Favorite books I read in 2021 (and 2020)

If I can be so presumptive and assume that people are interested to hear what books I read this year, here are the ones I liked the most. To keep myself from rambling, I’ll keep my summaries of each book to one or two sentences. These are organized by the order in which I read them, not by any “objective” measure of quality or how much I liked them. Just think of it like books I read this year that I would recommend others read.

Continuous Variations’ Favorites of 2021:

Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia –– I reviewed this for the 2021 issue of Subito, PSU’s music journal of which I am the lead editor. It’s enjoyable and readable, if flawed: the good parts are insightful, while the bad parts are frustrating. Still worthwhile for any reader, especially one who may not know much outside the conventional music histories.

The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi –– (edit: I did not include this in my first published version for some reason. Slipped by me I guess.) Brilliant book of Marxian economics, the history and future of capitalism, and the rise and fall of global economic powers via a shift in centers of capital: Genoa to Amsterdam, to London, to New York, to the future (Tokyo? Beijing?). It’s way too dense and enlightening to summarize here, but this book with teach you dialectics like no other.

Pink Noises by Tara Rodgers –– A collection of interviews with women throughout the history of electronic music, it is a wonderful look into what we miss with a male-centric perspective, while offering some unique perspectives as well. Jessica Rylan and Ikue Mori were two of my favorite interviewees.

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot –– A less-than-flattering biography of America’s longest-serving Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles. It goes into some haunting character portraits (it makes you feel immense sympathy for his children and his wife Clover), along with a useful overview of early Cold War politics and the changing role of the CIA during Dulles’ tenure.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes –– Modernist novel with amazing prose, a meditation on love, loss and the decay of European civilization. “You beat the liver out of a goose to get a pâté; you pound the muscles of a man’s cardia to get a philosopher…For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes…that destroys his heart; he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile as she leaves that company.”

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross –– Read my complete thoughts here, in one of my first posts on this blog.

Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology by Joseph Kerman –– Probably not too useful for non-grad students, since it deals mostly with music as an academic discipline of study, but for me it was useful to contextualize what I was getting myself into. I read this over the summer in preparation for my return to academia, and it was one of my favorites.

The Classical Style by Charles Rosen –– The book on musical classicism, it is a great overview and study of the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, placing them into their historical context and explaining what made their music so revolutionary and memorable. And yes, his name is only one letter away from mine.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño –– Read my thoughts in the middle section of this post. This is a massive and complex novel that earns its length through its haunting atmosphere and thematic scope: the nature of writing and literature, the end of the world, the repressed horrors of NAFTA and neoliberal capitalism, identity crises, the politics and culture of the Spanish-speaking world, police and political corruption, violence against women, and what it means for a culture to be “civilized.”

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa ––  A memoir and autobiography by one of popular music’s most eclectic, eccentric and enigmatic figures (any more cliche e-words?). His thoughts on music are the main selling point for me, which really helped me gain an appreciation for his music I didn’t have before (though I’m still far from a Zappa-head). There are also plenty of funny anecdotes, such as his frustration that he couldn’t hire an orchestra for a recording session in December because, “they’re all booked with Christmas shit.” Read more about my thoughts here.

On Food and Cooing by Harold McGee –– A casual read I started to keep myself sane near the end of the term, I really ended up enjoying it. It is a very useful reference for understanding the chemistry behind cooking, nutrition and the foods we eat.

And, because why not, some of my favorites from 2020 as well, since 2021 is basically an overgrowth of that year from hell.

Music After the Fall by Tim Rutherford-Johnson –– A history of experimental and “art” music since 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall), by far one of the best histories of recent music I’ve read.

Hatred of Democracy by Jacque Ranciere –– French Marxist theory that asks the question whether we’ve ever had a truly democratic society and whether we are ready for not just rule by everyone, but rule by anyone, which requires an immense amount of trust for all of humanity.

Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music by Theodor Adorno The curmudgeonly, stodgy and problematic old bastard is still one of the best critics of musical modernism.

The History of Orchestration by Adam Carse –– More a history of the orchestra than orchestration per se, it still is useful to see how the orchestra became the codified musical institution it is today over hundreds of years of compromises and experimentation.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn –– If you haven’t read this book it’s a must-read: it re-orients US history through the lens of a struggle for freedom by the oppressed peoples of the country, from Native Americans and African slaves to the fights for women’s suffrage, civil rights and labor rights. Necessarily redundant if you already know a bit about that history, but still useful to get it all in one volume.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon –– Where to even begin with this novel. It’s immense, complex and difficult (not just for the density of prose and themes but some passages are downright disgusting and uncomfortable), and that’s why it’s so good. “All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all.”

K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher by Mark Fisher –– the cultural critic’s collected words all in one massive volume is great to open up to read a couple essays on film, music, politics, or whatever else. I’m not as enamored with him as some are, but he’s still a great writer.

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels –– a good overview of Gnosticism, a complex subject for anyone interested in the religious study of Christianity. It asks questions about why the Church and the Bible became what they are today and what was lost in that process of culling through the hundreds of texts of early Christianity, reviving some of that lost knowledge.

As I hopefully get over this stupid sickness and am able to do things again, you may expect some other things coming from me, including musical stuff and maybe a published version of some of the essays I wrote this term that I’m proud of. Stay tuned.

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