Deep Bookshelf 2021
The 10 books I read this year not because I thought I'd like them, but because I thought I wouldn't.
What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. - Franz Kafka
How do you choose which books to read?
In my early twenties, I defaulted into books—I read the easy stuff that came to me naturally.
All of us default into things—career choices, relationships, diets—without exercising personal intentionality. That intentional choosing is an important skill to develop in life, but it’s not easy. Books are an easy place to start, though.
When I say that “I read the easy stuff”, I don’t mean page-turners or Dan Brownesque thrillers; and I don’t mean the books that make the bestseller lists or a celebrity author’s ‘Book Picks of the Year.’
(I learned how most ‘top lists’ work over the past year, and Good God, it’s depressing.)
I’m also not referring to the ease of algorithmic suggestion, either. No doubt that it’s easy to one-click buy the books that show up constantly in my feed, or the books Amazon suggests to me, or the books that an Instagram ‘influencer’ photographs himself reading on the couch amidst mindblowing hygge—cozy quilts, hot chocolate, and the world’s most comfortable socks.
What I really mean is this: I defaulted into the most frictionless type of reading possible. I only read books that I thought I would ‘like.’
That seems like a natural thing to do, doesn’t it?
No, not exactly. If ease or comfort-level is what I limit my book-reading to, it’ll be hard to understand new perspectives—or even to receive them in the first place. I’m likely to become more intellectually and spiritually fragile. I won’t develop any anti-mimetic machinery in my gut to resist a world caught up in a Cult of Convenience. We’re not made for convenience or comfort; we’re made for greatness.
I don’t think there’s anything natural about the way most of us find books. The problem is this: most of us don’t even encounter books unless someone (or something) thinks we’ll ‘like’ them—whether it be from a friend or an algorithm. The experience of walking into a bookstore and running into a wide variety of strange and challenging books that we might pick up and take home with some degree of mystery is becoming less and less common.
We’re spoon-fed the stuff that will appeal to where we’re already at, not necessarily where we want to go. And that’s partly because we don’t know where we want to go.
But how will we, if we stay on the terrain that we’ve always known?
Each year I make a concerted effort to read books that I would not naturally ‘want’ to read if left to my own devices. It’s a sort of anti-mimetic process of selection in which I override some of my initial biases and comforts. I bracket out the strong influences at work in my life by intentionally shielding myself from where I might be being led. I pursue something different—not because I think I’ll like it, but precisely because I think that I probably won’t. I call this my Deep Bookshelf.
I’m not the first one with this idea, of course. The great Franz Kafka went even further than me. He wrote this in a 1904 letter (partially quoted at the top of this week’s article):
"Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe."
A shallow bookshelf consists of books that aren’t capable of breaking up the frozen sea within us. It contains books that are acquired and read with the least amount of friction possible. Eventually, we’ll get stuck on the floor of that shallow sea, unable to advance.
So cast out into the deep with me and lower your nets for a catch.
Here are 10 books from my Deep Bookshelf from 2021. Last year, I only gave the titles. This year, I’ll attempt to add a little context.
What are some of yours? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. If you don’t think any books went on your deep bookshelf in 2021, then what will you put on it in 2022?
My 2021 Deep Bookshelf
Key Thinkers of the Radical Right, by Mark Sedgwick.
I didn’t want to read this one simply due to how nauseous it would make me, but it felt like a duty. The same goes for ‘key thinkers on the radical left’—I couldn’t find that book, though, so I’ve had to piece together various sources for that version. I think it’s critical to track the origin and formation of ideas. They don’t come out of nowhere. And some of these thinkers on the right and on the left on not just political hacks—they’re serious thinkers who deserve to be wrestled with. A had to wash this one down with Coors Light. A few, actually.
I had the strong suspicion by reading the back cover and intro to this book that it would be a work of historicism (the idea that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history) and circular logic (explaining geo-political and economy activities by drawing on other geo-political and economic activities, without a proper accounting for human freedom or anything transcendent to these systems), and I didn’t like Dalio’s writing voice (or whoever his ghost-writer was). But I had a predicament: many people that I know were to excited to read it and were asking me what I thought about it. Now this doesn’t automatically mean that I read a book. In fact, one of my favorite books of the entire year was Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. (I’ve gotten quite good at it.) I did end up reading it, though, because I think Dalio’s worldview is influencing millions and I want to understand what’s so alluring about it. I have some ideas…starting with Dalio himself.
Filthy Animals, by Brandon Taylor.
This is a work of fiction that deals with ‘rogue appetites’ in which ‘desires bubble up at inappropriate moments,’ according to a New York Times book review. It might sound weird, but the frequency with which I was seeing Brandon’s books reviewed and featured all over the place from the NYT to the New Yorker is precisely why I didn’t want to read it. What’s the catch? What narrative is this fiction furthering that they are so excited to push on me? My guard was up. But Brandon’s writing speaks for itself, and it doesn’t disappoint. Sometimes my suspicions are unfounded, and sometimes good things can come out of Nazareth.
Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler.
This book is about someone who finds out that her love interest is an anon online conspiracy theorist. That seems to be everyone I know these days! Too raw, I thought. I shied away. And I worried like hell that it would get tritely political and turn into a self-indulgent Netflix-show in waiting. Those things are probably true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Oyler is a superb writer and the book addresses important issues.
The Deep Places, by Ross Douthat.
My resistance to this one came because I had put Ross Douthat in a box. He’s a New York Times columnist—one of the most spiritually literate columnists at the Times, in my opinion (which isn’t saying much)—but most of his work seems to be more on an intellectual plane, not on a spiritual one. I made the mistake of thinking that if I wanted to read something spiritually edifying, it would probably not come from Douthat. (He proved me wrong. This was a vulnerable book that challenged me to explore everything from medical disinformation to my own contentious relationship with the healthcare system.
The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan
I thought I’d dislike this book because of its New Yorker profile, titled We’re Shaped By Our Sexual Desire. Can We Shape Them. The author of The New Yorker piece, Alexandra Schwartz, cites René Girard in her review of the book (“So our desire is not some neutral, private thing. It is mimetic of other people’s…”). Not sure why this bothered me. When you pour yourself into a work so thoroughly for such a long time (like I did with René Girard), one can develop a kind of territorial instinct. Why was Girard’s name and the term ‘mimetic desire’ suddenly popping up in the media just months after my book was published, after he had been mostly ignored for decades? Strange. It didn’t take me too long to realize that I was letting my own mimesis get in the way of exploring a fascinating look at the mimesis involved in the formation of sexual desire—an important topic but one so hot that I doubt not even independent journalist Jesse Singal will touch. (Believe me, I’ve tried: crickets…). Oddly, The Right to Sex doesn’t mention Girard or mimetic desire at all. Proof that sometimes a book review can provide even better insights than the book itself.
The Contrarian, by Max Chafkin.
I had a feeling from this book’s promotion—a feeling confirmed after reading the first chapter—that this a ‘biography’ of Peter Thiel was factually wrong and essentially a political hit job. There was no way that I couldn’t read it, though, because I was getting blown up with people asking me, “Is this true?” I talked to Peter about the book and published this piece in UnHerd, which is more charitable to The Contrarian than you may think given what I know about the situation (including how much Chafkin was paid to write something lazy and biased, followed by fawning support from all of his New York media friends). It doesn’t matter whether you like Peter Thiel or not. A world in which this kind of book is mimetically inflated—with the author allowed to profit handsomely from the propaganda—is dangerous, in part because it will encourage others to do the same. In no way does he even seem like he wants to humanize his subject. I’m glad I read it, though, so that I can see what I don’t want to become.
Portrait of a Mirror, by A. Natasha Joukovsky
Nastasha and I were connected by Ama Kwarteng, the new Beauty Editor at Coveteur, who penned this excellent piece looking at Maybelline through the lens of mimetic desire and this review of Joukovsky’s book. I was resistant to read it because, at first glance, its characters are elitist East Coasters caught up in love triangles of envy and lust. I happened to be in the mood (at that particular time over the summer) to read or watch something down-to-earth and gritty—something about ordinary life, maybe, like the 2016 film Paterson. It turned out that Portrait has everything to do with normal life. If anyone thinks they’re reading about characters they ‘can’t relate to’, I’d bet it’s because they aren’t seriously grappling with the demons inside of themself. This book could be ‘beach’ reading, but it’s so much more than that. What’s the opposite of beach reading—mountain reading? I don’t know, but this book should be planted on the shelves of every AirBNB in Aspen. And Cleveland.
On Trial for Reason: Science, Religion, and Culture in the Galileo Affair, by Maurice A. Finocchiaro.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between reason, religion, and technology. This book was part of a research effort for a new project. I went in expecting to read an overly simplistic account of the Galileo controversy (‘science vs. reason’) by someone who is fairly anti-religious. Finocchiaro, to his credit, started out by showing me that some of my assumptions were wrong (‘the incompatibility thesis is widespread…’, but wrong, he states near the beginning.) This book is well-researched, and it challenged me to not stop at the easy answers to what I feel is one of the fundamental questions of our day: What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, and now: what do faith and reason have to do with Silicon Valley (technology)? I’m grateful that he at least attempted a non-straw man answer to the question.
The Antisocial Network, by Ben Mezrich.
For some reason this book didn’t get very much media attention. I’m trying to understand the shift in social media. When did it become such a hellscape? How did it lead to such coordinated action? I had read so much about the Gamestop meme-stock situation—and I know people who personally participated in it—that I didn’t think that a dramatized account of the situation would do me much good. I really read the book, though, knowing I wouldn’t love the content because I wanted to understand the form: how to write pulp. I still don’t know if I understand how to write it, but I’m a little bit better at reading it.
Share the stuff on your Deep Bookshelf — I’d love to hear from you.
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