2023: The Year in Review(s)
Jane: So, it’s been almost year since I said, “hey, we should start a book review Substack” and I think it’s turned out pretty well. I’ve certainly had a lot of fun, and it’s been nice to have a joint project that isn’t the kids. What do you think — good suggestion?
John: I dunno, it’s severely cut into my doomscrolling time, my starting-hobbies-I-never-actually-do time, and my very important playing-computer-games-I-don’t-enjoy time. Are these sacrifices worth it? Have they made me better or happier? It’s hard to say, but I’m grateful for one thing: the next time I’m arguing with strangers on the internet, instead of writing a long explanation about why it was really a compliment when I called them a barbarian, or why I think the sciences are primed for a return of teleology, or whatever, I can instead just post a link and tell them to read a 5,000 word book review. They won’t actually read it, but they wouldn’t have read my other thing either, and it’ll save me time and aggravation. Can’t do it too often though, or I’ll doxx myself.
Jane: It’s been a long time (uh, perhaps our-eldest-child’s-age years?) since I had to put my thoughts and opinions in any kind of clearly articulated order, and I’d forgotten how useful a clarifying exercise it is. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down to write a book review about X and realized halfway through that no, actually what I think is Y, and in fact I’ve thought Y all along and can probably pick out bits of it in things I’ve been doing and saying for years.
If you spend enough time talking about ideas, eventually you come up with a set of Things You Always Say, and it’s been fascinating to watch the things I always say begin to coalesce. They’re different than they used to be! (What’s Jane going to say when we do that joint review of Starting Strength? Well, probably something about the importance of contact with the physical world.) But it’s been extra fascinating to watch yours develop, because I always see places where they differ and places they overlap.
I always laugh a little when we get a whole slew of new subscribers who are apparently taken with my thoughts on housekeeping or whatever and then they get you on abstract math, or you contra managerialism and then, oops, turns out that dude’s wife has thoughts on pulp fantasy! But I think there’s something deeper that unites your book reviews and mine, and I might describe it as an interest in the ways culture creates, encodes, and disseminates knowledge.
John: We both know that on the Autism-Schizophrenia spectrum (or if you prefer, the Bert-Ernie spectrum), I am the schizo one in this marriage. Writing a book review rarely causes me to discover new beliefs I didn’t know I had. I already have too many beliefs, and I know them all, because every one of them points at every other one of them (and they all point back to the Templars). In my head, my beliefs are protean and amorphous, flexible and slippery. This is great, because when I see something or read something, a hundred beliefs all barge to the front of my consciousness, all of them shouting: “Me! Me! I’m the one that pattern-matches this phenomenon!” This is also terrible, because they’re a little too flexible to do real work. If I try to chain one to the rowing bench, it just slips away.
Writing a book review for me is about fishing one belief out of this seething maelstrom and manifesting it into reality. This is very hard for me, because it’s taking something live and wriggling and connected to everything else, and pinning it down with words, forcing it onto the page, forcing it to hold still. Often I have no idea where to start, or even how to start, and that’s where it comes in handy that these are book reviews. The book is an anchor, and also a lure that I can use to coax the belief to the surface, and also a hammer that I can hit it with to stun it, and a surgical implement that I can use to find the key to its inner structure. The surgery is rarely clean, usually bits and pieces and tendrils of other beliefs are still clinging to whatever I’ve extracted. When I edit my posts I try pretty hard to go back and cauterize these dangling references that make sense only to me, but sometimes I can’t shake them loose, and at those times I’m very grateful that we live in an age of hyperlinks.
After I write one of these things, I truly feel that there is less in my head afterwards. If I go back and read an old post, I have a feeling of fleeting familiarity, like spotting a childhood acquaintance who’s an extra in a movie. But it’s also alien. The thing that was in my head was alive and playful and connected to everything else, the thing on the screen is dead and no longer a part of me. But on the plus side, other people can read it now. Even better, I can read it too! By killing it I’ve collapsed the quantum superposition, and can finally discover what it was all along.
Uhhh…yeah, culture. I think culture is really cool too!
Jane: Well, my reviews certainly lean more towards “explaining what it says in the book” than yours do! I’ve basically decided that any book that causes me to text my friends “hey, did you know…” more than once probably deserves a review. (Though it’s shocking how many books don’t have the necessary density of interesting facts or observations.) It’s nice that our Substack has this diversity, I don’t think a different flavor from week to week is a problem, but it’s always funny when we do a joint review and oscillate wildly back and forth between my careful teasing out of the author’s argument and your very broad strokes.
John: My favorites were Demons and Medieval Chinese Warfare, but those were both very self-indulgent posts in different ways. I think my best-written were In Xanadu and South Africa’s Brave New World.
Which of the books you reviewed did you actually like the most? For me it would have to be Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts.
Jane: I really loved a lot of the books I’ve reviewed — Sea People is great, Against the Grain is great — but those were books I’d already read and knew I wanted to come back and write about. Of the books I read this year and found I simply had to review, the best were Akenfield and The High Crusade. I have a particular soft spot for the latter because reviewing it helped me articulate precisely why I’ve more or less stopped reading fantasy written after 1980.
What was your weirdest review, the one that makes you glad we don’t have an editor because they would’ve said “WTF”? Mine was definitely How to Be a Tudor, which is really a fun book in its own right but my review was actually mostly about social signaling and LLMs and Moravec’s Paradox and, spoiler, there is not a lot of overlap between people who are interested in how the Tudors kept their cheese from spoiling and people who are interested in AI.
John: I mean, any editor would have told me to please stop writing about math already. Those posts get zero traffic, and I don’t care, because this is my Substack and I’m gonna keep writing reviews of 19th century textbooks about icosahedra if I feel like it.
The reviews of The Cruise of the Nona and 85 Days in Slavyansk are also a little bit niche, but the real problem with editors is that they force you to kill your darlings. To take the latter review as an example, the whole digression about D’Annunzio and Fiume was totally unjustified. If I’d written it for a magazine, any editor worth his salt would have demanded that I cut those paragraphs. But this is not a magazine and we can do what we want. Yay!
So what are you looking forward to writing about next year?
Jane: Well, one of these days we’ll finish that joint review of Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, but I’ve also been meaning to write about Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet because I think the “types” he presents there in the context of environmental policy can be applied to many other spheres of life and illuminate a division among people (and maybe between you and me) that doesn’t quite match up with many more common dichotomies (left/right, Bert/Ernie, etc.). And once I get through all 800 pages, I’m going to write about the collected letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard!
Other books I’ve enjoyed and would like to write about sometime include Women’s Work, Fears of a Setting Sun, Nixon Agonistes, and one of the collections of Ernie Pyle’s war correspondent columns — Brave Men is the classic but I think I might have more to say about the earlier Here Is Your War. But often the most fun reviews are the ones of books that are new to me, and I don’t know what I’m going to read next.
How about you? What are your plans for next year?
John: I want you to hurry up and finish reading Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines already, so we can write a joint review. It was one of the most interesting things I read in 2023, and I have a lot to say about it. And I finally finished slogging through F.W. Mote’s magisterial Imperial China: 900-1800. Producing a review of that one has been hard, because it’s just so damn long and there’s so much going on, but what I’m basically going to do is write an in-depth review of my two favorite chapters, and tell people to check out the book for themselves if they want more.
And then, there are the math reviews that nobody reads. I’ve got so many of those queued up, yesiree, it’s gonna be rad…
Well, that’s all, folks! We’re taking the rest of the month off and will return to you in the new year rested, refreshed, and with new and exciting book reviews. If you miss us, take a peek back through our archives for anything you’ve missed. As ever, thank you for reading and sharing our work, and please do let us know what you’ve enjoyed and what you’re looking forward to next year.
However, fair warning: our posting velocity may be somewhat unpredictably reduced because we can now EXCLUSIVELY ANNOUNCE that we have been preparing a new Psmith project due in early June…