2022 in Review
Looking back on Musement's first full year
This is a stock-taking post for the end of another year for the newsletter, another year for me as a reader and writer. I wrote it quickly, proofread it, goofed around with some AI art generation, and here it is: This Year in Musement.
How I Read This Year
For a few years now, I have been logging every book that I read in a little green notebook, and this year I set a personal record. I’m not sharing it here because 1) bragging isn’t nice, and 2) there’s no standard unit of measurement for what counts as a book or not. The green book exists for other reasons, mostly as a memory aid and a way to quickly check my reading for certain trends and changes.
Comparing this year's reading list to 2021 and 2020, for instance, I can see more variety. Whether you slice it by genre, language, or topic, my reading was much more diverse. They also tend to cluster in duos and trios by subject, especially when they wound up being blog posts. Sumerian and Akkadian literature dominated my reading in March, April revolved around several books on Chinese writing, and in September I was absorbed in reading about Amazonian tribes.
I think there's something inherent in blogging—or maybe just writing any kind of creative non-fiction on a deadline—that encourages this kind of parallel reading. Reading lots of things about the same topic from different angles is a sure way to come up with something to say, even if it's just explaining opposing views. Whatever the case, I highly recommend it. Many of my best reads this year came from those projects, and I already have several lined up for future essays.
A Few of My Favorite (New) Books
This list could get really, wildly long if I just started picking everything that I liked, so I'm going to limit this to new books released in 2022. That's not The Best Books of 2022, mind you, because keeping up with new books is an expensive slog if you aren't a professional book reviewer. Still, I wrote a list of the new books I read this year that I especially liked. Then I plugged their descriptions into Stable Diffusion and made paintings out of them.
Kingdom of Characters, by Jing Tsu
I came back to my notes on this book several times this year. If you're like me and are fascinating by Chinese writing but have no intention of ever learning it, Tsu's books is a fantastic guide to the history of modern Chinese writing.
Rouge Street, by Shuang Xuetao
Dreamy, laconic novellas about fools and hustlers in China's northern rust-belt, where the Chinese Miracle hasn't quite happened yet. This is Xuetao's first book to reach English, and I hope more follow.
Countries That Don't Exist, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
I wrote a lot about this one in July. Needless to say, I've already got next year's Stravaging "Strange" preordered.
Kilometer 101, by Maxim Osipov
The title is apt: in the Soviet Union, it was common to banish nonconforming artists, professional criminals, and dissident intellectuals from the major cities in a 100-kilometer radius. As you'd expect, this meant that the towns and villages 101 kilomters away from Moscow, Leningrad, and Kyiv tended to be places where interesting and talented people. Osipov's short stories are about those people. Highly recommended.
Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia, by Natasha Lance Rogoff
Pretty much exactly what it says on the cover, and an unexpected delight. Rogoff was an American producer tasked with bringing Sesame Street to Moscow in the early 1990s. Her memoir has everything you want and expect from a post-Soviet memoir—gangsters, carbombs, pyramid schemes, vodka, the Patriarch of Moscow—plus Muppets!
The English Understand Wool, by Helen DeWitt
God bless New Directions for continuing to bring out new works by DeWitt after the American publishing industry gave up on her. Go into this one as cold as possible, and read it in one sitting.
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, by Justin E.H. Smith
A deep history of the internet, with the emphasis on deep. Forget ARPANET, Turing, and all the usual suspects in histories of computing. Smith looks back far and wide at the metaphors and models we use to talk about the internet, suggesting that what looks very new in online life—simulation theories, the republic of letters—the raging id of social media—might just be business as usual for the human race.
The Year of RSS Reading
As for shorter, non-book reading, 2022 will go down as the year I discovered RSS. Instead of wandering around the web like a lost opposum, now I sit down every evening before dinner, open up Net News Wire, and have 90% of my reading brought straight to me. If I like something, I add it to my Favorites stack; if I want to read it later, I add it to Instapaper and come back to it when I'm free. It's easier than browsing, better than email newsletters, and it doesn't cost a cent. If you don't have a good RSS reader, make getting one your first, easiest New Year's resolution.
Making The Switch to Weekly Posts
I published 28 essays on Musement this year, starting with "Seven Ideas on Books & NFTs" and ending later this week with a planned roundup of links for December. This number is lopsided, though: for most of the year, I was barely publishing two essays a month. Navigating a new job while planning a wedding is hard!
But the truth is that I was also using the stress of my work and my wedding as an excuse to not write. I embarked on long, fruitless research projects, fiddled endlessly with drafts, and shot down any idea that didn't seem perfect. The result: from August to mid- October, I published one original essay. Everything else I published in that time-frame was pilfered from the past. This was shameful, and a changeup was clearly in order.
Starting with "What Are Used Bookstores For?", I made the decision to switch to a weekly schedule, and haven't looked back since. While this means publishing twice as much material, that doesn't mean it's twice as much work: with shorter deadlines and increased pressure, I've found that's actually easier to write. My projects are more focused, I do less pointless research, and I work a lot harder at coming up with ideas to write about and work on. The structure and discipline of weekly writing has been good for me, and I'm going to keep it up next year. The goal: 50 essays, of at least 1,000 words each.
My Favorite Pieces
That's not to say that I didn't like much of my work this year. I'm proud of my work here.
Let's start with the predictions and speculations in book tech. "Seven Ideas on Books & NFTs" did an admirable job, I think, of skirting the line between absurdity, speculation, and invective. Looking back from the other side of a wild year for cryptocurrency and blockchains, none of it benefiting books and literature, I feel vindicated as a crypto-skeptic. On the other hand, my cautious optimism about AI writing, developed in "The Camera of Language," feels mostly justified by the later explosion of interest brought about by ChatGPT. Even knowing much more about language models now than I did back then, I think it holds up well. My coverage of programmatic advertising in my review of Tim Hwang's The Subprime Attention Crisis also put me in a good position to understand the current "softening" of the adtech market, and think through its consequences for writing. I look forward to covering the intersection of tech and literature even more next year.
Not that I've grown beyond my original interest in paleography and literary history. "The Brazen Head Speaks" might be the best thing I wrote this year, and proof that some of my weird research rabbit holes are worth the effort. I also know much more about Sumerian literature than I ever expected after all the work I put into "The Epic of...Bilgamesh?", which I'm proud of. "Four Takeaways on Chinese Writing Reforms" was also very fun to write, and hews closer than anything else to my original goal for this project: to teach myself about things I want to learn, and to share that knowledge in a clear way.
Sometimes, I just wrote about myself, or about something that mattered deeply to me. There is a lot of unnecessary summarizing in my book reviews collected in "The Loneliest Man in the World," but I also think it parts of it were the most emotionally-stirring writing I did this year. "A Tale of Two Bookshops" also helped me explain, to myself, a lot of ideas I'd had about bookstores and my relationship to them. And then there's "Demolding My Library and the End of the World," the product of a real dark night of the bibliophilic soul as I pondered my whole library crumbling into mulch. I'm happy to report, two months later, that my library remains mold-free.
Now that my apartment is again safe for books, I'm planning on expanding my library again soon, after the financial catastrophe of December is finally over. My wife and I are already picking out bookshelves, and my wishlist of books is growing again. Next year will be a good year for Musement, and for me, and I hope for you as well. However and wherever and whyever you do it, I thank you as always for reading.
Happy New Year, and happy reading!