What I’m Reading

I think the best novel I have read this year is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel The Sympathizer. There are few English-language works of fiction that tell the story of the Vietnam war and its aftermath with such resonance, even into the present.

A close second is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, the debut novel of the best short-story writer alive today. Upon reading the first page, I immediately knew I was reading a different kind of fiction, with techniques and ideas that are completely original. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but – as in his stories – Saunders combines hilarity with such deep human emotion, and such original drama, that all you can do is re-read to look for more.

I read about Samskara, by U.R. Ananthamurthy, in this review in The Nation earlier this year. I’ve spent some time in India but never really connected with its literature beyond authors well-known in the West. So the story of this book, written in Kannada and translated by A. K. Ramanujan, written in 1965 but reissued by NYRB Classics just a year ago, surprised me with the universality of its themes. Its struggle between the sacred and profane, and between the ancient world and the modern one, seems timeless.

I heard about The Wealth of Humans, by Ryan Avent, on Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View podcast (which is illuminating in its own right, def give him a listen.) Avent, who like Azeem was a writer at The Economist, makes some insightful predictions about the future of the world economy, when machines do much of what humans must do now. The potential for enormous disruption but also great opportunity in employment and politics is scary. There is a lot of press hysteria now about how “the AI/Machines/Robots will take our jobs,” but Avent does a great job of exposing the obvious conclusions of tech progress without hyperbole or drama. He also asks the hard questions and doesn’t pretend to have easy answers. (They will take our jobs, by the way…)

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