Books Of The Year (2022)
“A book is one of the most patient of all man’s inventions. Centuries mean nothing to a well-made book. It awaits its destined reader, come when he may, with eager hand and seeing eye. Then occurs one of the great examples of union, that of a man with a book, pleasurable, sometimes fruitful, potentially world-changing, simple; and in a public library . . . without cost to the reader.” — Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001)
These are the best books I read in 2022:
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity — David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021). I had read maybe 20% of an exceptionally positive review in The Atlantic when I knew I had to get this book.
The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history . . . The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.
Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).
It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring.
For all of that, the authors’ presentation is often conversational, though they do at times venture close to an academic style. I thoroughly enjoyed their Absolute White-Hot Intolerance of anyone who should know better pushing out-dated and disproven theories. Man, they do not stand for that shit.
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence — Michael Pollan (2018). Pollan presents the fascinating history of research into how LSD and psilocybin could be used to treat depression and addiction. The anti-drug backlash of the 1960s shut down all research, but thankfully, studies are once again being done — with astonishing results (as shown in Pollan’s four-part Netflix series). Pollan describes the three trips he took: LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (aka The Toad). I am now fairly obsessed with taking psilocybin in a controlled setting similar to those described by Pollan. I have to figure out how to make this a reality.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming — David Wallace-Wells (2019). This book — outling in detail the unstoppable changes that will occur on this planet in the next 50-70 years — should be filed in the Horror section. You read scary shit about climate change here and there, but when all its aspects are compiled and presented at once, well . . . it made me a bit relieved that I won’t be around to witness it.
American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy — David Corn (2022). The absolute insanity (and racism and homophobia and pure hatred) has been around for at least seven decades. If you think the QAnon kooks are the height of far-right lunacy, then you’ve forgotten the demented religious right whackos from the 1980s.
American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis — Adam Hochschild (2022). This book perfectly fed my interest in US history from World War I into the early 1920s, the repressive changes during the War, the Red Summer of 1919, the Palmer Raids, and the incessant terrorism against Black Americans.
Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy — David Zucchino (2020). Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for History. Like Hochschild, Zucchino is writing about a time when violence against non-white people was accepted as a natural way of life. And there are more than a few echoes of the 1898 coup in Wilmington in the 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol.
The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America — Carol Anderson (2021). Anderson proves beyond all doubt that the main reason for the Second Amemdment — why it was created in 1791 and how it has been used ever since — was to make sure Black Americans remained powerless, vulnerable, neutralized — because a Black person with a gun has always been viewed as a threat to white society.
Hell's Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America’s First Serial Killer Family — Susan Jonusas (2022). Slate: “The Bender family come straight from a Cormac McCarthy novel: They materialized seemingly out of nowhere, committed horrific and immeasurable acts of brutal violence, and then seemed to simply vanish. Nationally notorious, their deeds intertwined with the founding narratives of the American West . . . Some people found the American dream. Some people found poverty. And at least 11 people, probably more, found death at the hands of the Bender family.”
The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece — Kevin Birmingham (2021). Birmingham has done amazing research into the connections between the main character in Crime and Punishment and the French poet-murderer Pierre François Lacenaire.
They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency — Malcolm Nance (2022).
Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age — Dennis Duncan (2022).
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage — Todd Gitlin (1987).
Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 — Edited by Douglas G. Brinkley (2006).
BoJack Horseman: The Art Before the Horse — Chris McDonnell (2018).
Lady Joker, Volume 1 — Kauro Takamura (1997, English translation 2021).
Lady Joker, Volume 2 — Kauro Takamura (1997, English translation 2022).
The Cartographers — Peng Shepherd (2022).
2 A.M. in Little America — Ken Kalfus (2022).
Valley of the Dolls — Jacqueline Susann (1966).
The Double, The Gambler, The Idiot, and Notes From a Dead House — Fyodor Dostoevsky (all translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).
For my last birthday (in October), I received a trip to Victoria (at the opposite (southern) end of Vancouver Island) to wander around various bookstores. My lovely partner provided a rental car and two nights at a hotel and I made the trip in early November. Here are the books I brought home, some of which will likely be on next year’s list: