Something that I learned from The Gift of Fear, among other readings, is that any reaction reinforces a behavior by demonstrating the threshold for provoking a reaction. Yes, that’s tautological, but it’s important.
If someone isn’t constrained by other concerns like their reputation, or the perception that you could materially punish them, or sheer emotional stress from conflict — and there are many people who aren’t constrained in those ways, especially when anonymity is an option — then a troll from that unconstrained population will prefer a negative reaction to zero reaction.
In that case, any sign that you’re paying attention and being affected by someone’s behavior will encourage them to continue. Hence “never feed the trolls” is a decent heuristic despite its edge cases. See also: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.”
In closing, think carefully about when to feed the trolls. How motivated is your adversary or group thereof? What’s stopping them from escalating further? Do you have any leverage?
My thoughts above were originally posted as a Twitter thread. Lightly edited for this format.
I kept a list of every book I read in 2017, inspired by my friend David Auerbach’s “Books of the Year” series. The end result is not particularly impressive. I finished forty books, most of which I read for pure entertainment (as opposed to edification).
However! I had a lot of fun! So that’s a win.
My final tally would have been much lower, but I downloaded the Kindle app again. Since the convenience of reading in bed skyrocketed, so did my book throughput. (Wrangling a paperback + book light while trying to avoid disturbing my partner… not ideal. Perhaps ironically, the guide on how to start reading again that I wrote ages ago gives the exact opposite advice.)
Unexpected side effect: In 2017 I read substantially fewer articles and essays than in previous years. It seems that my allocation of reading time is zero-sum. All in all, I’m happy to have traded a certain amount of enlightening longform articles for entertaining novels. During most of 2017, I felt mired in intellectual anhedonia, and that influenced my reading choices. I wanted escapism.
Over the course of 2017, I became markedly less curious. My intellectual enthusiasm waned dramatically. I don't know why. Getting older? Brain chemistry?
(Burnout from another bonkers year? All my energy being sucked up by my job? Probably a combination thereof.)
Anyway, the main point of this blog post is to publish and preserve the list of all the books I read in 2017. I considered sorting them by genre but 1) that would involve a lot of judgment calls and 2) chronological order will give you a more eclectic browsing experience. Like a bookstore! See, I’m charming, not lazy.
Fair warning: I used Amazon affiliate links throughout this post, because why the heck not. If you hate Amazon or hate kickbacks or whatever, you can Google the titles and authors.
Slate Star Codex reviewed Shem’s novel beautifully, which is why I bought it. The book “had a touch of magical realism, which turns out to be exactly the right genre for a story about medicine.” Because medicine is “a series of bizarre occurrences just on the edge of plausibility happening to incredibly strange people for life-and-death stakes, day after day after day, all within the context of the weirdest and most byzantine bureaucracy known to humankind.”
A very strong contender for Best Book I Read in 2017. After the nuclear apocalypse, history devours itself like an ouroboros. Science becomes religion becomes science becomes religion. Human nature doesn’t improve, but it still has its moments of transcendent goodness.
The subtitle, courtesy of Amazon: A Powerful Billionaire, the Sex Scandal that Undid Him, and All the Justice that Money Can Buy: The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein.
I bought this in the airport and read it on a flight to NYC. That excessively long, tabloid-style subtitle relays the subject and tone of the book better than I ever could. Enjoyable read, but I would be ashamed to recommend it for reasons that should be obvious.
This is the third contender for Best! Kaleidoscope Century is a rollercoaster mindfuck of a story. Here’s the Amazon review I wrote immediately after finishing the book: “I didn’t bother to understand the time travel and it was still great. Not for the faint of heart, but I’ve also read much more depraved books, so IMO some of the other reviews are overblown. If you liked the movie Memento, you will like this too.”
Hintjens writes about the psychology of psychopaths — really, he’s talking about sociopaths in general, but he calls them psychopaths — as a layperson extrapolating from personal experiences. Still, his analysis is not implausible. It’s certainly intriguing. He models sociopaths as predators who pursue normal people as prey, milking their victims dry of whatever resource the sociopath wants (money, sex, emotional energy, etc). The Psychopath Code is not as good or convincing as, say, The Gift of Fear, but it’s worth reading if you’re interested in the topic.
I have a huge weakness for Grisham and will read basically any book he’s written. I love suspense, schemes that are unveiled over the course of the entire book, and legal settings. The Runaway Juror provides all of that, especially a delicious slow reveal.
I finally got around to this cyberpunk classic. The characters and plot are weak compared to, say, Neuromancer, but the world-building is FANTASTIC. Sterling explores how transhumanism and politics may end up affecting each other.
This year I developed a fondness for apocalypse and post-apocalypse settings, with a particular affinity for zombies. (It was sparked by watching The Walking Deadwith my partner.) World War Z is SO FUN when you have that itch to scratch. Not every bit of the plot makes sense, as is customary when it comes to zombies, but Brooks gives you a sweeping tour of how the world might be transformed by Zed.
I can’t remember who recommended this book, but it was either David Auerbach or Adam Elkus. The ultimate “decadent elitism” spy novel. An odd but entrancing read.
I’m going to address the following five books as a chunk, because they’re all domestic noir, a genre that is basically Crazy Girl Chic meets crime thriller. I watched The Girl on the Train on an airplane and suddenly became obsessed with flawed female protagonists untangling murders or doing dark, twisted things. All of these books are excellent, especially the Gillian Flynn ones:
Sharp Objects is the best book out of the five, but Gone Girl had by far the most cultural impact. Flynn’s short story The Grownup is also great, if you just want to get a taste of the genre or her style.
I had the privilege of reading a draft of Auerbach’s memoir in order to give feedback. Bitwise still hasn’t been published, but you can preorder it. Auerbach is a subtle, fascinating thinker, and the book uses his life experiences to explore human nature and the effects that technology (specifically computing) have had on society.
There is very little in-depth journalism about weddings, unfortunately, so I had to put up with Mead’s snotty attitude about people who dare to spend more than $5,000 on getting married. (Personally, I don’t intend to splash out a huge amount, but c’mon, there’s nothing wrong with throwing an expensive party.)
Probably my longest read of the year, since it clocked in at 500+ pages. Cry to Heaven is a lyrical ode to the castrati (eunuch singers) who were the toast of the Italian opera during the eighteenth century. The book is surprisingly smutty, very chivalric, and totally gorgeous. I loved Cry to Heaven despite its lack of plausibility. If you enjoyed the movie The Red Violin, then you’d probably also enjoy Cry to Heaven.
A semi-fictional exploration of post-Holocaust trauma in the Jewish diaspora. (That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?) The Emigrants was recommended by my friend Jared Radin. It feels more like a series of thoughtful essays than a novel. I came away with a better understanding of why heritage is important to people… although I still don’t fully get it.
That’s a wrap! Every book I read in 2017, assuming I didn’t forget to write any of them down. (Which is possible, since I wrote 99% of this post before realizing, “Hey, didn’t I read Shibumi this year?”) I hope you got something out of perusing the list, and I’m somewhat surprised that you made it to the end. Feel free to recommend books that you think I should read in 2018!
I recently finished two quintessentially American books. I had been working on Blood and Thunder since I got back from hiking in Desolation Wilderness with my father. After closing that historical epic, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy, planning to just read a chapter or two. Well, I ended up tearing through the book and didn’t get to sleep until after 3am.
Blood and Thunder uses the life of famous frontiersman Kit Carson to track “the Conquest of the American West” (so declares the subtitle). Author Hampton Sides describes the role that Carson played in various quasi-scientific mapping expeditions, the United States’ wars with Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Southwest — especially the Navajo — and the general aftermath of white settlers claiming land previously occupied by indigenous tribes. The book is well-researched but not academic, so it’s both edifying and gripping.
The sub-topic I found most fascinating was the mutually fraught relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers (both Mexican and migratory American), which focused on the New Mexico Territory. Plenty of racism was involved, but before the army came west the white residents of New Mexico were not holding their own against the Diné (the Navajo’s word for themselves), the Utes, or other local ethnic groups. Native American raiders stole scores of sheep from the settlers, and slave expeditions went back and forth between the New Mexicans and the tribes.
This is not to say that fiat United States aggression against the Native Americans was justified — it was a continuation of European Americans’ protracted genocide of indigenous people. Kit Carson himself, though he had personally killed many Native Americans, attributed their worsening plight to white violence. However, the escalating atrocities were mutual, even after the Navajo Long Walk, which I didn’t know. It goes to show that the situation on the ground is always more complex than the neat narrative that comes out of it.
I stayed up late reading Hillbilly Elegy all in one go and now I'm pretty restless. Can't stop contemplating personal responsibility.
In keeping with the theme of moral complexity, Hillbilly Elegy is fundamentally about how poor Appalachian whites bear some responsibility — ultimate responsibility, author JD Vance might argue — for their own demographic’s sorry state. The book is 75% memoir interspersed with 25% social analysis. I bought this after reading an interview with Vance and seeing Hillbilly Elegypraised by Nils Gilman. Vance’s story and commentary were very, very good.
Vance uses his own life as an example and a lens. He describes the loving chaos of his extended family, punctuated by mutual abuse among the adults, and the recurring trauma of his immediate home life. Vance attributes his later success as a Marine, college student, lawyer, and husband to the constant, fiercely loyal, and raucously affectionate presence of his grandparents. He describes the importance of being taught to believe that his choices could matter, that he could influence his fate by working hard and being diligent.
“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.” — JD Vance
I am more liberal than Vance, but I agree that we’re each responsible for how our own lives turn out. There’s politics and then there’s reality — I belong to myself, and you belong to yourself. We must strive for survival and success. Especially since the systemic change comes slowly.
But hey, another thing we should strive for is making the government serve its people more than the opposite arrangement!
Vance’s answers to Dreher’s questions prompted me to buy the book. Here are some choice quotes from their conversation:
“By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”
“[W]hen you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”
“The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. […] But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”
“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.”
I want Scott Alexander to review this book (after I’ve read it, that is). Also, isn’t Hillbilly Elegy an evocative title, regardless of anything else?
The Tintin books are super racist, stuffed with offensive stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the parts of them that are heartwarming and hilarious. Krishnadev Calamur, a fellow Tintin aficionado, writes of the comics’ very obvious bigotry and his nevertheless unflagging enjoyment of them:
“There’s certainly irony in a child of the former colonies idolizing a character who might be dismissed by casual critics as a proxy for the white-man’s burden (and by more serious ones as a racist). But I couldn’t entirely disavow the series. What those comics taught me was that heroes, even boyish, never-aging ones like Tintin, are deeply flawed, and if you ruminate on something long enough, even a cherished childhood memory, you will inevitably see those flaws clearly. There were things that I loved about Tintin that made it easier to reject those things I did not — without ignoring them altogether.”