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2017 Reading

For a few years now I’ve been tracking books I read each year, logging them to a gist organized roughly by genre. I read a lot in 2017, mostly software development, poetry, and lit-crit/theory books. The themes emerged kind of organically: one Scala or Anne Carson book led to the next. Fiction turned out to be a lonely little leaf node.

You can see the full list here; here are ones which were, for me at least, most notable:

Lit Theory

The Archaeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault

Originally read this one for a course on Foucault during graduate school; appreciated it much more on re-reading. It’s both a methodological argument about how “discourse” is a set of functions mapping statements to material domains and a sort-of-intellectual-memoir in which Foucault circuitously explains how the consequences of this axiom played out in The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, et cetera.

Believe it or not this book’s really fun to read: it’s a caustic polemic with jokes and invective. It also includes what was for me Foucault’s most memorable line:

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order not to have a face.

The Birth-mark by Susan Howe

This one’s a book of literary criticism, an argument about how (and why) some editorial practices and modes of reading evacuate the heteroglossia of language by reducing it to a smaller set of authorized meanings.

The argument proceeds by way of reading works of classic American literature, culminating in an account of how Emily Dickinson’s editors coerced her manuscripts – which look nothing like the poems we’re used to – into their now-familiar forms while the originals kept their interruptive force:

Poetry is never a personal possession. The poem was a vision and a gesture before it became a sign and a coded exchange in a political economy of value. At the moment these manuscripts are accepted into the property of our culture their philosopher-autho escapes the ritual of framing – symmetrical order and arrangement. Are all these works poems? Are they fragments, meditations, aphorisms, events, letters? After the first nine fascicles, lines break off interrupting meter. Righthand margins perish into edges sometimes tipped by crosses and calligraphic slashes.

Poetry

Helen in Egypt by H.D.

I’d read H.D., imagiste before but nothing of her later work. Helen in Egypt is an epic poem collating a number of lyrics sung by Helen, Achilles, and other Iliadic personae. The story departs from a classical fragment in which Helen flies to Egypt prior to the The Iliad, leaving a semblable behind. Everything about it’s pretty mystical; formally the book’s a counterpoint between bits of prose which try to totalize each poem into a larger narrative and lyrics which fly off in many moving directions. It’s ingenious. Here’s a sample.

Decreation by Anne Carson

Glass, Irony, and God by Anne Carson

Decreation and Glass, Irony, and God were the Anne Carson books I found most moving. They’re both uneven – not perfect in the way I think Helen in Egypt is perfect – but the best parts are really brilliant.

In Decreation I loved the essay on sleep as a mode of dispossessing the self. It references Homer and Virginia Woolf and made me recall all the parts of Woolf’s work which advocated fiction’s efficacy in helping people to get beyond the boundaries of the self – through empathy, sympathy, sublimity, whatever.

Glass, Irony, and God opens with an amazing poem which echoes the theme of dispossession with reference to Emily Bronte called “The Glass Essay” – which you can read here.

Software Development

Understanding ECMAScript 6 by Nicholas Zakas

Of all the programming books I read last year, this one probably had the strongest impact on my day to day working life, since I write lots of React and JavaScript code. It taught me ES6 syntax that I use almost daily: object and array destructuring, Promises, sets, and so on.

I appreciate ES6’s ergonomic improvements, but beyond that I find its syntax aesthetically appealing – which makes it a joy to write. This book seems to be the most comprehensive guide.

Software Estimation by Steve McConnell

One of the more interesting things I’ve learned about being a software developer is that actual programming isn’t the only hard part. This Tweet, for instance, segments technical work into “typing”, “thinking”, and “talking” problems, with talking problems like gathering requirements, determining scope, and so on deemed most difficult.

Project-level estimation might be hardest, since it encompasses typing, talking, thinking, and other problems in numerous admixtures. Software Estimation has a set of recipes for making more accurate project estimates. Even knowing that such recipes exist makes the process seem less daunting. For now the book’s had most influence on how I point cards during sprints, but I anticipate re-reading it perioidically as I become more skilled at thinking at the level of projects in addition to features and tasks.

Others

Some others I’d recommend:

  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • This is How by Augusten Burroughs
  • The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier
  • Learn You a Haskell for Great Good by Miran Lipovaca