For 20 years I’ve been bugging my literary-minded friends and colleagues about their most anticipated or most loved summer reads and compiling those lists into our annual Summer Reading List. To celebrate two decades of The List, I asked more contributors than ever, and I asked them all to recommend just one book.
This year we have newcomers Claudia Dawson, John Oakes, Tia Ja’nae, Danika Stegeman LeMay, David Leo Rice, Autumn Christian, Erik Steinskog, Peter Relic, HLR, Paul Edwards, Scott Cumming, M. Sayyid, Gary Suarez, and Brian H. Spitzberg, and repeat contributors Cynthia Connolly, Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, Steven Shaviro, Paul Levinson, Jussi Parikka, Alex Burns, Steve Jones, Peter Lunenfeld, Joseph Nechvatal, Howard Bloom, Lily Brewer, and myself, of course.
All of the links in this list (except in the very few cases where they were unavailable) lead to IndieBound, where you can find a copy of the book at your local bookstore or order it online.
Sun Yung Shin The Wet Hex (Coffee House Press, 2022): Sun Yung Shin’s newest collection of poems, hot off the (Coffee House) press is the ONE BOOK I most recommend and most look forward to voraciously reading this summer. Here are a few samplings, at random, backwards, because how else would I do it?: “travelers, wipe the blood off your shoes / lay low with lambs /” (p. 81), “But are you ready to be well?” (p. 39), “VIOLENCE IS NOT A METAPHOR” (p. 17), “We are water, we are rivers of descent; /gravity is inevitable, yet grievable.” (p. 5). I can only guess at all of the contents of this beckoning, unread book. I suspect, as ever, Shin is an alchemist sublimating a future by unearthing the past and carefully cataloging its elements and etymologies. I suspect, as ever, the poems within the book will be surprising, entirely Shin’s own, and writhing and thriving with life. I hope to be haunted, I hope to bask in a feminist (de)construction through time, I hope to exit the the book’s passages changed.
W. G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1998): My one book that I’m both reading and recommending is W. G. Sebald’s wonderfully gloomy The Rings of Saturn. I seem to go through life bombarded by accusatory cries of “What? You haven’t read. . .” and Sebald’s is a name that frequently comes up in such conversations. I’ve long felt a connection to the man, as for several years I was the custodian of a rickety metal desk chair whose previous owner claimed that the chair’s owner before him was the storied German author, the mention of whose name elicited from me a blank look and the subsequent “What…?” etc. The chair eventually disintegrated into its component pieces, but my guilt at never having read a word of Sebald’s stayed with me and only increased with each subsequent iteration of the exchange. Then I learned that St. Sebald, as I’d come to think of him, had died an untimely death which left him forever younger than I am now by several years, and for some reason that made me panic, and I took the plunge. As I have discovered, Sebald is an excavator of memory in the best humanist tradition, a non-fiction counterpart to Thomas Bernhard, a master of digression and a chronicler extraordinaire of human folly. Sometimes what they tell you about a classic is true.
Stephan Harding Gaia Alchemy: The Reuniting of Science, Psyche, and Soul (Bear & Company, 2022): Gaia Alchemy is written by a behavioral ecologist as an attempt to integrate intuition and the imaginal with empirical science which is, for the most part, devoid of the Sacred. There’s a deep psychological structure that we all have to tear down in order to re-establish a relationship with our biosphere — a relationship our ancestors tried to hand down to us. I’m only 15% into it, but this book feels really important for me to finish. Depth psychology, alchemical images, and Indigenous wisdom are woven together with modern science to create a new perspective on our interconnectedness with Gaia and the Universe and our souls.
Anna Kavan Ice (Peter Owen Publishers, 1967/Penguin, 2017): This summer I’m excited to finally read Anna Kavan’s Ice. It’s a book I’ve been hearing about for years, and one that seems to be cropping up in odd and interesting places more and more lately. I recently picked up the Penguin reissue and am excited to delve in. It’s always a particular feeling to read a book that’s been peripherally in your mind for so long — I’m never quite sure why I don’t read such books sooner, I guess I like to let them linger so as to imagine my own versions of them for a while — but it’s a feeling I look forward to in a way that’s slightly different from how I approach brand new books, or truly canonical classics that feel like they’ve been around forever. The undoing of my imagined version of a book like Ice is part of the thrill of reading it.
Alvin Orloff Disasterama: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997 (Three Rooms Press, 2019): Alvin owns the Castro Street Dog Eared Books in San Francisco (now called Fabulosa Books). I met him while selling my “18 (deckle edged) Postcards of Cones along Highway 1, Big Sur, California” last summer. David Pearl was with me and he pointed out that Alvin wrote a book about his life in SF in the 1980’s. If you want to read about a really fun (and tragic) scene of gay performers and punks living through the changing times of San Francisco in the 1980’s at the advent of the AIDS epidemic you must read this book. I lived in SF in 1986 and this book fills in all the missing pieces for me. Mentioned are some of the gay/punk dance places (for example, “Uranus” at “The End Up”) that I went to when I came back to SF in 1987 and 88. Mentioned is Tribe 8, the zine Homocore, and: From page 143 “..rave-style Outlaw Parties zany parties during which gaggles of youngsters would invade some public place (a BART train, say, or an asphalt nowhere-land under a freeway.) and throw a shin-dig using a portable sound system.” and page 160, “Our club, he declared loftily, wouldn’t be just another hotspot for youthful gadabouts, but an incubator of imagination, a hotbed of subversion, and a haven for the misfits and mutants who move culture forward. We’d provide a venue for underexposed queer artists and promote cross-cultural pollination with unusual pairings: drag queens and punk bands and cabaret singers, performance art, live theater and Spoken Word. And to counteract people’s lamentable tendency to slip into passive observer-dom, we’d promote audience participation by offering games, classes, contests, crafting activities“. What more can you ask for from a book?!??
Marguerite Young Miss Macintosh My Darling (Dalkey Archive, 2022): Originally published in 1965, this is the Great American Novel that far too few people have actually read. It’s 1,198 pages long, by turns mesmerizing and hilarious, and filled with ravishing, poetic page-long sentences that follow a meandering dream logic, and yet are filled with incisive, staggering twists and turns. You can easily get lost in the sheer language of it, and yet if you let yourself be hypnotized by Young’s prose, you are liable to miss just how sharp and bitter it is. It moves effortlessly between cosmic and intimate levels, and everything in between. The plot itself is straightforward: the narrator voyages by bus from sophisticated New England and New York to the American heartland of Indiana, and along the way remembers the larger-than-life oddballs and eccentrics who filled her childhood, and who embody in their various ways the American dream or nightmare. It is impossible to give a real sense of this novel without quoting samples of its lavish prose (which I lack the space to do here). I will just say that, in scope and ambition, and also in accomplishment, Miss Macintosh My Darling is as rich and strange as Moby Dick or The Sound and the Fury or Gravity’s Rainbow or Blood Meridian. Indeed it rivals the achievement of such acknowledged modernist masterworks as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses. I fear that I might be making it seem too intimidating with this description; but it is actually less difficult to read than the other books I have mentioned. It is quite welcoming to the reader, and a sheer delight once you have become accustomed to the rhythms of its prose. I actually think it is perfect summer reading. I have read it straight through twice. Both times I started around Memorial Day, and I got to the last page before Labor Day. Those summers, every day I would sit in my favorite cafe, or go to the beach, and slowly devour the book, or let it slowly devour me.
Tove Ditlevsen The Copenhagen Trilogy (Picador, 2021): The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen is the greatest work of confessional autofiction I’ve ever read. Following a working-class Danish girl who dreams of being a published poet (“Someday I’ll write down all of the words that flow through me. Someday other people will read them in a book and marvel that a girl could be a poet, after all.”), this modern masterpiece is an intense, haunting, unsparing portrayal of protagonist Tove’s attempts to reconcile drug addiction, poverty and depression with her artistic ambitions. The three parts (Childhood, Youth, and Dependency) see Tove struggle through her roles as daughter/wife/ex-wife/mother/writer, and cover challenging topics (self-harm, suicidal ideation, abuse, and abortion to name but a few) with startling eloquence and biting wit. Ditlevsen’s voice is unforgettable: the writing is consistently beautiful, and the content is undeniably disquieting. This compulsively readable text—the work of a troubled genius who was ahead of her time—has no happy denouement, which is perhaps what makes it so affecting. I challenge any reader to not find themselves utterly enthralled by Tove’s desire to live her life on her own terms, and devastated by the tragedies that ultimately befall her.
John Markoff Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand (Penguin, 2022): Few people have had the broad cultural impact as Stewart Brand. Many know him as creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. He was also a paratrooper, a Merry Prankster, a roadman in the Native American Church, advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, co-founder of The Well, originator of the term “personal computer,” instigator of the Clock of the Long Now. John Markoff (formerly technology reporter for New York Times) has written a readable, incredibly well-researched, and fun biography.
Ulrich Beck The Metamorphosis of the World: How Climate Change is Transforming Our Concept of the World (Polity, 2017): It’s not what you think. It’s climate change as a window to a greater shift – a metamorphosis more like a paradigm shift, resulting from runaway capitalism and a host of other obsolete institutions overstaying their welcome. I didn’t realize what sociology could be until I started this book, and it may just pivot my whole trip in a new direction.
Simeon Wade Foucault in California [A True Story—Wherein the Great Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death] (2019): This summer, I’ll be reading about fuck pads, cat houses, hot sheet motels, porno theaters, model shops, DIY home dungeons, social media collab houses, pool pagodas, casting couches and studio bungalows, all in hopes of understanding Hollywood’s interlocking systems of sex, power and architecture. But as I’m hoping to think as broadly as possible, one of the books I’m most looking forward to is Simeon Wade’s Foucault in California [A True Story—Wherein the Great Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death]. This volume came out in 2019, two years after the death of its reclusive author, and recounts how in 1975, Wade, then junior faculty at the Claremont Graduate School, invited the visiting bald eminence to North America’s lowest, driest, hottest spot in order to rearrange some neurons. Questions I hope the book answers: Do French theorists quote Heidegger at truck stops? Will LSD reveal Zabriskie Point as a heterotopia? Is there really such a thing as “a true story,” much less one about Michel Foucault?
Tia Ja’nae Ghosts on the Block Never Sleep (Uncle B Publications): Well, I’d recommend this, if for no other reason it was shadow-banned by Amazon and as of April 2022, removed from their stores. A finite number of copies are floating because Amazon allowed it to be bootlegged, so there’s no telling which version people are getting and ergo it’s a collector’s item.
She’s always been used to dirty work.
A short run career as an industry butcher helped with that. But those times are long in her past. In the present, she still lives with Grams and makes ends meet as a freelance car parts thief for The Arab, the biggest fence on the east side of Chicago. Most times it’s just a score that never pays enough to help Grams out with the rent. But it’s steady work she’s good at that keeps their heads above water.
When The Arab gets in a bind and asks her to do a heist that he’s willing to pay for, she seizes the opportunity to get her paper straight once and for all. When the score goes tits up and she has to pull off a miracle to save her payday, she finds herself with a promotion she didn’t ask for working for Alderwoman Monica “Hambone” Davis, who refuses to let her or her butcher block skills walk away and never takes no for an answer.
Chuck Silverman The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections 1960-1973 (Manhattan Music Publications, 1997): Grooves are awesome, and who has arguably the best grooves? That’s right, James Brown. This book has note-for-note breakdowns of the drum, bass, and guitar parts of 23 classic James Brown grooves, but it’s not just for musicians – it also has the stories behind the tracks, explanations of the individual parts, and how the rhythm section evolved from song to song. It even comes with a CD that has all the grooves replayed. I guarantee you will be at least 25% funkier after reading this book, if not more.
Eswar S. Prasad The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution Is Transforming Currencies and Finance (Harvard University Press, 2021): Eswar Prasad is the Tolani Senior Professor of Trade Policy at Cornell University, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. I’m reading this book over the Summer to better understand the background, the economic forces and the changing financial landscape around cryptocurrencies, fintech, and digital currencies. Although this book was written before the TerraUSD and Luna meme coin crash in May 2022, Prasad does a good job in explaining the speculative bubble and winner-takes-all dynamics of cryptocurrencies. His book’s chapters on central banks and the international monetary system will inform you about the broader debates on United States and Australian housing markets; China’s fintech innovation; and the growth in Buy Now Pay Later payment systems that have filled the gap due to austerity, surging inflation, and wages stagnation. Read and be prepared.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1972): 20 years of Summer Reading List “special issue” fits in well with the book I want to add on my own summer reading list: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, itself celebrating a 50th anniversary. I read it for the first time about 20 years ago, in early 2000s, when we had a reading group on Deleuze and Guattari with my friends Teemu Taira and Pasi Väliaho in Turku, FInland. Patiently we also read A Thousand Plateaus, and for example, Philip Goodchild’s book on Deleuze. But now returning to Anti-Oedipus feels the right summer: 50th anniversary, capitalism reformats itself into different modes of capture, the fascists keep on tormenting us, and we need these approaches that Foucault nailed with his classic line: “Anti-Oedipus is an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life.”
Reading Anti-Oedipus pairs up nicely with another book I want to re-read next to it, Brian Massumi’s A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. These book bring a smile to my face.
GIlda WIlliams How to Write about Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2014): I’m gonna stick with this one for a while.
Louis Chude-Sokei, Floating in a Most Peculiar Way: A Memoir (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021): This memoir is one of the books that has given me most food for thought in many years in-between a coming-of-age story and a deep reflection on race, movement, diaspora, and simply – or not so simply – living, and with constant references to David Bowie.
Jennifer Venditti Can I Ask You A Question? (A24 Books, 2022): Given my commitments writing the Cabbages newsletter, producing the podcast, and working on other freelance projects (read: smoking weed on my couch), my current media diet doesn’t really include books. I do get to read books when I’m interviewing an author or researching for a piece, which means a lot of what I read skews towards hip-hop history and culture. So if I’m going to commit to reading something beyond that this summer, it has to be something that scratches a different itch of mine. Though its coffee table size and weight doesn’t exactly lend itself to the “beach reads” genre, Can I Ask You A Question? by casting director Jennifer Venditti will hopefully get my attention in an air-conditioned corner somewhere at home this summer. She’s worked on a ton of A24 movies including the Safdie brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, and as someone who’s never been approached to be in a movie ever I’m perversely curious as to what she looks for when scouting amateurs and non-actors.
F. Scott Fitzgerald Tender is the Night (Scribners, 1934): At once luminous, breezy, and tragic, it’s like a warm night where you can still feel the heat of the phantom sun on the palm trees.
Steven Johnson Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (Riverhead Books, 2021): There are patterns everywhere when one looks. Sometimes the patterns mean something and sometimes they don’t. This book hit upon a set of patterns that clearly correspond to historically significant events and processes in human society. We are living almost twice as long today as our ancient forebears. This is a rather astonishing shift in human biology and phenomenological experience. Much of this expansion of longevity has resulted from human invention (e.g., vaccination, pasteurization/chloronation, antibiotics, industrial regulation, etc.), which means we did not take millions or tens of thousands of years to achieve it through evolutionary adaptation, but rather we accomplished it in the relative blink of an evolutionary eye. Johnson examines some of the events that correspond to this longevity expansion, as well as some of the implications it has on our everyday living. Such a seismic shift is unlikely to be noticed by any given generation. From my own ‘dark side’ perspective, I think it is intriguing to inquire–is this a good thing, to be living longer?
Hervé Le Tellier The Anomaly (Other Press, 2021): Science fiction (perhaps, perhaps not?), suspense, strong characters, a book made for our times that’ll provoke questions galore well after one has read it. I very highly recommend it.
Lola Lafon Reeling (Europa Editions, 2022): I purchased this book on something of an intentional whim. I knew nothing about it, and that was the point. In the bookstore across the square, I saw the title and the author’s name on the spine. Sounds good. And the cover? Yes.
A week later, I was recommending it to someone who’d asked: “What’s the best book you’ve read lately?” I began stammering, summarizing the plot, and was interrupted with “Well, I won’t be reading that.”
I might’ve been better off reading them a sentence or two aloud, for a sense of Lafon’s pithy, poetic power. Or describing the imperiled friendship between the jazz dancer and the costume mender. Or trying to explain the novel’s irreducibility.
But I was still reeling.
Natasha Brown Assembly (Little, Brown, 2021): Brown manages to provide a snapshot of life as a black Briton encapsulating her past, present and future experience in a searing 100 pages. It’s richly voiced and prescient without preaching.
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski Crops (Rain Taxi, 2021): I don’t often write about poetry. But Grzegorz Kwiatkowski’s Crops is a very short book with some very deep reflections about one of the tragedies of our modern world and longer than that. Kwiatkowski is a Polish poet and musician, and this book of poetry traces his confrontation and struggle to understand the Holocaust that took so many innocent lives of Jews and others in his country.
The poems are not easy to read, and they should not be. They are replete with bones and body parts, memories and excuses for what happened, a lot more than a moment of sheer depravity that gripped the world. And all the more relevant because of what’s going on in our world today.
But I wouldn’t be calling your attention to these poems if there was not also some hope in this grim accounting, leaking through and glimmering around the edges. Kwiatkowski concludes one of his poems with “someone has written on the nearby wall: innocent sunsets.” In the context of the poem, the “innocent sunsets” are an evasion of history and responsibility. But, for me, anything that has anything to do with sunsets is also a recognition of hope for the future. I know that I always feel good when I see a sunset. And that’s why, more than fifty years ago, I wrote the lyrics to “Looking for Sunsets (In the Early Morning).”
And, indeed, all the poetry of Crops is a plea for understanding and hence a statement of hope and an evidence of healing. Crops was written before Russia’s invasion of Poland’s next-door neighbor, Ukraine, where Russia has committed atrocities, too. So, alas, it’s also true that Crops may never be not relevant to the world at hand.
Howard Bloom Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: a Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll (Backbeat Books, 2020). However, I’m biased. I wrote it.
This summer, I will be reading the catalogue holdings and essays in the collection of texts, Stiftung Insel Hombroich. This will be a pleasant and excruciating exercise in German translation and independent (i.e., unfunded) art historical research after earning my PhD. I am working with a friend and colleague, Meredith North, on working through this book as we begin a new project for my online exhibition and publishing program, Weaponized Landscapes, a comparative study of former Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, Texas and the Museum Insel Hombroich and Raketenstation in Neuss, Germany. Both former Cold War military installments, these two sites were converted into artist spaces and then opened to the public within five years of each other in the late seventies and early eighties. In June 2022, after traveling by train, tram, bus, and two kilometers on foot, we were able to finally put our hands on this book and related others—the first books proudly featured in the Weaponized Landscapes‘s editorial office’s library. This book has put both locations, Marfa and Neuss, together in a soft pile of art and nature discourse. Though they’re wrong, and art and nature isn’t what these formerly weaponized landscapes are about, it is galvanizing to see them connected for the first time outside of my head. Here’s to correcting the connection!
Tim Maughan Infinite Detail: A Novel (FSG Originals, 2019): Once in a while you read a book that you think everyone should read. Infinite Detail is that book so far this century. It’s not about this moment, rather it’s about the one that might follow if we aren’t more careful with this one. Though it didn’t entirely predict the pandemic, all of its prophecies of technological collapse are on the verge of becoming realities. Ignore it at your peril.
And don’t miss Maughan’s recent cryptopunk story “Line Go Up” on Noema.