My Year of Bookish Wisdom: 2019

by Miles Raymer

My Year of Bookish Wisdom 2019: War is Present and Peace is Possible

As 2019 comes to a close, people around the world will be using the arbitrary milestone of a new decade to reflect on the last ten years and plan for the next ten. I wish I could say that either of these activities seems appealing, but I honestly can’t. In the 2010s, America bid farewell to Barack Obama and installed Donald Trump in the White House. For many of us, this passing of power has degraded American respectability both at home and abroad. But more importantly, it has confirmed our worst fears about America’s callous willingness to ignore the suffering of its most vulnerable citizens, all the while continuing to invest huge amounts of time and money into ideas and systems that are clearly not working.

Looking ahead, there’s little to celebrate. The 2020 Democratic primary is dominated by well-meaning but obsolete baby boomers who presided over our nation’s descent into dysfunction, each more desperate by the day to convince another percentile of likely voters that their new and improved vision for America is preferable to that of their competitors. And Congress remains so pitifully partisan that it’s hard to believe that beneficial political action is possible, even if we do beat Trump at the polls next November. Meanwhile, humanity’s foreseeable future is being ceded to the horrors of environmental ruination.

At least the refuge of a good book is still readily available!

My year in reading was dominated by literary depictions of war and peace. I learned that these two states of affairs, while ostensibly opposed to one another, are actually more like two sides of the same coin. Presented with my maudlin hand-wringing about contemporary turmoil, history replies that war has always been with us in a figurative sense, and often literally as well. But it’s also true that peace is possible, and humanity’s unfulfilled potential for harmonious coexistence remains a powerful motivator for concerned citizens worldwide.


I’ll begin this cheery tour with what is hands down the most upsetting book I’ve ever read: David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth

Uninhabitable Earth

Given the number of decades we’ve allowed to slip by without doing anything to properly combat climate change, the problem is now so superlatively fucked that only a book as grim and gruesome as this one can do it justice. Wallace-Wells conveys data-heavy arguments with arresting prose, creating a palpable sense of distress and dread. The Uninhabitable Earth is a searing record of how “warming articulates its brutality,” taking the reader on an open-ended but always-devastating exploration of the various ways our home planet will revolt against us in the near future (127). These scenarios, which are screaming into reality with frightening celerity, signify not a “new normal” to which we all must adapt, but rather a permanent negation of normality itself. Mitigating and surviving climate change will be the Great War of the 21st century, and perhaps of all subsequent centuries if we don’t get our act together.

Meeting this overwhelming challenge will demand a plurality of informed perspectives, and no author I read this year fits that description better than Peter Turchin. Turchin, the founder of a “transdisciplinary area of research” called Cliodynamics, has developed a “science of history” by synthesizing findings from fields such as evolutionary theory, economics, statistical mechanics, nonlinear dynamics, geopolitics, social psychology, demography, chaos theory, and physics. His book War and Peace and War is the most ambitious and provocative history book I’ve read to date.

War and Peace and War

Turchin’s far-ranging analysis targets the cyclical nature of conflict and prosperity, demonstrating how dynamics such as economic inequality, intraelite competition, cultural symbolism, and geographic tensions influence a society’s capacity for collective action. For readers interested in how these factors relate specifically to American history, I recommend Ages of Discordwhich I also read this year and enjoyed immensely.

Turchin’s big ideas are great, but big ideas always need smaller, more intimate perspectives to satiate humanity’s narrative hunger. Kiese Laymon’s remarkable memoir, Heavybrings a brilliant and concrete clarity to abstract concepts such as “popular immiseration” and “structural discrimination.”


Heavy is about things. Things like poverty, abuse, deceit, shame, and loneliness. Things like revision, family, endurance, love, and truth-telling. Things like being fat and being skinny, and neither of those things being peaceful. All of these things are wrapped in the cloak of American blackness––a shelter woven from the agony and abundance of black history. Laymon reminds us that the first and only battlefield of war is the human body-mind, and also that this same site of psychorganic suffering is our primary pathway to compassion, understanding, and progress.

Tools for Growth:

This year, my wife and I embarked on our first parenting experience. It wasn’t a little human we cooked up, but rather a little standard poodle that we picked up from some delightful breeders in Portland. We named him Albus!

The Bus

Albus is a clever, affectionate, and sometimes-stubborn puppy who is growing fast. We are doing our best to craft him into a well-behaved and respectful dog, which requires being open to a variety of training methods and also learning to live with his innate personality. Luckily for us, he’s a natural sweetheart who brings so much joy to our lives. To prepare for doggie dadhood, I really enjoyed reading The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete.

My favorite new source of information in 2019 was The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein Show

Klein got on my radar in the wake of his public dust-up with Sam Harris and their subsequent discussion on Harris’s Making Sense podcast. Like many people who followed this debate, I found myself sympathetic to different aspects of both Harris and Klein’s perspectives. I also found Klein to be a more thoughtful and honest interlocutor than Harris gave him credit for. So I started listening to Klein’s podcast, and discovered one of the most intelligent voices of my generation. Klein’s keen interviewing skills, clear articulations of complex problems and commitment to structural analysis make his show shine. I also love how, like Harris, Klein focuses on big picture ideas rather than news cycle minutiae. Ironically, Harris and Klein’s respective shows are now the two I most look forward to in my weekly podcast feed.

My favorite music release of the year was Tool‘s Fear Inoculum.


Tool is a weird band––an acquired taste to be sure––but one that uniquely energized my teenage years. After more than a decade since their last album, I wasn’t sure if Fear Inoculum would speak to me in the same way their older music did. But to my surprise, I found their sound just as engaging and inspiring as ever. In this uncertain global moment, their signature combination of spiritual vitality and acerbic cultural critique is both familiar and fresh. This album fueled many blissful late summer days in my garden.

A close second in the music department was Jeremie Albino‘s debut album, Hard TimeI was lucky to catch Albino as the opener for St. Paul and the Broken Bones when they visited Humboldt this fall. From the opening notes, I was riveted by Albino’s heartfelt performance and the youthful energy of his band.

Okay, back to books!


From time to time, I stumble across a novel that invites me to completely rediscover the inexhaustible elegance of the English language. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one of those rare works.


Set in the fictional, early-19th century English town of Middlemarch, this novel presents a lifetime of insights stitched into a single story. The residents of this town are indeed “middling”––neither rich nor impoverished, neither angelic nor demonic; they live and die amidst mundane circumstances that are transformed into glittering wonders by Eliot’s superb prose. Middlemarch is a masterful examination of the small, unassuming features of experience that produce humanity’s most profound struggles and contentments.

In my beloved genre of science fiction, I was thrilled this year to dive into Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time series. I was most impressed with Children of Ruin, Tchaikovsky’s second (and perhaps final) installment.

Children of Ruin

This is the best science fiction sequel I have read––one that improves on its predecessor’s each and every element while also plumbing new depths of intrigue and intellect. Tchaikovsky’s work is a special blend of time games across deep space, evolutionary theory, philosophy of consciousness, psycholinguistics, and zoology. By the second book, the reader is treated to interactions between a dizzying array of sentient beings, including spiders with human-level intelligence, augmented humans seeking to interface directly with spider minds, augmented humans preoccupied with inter-species translation, a self-aware micro-organism capable of hijacking the nervous systems of macro-organisms, a former human turned organic superintelligence running on myrmecological hardware, and a technologically-advanced race of cephalopods. Tchaikovsky spins an incredible narrative web from these diverse minds, utilizing the evolutionary tension between cooperation and competition as his thematic anchor.

The themes of cooperation and competition couldn’t be more apparent in Leo Tolsoy’s War and Peacewhich wrapped up my year of reading.

War and Peace

After a captivating but ultimately bitter encounter with Anna Karenina last year, I was worried that War and Peace would produce similar results. But instead, this novel helped me finally understand why Tolstoy’s work occupies such an important position in the literary canon. His theories of war, history, and life itself––borne out beautifully by his vivid, revelatory characterization––form a timeless statement about the relationship between humanity’s easily-triggered bellicosity and our often-unrealized longings for tranquility. Only by joining together can people tip the scales in peace’s favor:

Well, and so everything’s falling apart. There’s thievery in the courts, in the army only the rod: drill, settlements––they torment people, stifle enlightenment. What is young and honest, they destroy! Everybody sees that it can’t go on like this. It’s all too strained and bound to snap…Something else is needed now. When you stand and wait for a tightened string to snap at any moment, when everybody’s waiting for the inevitable upheaval––people must join hands, as many and as closely as possible, in order to oppose the general catastrophe…I say: expand the circle of society. (1168-9)