the very moment of India’s independence.
“The Satanic Verses” (1988). With its satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Rushdie’s fourth novel , ignited a furor that reverberated globally. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, found the book blasphemous and issued the fatwa, or religious edict, urging Muslims to kill the author. Subsequently, Mr. Rushdie went into hiding for years.
“The Moor’s Last Sigh” (1995). Mr. Rushdie’s following new traced the particular downward spiral of expectations experienced by India as post-independence hopes for democracy crumbled during the emergency rule declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi within 1975.
“Fury” (2001). Published after Mr. Rushdie moved to New York, this novel follows a doll maker named Malik who has recently arrived in the city after leaving his wife and child in London. Although Rushdie “inhabits his novels in all manner of guises and transformations, he has never been so literally present as in this one, ” a Times reviewer wrote.
“Joseph Anton” (2012). This memoir relays Mr. Rushdie’s experiences after the fatwa was issued . The book takes its name from Mr. Rushdie’s alias while he was in hiding, an amalgamation of the names of favorite authors — Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The book also discusses Mr. Rushdie’s childhood (and particularly, his alcoholic father), his marriages and more.
Rushdie delivered “Victory City” in order to his publisher, Random House, in December 2021, and Random House announced the project in the summer of 2022, not long before Rushdie was assaulted. During his recovery, they have been eagerly anticipating the responses to the novel, McCann said. When McCann emailed Rushdie and asked for Rushdie’s permission to read passages associated with “Victory City” at an event held in December at the Center for Fiction, Rushdie was thrilled, McCann said.
“There’s a sort of fierceness of spirit that was there, ” McCann said, a sense from Rushdie that “‘I will use this mighty weapon of language, and it is stronger than anything you can throw at me. ’”
Rushdie was not available to comment, his publisher said. Friends and fellow writers report that his recovery is progressing; he keeps in touch, has started to plan new writing projects, and is as funny and quick-witted as ever.
“He’s extraordinarily resilient, ” said the particular novelist Hari Kunzru, who said he visited Rushdie recently and was heartened to find him in good spirits and talking about their work. “He’s still the Salman he was. He’s lost his eye and is still recovering from some of the other injuries, but this has not ended him. ”
Kunzru said he hoped “Victory City” would shift attention back to Rushdie’s fiction and serve as a reminder that he is first and foremost a novelist, more than a free speech advocate or a victim of a malicious assault.
“This is a joyful oversized romp of a book, an extravagant book, showing him expressing his full capabilities and using all his creative power, ” he said. “That should remind us that he’s the novelist and a storyteller more than a political symbol. ”
Rushdie has long towered as one of the world’s most celebrated writers. He’d published 14 previous novels, often fantastical works that blend history and politics with elements of magical realism. Born in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1947, he released his first novel, “Grimus, ” a science fictional tale that he has called “justly obscure, ” in 1975. In 1981, this individual published “Midnight’s Children, ” a magical realist fable set in India just after Partition, which won the Booker Prize and launched their career.
Seven years later, his life was upended when he or she released “The Satanic Verses, ” a novel that will included a fictionalized portrayal of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with depictions that some Muslims considered blasphemous. Shortly after, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a statement calling for Rushdie’s dying, putting a $2. 5 million bounty on his head and urging Muslims to target him. Rushdie went into concealing for nearly a decade, an ordeal he recounts in his memoir, “Joseph Anton. ”
After the fatwa was rescinded in 1998 , Rushdie seemed to relish his renewed freedom, and expressed gratitude to those who had stood by him and defended his right to publish. He moved to New York and became a vibrant fixture in the city’s literary and cultural existence, a mentor to younger writers and a lively drinking and dining companion.
The reprieve came to an abrupt end last August, when Rushdie has been attacked at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer arts community about 75 miles through Buffalo, New York, where he planned to give a speech about how the United States had become a safe harbor for exiled authors. As the event was about to begin, a 24-year-old man from New Jersey rushed the phase, according to prosecutors, and stabbed Rushdie in the face and the abdomen before members of the audience pulled him away. The assailant, Hadi Matar, offers pleaded not guilty to second-degree attempted murder and assault with a weapon.
Shortly after the attack, a group of acclaimed writers — among them Paul Auster, Gay Talese, Kiran Desai and A. M. Homes — gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library in Manhattan to read his function , including a portion associated with “Victory City. ”
“They failed to silence him, ” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, one of the organizations that sponsored the event. “The publishing of this book is a very powerful demonstration of that. ”
“Victory City” builds on many of the themes that have long preoccupied Rushdie — the power of myths and legend to shape history, the conflict between the forces of multiculturalism plus pluralism versus fundamentalism and intolerance. In some ways, it’s a shift back to Rushdie’s earlier works — richly imagined, magical realist narratives set in India — and marks a return to his literary roots after his final two novels, both satires that skewer contemporary American politics and culture.
In “Victory City, ” Rushdie drew in part on the historical rise plus collapse of the Vijayanagar Empire, which was founded in the 14th century by two brothers from a cow-herding tribe, the detail that Rushdie adopts in the novel. In his acknowledgments, Rushdie cites more than a dozen books that he drew upon in his research, including scholarly texts about the Vijayanagar empire, and works about medieval Indian culture, politics and civilization.
In Rushdie’s vision, the city of Vijayanagar — the name means Victory Town — is a place of magic and miracles that owes its existence to its creator, the poet Kampana, who blesses seeds and gives them to the cowherd siblings. If they planted them in a particular spot, she told them, a city would rise instantly from the ground. When her prophecy comes true, she breathes life into the city by whispering stories into people’s ears, imbuing the new place with history. Kampana envisions a society founded on the principles associated with religious tolerance and equality among the sexes, but will be driven into exile, and eventually sees her empire conquered.
Early reviews of the novel have been largely admiring. Kirkus praised it as “a grand entertainment, in a tale with many strands, by an ascended master of modern legends. ” A critic writing in The Times of London called this “one of Rushdie’s the majority of joyful” books, noting that will “the sheer pleasure he took in writing it bounces off the page. ” A review by The Times is upcoming.
Erica Wagner, an author and critic that moderated an event in Rushdie’s honor that will air on Feb. 9 to mark the publication of the guide, said the novel is usually “a testament to the power of storytelling and the power associated with words and narrative, for good and ill. ”
Some of Rushdie’s friends lamented that Rushdie — who is famously gregarious plus extroverted and relishes the particular limelight — has been forced into isolation at what should be a celebratory moment.
Margaret Atwood, who else took part in the panel about “Victory City” along with Wagner and the author Neil Gaiman, said she felt an obligation to speak about Rushdie’s latest work, given that he was not in a position to appear publicly himself.
“You have to, as it were, foil the attempt to shut him down, ” Atwood said.
“He’s been through so much, being in hiding for all those years, feeling under threat of death, ” she added. “He is definitely, above all, a story teller. ”
During Kanye West’s spectacular plummet last fall, my friends and I would often marvel at the latest outrageous thing he’d said. And we would send around clips of what were, in hindsight, terribly suspect comments he’d previously made. One such example was “ I am not a fan of books , ” which Ye told an interviewer upon the publication of his own book, Thank You and You’re Welcome . “I am a proud non-reader of books, ” he continued. That statement strikes me as one of the more disturbing things he’s ever said, because, unlike the patently reprehensible anti-Semitic tirades that drew the world’s scorn, his anti-book stance is shared by some other highly influential figures. It’s disturbing because it says something about not only Ye’s character but the smugly solipsistic tenor of this cultural moment.
We have never before had access to so many perspectives, ideas, and information. Much of it is fleetingly interesting but ultimately inconsequential—not to be confused with expertise, let alone wisdom. This much is widely understood and discussed. The ease with which we can know things and communicate them to one another, as well as launder success in one realm into pseudo-authority in countless others, has combined with a traditional American tendency toward anti-intellectualism and celebrity worship. Toss in a decades-long decline in the humanities, and we get our superficial culture in which even the elite will openly disparage as pointless our main repositories for the very best that has been thought.
If one person managed to outdo Ye in that season of high-end self-sabotage marking the end of 2022, it was the erstwhile techno-wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried. In an ill-conceived profile from September, published on the Sequoia Capital website, the 30-year-old SBF rails against literature of any kind, lecturing a journalist on why he would “never” read a book . “I’m very skeptical of books, ” he expands. “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post. ”
It’s a galling sentiment, every bit as ignorant and arrogant as Ye’s but even more worrisome because SBF is not an entertainer whose debut album was called The College Dropout. He is a supposedly serious young man who was celebrated in the corridors of power not only as a financial savant but also—through his highly publicized philanthropy and conspicuous association with the “effective altruism” movement—as a moral genius. The title of that user profile: “Sam Bankman-Fried Has a Savior Complex—And Maybe You Should Too. ”
There’s an expression in journalism: “Three is a trend. ” Unfortunately, I have a third example of a prominent book skeptic. In a feature reconstructing the undoing of Sean McElwee, the particular 30-year-old founder of Data for Progress, New York Magazine noted, as McElwee “would put it, books are dumb—they only tell you what people want you to know. ” I confess, I don’t really understand what that means, let alone the reason why McElwee thinks it’s profound. Shortly after meeting SBF—who spent some $40 million on Democratic causes in 2020 and pledged to give the mind-boggling $1 billion before 2024—McElwee, also an effective-altruism evangelist, would become one of his trusted advisers, “telling him how best to direct a river of cash, ” David Freedlander writes. “It was ‘cool as hell, ’ McElwee told associates, to be advising one of the richest people in the world prior to he turned 30. ”
“Cool” is one way to describe these confident young men’s fiscal and political interventions; abysmally ill-informed , maliciously incompetent , plus morally bankrupt also come to mind. McElwee’s reputation would be ruined after the midterms, principally for producing error-ridden polling data and even allegedly pressuring at least one employee to break campaign-finance law and participate in a straw-donor scheme (a federal crime that SBF has also been charged with). All of this happened just as SBF’s crypto scam was crashing, obliterating tens of billions of dollars of other peoples’ wealth in the process.
It is one thing in practice not to read books, or not to read them as much as one might wish. But it is something else entirely to despise the act in principle. Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character. As Ye once riffed (prophetically) during a live performance , “I get my quotes from movies due to the fact I don’t read, or from, like, go figure, real life or something. Like, live real life; talk to real people; get information; ask people questions; and it was something about, ‘You either die a superhero or you live to become the villain. ’” As clever because that sounds, receiving all of your information from the SBF ideal of six-paragraph blog posts, or from the movies and random conversations that Ye prefers, is as foolish as identifying as someone who chooses to eat only fast food.
Many books should not have been published, and writing one is an excruciating process full of failure. But when a book succeeds, even partially, it represents a level of concentration and refinement—a mastery of subject and style strengthened through patience and clarified in revision—that cannot be equaled. Writing a book is an extraordinarily disproportionate act: What can be consumed in a matter of hours takes years to bring to fruition. That is its virtue. And the rare patience a book still demands of a reader—those precious slow hours of deep focus—is also a virtue. One might reasonably ask just where, after all, these men have been in such a rush to get to? One might reasonably joke that the answer is possibly jail or obscurity.
Late inside Anna Karenina , in a period of self-imposed social exile in Italy, Anna and her lover, Vronsky, are treated to a tirade on the destructive superficiality of the “free-thinking” young men—proto-disrupters, if you will—who populate the particular era and have been steeped in “ideas of negation. ”
“In former days the free-thinker was a man who had been brought up in ideas of religion, law, and morality, and only through conflict and struggle came to free-thought, ” Vronsky’s friend Golenishchev observes. “But now there has sprung up a new type of born free-thinkers who grow up without even having heard of principles associated with morality or of religious beliefs, of the existence of authorities. ” The problem then, since Tolstoy presents it, was that such an ambitious young man might try, “as he’s simply no fool, to educate himself, ” and so would turn to “the magazines” instead of “to the classics and theologians plus tragedians and historians and philosophers, and, you know, all the intellectual work that came in his way. ”
A Twitter follower directed me back to this passage after I complained upon that social network about the outlandish contempt our own era’s brashest and most lavishly rewarded younger men—they always seem to be men—aim at conventional forms of learning. And though, unlike in Tolstoy’s time, these men may also declare that you “fucked up” if you bother to read actually magazines, they share with previous freethinkers a prideful refusal to believe that the past offers something to offer them. Like the freethinkers that provoke Golenishchev’s scorn, these tech-obsessed autodidacts ( even Ye fell victim to the cult of “engineering” our way through every human quandary) now embed themselves in a worldview in which “the old creeds do not even furnish matter with regard to discussion, ” as Golenishchev puts it.
Although the three disgraced men I’ve been describing here are extremes, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we have grown wildly estranged from genuine wisdom or the humility with which erudition tempers facile notions of invincibility. I don’t think it is a coincidence that two of these self-satisfied nonreaders are adherents of effective altruism, either—when taken to the extreme a good absurdly calculating intellectual onanism that can’t survive contact with a single good novel.
When I was in the 20s and writing our first book—I know, I really fucked up there—I came across a quote I can no longer find the source of that said, essentially, “You could fill an e book with all I know, but with all I don’t know, you could fill a library. ” It’s a helpful visualization, perhaps the most basic and pragmatic justification for deep reading. And though correlation is not causation, I submit that we’d save ourselves an enormous amount of trouble in the future if we’d agree to a simple litmus test: Immediately disregard anyone in the business associated with selling a vision who proudly proclaims they hate reading.
Inside the packed Rachel Comey store on Crosby Street in SoHo on Thursday, the readings began about halfway through the evening. When the crowd applauded for the memoirist Vivian Gornick, who read from her book “ Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader , ” she made an observation about her somewhat unfamiliar audience: “So it’s not just clothes, it’s also books that turn you on. ”
Indeed. This was a fashion event that had perhaps an unusually high concentration of writers in attendance. Many wore Comey designs from their closets, printed jackets and tall boots, as well as the dresses, tops and pants that are part of the designer’s collaboration with The New York Review of Books , the literary magazine edited by Emily Greenhouse and art directed by Leanne Shapton, a longtime friend and creative partner of Ms. Comey’s.
Fashion plus literature might make an unexpected pairing, but it is one with some recent precedent. The author Ottessa Moshfegh wrote flash fiction for Proenza Schouler’s fall 2022 collection, and models like Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber often display their current reading as part of their own off-duty style. This was the latest flirtation between the fashion and literary worlds, a courtship in which each party gets to extract a bit of social capital from the other. That might explain the touch of self-consciousness in the air, with writers seeming more aware of their outfits than usual.
We asked some of the attendees — many of whom work in the magazine and publishing worlds — what they were reading and whether good taste in books could translate into great taste in clothes, too.
Interviews have been edited.
Vivian Gornick, 87
Memoirist and critic
What are you reading?
I’m reading through the memoirs of Lewis Mumford. I am embarking on a new book — I’m going to write a book about City College. My memory was of Lewis Mumford having gone to City College in the 1920s. I read this book years ago, so I hope I’m right! I’m about a quarter of the way through.
What do you wear when you write?
You’re joking! What I wear? A T-shirt and sweatpants. I just get up in the morning, I pull them on and I sit down.
Do you think reading can give you a better fashion sense?
Oh, yes. Ha-ha. Not in the sense in which we’re gathered here, I don’t think. I don’t know! They might have ideas I’m not privy to about the New York Review and these clothes. But certainly in terms of the development of your own language, the development of your social being — absolutely.
Would you ever wear a garment with your own byline on it?
No . Would you?
Jade Mapp, 30
Program coordinator at Books Beyond Bars
What are you reading?
There’s a book called “The Joy of Being Disliked. ” Part of the human experience is realizing that we’re not always likable and not everyone is going to want to be our friend.
What do you like to wear when you write?
I usually have a fun sock on — the band shirt and cozy socks.
Do you think reading can give you better fashion sense?
Absolutely. Because I think it helps you be more fashionable because you get to be part of someone else’s world.
Sandeep Salter, 34
Owner associated with Salter House
What are a person reading?
“ Speedboat . ” It’s been nice because I’ve been taking it out with me, and the chapters are so short I can do it while I’m on the train.
Do you think reading can give you a much better fashion sense?
I wish that were so. I think it can make you a deeper, more complex person, and that will translate into your personal style.
Samantha Yadron, 27
M. F. A. student at Columbia University
What are you reading?
I just started a book called “A Woman. ” I’m taking a class on Italian autobiography within the 20th century. I’m also reading “ Septology ” — I am almost done with that.
What do you like to wear when you write?
I usually don’t look this good. I tend to write in the morning inside coffee shops. I don’t even shower; I go straight to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 111th and Amsterdam and just write for two hours. I’m usually in my gray corduroy pants, and I have this green sweater that’s really soft and that I put on almost every day.
Do you think reading can give you a better fashion sense?
I think these days literature has become an aesthetic in itself; you can develop an aesthetic based on the idea that you enjoy reading through. A better version of that is if you have your own independent reading interests — maybe you’re always reading something super obscure and maybe that makes you more stylish.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, 31
What are you reading through?
I just started “ The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida , ” which is the recent Booker winner. Very good. And also I’ve simply started an audiobook called “Legends & Lattes, ” which is apparently “high fantasy and low stakes. ” It’s a good combination.
What do you like to use when you write?
The most comfortable clothing. I want elastic.
Do you think reading can provide you with better fashion sense?
What leads you to read more widely, which is curiosity, can lead you to be more stylish. Curiosity leads you to more experimental dressing, and that can be quite fun.
Mieke Chew, thirty four
Editor plus publicist at New Directions
What do you like to wear when you edit?
I guess Covid has changed what people like to wear during the day. I’m a huge fan of Rachel Comey, but I usually wear trousers and Commes des Garçons and T-shirts and things. Comfortable clothes.
Do you think reading can give you better fashion sense?
No, Dont really think so. I don’t see any correlation, which I think is pretty obvious if you go to any book party. But that’s why there’s something so nice and surprising about this collaboration.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, 49
What are you reading through?
I am reading a translation by an incredible Egyptian poet named Iman Mersal called “ The Threshold . ” It’s translated simply by Robyn Creswell.
Do you think reading can give you a better fashion sense?
Absolutely. Reading is something that brings you inside yourself. Some people get so far inside themselves that their particular insides are reflected on their outside, and I think that’s what you see here with these very fashionable people.
Would you wear a garment with your own byline on it?
I would be fine with that. Once you write something you sort of let it go, so whatever happens to it after is part of the process of writing.
Heidi Julavits, 54, and Sloane Crosley, 44
What are you reading?
Heidi Julavits: I am reading a book called “Left for Dead” by Nick Ward, about a person who sailed in the 1979 Fastnet race. There was a very terrible storm back in 1979, and he has been abandoned and left with regard to dead on his boat. Not really literary! But I’m learning how to survive bad weather plus being abandoned by all who love me.
Sloane Crosley: I’m reading a marginally older book, Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye. ” I’m working on a book about grief. I also just finished the new Emma Cline . Normally I chain smoke books a little more.
What do you like to put on when you write?
Ms. Crosley: Whoever says anything other than “bathrobe” is a filthy liar. I use two bathrobes: One is a fully disgusting, old, formerly white robe. One is a vintage kimono when I feel like I want to be in a movie about a writer.
Ms. Julavits: I pretty much wear the pajamas that I slept in.
Hermione Hoby, 38
What are you reading through?
I’m reading “Septology” by Jon Fosse — probably like a lot of ladies here.
What do you love to wear when you write?
I do actually like to wear an outfit rather than, like, sweatpants because I need to feel that there is some thing interesting happening in what I am wearing. So I do like to get dressed to write.
Do you think reading can give you a better fashion sense?
Undoubtedly! Yes. It makes you a more interesting person, and I guess being interesting is the most stylish thing there is.
Chellis Baird, 39
What are you reading through?
I simply started reading a book around the art of letter writing. In today’s age, we kind of have lost touch with writing actual handwritten letters. With Valentine’s Day coming up, I wanted to brush up on my penmanship a little.
Do you think reading can give you better fashion sense?
Yes, I believe words can almost be like wearing an accessory. It is a great way to add an attitude, or a gesture or a feeling with the way one presents themselves.
Namwali Serpell, born in Lusaka, Zambia and currently living in New York, is a widely acclaimed author and professor at Harvard University. Her latest book, “The Furrows: An Elegy, ” was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2022 by the New York Times and one associated with former president Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2022. On Jan. 18, Serpell read excerpts from her new novel and engaged in a Q& A session at Sanborn Library.
The event was Serpell’s second time visiting Dartmouth in the past few years; January 2022, she read from the girl debut novel “The Old Drift, ” which also received numerous accolades, including the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Published in September 2022, “The Furrows” follows the story of Cassandra Williams, also known as Cee, as she reels in the aftermath of her younger brother Wayne’s untimely death when they are children. The only witness to his death, Cee must contend with immense skepticism from her parents and other adults, who assert that her brother is not dead, just missing, throughout the rest of the girl life. As she grows older, Cee repeatedly convinces herself that she has found and is reuniting with the long-lost Wayne, only to have the world explode around her each time she does.
Rather than conforming to a traditional structure, “The Furrows” is a tangle of contradicting narratives associated with Wayne’s death and the way that the siblings reunite — a vicious cycle meant to reflect the deep-rooted, complicated nature of grief.
During the event, Serpell recalled the pivotal influence of timing on “The Furrows, ” as she wrote the elegy at the same time as she was submitting her dissertation upon modes of literary uncertainty. Drawing inspiration from modernist and postmodern texts — which seem to insist on the reader being kept in the dark — Serpell employs repetition and a multiplicity of narrative perspectives to purposefully confuse you.
English teacher Rebecca Clark reflected on the effect of having these different narratives of Wayne’s death interrupting one another throughout the novel.
“It is a masterfully rendered disorientation, ” she said. “It creates a feeling in you of, ‘Is this the narrative now? Is this the narrative? ’ The book is sort of cruel in some ways because it denies you that [resolution], telling you, ‘No, this is the story now, ’ and then, ‘No, this is the story now. ’”
While acknowledging the challenge that the novel poses to the reader — one of sorting through what is real and what is imagined — the central motif of the “furrows” seemed to ground the overlapping plotlines for Clark.
“Furrows are this texture, and you are just trying to run your fingers over this texture again and again, ” Clark stated. “It is the gritty sand and the weirdly bent bodies… it is all of that which brings you back to the realization that, ‘Oh, this is really the same moment. ’”
Clark, a friend and former graduate student of Serpell’s at the University associated with California Berkeley, introduced the author and kicked off the occasion by joking that “‘The Furrows’ is a deeply groovy book” — a pun on the novel’s title, which Serpell said she appreciated when she began her reading.
Serpell’s writing is cinematic in its rich sensory descriptions, paying especially close attention to the particular tactile. In an interview with The Dartmouth before the event, Clark simon said the recurring image of grooves working with the classical notion of an elegy — a song composed for the dead — in Serpell’s new story was powerful.
“I can’t stop thinking about the image of the record player coming up again and again towards the end of the book; an elegy is just like a record player, running a stylus or needle over a grooved surface to produce songs, ” Serpell said. “And this book [is concerned with] the act of furrowing, the process of producing those grooves. ”
Serpell is known for playing with genres and employing techniques from a range of literary traditions, and “The Furrows” is no different. The story borrows the lyrical meter plus subject of the elegy and captures the realism of grief with techniques through speculative fiction.
Clark noted that will she had “a lot of genre expectations” going into the particular book.
“It’s a document associated with mourning but the reality of death is uncertain… its an elegy with a crumbly, sandy object, ” Clark said, referencing Wayne’s spectral body made entirely associated with sand which haunts Cee throughout the novel.
Serpell said she had initially been focused on the aspect of the elegy that involves writing about people who die at a young age. After publishing “The Furrows, ” she mentioned she researched the history from the elegy and found that it aligned even more closely with her intentions for the novel than she had realized.
“The term ‘elegy’ was originally used to describe just the meter or rhythm of a piece, any piece, and this book is precisely about accessing the rhythms of grief, ” Serpell said.
Corinne Fischer ’26 said that she was particularly moved by Serpell’s description of turning grief into art during the Q& A session.
“I really enjoyed hearing about the girl writing process, ” Fischer said. “I’m struggling with an essay for a class right now, and so it was cool to hear from such a strong writer about some of the struggles the girl faced in writing this book. ”
Clark went on to stress the particular relevance of “The Furrows” to the present moment.
“We are in a time of national, unprocessed grief, and so to take time to process what grief does, what it looks like, how it feels, is something that we need as a country right this moment, ” Clark said.
On Dec. 16, I checked out three books from the Santa Fe Public Library, the 50th, 51st and 52nd books I read last year. Reading one book a week in 2022 was a New Year’s Resolution inspired by Waco Tribune-Herald arts and entertainment columnist Carl Hoover’s column, “52 weeks, 54 books. ”
The last three books I read were representative of the variety of my reading list: Kostya Kennedy’s True — The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson , a new biography revealing little-known details of the particular complex man who broke baseball’s color barrier plus became a civil rights hero; Caleb Gayle’s We Refuse to Forget — A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power , the story of the Creek Nation that in the 1800s both owned slaves and accepted Black people as full citizens; and David Marchick’s The Peaceful Transfer of Power — An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions , which seemed an appropriate way to end a year dominated by the work of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U. S. Capitol that threatened the peaceful transfer of power.
Favorite author? I’ve been a fan of National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan since reading The Worst Hard Time , Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher and The Big Burn . So I read his account of the West in Lasso the Wind. (“They have tried to tame it, shave it, fence it, cut it, dam it, drain it, nuke it, poison it, pave it, and subdivide it, ” writes Egan; still, “this region’s hold on the American character has never seemed stronger. ”) And I read his latest book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity , a personal account of his journey along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.
While every new year brings fresh horizons and opportunities, to us, the year in books looks especially tantalizing. Like the experienced truffle hunters we are, we’ve snuffed out and selected some of the best. Stretching from Uttar Pradesh in Northern India to Uganda to Amsterdam and back to the Manhattan set of a late-night comedy sketch show, this is likely our most diverse, most anticipated list ever. That variety goes far beyond setting. The year promises an embarrassment of literary riches, and we’ve chosen a wide-ranging virtual feast of our favorite genres: incisive literary fiction, revealing celebrity memoir, original and hilarious essays, heart-stirring romantic comedy, and heart-stopping dystopian fiction. These 31 books balance returning favorites like Colson Whitehead, Rebecca Makkai, and R. F. Kuang and rising talents like Lakeisha Carr, whose shining prose and striking stories of intergenerational trauma plus caring will transfix you. Let the reading and conversation commence.
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1 Chain-Gang All-Stars , by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
2 Age of Vice , by Deepti Kapoor
3 Yellowface , by R. F. Kuang
4 The Survivalists , simply by Kashana Cauley
5 Birnam Wood , by Eleanor Catton
6 The Racism of People Who Love You , simply by Samira K. Mehta
7 The Chinese Groove , by Kathryn Ma
8 Our Share of Night , by Mariana Enriquez
9 Big Swiss , simply by Jen Beagin
10 Call and Response , by Gothataone Moeng
11 A Spell of Good Things , by Ayobami Adebayo
12 On the Savage Side , by Tiffany McDaniel
13 I Have Some Questions for You , by Rebecca Makkai
14 The Urgent Life , by Bozoma Saint John
15 Liliana’s Invincible Summer , by Cristina Rivera Garza
16 An Autobiography of Skin , simply by Lakiesha Carr
17 Old Babes in the Wood , by Margaret Atwood
18 Take What You Need , by Idra Novey
19 Lone Women , by Victor LaValle
20 Hang the Moon , by Jeannette Walls
21 The Great Reclamation , by Rachel Heng
22 Butter , by Gayl Jones
23 Romantic Comedy , by Curtis Sittenfeld
24 A History of Burning , by Janika Oza
25 The Covenant of Water , by Abraham Verghese
26 Oh My Mother! , by Connie Wang
27 The particular God of Good Looks , by Breanne Mc Ivor
28 Quietly Hostile , by Samantha Irby
29 The Late Americans , Brandon Taylor
30 When the Hibiscus Falls , by M. Evelina Galang
31 Crook Manifesto , simply by Colson Whitehead
Carole V. Bell Carole V Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, culture critic and communication researcher focusing on media, politics, and identity.
Wadzanai Mhute Wadzanai is a Books Editor at Oprah Daily where she edits plus writes about authors and books.
The new year has already brought with it a crop of impressive, headline-driving books (see: Prince Harry’s explosive memoir Spare , and Kashana Cauley’s inventive The Survivalists ), but the rest of 2023’s library promises to be just as enthralling. Apologies in advance to your mile-high TBR list; it’s about to get a lot taller.
Ahead, you’ll find 65 hand-picked titles, many of which ELLE has already had the chance to flip through and assess. These recently published and soon-to-be-released books come from a broad range of categories, including fantasy novels, historical nonfiction, celebrity memoirs, essay collections, romance, and literary fiction. (The only thing you won’t find here is young-adult books and series, which we reserve for other, more specific lists . )
Narrowing down the most anticipated game titles from a list of thousands is never not a daunting task, and so to make up for any gems we’ve missed, you can check back on this page as we update it throughout the year with the true best of the best. Better prepare your pre-orders, and happy reading.
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The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley
The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer
Spare by Prince Harry
Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois
William Morrow & Company
Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey
Henry Holt & Company
The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen
Central Places by Delia Cai
What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro
Brutes by Dizz Tate
Victory City by Salman Rushdie
Our Share associated with Night simply by Mariana Enriquez and translated by Megan McDowell
William Morrow & Company
Venco by Cherie Dimaline
W. W. Norton & Organization
Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman
Users by Colin Winnette
A Day of Fallen Night simply by Samantha Shannon
Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova
Simon & Schuster
Confidence by Rafael Frumkin
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
Pamela Dorman Books
Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson
Grand Central Publishing
What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jiménez
William Morrow & Business
Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Take What You Need by Idra Novey
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano
Crown Publishing Group
Poverty, simply by America by Matthew Desmond
Y/N by Esther Yi
Little, Brown and Firm
Above Ground by Clint Smith
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts by Soraya Palmer
Scribner Book Company
Hang the Moon simply by Jeannette Walls
A Living Remedy: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
Homecoming by Kate Morton
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
The One by Julia Argy
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
Happy Place simply by Emily Henry
Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst
Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
You Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg
Oh My Mother!: A Memoir in Nine Adventures by Connie Wang
The particular Guest simply by Emma Cline
Quietly Hostile: Essays by Samantha Irby
William Morrow & Company
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
A Renaissance of Our Own: A Memoir & Manifesto on Reimagining by Rachel E. Cargle
Dances by Nicole Cuffy
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
Pageboy: A Memoir simply by Elliot Page
Scribner/Marysue Rucci Publications
The Mythmakers by Keziah Weir
Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris
Hanover Square Press
Adult Drama: And Other Essays by Natalie Beach
Watch Us Dance by Leila Slimani plus translated by Sam Taylor
Gillian Flynn Books
The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Vegan by Andrew Lipstein
Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead
Scribner Book Company
Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie
Hanover Square Press
Bellies simply by Nicola Dinan
Crooked Media Reads
Mobility by Lydia Kiesling
Henry Holt & Company
The Peach Seed by Anita Gail Jones
Family Lore simply by Elizabeth Acevedo
Congratulations, the Best Is Over!: Essays by R. Eric Thomas
Under the Influence by Noelle Crooks
Little Brown and Corporation
Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue
Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang
If you fell in love with How Much of These Hills Is Gold , then you, like I, are surely waiting with bated breath for C Pam Zhang’s next book, Land of Milk and Honey . We don’t know much about the story yet, but Zhang described it on Twitter as “a novel about food, female appetite, class, culinary hierarchy, & the sticky-sensual necessity of finding one’s own pleasure in a world gone to shit. ” Sounds delicious.
Release date: TBA 2023.
TBA by Jessica Roy
Alright, another disclaimer: I’m biased about this one. Our beloved site director, Jessica Roy, is releasing her first book later this year, one that expands on an ELLE. com story she published in 2019. (You might recall the title: “ Two Sisters and the Terrorist Who Came Between Them . ”) We’re still waiting for all the details, including the name and release date, yet given the level of reporting and nuance in Roy’s feature, I expect the subsequent guide to be nothing short of breathtaking.
Release date: TBA 2023.
Lauren Puckett-Pope Associate Editor Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books plus fashion.
‘It altered my entire worldview’: leading authors pick eight nonfiction books to change your mind
Steven Pinker, Mary Beard, Rebecca Solnit and others reveal the publications that made them see the world differently
Shortly after publishing my book The Better Angels of Our Nature , on the historical decline of violence, I attended a conference sponsored by a foreign policy magazine at which a journalist asked me: “What would it take to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide? ” Thinking it was a trick question, I quipped: “Redefine ‘poverty’. ” An eavesdropping economist said to me: “That was a cynical answer”, and recommended a short new book by the development expert Charles Kenny called Getting Better .
Though I already knew that war was in decline, especially wars between nation states, the guide documented how every other measure of human wellbeing had increased over the decades: longevity, child mortality, infectious disease, malnutrition, democracy, literacy, basic education, and yes, extreme poverty. And it noted that the World Bank and the UN Sustainable Development goals had set the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030 as a feasible, albeit extraordinarily difficult, aspiration.
This lifted my view of history and the current state of the world to a higher level. The decline of violence was just one aspect of a historical process that we can legitimately call “progress” – not a romantic or utopian or naive ideal, but an empirical fact that we can see in graphs and numbers. It led me to ask what made this seemingly mystical process happen, and inspired me to write Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress .
Steven Pinker is Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Allen Lane)
When I was starting to write my PhD thesis, it was Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger that opened my eyes, and helped me see different things not just in Roman history but in the world around me too.
Its basic idea was to ask: “What counts as dirty (or polluted) in different cultures? ” (Why is gravy on your tie “dirty” but on your potatoes not? ) A large part of her answer to that was “ambiguity”: “dirty things” are often those that “fall between established categories”. And her key example was not gravy, but Jewish dietary rules, which she argued were based on precisely that kind of ambiguity (pigs, for example , are prohibited or polluted because they are animals with cloven hoofs but they do not , as most cloven hoofed animals do, chew the cud). She later questioned that idea herself and it’s probably wrong.
But it had already set me personally off on a new track. I had never before thought of asking that kind of question about the Romans. What did they think was dirty? And how different were they from us?
I am not sure that the answers I came up with were any more correct than those of Douglas herself. But her book showed me how to ask different questions – and it demonstrated that a book doesn’t have to be right to be important.
Mary Beard is a classicist and author associated with books including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile) and Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Princeton).
It was 1966 or 67 when I first read Ralph Ellison’s essay collection Shadow and Act . Those were fierce, tumultuous years and I has been avidly reading Black literature across generations and genres: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Paule Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka; poets from the Harlem renaissance to the Black Arts Movement. I’d been floored by the greatness of Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these essays showed another Ellison, a scrupulous explorer associated with America’s cultural landscape, finding new paths through the fraught territory of American history and art. Racial bigotries enhanced by intellectual fallacies. The ethos and aesthetics of jazz; the ethos and aesthetics of books and folklore. He probed the ways – stark and subtle – in which Black and white traditions engage plus intermingle with each other, how they clash and cohabit. He parsed the relations between group and personal identity. He probed large themes and ideas, “the enigmas, the contradictions of character and culture”. And he never stopped pursuing “inflection, intonation, timbre and phrasings … all those nuances of expression and attitude which reveal a culture”.
His precision had been scrupulous and expressive. This won me over. And because it sharpened my mind, it gave me room in order to disagree with him. He made me want to be a more independent thinker. Reading him, I realised that even great novelists (and poets) needed to write criticism, that will criticism lets them delineate and transmit passion, character and history in ways that fiction did not. For me this change of hierarchies was a change of mind and a change of heart.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer prize-winning cultural critic and the author of books including Negroland (Pantheon) and Constructing a Nervous System (Granta).
Marcus du Sautoy
The planet is facing a climate emergency. We need to reduce carbon emissions. But what can I personally do to help? I often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues.
It was reading Sarah Bridle’s book Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air that helped me understand a very important way that I really could contribute. Change the diet. As Bridle explains, this is the easiest way to help save the planet. Bridle’s book is really a follow up to David MacKay’s equally wonderful book Lasting Energy – Without the Hot Air. MacKay’s mantra is “numbers not adjectives”. I’m the numbers guy. I need things translated into numbers before I can make a decision about the best course of action. This is precisely the thesis of both books. It allows the reader to see plus compare the impact of a change of behaviour.
To see the effect through numbers that the production of meat and meat-related products has on the environment was a revelation. A quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions that will cause climate change comes from food. Just giving up food from cows could have a massive impact. Bridle’s book changed how I eat. I am a good aspiring vegan, which means We still can’t resist cheese. But perhaps I don’t need to be perfect. It just takes millions doing their bit imperfectly. More people reading this book might help.
Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi teacher for the public understanding of science at the University associated with Oxford and author of Thinking Better: The Art of the Shortcut (4th Estate )
The language of politics can shut down or open up possibilities, as I was reminded when I recently reread one of Doris Lessing’s novels about her time in the Communist party in which party members speak to each other in stale and abstracted terms that obfuscate, distort and most of all bore.
The particular lingering impact of this kind of political language is part of why the Zapatistas’ sudden appearance on the world stage, with their uprising on 1 January 1994, and the battles they fought with language, were so astonishing and exciting for me and to many others. “Thousands of indigenous, armed with truth and fire, with shame and dignity, shook the country awake from its sweet dream of modernity, ” Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos wrote shortly thereafter, in a piece titled The Long Journey through Despair to Hope, which is collected in Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings , a gorgeous English-language compilation edited by Juana Ponce de León and published in 2001. I have drawn inspiration from it ever since.
Marcos was a non-Indigenous Mexican leftist who had gone to Chiapas to lead the Indigenous communities in revolution, only to find that it was they who were to lead him, in reconceiving what revolution was and its goals could be. There was hope, ferocity and brilliance in his words for the next dozen years or so, but also playfulness, humor, vivid imagery, emotional immediacy and metaphors drawn from the natural world.
Poetry and politics are often treated as entirely separate matters; part of Marcos’s genius was to see that there was no great politic without poetry.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. Her most recent books are Recollections of My Nonexistence plus Orwell’s Roses (Granta).
As a scientist I have spent most of my life wading through dry academic textbooks. But I also have a passion for popular science. Often such textbooks will be on subjects I just wish to know more about, but I also have to read outside our expertise as preparation for interviewing a guest on The Life Scientific on Radio 4. However , I cannot think of any book that has had a bigger impact on my thinking than Consciousness Explained by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. In this popular account of the origins of consciousness, Dennett offers an explanation of how it arises from interactions between the physical and cognitive processes in the brain. He writes in an extremely persuasive way and without recourse to any woo or pseudoscientific mysticism. I remember feeling that will, for the first time, I might be able to understand what it means to be conscious plus self-aware from a reductionist, scientific perspective. This was about 30 years ago, and I know the science of consciousness studies has moved on since then. A number of critics of the book – both philosophers and neuroscientists – have argued that Dennett is denying the existence of subjective conscious states, while giving the appearance of a scientific explanation of them. But for me, at the time, it was a book that explained away one of the deepest mysteries of existence using logic and common sense. Whether right or wrong, it altered my entire worldview on the comprehensibility of reality.
Until I read this book my view was that the nature of consciousness was such an intractable problem that it wasn’t something we were anywhere near being able make sense of. While Dennett’s approach is not likely to be whole story – after all, the human brain is the most complex system in the known universe – it nevertheless blew me away that it was at least conceivable in principle in order to rationalise it.
Jim Al-Khalili is the University of Surrey’s distinguished chair in theoretical physics, a broadcaster and writer of books including The Globe According to Physics and The Joy of Science (Princeton).
No Logo by Naomi Klein didn’t just change my mind, it hurled it into a different orbit, giving me an entirely new perspective on how the particular globalised world works. This emerged, a firebrand, straight into the turn-of-the-century’s defining social movement, coming out in November 1999 during mass protests against the World Trade Organization, the so-called Battle associated with Seattle. I was in my 20s, navigating a landscape dominated by big brands, along with opaque practices and unquestioned ubiquity in an increasingly deregulated neoliberal economy. Rampant consumerism, Klein revealed, was a deliberate global movement, driven simply by large multinational corporations with disturbing political power, perpetuating poverty, global injustice, environmental degradation and resource depletion. However , we little people also have extraordinary power: activists can take down Goliath brands, she showed through detailed, extraordinary reportage from the frontlines of a burgeoning “global justice” movement.
The book is smart, wry, perceptive and absolutely of its time – its effect was electrifying. In that pre-smartphone era when more people read books, No Logo was everywhere. Ironically, the book itself became a brand, an accessory to carry on dates, signifying that its possessor was socially conscious and eco aware. It was one of a handful of important books that spurred a mental transition from seeing myself as an inhabitant of the fully formed world, to understanding that I was an interactive participant in a world that is constantly being created.
Gaia Vince is an author, journalist plus broadcaster and an honorary senior research fellow at UCL’s Anthropocene Institute. The girl latest book is Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time (Penguin).
Soon after I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! ”, my interest in a career in the sciences died. This was not Richard Feynman’s fault. I was, at the time, immersed in a typical Indian high-school curriculum of physics, chemistry and mathematics: dense lessons that urged rote memorisation or brute practice. You solved problems for homework with the sole purpose of solving them in examinations. There was no better way to fall out of love with physics.
In those years, any interest that I retained in the subject was thanks to Feynman’s patchwork memoir. It is not, I should mention right away, a flawless book; Feynman is forever burnishing his eccentric genius, and his self-perceived rakishness borders on misogyny. But his inquisitiveness and his joy in pure thought shine through, and they captivated me at a time when my teachers were scrubbing all the charm out of science.
Here’s an example. Feynman was never short of big, important problems to work on, but he was equally absorbed by small, seemingly inconsequential questions. Once, while at Princeton University, he watched an S-shaped water sprinkler turn on a pivot plus wondered: Would the sprinkler turn clockwise or counter-clockwise if it was set up to take water in instead of spit it out? He could argue it either way, he found, so he prepared an experiment in the cyclotron to find out. It proved nothing, and a glass carboy exploded in the process. Feynman mentions the incident fleetingly, but there are so many more like it: little excursions of curiosity, reminders that science is, above all, lit by the pure delight of human inquiry. Feynman made sure I actually remained interested in science long after I left any academic dreams behind. Samanth Subramanian is a journalist and author whose most recent book is A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane (Atlantic).