2023 in media (1/3) — reading

Presented with apologies to my legions of fans who have been eagerly awaiting the return of those monthly posts I did four of.

Usually when I make these annual round-ups I try to be comprehensive, which I think is a mistake — no one wants to read a 200-strong list of everything I watched/read/etc this year[1] with a pithy comment attached and frankly I don't really want to write that either. So, instead, I’ve made these — partly a best-of, partly just a collection of the things I actually felt an urge to write about. I’ve mostly skipped — for obvious reasons — anything I’ve written more than a sentence about before (i.e. most things from March or April).


I think reading targets are kind of stupid, especially when people end up reading ~200 a year (how do you remember any of them??), but I managed 17 this year for the first time since high school, and — without wanting to sound like one of those people who are really weird about reading — I feel like it was nourishing. Even the bad ones![2]

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I didn't enjoy the experience of reading this very much but I have thought about some line or passage from it about once a month ever since. Perhaps because DeLillo knows we’re all doomed, and even though I agree I don’t necessarily love to be confronted by it. He’s so prescient, though — this book was released 20 years ago, 5 years before the financial crash, and it has this totally clear-eyed view of the way the internet interacts with the capitalist death drive and the men that combination produces.

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe

Maestro prep, maybe — can’t remember why exactly I picked this up, except that I saw it in a charity shop and I've been sort of tangentially fascinated by the New Journalism movement for about five years. Someday that tangential interest is going to turn into full-fledged obsession, but for now I’m just going to enjoy the parts of the work produced then that are on the lower end of the racism spectrum (Mau-Mauing is more towards the middle of that spectrum, probably). If we still had writers like this — people smart and cynical enough to skewer celebrities for their excesses and contradictions — the world would be quite different.

Dept of Speculation and Weather by Jenny Offill

Offill has this incredible ability to describe the men she (or the main character) loves in these perfect little paragraphs that make you understand everything about them and immediately fall in love with them too. One of our great chroniclers of marriage and parenthood, two things I would not have previously said I had much interest in reading about. “I learned you were fearless about the weather. You wanted to walk around the city, come rain come snow come sleet, recording things. I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.”

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

Fails in comparison to the perfect Mad Men episode it clearly inspired, but if I had written a novel at 18 it would have been the worst book ever produced, so who am I to talk!

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I'd been meaning to read this for at least a decade and then had the worst possible experience you can have when picking up a classic whose title or central concept has become emblematic of something — that the distilled idea turns out to be far more compelling than the work it originally came from. Although, if we’re to believe Mr Orwell, maybe the idea here actually came from Yevgeny Zamyatin. Anyway! I’d love to read something gossipy and outlandish about Huxley’s sexual proclivities and perhaps his feelings about his mother.[3]

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Anne Enright is one of the world’s finest essayists, and The Genesis of Blame is without a doubt the best thing I read all year. This is the first fiction I've read from her, though, and I was struck particularly — apart from the dawning, sickening horror — with the cinematic (or even stage-y) way she engages with human beings in physical space. Maybe this is an odd comment to make about a novel, but — as a person with a very limited visual imagination — I loved that I always knew where characters’ eyelines were, the size of the room, where the exit was. I have an almost totally spatial memory — I could describe a house I've been to once, but probably not my best friend’s face — and there's a bodily awareness here that I find so effective, especially when it turns almost impressionistic in the climatic scene.

Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Gibsonpilled!!!! I think I finally got around to picking up Neuromancer after years of having it on my reading list in part because of the quote-unquote AI threat and in part because I re-listened to Night Call, a perfect podcast (RIP) on which Gibson is frequently invoked. There's something about his 1960s counter-cultural roots in combination with a clear vision of what the technological advancements of the 1980s would turn into that produces work that’s so empathetic, so cool, dripping in modernity while being a little embarrassed by it. He reminds me of Michael Mann, a little — two men with romance in their hearts who understand that technology always brings death along with it.

The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

It's funny that Greene’s characters so frequently express a feeling of statelessness when he himself could not be more British if he tried. I've been thinking a bit about 20th century Englishmen recently, brought on by seeing Ill Met by Moonlight and being reminded of my father and his father almost the entire time. Something about the confidence that comes from having hundreds of years of empire behind you (even if you’re repulsed by that empire’s existence) — the ability to feel at home anywhere, as long as you have a pint or a whisky in hand.

Franny and Zooey by J D Salinger

If you smoked along with this book you'd be dead in two hours. Sisters with The Gathering in many ways, which pleased me — big Irish families, struck by tragedy; strangers to each other even though at core they're the same. There's no looming family secret in this one, though, and existential dread pervades in place of real buried horror. This is the definition of a book one should read quickly — keeping pace with all that rapid dialogue and all those cigarettes — and then savour in retrospect for weeks afterwards. Made me want to be more of an esoteric nightmare and less of a judgmental bitch, which would probably end up as an overall improvement.


  1. Actually, I absolutely love Soderbergh’s annual lists, and since I’m logging everything this year in my journal, maybe I will do a full day-by-day list next year. But only as supplementary material to something a little more in-depth. ↩︎

  2. I’m looking at you, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. ↩︎

  3. I think he probably had “good politics”, whatever that means, but I think he had good politics for the same reasons as many men on the left, i.e. mostly as a way to meet women. I have no basis for this other than a pervasive vibe. ↩︎

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