A mushroom that grows in the ruins of capitalism, hidden algorithms that predetermine the public good, a universal language that destroys literary expression, Islam at the heart of Western liberalism, a cosmopolitanism that requires the sanctuary of states: 2015’s best books from academic publishers startlingly, often boldly track down the material and political contradictions of 21st-century life. In many ways more forward-looking than their big-publisher counterparts, these works are nonetheless notable for the way the lock on to the core concerns of the present — and for the way they somehow still take the historical long view.
The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, Frank Pasquale (Harvard University Press)
Pasquale has emerged as one of the go-to thinkers on Big Data and the algorithmic economy, and The Black Box Society (along with his Twitter feed) is a great — if discomfiting — place to start. You’ll come away overwhelmed by the speed and recklessness of data compilation and its uses and abuses.
The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura, trans. by Mari Yoshihara (Columbia University Press)
This act of sedition against the upbuilding dominance of the English language, especially in the age of the Internet — when its gentrifying powers seem to be gathering still — caused plenty of controversy upon its release in Japan. Its main point, though, shouldn’t be all that contentious: when a single language dominates — especially one that uses terms like “cash-value” to denote the success of a philosophical argument — you’re asking for streamlined thought, reflection, even ways of living.
Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World, Amitava Kumar (Duke University Press)
A dexterous and entertaining book that mixes personal essay, reportage, and criticism, Lunch With a Bigot never loses sight of its subtitle: each piece, in its own way, is about the writing life, whether it deals with paper as an object of the sacred and profane, the immigrant writer’s experience of “being brown in America,” or the temporal dislocation of returning home.
A Prehistory of the Cloud, Tung-Hui Hu (MIT Press)
A revelatory work that unravels the idea of the cloud — as in “the data cloud” — as “placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated.” On the contrary, Hu unveils the cloud’s material existence in data centers as well as its militarized origins, which may not have altogether dissipated.
The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)
A major work of scholarship on an undiscovered country, the land of the dead, which, as it turns out, has had major implications for the living. Laqueur’s book, which begins with Diogenes’ claim that his dead body should be thrown over the gates for the dogs, aims to show that our care for the dead (“materially and imaginatively”) marks “the sign of our emergence from the order of nature into culture.”
Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Caroline Levine (Princeton University Press)
Levine’s book, one of this year’s most adaptable and incisive works of theory and criticism, is about forms and the way they arrange our lives across historical moments. It’s also a call to privilege forms as an object of research and study, precisely because they cut across mediums and texts and art objects.
Islam in Liberalism, Joseph A. Massad (University of Chicago)
Massad’s timely book undercuts Enlightenment-core arguments about the externality of Islam by showing that the birth and development of Western liberalism required it. “Islam,” Massad writes, “is an internal constituent of liberalism.” It was there — inside liberalism — from the very beginning.
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press)
This was a year of many of books about the Anthropocene — the name now frequently invoked to describe an era of incalculable human impact on geological and ecological conditions. Few of these books are as focused and useful as Tsing’s, which follows the supply chain of the Matsutake, the most valuable mushroom in the world, through “Japanese gourmets, capitalist traders, Hmong jungle fighters, industrial forests, Yi Chinese goat herders, Finnish nature guides, and more.” How else to negotiate the conditions — if there are any — for our survival?
The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (Columbia Global Reports)
Abrahamian’s first-rate book marks the extremes of statelessness, from the purchasing power of the global jetsetter with multiple passports to the life of the stateless refugee now pawned for political capital. The Cosmopolites is remarkable for the way it teases out the very current contradictions of global citizenship, and for how it suggests that our notions of cosmopolitanism have become outdated and platitudinous. It’s amazing that this is a first book; you’d think the author had been researching it all of her life.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Gay’s Catalog was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry, and I wouldn’t have been disappointed if it had won — there isn’t a weak poem in the collection. Of rare candor — it is truly “unabashed” — the book is strangely Heraclitean in the way it unsentimentally finds gratitude in flux and change.