Today is World Book Day — here’s what we’re reading
Today is World Book Day, a day designated by UNESCO to celebrate reading, from books and authors to bookstores and libraries. To mark the occasion, we wanted to see what the larger group of Verge staffers have stacked on their nightstands, tucked away in their bags, or stored on their Kindles.
Here’s what some of the Verge staff are currently reading:
Tasha Robinson: I’m just diving into Only Human, the third book in Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files series, which starts with parts of a giant, ancient, ultra-high-tech mecha-being discovered all over the world. Chaim talked to Neuvel last year about this series, and for anyone looking for a primer, that interview is a good intro to what’s interesting about the series — in particular, the way it finds a new spin on giant-robot stories, by making the giant robot into a baffling alien artifact, then focusing on the worldwide political ramifications of one country having an unbeatable yet clumsy super-weapon. The books are told primarily through transcripts of character interviews and other audio records, which means they’re very short on description — it’s strangely like reading a really good audio drama or podcast. But what impresses me most about the series is how completely unsentimental Neuvel is about the status quo. He sends countries to war, destroys cities, and kills off central characters when it would have been easy to dodge and keep them in the narrative. So much fantasy and science fiction feels like it’s about getting back to a comfort zone: fighting the evil empire or the giant monster, saving the day, getting back to normal. This trilogy makes it pretty clear early on that world-changing events would actually change the world, and it’s a much more interesting story because Neuvel doesn’t allow readers any sort of safety zone to retreat to. I can’t wait to see how far this book pushes the story. (Only Human comes out on May 1st.)
Adi Robertson: I’m reading James Bridle’s New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Bridle is known for defining the “New Aesthetic,” which (very loosely) involves our modern digital world overlapping the real one. New Dark Age is a book-length argument for the idea that vastly proliferating knowledge — from mass surveillance, social media, artificial intelligence, and other sources — is paradoxically making the world harder to comprehend, while the technology that underlies it is creating environmental damage that we’re ill-equipped to understand or solve.
The book covers a lot of topics that Bridle’s written about before, including drones and creepy YouTube Kids videos. It’s less a polemic than a series of fascinating and sometimes tangential stories about technology, tying together everything from chemtrail conspiracies to Google’s eerie DeepDream computer vision project. New Dark Age feels deeply hopeless at points, but it’s also highly nuanced in its analysis of technology, and it provokes me to think more about the unspoken social and political assumptions underlying a lot of my industry. And while this might contrast Bridle’s intended point, his bestiary of computing experiments is strangely inspiring. Yes, the things we’ve created might destroy us — but it’s kind of amazing that we managed to create them the first place. (New Dark Age comes out on July 17th.)
Liz Lopatto: I just finished Bob Colacello’s Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, a memoir of Colacello’s time with Andy Warhol. (Colacello was the editor of Interview magazine, which for a time was styled as Andy Warhol’s Interview — though Warhol refused to provide cover art.) I’ve been thinking about Warhol a lot lately: the space Tesla seemed like a moment Warhol would have loved. And though that was what made me pick up the book, as I was reading it, I realized those in Factory circles were early to the Panopticon we all joined when we signed up for social media. It is really, really hard to withstand constant observation — something Warhol’s inner circle learned in the most painful way. Warhol routinely taped phone calls and passed gossip back to the person being gossiped about — essentially, he was a pioneer in tagging people into subtweets about them.
There are some wonderful moments of gossip; the frenemy-ship between Halston and Warhol is a particular high point. But Colacello starts to fall apart under the pressure of constant work at low wages (familiar!), just as most people who worked for Warhol did. Warhol made millions and became famous; his collaborators were often left with comparably little for their hard work and contributions (Hey, Uber! How’s it going, Facebook!). Colacello is one of these collaborators, since he ghostwrote The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) with Pat Hackett. Neither of their names appear on the cover.
Warhol was ahead of his time. The president is a reality star; we all live in The Factory now.
Andrew Liptak: I read a lot of science fiction, but my background is in military history, so I try to break out from my love of reading about the future to revisit the past. Recently, I’ve gone back to rewrite a paper that I authored in 2011 about the Second World War’s Battle of the Bulge. In the process of re-researching the battle, I picked up two books: John Toland’s Battle: The Story of the Bulge, and The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge by John S.D. Eisehower (the son of WWII General and President Dwight Eisenhower). Each are superb histories, covering the battle in elegant and clear detail. World War II histories are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to find books that not only examine the 20,000-foot strategic view of the war, but also the stories of the soldiers slugging it out in the brutal winter conditions of December 1944.
Devon Maloney: There’s always a stack of books on my nightstand, a few in my Audible queue, and a couple downloaded onto my Kindle, because I am a glutton for self-flagellationbecause I am an intelligent, passionate individual. Books currently lingering passive-aggressively in my line of sight, begging to be finished, include:The Stone Sky, the third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (read Angela Lashbrook’s glowing recommendation if you’re on the fence — it is a breathtaking series that ought to be considered the modern standard for worldbuilding); Broad Band by Claire L. Evans (a great non-fiction read about the women who led the digital revolution and never received due credit — this has been a long time coming, IMO); Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (two words: Killer. Mermaids.); Samantha Irby’s Meaty (run, don’t walk, to this essay collection, the predecessor to Irby’s bestselling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life — Sam is one of the funniest, most real writers currently working); and Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism(this one is a brutal but crucial addition — Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, illustrates how the prison industrial complex continues to make the oppression of black and brown Americans a booming business, one that funds both public and private institutions in the absence of taxes avoided by corporations and the rich).
Angela Chen: I am reading The Guermantes WaybyMarcel Proust, the third novel in his In Search of Lost Time series. I always thought that I would read Proust when I was old and waiting to die, but after last year, I feel old and ready to die, so the time was ripe. The first two books in the series were magnificent and made me yearn for the wealthy French youth by the seaside I never had. Crucially, they also made me feel better about being a rather humorless person, seeing how the protagonist is even more humorless and sensitive. The Guermantes Way, however, is slow going and so far involves a one-sided and inappropriate (and not in the fun way) unrequited love.
Still, the meandering, thoughtful, “nothing really happens” pace of the books is relaxing, the prose is beautiful, and many of the psychological observations truly are impressive. Remember the science journalist Jonah Lehrer? His first book was called Proust is a Neuroscience, and though it was hokey, and though he’s since been disgraced, that particular claim wasn’t wrong. As for non-fiction, I am reading Materials Science and Engineering: An IntroductionandMaterials: A Very Short Introduction. Materials are genuinely fascinating — chemistry, physics, engineering, anthropology, art. It has it all.
Chaim Gartenberg: As is my custom, I’m partway through roughly half a dozen books at the moment, due to the same combination of reading tons of different books across various physical copies, my phone, and my Kindle, along with the distractions of new books that tend to pull me away from the ones I’m in the middle of.
But currently, I’m working my way through Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows, which is a delightful collection of short stories that Burrows has put together out of example texts from a collection of dictionaries. I’ve also got Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, which continues his excellent Dandelion Dynasty series, looking mournfully at me from my nightstand; and a bookmark halfway through an arc of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which is an interesting fantasy spin on the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale in the same vein as her earlier book, Uprooted. I’m also just finishing up Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, a fairly by-the-numbers fantasy novel with the twist of a culture that treats its epic heroes like we do our epic rock bands. Oh, and I just started Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, (which Andrew recently reviewed), and it looks like the sci-fi, Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque Eurotrip novel of my dreams.
Shannon Liao: Like Chaim, I have a zillion books I’m working on at the moment, and not much time at all to get to all of them. They’re all hard copies, though, because I accidentally placed my Kindle Paperwhite at the bottom of my purse and cracked the screen a bit. (Only a little, but it’s too sad to look at now.) I’ve just received Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble, a non-fiction book that documents how search engines reinforce racism, that’s just imminently relevant to the ongoing conversations we’re having about major tech companies, and I hope to power through that this week. I’m currently taking fiction writing classes at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and I’ve got their Writing Fiction guide in my bag and a longer-than-normal subway commute this morning helped me read and do the exercises of the first chapter. It’s great to be able to write all over a book while reading it, and the guide is designed for that.
Two weeks ago, I recently made a trip to the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho, and sniped two books from their sale section, both of which pertain to my China beat: Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, which I’ve eyed every time I visit the store, an absurdist tragicomedy that comments on China’s culture and society while never crossing the line; and Iranian-American professor Behzad Yaghmaian’s The Accidental Capitalist: A People’s Story of the New China, which includes interviews of migrant workers who don’t usually have a voice in media coverage. I’ve read several chapters of the latter and enjoyed them immensely, while recalling what I know of China and how this book layers onto that knowledge. But before I could get too far, and god forbid actually finish anything, my Amazon order of Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute arrived, and I switched gears to devour a few of her short stories. Published in 1974, it’s the oldest book I’ve mentioned so far, but her prose is comforting to hold close.