My Reading Year 2017: "Huh, so I guess I'm a political junkie now?" edition

...because if your reading year has included not one but two books about Mitch McConnell, maybe it's time to admit you have a problem. Anyhow, here's the stuff I read in 2017 as I tried to come to terms with our national crisis.  My usual disclaimers about a good portion of these being audiobooks still apply, for the sort of people who are sticklers about this kind of thing. 

Also, if anyone wants to join my informal book club for people who read / are reading The Power Broker and want to talk about it constantly, we are currently accepting new members. '


Writer Who Dominated My Reading Year: Robert Caro
 In this era of hot take think-pieces written in hours, reading Robert Caro is downright refreshing. His work famously takes him years to write, and it's immensely satisfying listening to well-researched stories that make politics seem fascinating and complicated. Not complicated in the "arcane senate procedure way" though there's plenty of that too (and which Caro actually manages to make fairly understandable), but complicated in a "bad-men-doing-great-and-terrible things" kind of way. 

In 2017 I read two more books in Robert Caro's epic Lyndon Johnson biography series, Means of Ascent, and The Passage of Power (yes, I am reading them all out of order). The Passage of Power is my favorite so far, which spans six years—LBJ going from the most powerful man in the Senate, to the least powerful man in the executive branch.  

I also thoroughly enjoyed On Power, a collection of excerpts of Caro's speeches, and a superb introduction to his work.  And speaking of which...

I look very shy and dopey in this photo but look how dapper Mr. Caro looks as he signs this bumper sticker!

I look very shy and dopey in this photo but look how dapper Mr. Caro looks as he signs this bumper sticker!

Designed by Caro enthusiast Tim Kreider


Best Author Talk
...oh hey, look who I got to meet! One of my highlights this year was attending a lecture by the historian Robert Caro at the Newark Public Library. I am also happy to report that he has an excellent sense of humor. He and his wife Ina graciously signed the WWLBJD? bumper stickers [see photo] that we presented them (printed by me, designed by my friend Tim).  

Author I Would Most Like to Get a Beer With: Alyssa Mastromonaco
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea, by Alyssa Mastromonaco.

I tore through this on  a plane ride, wishing it had come out about 10 years earlier when I most needed career advice. Alyssa Mastromonaco was Obama's White House Deputy Chief of Staff for three years (the "type of one teaches you to want") and her memoir is a funny and fascinating reveal of what it is like to have one of the most high pressure gigs in the world. If you really can't get enough of what it was like behind the scenes in the Obama White House, I also enjoyed the funny memoir Thanks, Obama. My Hopey Changey Years in the White House by David Litt.  

Best Instagram-Account-Turned-Book
Literally Me, by Julie Houts
Works in this genre tend to feature writers whose artistic ambitions start and end with publishing a book that would sell well in an Urban Outfitters, but this book thoroughly delighted me. Houts is a clear-eyed satirist of a very specific (and easily mockable) genre of women's culture, and an elegant draftswoman. Once I got to her illustrated essay about a group of women in an Uber Pool who wind up ushering in the apocalypse en route to Coachella I was hooked. 

Best Book I Should've Already Read By Now
1984 by George Orwell. I was one of the thousands of people who helped make this 68-year-old book a best seller in 2017. Go figure. 

Book I Read Because I Was Going to Watch the New TV Series the Book Was Based On, And Then, Upon Finishing It the Book, Never Felt In the Mood to Watch the TV Series
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  Nothing against Margaret Atwood or Elisabeth Moss, by the way. I just never had the emotional energy. 


Best Audiobook (and Most Specific Title) 
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Like all of Bell’s comedy his memoir is funny, engaging, and thought-provoking. It got me through several hours of mural painting. 

Best Ending
The Hike, by Drew Margary
I was ready to write this book off as bizarre torture porn, but the last 30 minutes or so were as fantastic as everyone said they were. 

Most Infuriating, but for Different Reasons
The Long Game, by Mitch McConnell and The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell by Alec Macgillis

"I want to know how Voldemort became Voldemort," I explained to my fiancé when he asked why on earth I wanted to read such a book. (He replied, "Well, I don't want to know. And I will refer to him as He Who Must Not Be Named.") 

Anyhow, if your view of McConnell is of a man with no ideas or principles other than winning elections and sabotaging Democrats, his memoir The Long Game doesn't do much to convince you otherwise. (He devotes an entire chapter to his ”heroic" act of attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and offers three vague sentences on how he'd have fixed it; in fact, his ideas for fixing any problems facing Americans are largely absent.) Fortunately, Alec McGinness' book The Cynic is a fascinating and necessary accompaniment to his memoir, which dives into the harsh political calculations behind the decisions McConnell breezes over. 

Other Good Books

What Happened, by Hillary Clinton
Yes, I read it. No, I did not think it was "too soon." As the comedian Billy Eichner put it on Twitter: "Everything we pretend to know regarding laws/policy/diplomacy-Hillary's lived it her entire life. Not wanting her 2 cents is just plain dumb." 

Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders
Parts of this book made me impatient, but others put a shiver down my spine. 

Art and Audiobooks, Part 2

My devotion to audiobooks began in earnest in art school, when I realized that I could crank out drawing assignments at two in the morning, while the great Jim Dale narrated Harry Potter in the background. I was an avid reader, but not always a diligent student, and throughout my college years I tended to phone it in for any required reading. Chalk it up to the arrogance of youth. Why would I read what anyone told me when I could devour Michael Chabon or Jonanthan Franzen or Zadie Smith on my own? Or suffer through Marshall McLuhan when I could listen to Frank Muller narrating Beach Music, all while cranking out an animation assignment to boot? Senior year, I ignored writing a term paper for an art history class, opting instead to finish Confederacy of Dunces on the couch in the illustration lounge. What could I say? It wasn't a fair fight. The book won. Ironically, my being a devoted reader had the effect of making me a crappier student. I was less inclined to read anything assigned, because I only wanted to pick out my own literature. In my mind, books were supposed to always be interesting and personal, and if I didn't find one so, I had no patience for it. A book you selected on your own was meaningful; a book you were assigned to read just meant you were doing your homework. 

See if you can find the Infinite Jest quotes in this one. 

Because I listen to books more than I physically read them, and because I often draw when I listen to books, my reading life and my artistic life seem intertwined. Last summer I painted walls of Flashpoint Gallery while listening to The Love Affairs of Nathanial P.;  Lines from Infinite Jest have snuck into certain drawings, and I spent this morning listening to to Stephen King's writing memoir while doodling commuters on the Metro. 

I've gotten into heated debates with a few friends who claim that audiobooks don't count as reading (one even said that I was being deliberately deceptive by using the terms "reading" and "listening" interchangeably), but for some reason these friends never are the ones who read a lot to begin with. My friends who read the same way I do—the ones who feel vaguely uneasy if they aren't in the middle of a novel, and don't have another one lined up on deck for when they're done—never get bogged down with distinctions about what does and doesn't count.  And sadly, many conversations about books invariably turn into conversations about guilt over books not read. As though reading is still seen as something that you should be doing, like recycling or going to the gym, and not one of life's pleasures that you can enjoy for its own sake.  

For audiobooks at least, I think the tide is shifting. Every three-to-six months there is an article in the in the New York Times with an, "Audiobooks are a Thing Now!" type-headline, not unlike the articles written about comics with the same lead ("Comics! They aren't just superheros anymore") on a similar news cycle. And celebrities are narrating audiobooks, which can't hurt. 

This past summer I installed my show at the DCAC while listening to House of Mirth, and it occurred to me that I am shifting too. Finally, I am in the stage of my life where I am ready to appreciate early 20th novels (also, I was an idiot—Edith Wharton is superb). I don't know why all the books I so readily dismissed as a student when they appeared on a syllabus are suddenly are becoming appealing, but I am haunted by a line of Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first,” he said. “Or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”