Our Contributors Pick Their Favorite Books of the Year


Best of 2016

From Society of the Spectacle.


This was a year of path-breaking books of poems—the taut intensity of Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, the striking diction and bitter tenderness of Monica Youn’s Blackacre. It was also a year of culminating ones—John Koethe’s wise, prescient The Swimmer and John Kinsella’s Drowning in Wheat, which gathers thirty years of his work. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees jolted my sense of the forest and the trees—and parts and wholes everywhere. Finally, Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, a meditation on species plenitude and extinction, sent me back to Audubon on passenger pigeons, “obscuring the light of noon as by an eclipse.” Chased by a single hawk, “they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.” —Susan Stewart (“Channel”)

Some stories are simply imagined. Others are birthed. Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Another Brooklyn has been birthed from fragments of memory of what it feels like to grow up “Girl,” not just in Brooklyn, not just in brown skin, but in bodies that betray us and make us vulnerable, even as we are young and magical, powerful and fierce. Set against a backdrop of loss, death, war, and the constant threat of physical violence—for these things will always be the background music to becoming a woman—this book is both heartbreaking and beautiful, and it is especially meaningful and necessary in today’s current climate. I wish every woman would read this book: the young women who have just embarked upon their pilgrimage of becoming unapologetically themselves, and the older women who may have forgotten they were ever searching. —Christine Lincoln (“What’s Necessary to Remember When Telling a Story”)  

“You don’t write through shame,” David Means once said to Jonathan Franzen. “You write around it.” I thought of that wise dictum many times as I read David Szalay’s All That Man Is, a sequence of nine short stories about European males. (Szalay prefers to call the book a novel, rather than a collection, because it has an overarching structure: the first protagonist is a teenager, the second is in his early twenties, the third in his late twenties and so on into old age.) In a number of the tales, Szalay shyly orbits the experience of shame, as Means advises. A fallen Russian oligarch contemplates the sale of his yacht; an English scholar of medieval humanities contemplates his girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy; a Scottish businessman reduced to impoverished retirement in Croatia tries to seduce a desperate middle-aged woman. However, two of the best sections are about shamelessness. The protagonist of “Youth” lives for carnal satisfaction; the protagonist of “Lascia Amor e siegui Marte” lives for his brutal work as a tabloid reporter. Neither of them seem capable of reining in his basest impulses, and neither of them seems to feel bad about it. Szalay refuses to punish their depravity, an awesome act of authorial self-restraint. —Benjamin Nugent (“The Treasurer”)

I am not sure if Mugwort-born, the memoir of the Tibetan Buddhist lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche counts, because although it may be published as a physical book one day, it is being released sporadically on the Web. Most new books I read are either overwritten, with fortress-like prose, or loosely, as though the writer could barely stand to sit in a bar and jot something down in a notebook and later type it into his laptop wearing headphones. Both qualities seem like a weakness to me. Khyentse Rinpoche’s voice is unique because it is not like either. In short episodes, Rinpoche describes his life, not from beginning to end but according to the subject of the moment: tears, hidden lands, phalluses, the memory of a French lady’s perfumed cream. In sane, gentle language, Rinpoche describes his life, and some very strange things that I am sure many readers of this site cannot believe. I recommend it thoroughly. —Amie Barrodale (“Protectors”)

From “Episode Four: Hidden Lands,” by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

I reread Guy Debord’s 1962 Society of the Spectacle last summer—spilled Diet Coke on it in Woodstock. It’s still the most novel and comprehensive critique of ideology—only the passages on religion and workers’ councils have dated. It has almost nothing to do with the phenomena of mass media, which Debord saw as merely the most superficial manifestation of the spectacle, and is thus far more materialist than Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous indictment of the culture industry. Among its many other virtues, Debord’s notion of the spectacle explains how and why Obama and Clinton and Trump and Sanders are on the same team. Debord’s claim that the “entire expanse of society” is nothing but the “portrait” of capital should resonate now more than ever; that it does not—that soi-disant oppositional forces spend themselves in arguing for the portrait’s restoration—bespeaks the spectacle’s power. —Michael Robbins (“Walkman”)

One of the most exciting books of the year is Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams, published by Alice James Books. I’ve been a fan of his poetry for years now, and as I expected, his debut collection left me bereft and transformed. Williams writes about the violence that has been inflicted upon black people in the United States, the brutality of poverty, and the ways in which our contemporary media has sensationalized and eroticized the spiritual and physical desecration of human beings. But despite the cruelty and suffering interrogated in these poems, there is still a sense of hope and transcendence, because the work is also about love, the sacredness of flesh, and the strategies for survival. —Erika L. Sánchez (“Love Story”)