2016 was the year I returned to the joy of reading and learning. The anticipation of picking out a book, the pleasure of reading it quietly, the fascination of worlds opening up, and the satisfaction of finishing a book were all experiences that regained so much colour for me.
2016 was also the year I learned to weather the horror that also comes from learning. The fear that you don’t know enough, the existential crisis in realizing maybe you never really knew much at all, that everything you thought you knew is wrong, and the panic in feeling you’ll never be able to catch up, are all stressful experiences easy to avoid for the sake of comfort.
Tension. In-betweenness. This year I transgressed into emotional, physical and intellectual liminal spaces. These books were with me along the way, in no particular order.
Favourite Books I Read in 2016
Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse
Technically, I didn’t read this book, it was read to me. I don’t think I would have ever come across it otherwise, or bothered to pick it up if I did. But there’s something simple and beautiful about reading a story of melancholy and solitude with someone – Herman Hesse’s prose was a joy to discover this way.
Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick
This isn’t the best biography I’ve ever read, but it was exactly the book I needed to read at the time – a quick, engaging introduction to anarchist activist and orator Emma Goldman. I picked this up at a second hand bookstore in Edmonton, Alberta on a weekend excursion while the federal NDP convention was in town. So much was happening on personal and political levels, it was nice to carry around this little book about a woman who so fervently lived according to her principles.
A generous gift from author Chelsea Vowel, one that settlers should accept with reverence. The most striking thing about this book is the deftness of tone. Vowel weaves candid humour, anger, sorrow, and hope throughout complex assessments of Indigenous cultural and political struggles. This book is not a lecture on history, statistics, or case studies – it’s a gracious entry point into a living, breathing conversation that demands your participation.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
My first foray into Chomsky. This book puts forward a propaganda model to assess the relationship between major American media outlets and the US government. While there was a lot to digest, it helped me think more critically about my own media consumption and better identify and understand propaganda. It’s maybe more than a little relevant skill to work on right now.
The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature by Dr. David Suzuki
This year was the year I discovered something ancient and sacred and it was intensely visceral. Some people have “out of body” experiences, but I felt like I was being pulled through the ground to the very fucking core of the earth. I don’t know, could have been the sex, or the drugs, but it made me more aware of the physicality of my body than ever before.
Yeah, I know how it sounds. Whatever. I ended up reading this book and it was so perfect in addressing why I always had such a difficult time registering any sort of emotion over environmental destruction. I knew it was happening, but I was too alienated from it to care. Now I care, and it’s probably too late. Fun! But. Check it out anyways.
Hi, this might be one of my favourite books of all time. Like, if my house was burning down, this would for sure be a possession I’d save (it’s sadly out of print!). It’s probably because it so brilliantly captures the spirit of the Alberta I grew up in – it almost feels like a part of my personal history. To be honest, it inspired quite a bit of my last essay about leaving Calgary. So, thanks to Gordon Laird for inadvertently helping me figure my life out.
The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir
Reading this made me want to like burn everything I had ever written and climb into a volcano.
This short story is told through a white woman’s diary as she discovers her husband’s affair, sparking a reevaluation of their entire relationship. This subsequently results in an identity crisis, being unable to define herself outside of her role as wife and mother. Beauvoir criticizes and yet holds an incredible amount of empathy for her tragic protagonist. It’s mesmerizing and haunting and hey, do you know which volcanoes are currently active right now?
Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown
I didn’t realize I would be moving to Manitoba at the time I read this, but maybe I had a feeling. This graphic novel was a great entry point into the history of Louis Riel, the province of Manitoba, and the intertwining development the Canadian Pacific Railway with the formation of Canada.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
It was always one of those book I said I’d read, but never actually had the courage to pick up. I finally ended up reading it for a class and it is harrowing – not just because of the subject matter, but the power behind Spiegelman’s defamiliarizing illustrations. A single panel kept me up all night.
Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Stokely Carmichael
Here Stokely Carmichael lays out the framework for black nationalist movements like the Black Panther Party. Reading it feels like a march, every word carries into the next with precise determination, every argument a militant stomp towards black liberation. If you are white, it’s essential for understanding the complexity and depth of anti-black racism, the context and history of black liberation movements, and the work needed to find your place as an ally. It was an honour to be able to read these words.
Honourable Mentions (AKA I started them in 2016 but haven’t finished them yet)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
In a world of formulaic cash-grabbing nostalgia-mining space movies, it’s so refreshing to be reminded of what science fiction as a genre can actually offer. Le Guin builds a world based upon anarchist principles, assessing the forms industry, education, personal relationships might take under such a model. She then sends a protagonist native to that world off to interact with capitalist and socialist societies. It’s quite possibly one of the most memorable novels I’ve encountered.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Okay, I made it half way. HALF WAY. I lost track of it during the move, but I swear I’ll finish it this year. Either way, I wanted to include it on this list because I don’t even know how this book exists. It is like, one of the wonders of the world. It also really, really fun to read too. Imagine taking a trip into an almost alien psyche – everything is mostly the same but askew enough to feel you’re perpetually off-balance. Exploring entertainment, addiction and suicide in the world of Infinite Jest has been a challenge I’ve enjoyed immensely.
Oh my god writing summaries of this many books is hard. I don’t really think I did them all justice (I clearly need to expand my adjective vocabulary), but I hope some of them piqued your interest. To more reading in 2017…