My 2023 in Reading
Few technologies have endured longer than the book, and none, perhaps, feel more like an active rebellion against the world we’ve inherited. Parasitic screens are everywhere and it is increasingly impossible to be still, to experience the movement of your own thoughts. Once, the book had few rivals. Then came the radio, the film screen, the television, the personal computer, and, finally, the smartphone. The last poses, by far, the greatest threat to the book’s future. It makes the internet, a wondrous invention on its own, into a worlds-devouring entity. The price of convenience is an endless sort of dread. Valuable time melts away.
Books are valuable to me because I am a writer. I have said many times that the best way to get better at your craft is to read. I have grown, over time, less tolerant of philistinism. I don’t blame people who genuinely have no time to read: there are jobs to do, families to raise, and only so much leisure in a day or a weekend. What is stranger to me are the professional class elites who do not read. I have met many journalists who think reading emails is enough. And there is online discourse in which some writers proudly proclaim that there is no need to read very much at all. For those who defend reading, there is always the need to ram it into a quasi-capitalist self-improvement matrix—reading can make you a better person or more compassionate or breed empathy or give you can inside edge in the workplace. All of those things are probably true, but shouldn’t be a justification for reading. Reading is, like art, something that exists for its own sake. Reading forces open the imagination. If you do write, you will only become worthwhile through copious amounts of reading.
It was a good reading year. I read a wide array of fiction and nonfiction. As a novelist, I read fiction, but it’s essential to engage with one of the highest art forms even if you never end up writing any fiction. The novel is our greatest reflection of reality and its ultimate subversion; nothing else offers such possibility. Some of the novels I wrote about here. I reviewed Bret Easton Ellis’ The Shards and Richard Ford’s Be Mine. For the Nation, I reviewed Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn Crime Novel and had the pleasure of interviewing Lethem himself. One of the funniest novels I’ve read in recent times came out this year, Lexi Freiman’s The Book of Ayn, and a great little discovery was Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which came as a recommendation from Dave Weigel’s newsletter. Andrew Boryga’s Victim is due out next year and I’m very excited about that; I was happy to read a galley. And I was lucky to blurb Cally Fiedorek’s Atta Boy, which recalled Bonfire of the Vanities in all the best ways.
I was excited to learn that KGB Bar Lit would publish, this year, my short story “Tad,” which was adapted from a forthcoming novel that I hope, in the next few months, to tell you much more about. (“Tad” was also shared on this Substack.) If you want to buy my novels, you still can—both are very good—and I hope to turn my energies soon toward promoting the next one.
I am happy, in general, to continue a tradition I began in 2015 and have maintained on this Substack. If you’re interested, you can trawl through the books I read in 2020, 2021, and 2022. I don’t operate a Goodreads account; I still keep a marble notebook and jot down all the books. Nothing against Goodreads, where people have been largely kind to me, but I’ve been doing it this way for this long and I’ll stick with it.
As usual, I also read a few Beach Boys books. I can’t help myself. They’re America’s band. And books come with me when I go abroad. Traveling is good, in part, because you get to read. A flight to Japan is a good opportunity to read. I was inspired to start Barkan’s Briefly Noted and I want to review more books next year.
The full list is below. My secret is to live far enough away from Manhattan so you take a lot of long subway rides.
Next year will be strange, not sharing books with my father.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Avalon by Nell Zink
Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy by Norman Mailer
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
Just Thieves by Gregory Galloway
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys: How Deep is the Ocean by Paul Williams
I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava
The Rise of a New Left: How Young Radicals Are Shaping the Future of American Politics by Raina Lipsitz
Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
Boom Times for the End of the World by Scott Timberg
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Independence Day by Richard Ford
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri
N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto
Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Race to Go Viral by Ben Smith
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush by Dan Galvin
Atta Boy by Cally Fiedorek
Stoned by Jill Hoffman
Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict by Elizabeth Day
The Time Has Come by Will Leitch
The Information by Martin Amis
Do You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek
The Guest by Emma Cline
Be Mine by Richard Ford
Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb
How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement by Freddie DeBoer
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy by Mike Love
The Nenoquich by Henry Bean
She Calls Me Cinnamon by Lane Chasek
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
Want by Lynn Steger Strong
Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise by Joel Selvin
Brooklyn Crime Novel by Jonathan Lethem
Victim by Andrew Boryga
Counting the Cost by Jill Duggar
Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963 by James Murphy
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Book of Ayn by Lexi Freiman
Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America by John McMillan
Buddhism 101: From Karma to the Four Noble Truths, Your Guide to Understanding the Principles of Buddhism by Arnie Kozak