There is an alternative to Twitter, Facebook and all those indignant op-eds that we use to confirm the superiority of our beliefs. It’s a flexible, troll-free, hacker-resistant platform on which complex social and moral questions can be carefully explored. It simultaneously engages our empathy and models the action of empathy for us. It’s called a novel.
I’ve been reading more graphic books lately — graphic novels, graphic short stories, graphic memoirs, graphic biographies — and I’ve found that many outlets posted “best of 2017” lists.
I went through 15 “best of 2017” lists and identified the 100 graphic books that were recommended between them. A total of 10 books were recommended at least 3 “best of” lists. I’ve read half of the top 10, and they really are excellent, but there are many gems deeper down the list. So don’t stop digging.
The top 10 are listed below. The full list of 100 recommendations is available here. The numbering is funny because I use the same number — such 2a and 2b — if books received the same number of recommendations.
1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Ferris (recommended on 11 lists)
2a. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Bui (9 lists)
2b. Boundless, by Tamaki (9 lists)
4. Everything Is Flammable, by Bell (6 lists)
5. Hostage, by Delisle (5 lists)
6a. Imagine Only Wanting This, by Radtke (4 lists)
6b. Spinning, by Walden (4 lists)
8a. The Flintstones, Volume 1, by Russell & Pugh (3 lists)
8b. Shade the Changing Girl, Volume 1, by Castellucci & Zarcone (3 lists)
8c. You & a Bike & a Road, by Davis (3 lists)
Eight of the top ten are by women, which is cool (1, 2a, 2b, 4, 6a, 6b, 8b, and 8c).
…at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, anyway.
Michigan required that all PhD students in psychology pass a proficiency test in two foreign languages… [Amos Tversky] picked French. The test was to translate three pages from a book in the language: The student chose the book, and the tester chose the pages to translate. Amos went to the library and dug out a French math textbook with nothing but equations in it… The University of Michigan declared Amos Tversky proficient in French.
from Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.
When Princeton students come to talk with me, bringing their deep moral commitment to helping make the world a better, richer place, it is these ideas that I like to discuss, steering them away from plans to tithe from their future incomes, and from using their often formidable talents of persuasion to increase the amounts of foreign aid. I tell them to work on and within their own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt poor people, and to support international policies that make globalization work for poor people, not against them.
This is (almost) the end of Deaton’s book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. This counsel reminds me of the Commitment to Development Index, which shows that there are many policies that rich countries can enact to help the poor beyond their borders besides providing foreign aid, such as easier migration rules and lower tariffs.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman – Imagine if women developed the power to give off an electric shock, perhaps due to some environmental contamination. Suddenly the physical strength advantage that men have held (on average) is reversed. Does this new, female empowerment lead to utopian paradise of peace and wisdom? Or does power corrupt (“Why did they do it? … Because they could.”) regardless of gender? Alderman is unflinching in this page-turning (or in the case of the audiobook, “play-pressing”) novel of gender dynamics. Just awesome.
Who Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin Roth – Roth shared the 2012 Nobel prize in economics for “market design, and in this engaging, clear book, he describes his experiences in creating “matching markets”: “None of these things — kidneys, places in competitive schools, sought-after jobs — can be acquired by the person willing to pay the most or work for the lowest wage. In each case, a match must be made.” (There are cases where sought-after jobs can be acquired by the person willing to pay – see Weaver’s work, but I see what Roth is getting at.) Roth has been at the center of this movement, and he has the stories to prove it. This book provides clear examples of economics at work to improve the world. It also demonstrates both “markets as a tool for coordinating complicated human endeavors” but also that “many markets fail to work well because of poor design … There’s an opportunity to make them work better.”
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan – Imagine a thriller, with a woman and her lover plotting the murder of the woman’s husband (the lover’s brother), all narrated from the womb, by the woman’s unborn child. Sound gimmicky? Not in the hands of McEwan. This baby has a lot of opinions (his mom listens to a lot of podcasts, apparently) and an amazing handle of the English language. Here’s what the fetus has to say on pessimism, reminiscent of the optimistic global trends that Max Roser and Dina Pomeranz highlight: “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?” As Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote, “The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous.”
Push, by Sapphire – The almost interminably harrowing story of Precious Jones, an American teen who has suffered years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. There is no simple happy ending, but there is hope. “‘Open your notebook, Precious.’ ‘I’m tired,’ I says. She says, ‘I know you are but you can’t stop now, Precious. You gotta push.’ And I do.” You may have seen the film, entitled Precious. In light of the World Bank’s World Development Report on education highlighting a global learning crisis (I know, the WDR was far from the first to note that; but it’s salient because it’s new and I helped write it), I noted that Precious reaches ninth grade completely illiterate (having been held back twice). Art imitates life.
Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick – The actress from Up in the Air and the Pitch Perfect movies holds forth on her life and philosophy, endearingly and entertainingly. She reveals that she is a sophisticated hyperbolic discounter: “I just want to be a man-child for another three months. Perpetually.” And her take on advice reflect how I feel whenever people ask me for career or publishing advice: “If you are expecting to find advice, I will be no help at all. I have no advice. I do have a truckload of opinions, which I will happily prattle on about to anyone who gives me an opening. I’d just like to add the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to everything in here, like I’m a psychic hotline.”
The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay – The author (a friend of mine) discusses her life with and subsequent divorce from a husband addicted to opiates, as well as single parenting an autistic child (and two other children!), her experience with government safety nets, and more. The memoir demonstrates over and over the power of social capital, the value and importance of support from social groups – church groups, quilting groups, blogging groups. These social networks, not built primarily as safety nets, ultimately have the potential to save lives. From reflections – “When you’re a kid you think adults know stuff. You think being an adult means you have answers, that you will understand things and people and mysteries. … Being an actual adult lets you in on the big secret: there are no answers. None at all.” – to anecdotes – “MOM! Look! I made a bracelet out of explosive caps from my cap-gun. I’m wearing it to church in case I hate the songs.”
Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, by Peter Bagge – What a life! I knew Hurston from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she traveled America (and beyond) gathering folklore and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. “She soon became willfully determined to celebrate all aspects of African-American life, to see and preserve the art and beauty in all of it. Yet this warts-and-all approach is the very thing that brought her criticism from most of her Black peers.”
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman – A retelling of the Norse myths: entertaining and surprising and kind of crazy (like all myths). In his introduction, Gaiman writes, “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.” And I found myself doing just that, sitting with my family around the lunch table and retelling the story of Odin rescuing the mead of poets from the giant Galar.
I have kids and so I have an excuse to read kids’ books, although I reserve the right to read kids’ books long after I’m no longer reading to my children, because why not? I’ll read whatever I want!
The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson (translated by David McDuff) – When I was in Finland a couple of years ago, I asked people what book every Finn would have read, and the immediate response was, the Moomin books! This is the first Moomin book ever written (in 1945) and the last to be translated into English (in 2005). It is fantastical and whimsical and gorgeously illustrated. Reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh but with magic and more delightful absurdity. And this book in particular includes a candy house that would be reminiscent of Willy Wonka if it hadn’t been published 19 years earlier.
Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova – Penelope Torres, the protagonist of this empathetic graphic novel, is starting at a new middle school, and the travails that she and her friends experience feel authentic even as the plot entertains. And remember…
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, by Jeff Kinney – I have yet to read a book in this series aloud and not have to stop because I’m laughing so hard, even as my kids demand, “Keep reading! Keep reading!” The Heffley family goes on an international vacation and – unsurprisingly – mayhem ensues. The art, the twists and turns of the plot, the way that every member of the family is deeply flawed, and the boldness of the story in skipping any redeeming sentimentality at the wrap-up: I love it all.