Ignota friends and family choose their books of the year, Part 2! <3 Accompanying Part 1, we offer this list of books and pamphlets chosen by Ignota's friends and family that have accompanied their journeys. MORE SELECTIONS TO COME!
Intended also in support of the book trade, especially fellow indies, we've added links to Bookshop.org, which unites independent booksellers to provide an alternative to Am*zon, or directly to publishers' websites.
Jaya Klara Brekke
Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of Peoples by Erica Lagalisse (PM Press)
I attended a lecture by Erica Lagalisse, organised by David Graeber—rest in power—at the LSE last year, and I was in awe at the rigour she applied to looking at some of the awkward questions of radical political organising. She started off with an interrogation of the awkwardness of anarchists when encountering the spirituality of Indigenous groups whose struggles they had adopted, and how anarchist groups in Canada and Mexico invariably frame Indigenous struggles through a gendered distinction between the spiritual, which they would sideline as domestic, private and not politically relevant, and what could be read as secular aspects of their lives and organising, and therefore properly political. From there, she ventured into a deep investigation of the roots of anarchism in occult philosophies, which is what is covered in this fantastic but brief book. It traces the historical origins of anarchism through to the secret society of the Illuminati. It is a reminder of the true meaning of conspiracy—to conspire, breathing together—where secret societies become the birthplaces of organising and practices of imagining new possible worlds. And this time, not described in the innocent yet arrogant terms of being the chosen ones (whether in religious or revolutionary terms), but with all the fraught and problematic historical detail of people trying to do things in relation to power.
On Connection by Kae Tempest (Faber)
In another brief book, just recently published, Kae Tempest writes about their experiences of writing: as a poet and performer and a reader. More specifically, it speaks about the depletion of interiority that Kae experienced through years of incessant performing and how ties this to a more general contemporary condition of incessant overperforming that being always online demands.They touch beautifully on the discoveries and writings in Jung's Red Book: that each person, and each collective society, has two spirits—the Spirit of the Times and Spirit of the Depths—the former embroiled with tasks, performing a self to the world that has a consciously tailored narrative and seeking attributes and possessions that bolster that narrative. And the latter being a self that exists wild, without reason; as a pulsating fact that needs space and time to make itself known, and without which we lose all sense of connection. “The internet seems to me to be the ultimate expression of the spirit of the times; it is the multi-voice of the collective conscious. But it cannot represent the collective subconscious: the spirit of the depths speaks through poetry and music, through fiction, image and myth”. The book is such a reminder of the power of being together, physically, in a performance or reading a book, where a presence and connection can be made because there is time and space to be.
The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Minnesota University Press)
I have been writing and thinking a lot about a term “digital sovereignty” this year. It is a term that has come up in response to a sudden awareness by municipal, national and regional governments, as well as digital rights organisations and activists, that cloud computing means that people and organisations have very little actual control over the digital infrastructures that they depend on. But I was curious about how so many different types of people and organisations were beginning to use this same term. I mean, what does ‘sovereignty’ mean to a group of crypto-anarchists, versus a nation state? Surely not the same thing. And in the process I became interested in the concept and history of sovereignty more generally. Is there a way to avoid digital sovereignty simply meaning extending the bordered and controlled territories of states and state regulations into the digital sphere? This book by a distinguished Indigenous professor in Australia, takes a hard look at settler-colonial forms of sovereignty and how it is tied to particular white ideas about property. I am still working my way through the wealth of Indigenous scholarship on concepts of sovereignty, and it is helping me to think through different ideas, approaches and problems in this new concept of “digital sovereignty”.
WE WANT IT ALL: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel (Nightboat)
This book means so much to so many of us. The choice for the word Radical in the title is why I trusted the editors from the beginning. Radical as in, we care that much to be outside the respectable world. As though there was ever a choice, but still, care is there. I used this book as divination by asking it a question, then opening and closing it 9 times. These poets gave me the weird answers I needed. As Trish Salah told me two days in a row, “Is there a dare, a bid for love, a survival equation / lust for life unburdened of fear's repetition?”
The Weird Folds: Everyday Poems from the Anthropocene, edited by Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)
Anthropocene is the impact human beings have on the planet, while the trillions of cells making each human body are composed entirely of the fire, soil, air, and water of the earth. In this anthology, the poets are voices for a war the planet is having with itself through its human bodies, and I am very grateful for their reports. I wonder if it is unfair to think of poets as war correspondents, but this book proves we are possibilities for so much more.
WRITING UTOPIA 2020, edited by Sally-Shakti Willow and Sarer Scotthorne (Hesterglock)
As the editors say, this book “is a manifesto/ritual/anthology that aims to both explore and perform the art of the utopian in contemporary poetics.” These pages are spaces that can carry us over the hurdles ahead for ecology, politics, and the species attempting to breathe in these and other atmospheres. In a state of simultaneous surprise and confusion for the altering spaces, Laynie Browne says, “Then someone asked if we wanted to see the creature.” Yes, say yes, and keep reading your way into seeing the world you only thought you knew.
Interdependence: Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon
One book we return to quite often for our work is causal inference pioneer Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (Penguin). Pearl pioneered Bayesian Networks in the 80s that enabled powerful probabilistic associations within data; today, a large proportion of what we understand AI to be can be accounted for by similar techniques. However, Pearl argues that the insights gathered from such techniques, while deceptively sophisticated, do not come close to what we might commonly understand as intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to understand why something happened, not simply make associations, and is also the ability to understand counterfactuals, or how something might have been different. This emphasis on why weighs heavily on our thinking, not only in enjoying the current suite of machine learning tools for what they are, but also as an opportunity to renew emphasis on our own (as yet unique) capacity for meaning making. Sure, we have now developed the ability to produce infinite music based upon probabilistic associations of notes and sounds, but beyond the initial novelty, why would we want that?
On the topic of quality versus quantity, Eliane Glaser’s remarkable Elitism: A Progressive Defence (Biteback) was also a breath of fresh air. Her central point is that the left often too easily buys into simplistic anti-‘elitist’ arguments that rarely focus on the true sources of power and inequality in the world. This tendency is self-defeating, and illustrates how common it has become to confuse support for the most populist art and music as being a progressive position. This in spite of the reality that the story of the past decade of platform ‘democratisation’ has been one of consolidation for a minority at the top, and general decline in the viability of ‘elitist’ institutions at the margins.
We have had many wonderful conversations with a number of authors who have released work of late (many on Ignota!)—K Allado-McDowell, Huw Lemmey, Elvia Wilk, Tim Maughan, Simon de la Rouviere, Evgeny Morozov, Glen Weyl, Jay Springett, Martine Syms and Bruce Sterling, among others—and place a great deal of hope in helping visions from the realms of theory and fiction cross-pollinate with technical projects spawning in the world. There is plenty yet to look forward to.
Sarah Faith Gottesdiener
I didn't read a lot of books this year: I was editing one, The Moon Book, and writing another. Like many of you reading this, I also spent many hours doomscrolling my face off as well as listening to news podcasts and watching the news like it was going to give me some kind of solace, which of course it did not. This year I tried to figure out why evil persists, so I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage), Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (Bantam Doubleday Dell), and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Penguin Random House). Revisiting the poetry of June Jordan and Audre Lorde sustained me. The best (and only) witch book I read this year was Psychic Witch by Mat Auryn. The best (and only) feminist theory book I read this year was Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell (Verso). Next year I pledge to read more books.
The few books I managed to read this year were mostly short books full of instructions: guides, manuals and aphoristic works of philosophy which might credibly be repackaged as self-help, objects offering immediate and obvious utility.
During the second lockdown I began teaching myself Go, the ancient board game with 10170 possible moves which now forms a testing ground for new frontiers in artificial intelligence. I bought a copy of A Short Treatise Inviting the Reader to Discover the Subtle Art of Go by Pierre Lusson, Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud (Wakefield) (“a mathematician, a poet and a mathematician-poet” says the book’s blurb) to commit myself to my new hobby. I have yet to win a single game of Go, but I have found immense pleasure in Lusson, Perec and Roubaud’s humorous and intellectually astute ruminations on the infinite potential of constraints and the cruel linearity of Chess which inflect their guidebook.
Another guidebook I read for the first time this year was artist Ian Cheng’s Emissaries Guide to Worlding (Serpentine Galleries/Koenig). Cheng’s breakdown of his own artistic process is about how to harness different modes within your cognitive infrastructure to create viable ‘worlds’, infinite games capable of surviving their creator. (Lusson, Perec and Roubaud describe Go as the best finite simulation of an infinite game.) Cheng eschews the idea of a unitary creator, preferring to speak in terms of the various temporary and pragmatic identities an artist might assume to produce the best possible work. The point is not to work out what you really want to do, but to LARP competing tendencies within yourself to kindle generative drama. In a context-scarce year where opportunities to enact different kinds of selves—going to work or going dancing or just going somewhere new—were mostly absent, I found this to be a good practice.
I also enjoyed repeated reading of philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals (Polity), in which short, sometimes ranty chapters presents a philosophy of ritual as a kind of “temporal furniture” which stabilises life and allows us to be at home in the world. The other books I took to reading in this way were books of poems: some new, like Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air (Granta), and some familiar, like Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Ugly Duckling). Poetry is important in Han’s ritual book because poems are considered magic ceremonies of language.
At a time when I couldn’t read and couldn’t watch, Apsara Engine (Feminist Press), Bishakh Som’s slowdive of a graphic novel—actually, more an imaginarium unfolding from its pages—was everything. As you’d expect from the author of a comic called Trans*Femme Hex Witch, it’s total queer magic. Stories move through each other like waves, love turns time inside out, desi trans scholars recreate the map of reality, and through it all Som’s delicate, tactile line leads me deeper. Also a staff pick of the year for Burley Fisher.
Not sure I have the measure of Canisia Lubrin’s diamond-under-pressure collection The Dyzgraphxst (Penguin), but I keep coming back to it like a tarot, reading the signs. Similarly (and differently) with the dream-walri short stories of Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (Cipher). Both of them bend language like a violin string until it sings almost on the edge of hearing. Juicy, re-readable brilliance.
And midwinter has led me back from the shiny-new to a book I first read thirty years ago, when it was already rare and remaindered due to the folding of the Women’s Press. Republished by Kenndy & Boyd in their series of Scottish women’s fiction, The Incomer or Clachanpluck by Margaret Elphinstone is a talisman. Written under the cloud of nuclear threat, asking the urgent question of how violence can persist and be addressed even after the disaster , it imagines its way out through the forest and a thread of music, and the unique character of Naomi, a travelling fiddler who arrives at a remote Scottish village just before the snow begins to fall.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Vintage)
This superb novel follows the adventures of an old drifter in a settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River who mistakenly entangles the fates of an African busboy and an Italian hotelier. This is a daring amalgamation of historical, science fiction and fable.
LOTE by Shola Von Reinhold (Jacaranda)
A singular, immersive tale where the present-day protagonist becomes enamoured with a forgotten Black modernist poet which leads her to a strange artists' residency. A daring, sharply observed interrogation of hidden Black artistry.
A Nazi Word For A Nazi Thing by So Mayer (Peninsula)
This rousing, beautifully constructed essay on art, bodies and fascism doubles as a manifesto and archive, acting brilliantly as a counter-narrative to a history of queer erasure.
My favorite read of the year was The Creation of Me, Them and Us—an insanely original work of social theory by journalist and Anonymous-associated activist Heather Marsh. It's kind of like Deleuze for dummies, but in the most refreshing way. Her takes on the way guilt circulates in society are essential for understanding the contemporary factionalization of the Internet. I also loved the pulp horror thriller Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Orion). Set in a fictional Yale university where the secret societies are actually occult, it begins with a scene in which Skull and Bones are reading the entrails of a vagrant they stole from a New Haven hospital to predict commodity futures—need I say more? Another highlight was Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger (Coach House), a super sick, brilliant coming-of-age story about a bougie young girl who gets way in over her head, sex-race-gender-wise. Originally published in 2012, it really showed me how degraded and oversimplified a lot of more recent literary portrayals of female sexuality have become. And last but not least, no 2020 would be complete without the brilliance of K Allado-Mcdowell's Pharmako-AI, which made me feel like I was levitating, on drugs, and reading literary theory at the same time!
Nakshatra Haiku Book by Jess Waters & Brian Wilkins. A limited-run artifact made, handbound, and written by Brian Wilkins and Jess Waters. 54 poems documenting their contact with the spirits of the Vedic lunar mansions through shared dream practice.
Witch/Pilgrim/Heretic is a wonderful collection of poetry by Pacific Northwest Gothic writer KD Hume. In addressing the title of the collection Hume writes "These are not sequential states of being, but a triskelion of consciousness. They are all aspects of seeking: myth, movement, and philosophy."
Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment by John Butler (Shepheard-Walwyn) is a remarkable book. A collage of autobiography, poetry, diary entries and spiritual instruction by a gentle Christian mystic. John Butler was an early pioneer of British organic farming and this book tracks his colourful life and spiritual journey. Now at 83 years of age and 50 years of meditation later. his life continues to surprise. Butler is without doubt the breakout Meditation Youtuber of 2020.
Transmissions: Anne Duffau, Hana Noorali, Tai Shani
Hana Noorali: There have been so many wrong things happening in 2020 but reading this year has been a constant source of respite. For me, it has also provided a space for magical thinking. Because of this, it's somewhat tricky to pick only 1 as my book of the year...
My highlights include Threshholes by Lara Mimosa Montes (Coffee House), Our Death by Sean Bonney (Commune), Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture by Anaïs Duplan (Blackspace), The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson (Coach House) and thanks to a recommendation by Johanna Hedva, Rina by Kang Young-sook, translated by Kim Boram (Dalkey Archive).
Tai Shani: I have found it impossible to focus on reading this year, the only thing I have found more impossible is writing, so I ended up reading fragments of novels, essays, lots of nonfiction, poems. I was blown away by Anne Boyer's The Undying (Penguin); it is vast, an excavation into cancer and care. I am in total awe of her ability to bring together poetic artefacts, histories, painful and existential personal narrative. The writing is prodigious and masterful, the politics are radical and profound, it is a total gift. I also really enjoyed re-reading Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker (Bibliotech) and to be struck again by what a wonderful, provocative form science fiction is.
Anne Duffau: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (Orion) is a book that I am always drawn back to for its unique storytelling and its own world-building in undoing human constructs. Following this line, Paul B Preciado’s latest book An Apartment on Uranus (Fitzcarraldo) debunks social contracts for a new norm.
In late summer, I read Claudia Rankine's Just Us: An American Conversation (Allen Lane) on my phone because I couldn't wait for the book to be delivered. It's a collection of personal essays set in parallel with a continuous stream of material: images, documents, screenshots, sources, quotes, notes of a fact-checker, etc. Here, the poet and essayist describes, among other things, a series of real encounters and conversations with white people—strangers as well as friends—in which the language of white privilege causes the interaction to fall apart. Or to almost fall apart. The fact that it does not is due to this insight of Rankine: “I learned early that being right pales next to staying in the room.” With the precision of a great poet, Rankine pushes back against white fantasies of what reality looks like.
Another book I was constantly carrying around this year was Dorothee Elmiger's Aus der Zuckerfabrik (From the Sugar Factory, Hanser). It's the story of an investigation on sugar, desire and ecstasy. A carrier bag full of dreams, essays, aphorisms, conversations and quotes. A fresh take on realism. Unfortunately, Aus der Zuckerfabrik is not yet available in English, but this will surely change soon—something to look forward to.
Since Friedrich Hölderlin would have turned 250 this year, it was hard to get around this strange poet in Germany. Funnily enough, his verses, written in the highest tone, came closer to me via the detour of an English translation. I recommend Selected Poems and Letters featuring translations by Christopher Middleton. It’s a very well edited and beautifully designed assemblage published by The Last Books (Amsterdam / Sofia) in 2019.
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