Favorites Among Books That I Read in 2013

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volumes I & II — These autobiographical books are just now being put out in English translation out of their original Norwegian, the first two volumes of a projected six volume project. I suspect they will not be to everyone’s taste but they rank with the best things I have ever read. Knausgaard can turn a long description of cleaning a bathroom into gripping reading — I kid you not! Sample quote: “For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. Apart from the details, everything is always the same. And with every passing day the desire grows for the moment when life will reach the top, for the moment when the sluice gates open and life finally moves on. At the same time I see that precisely this repetitiveness, this enclosedness, this unchangingness is necessary, it protects me. On the few occasions I have left it, all the old ills return.”

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks  — This is the book that the Nobel Prize Committee singled out in awarding Mann the Nobel Prize (not Magic Mountain). It is a multigenerational epic about a family and its intersection with the family business. (As one who inherited a family business, I could definitely relate.) Most novels that deal with business are poor at describing the nuts and bolts of business decisions/struggles with any precision; this book is the rare exception. Sample quote: “The sad thing is that one lives but once—one can’t begin life over again. And one would know so much better the second time!”

Javier Marias, The Infatuations — There were a lot of reasons for me *not* to like this book — it seems morally dubious; the mysteries of its plot never interested me — but I loved the introspective narrative style, the sentences that undermine themselves and yet move the story forward. Sample quote: “We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace.” Every sentence of Marias bears witness to mystery’s saturated presence in everyday life.

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty — This novel takes place in Khrushchev-era USSR and describes (then) hopeful attempts to overcome the contradictions built into central planning. Spufford treats his subject sympathetically but unsentimentally. It is better than any economic textbook in describing the deep structural problems with the Soviet system that led to its collapse. I strongly recommend reading F.A.Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” along with this, since Spufford describes brilliantly what Hayek theorizes in that essay. Here’s a link to that essay: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html

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