The 80 Best Books of 2018

The authors' whose works we share with you in PopMatters' 80 Best Books of 2018 -- from a couple of notable reissues to a number of excellent debuts -- poignantly capture how the political is deeply personal, and the personal is undeniably, and beautifully, universal.

It's been an incredibly difficult year for so many of us. Nearly everything we read in the news headlines we see happening to people we know or otherwise feel a connection to through basic human compassion.

In PopMatters' 80 best books of 2018, our contributors share with you that impulse to continue to learn, to expand one's thinking so that we might understand, to question and to create, in spite of the social-political forces that would have us succumb to, at best, inertia. Instead, we turned to artful fiction, and even more non-fiction, to help us make sense of the rapid and often violent changes around us, to understand our histories that led to this, and to keep us engaged with our time, as we must.

The authors' whose works we showcase here capture, in their own way, how the political is deeply personal -- and the personal is universal. They remind us of the possibilities, and responsibilities, that understanding entails.

Belknap / Harvard University Press (Jan 2018)

The Hatred of Literature by William Marx

Those who come to this book seeking validation of their negativity towards the written word will be sorely disappointed. Rather than examine a particular antipathy towards a specific form, William Marx examines how the fear of ideas inherent in all literary forms, be it Plato through C.P. Snow, has served only to build up a hatred of the form in general. We hate what we fear, and we reach that state of apprehension because it comfortably serves our immediate interests.

Willful ignorance has always been a more comfortable and popular state than that of an academic, than the life of a pilgrim on a quest for the truth. We have always hated literature while at the same time we hold it at a safe distance. Confuse this hatred of literature with illiteracy and the picture gets hazy. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

Belknap / Harvard University Press (May 2018)

Hearing Things, by Angela Leighton

Angela Leighton's main thesis is that all writing and reading has always been done with our ears and that "... written words make noises as well as shapes, calling on the ear like an after-effect of being seen and understood." Hence, she focuses on particular works by literary writers and poets who consider sound and rhythm critical in their writing — whether it's the immediate sounds of the words on the page, or the sounds the writer has in his/her head from other texts or physical surroundings while writing, or the sounds the characters in a story hear/make, or the sounds the reader picks up in the process of reading from both his/her own memory and the surrounding world.

Leighton weaves her theories beautifully — introducing and connecting each point carefully with multiple well-known examples and supporting arguments and counter-arguments. Sometimes, the web gets confusingly dense but she soon pulls it all back together again with a smooth summary. Her sensitivity to and awareness of sound come through in her own language too. This is one of those rare books where we find ourselves changing our approach to how we read even as we're reading. - Jenny Bhatt

Read Jenny Bhatt's full review here.

Basic (Mar 2018)

The Heavens Might Crack, by Jason Sokol

How do Americans see Martin Luther King 50 years after his death? How should we see him? Sokol effectively manages to bring us through to the here and now, to the election of President Barack Obama and the death of scores of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police. Sokol clearly notes the connection between the reception of the Black Lives Matter movement in some areas and the struggle (to this day) to define all aspects of King's life and times

In our time of increasing sense of divisiveness through race, economic disparities, and the looming specter of war anywhere and everywhere as a means of distraction, Sokol's The Heavens Might Crack should serve as a critical reminder of what Americans are capable of. This work is an important addition to an already impressive library of civil rights narratives and Martin Luther King biographies. King was a monolith of a man in his time and remains so today, but he was also a rebel, a necessary disrupter, a thorn in the feet of all who stood in his way, and any reminder of that should help us deal with the dark times ahead. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens's full review here.

Rosarium Publishing (May 2018)

The Hookah Girl, by Marguerite Dabaie

No, The Hookah Girl is not a graphic novel about smoking hash in hookah bars and hooking up with "exotic" belly dancers. It's an intentionally scattered memoir in comic strip form of a childhood and young adulthood navigating the cultural hazards of growing up Palestinian in the US. Dabaie lovingly documents aspects of her family that feel peculiar to her while growing up in a larger US culture: speaking in an unnecessarily loud voice, mispronouncing letters, overstocking nuts and seeds, pointing with your head and eyebrows, eating grape leaves—a favorite food to be hidden from your non-Palestinian school friends.

Dabiaie critiques mainstream US culture too—noting without naming her that Gal Godot, an Israeli actress who served in the military and supported the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip that left 2,000 Palestinians dead, plays a feminist goddess fighting to end war. Yes, Dabaie is dissing Wonder Woman—as well as a half dozen other beloved US films that portray Arabs as nonsensical cartoon villains. While gently provocative, The Hookah Girl is primarily entertaining, a brief but engaging glimpse inside one artist's dizzying life experiences. - Chris Gavaler

Read Chris Gavaler's full review here.

Tim Duggan Books (Oct 2018)

I Am Dynamite!, by Sue Prideaux

To say something new about Friedrich Nietzsche is quite a task. Sue Prideaux's I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche succeeds where many have failed. The title itself speaks to the twins problems of the task. She constructs "a life", because this man's philosophical thinking hinged always on the admission of "perhaps", meaning that nothing arrives as the level of the definitive and also that any kind of arrivals must still necessarily remain open-ended. Hers is but one version of an extremely twisted and mystical story, yet it is, for all those caveats, one of the best attempts. This is in large part due to Prideaux's willingness to throw dynamite into the bullet points.

So much of the biographical or philosophical work on Nietzsche is bone dry and dull, even when it makes impactful arguments that are meant to upend all manner of previous assumptions. Prideaux's I Am Dynamite! wins the day because it's written in a style that eerily parallels that of Nietzsche himself. The writing is poetic and spirited, zigzagging amongst quotations and paraphrasing and editorializing with astonishing alacrity for such a frequently bleak subject. She can go tit for tat on ornate and romantic syntax to set the scene and sweep across Nietzsche's best hopes for himself, then turn around and decimate the results with a brisk humor and aphoristic finality. - Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert's full review here.

Imagine John Yoko, by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Imagine John Yoko
is a lovingly curated coffee table book about the roots of the album, Imagine (Apple Records, 1971), the art created within the world they'd created in and around their Tittenhurst estate. This was the pre-Dakota Building New York City John and Yoko, the couple between the sonic wall of "Instant Karma", the primal screams of "Mother", and the radicalism of "Power to the People". In short, that song was probably the calm before the storm. This book covers the roots of the song, album, film, merchandising, and philosophy behind "Imagine".

The tragically interrupted life and times of John Lennon is matched in its power by the resilience and audacious optimism of Yoko Ono. From the sexism she faced in her pre-Lennon life as an avante-garde performance artist, through the racism she faced once she met and connected with Lennon, to accusations of her being a "professional widow" after his December 1980 murder, Ono has steadfastly and respectfully maintained Lennon's legacy while defining more avenues where she's taken her art in the nearly four ensuing decades.

If anything should be taken from this book, it's that "Imagine" -- the song and everything behind its creation -- was a truly collaborative effort. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here

Verso (Nov 2018)

In Praise of Disobedience, by Oscar Wilde

"Disobedience…is man's original virtue," wrote Oscar Wilde in his 1891 essay. "In Praise of Disobedience". "It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion." That essay, along with "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" (his critique of how private property and the profit motive are crushing true individualism) constitute two of the iconic Irish playwright's most strident calls to political action. The book collects much of Wilde's political essays, from his calls for socialist rebellion to his thoughts on the role of art criticism in society.

Wilde is undergoing a bit of a renascence in recent years: a new collection of his annotated prison writings was also published this year, and that book's editor Nicholas Frankel also published in 2017 a new biography of Wilde in his final years. This renewed interest in Wilde is well-deserved. His calls for socialism and economic justice, his disdain for soul-crushing bureaucracy and societal regulation, his provocative thoughts on the virtues of lying, all speak to the needs of our contemporary age with even greater resonance, perhaps, than they did to his peers in the previous century.

Verso's collection of Wilde's political writings offers a thought-provoking feast for both novices and experienced Wildeans alike. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Is It Still Good to Ya?, by Robert Christgau

Everyone who thinks and writes about pop music with a critical ear -- whether they produce 100-word blurbs or 3,000-word opuses, whether they write for established media brands or self-publish online, whether they're paid in all the promo copies they can stand or receive some amount of actual cash -- owes a debt to Robert Christgau. He's the rare critic who can write insightfully and passionately about a sweaty performance by a popular Congolese soukous band and a magisterial show by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. That magic is captured in his latest anthology, Is It Still Good to Ya?

As this collection demonstrates in abundance, Christgau's enthusiasm -- looking for the next compelling beat, if not the perfect one -- is lifelong. - Mark Reynolds

Read Mark Reynolds' full review here.

Thomas Dunne (Jul 2018)

Just a Shot Away, by Saul Austerlitz

It's a cultural-studies cliché by this point to say that the Sixties started with the sunshiney Summer of Love and ended in muddy murder at Altamont. Much has been written about the Rolling Stones' disastrous 1969 concert at a speedway outside San Francisco—and how it was captured by the Maysles' indelible documentary Gimme Shelter. But Saul Austerlitz (Money for Nothing) finally takes the time to not just look into how the Woodstock-inspired festival collapsed in chaos but what actually happened to Meredith Hunter, the black teenager stabbed to death by the Hells Angels hired to handle security.

Austerlitz's politically agitated, culturally astute investigation captures not only the nightmare dregs of the rotting-from-within hippie scene but the psychopathic violence and deep racism coiled into the DNA of the bikers then seen as rebellious heroes by the likes of fest organizers the Grateful Dead (venomously excoriated by Austerlitz as clueless and cowardly). Just a Shot Away is riveting, dramatic, and revealing. - Chris Barsanti

Repeater Books (Nov 2018)

K-Punk by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher's k-punk, edited posthumously by Darren Ambrose, is a testament to Fisher's range as a writer and thinker, spanning his music writing (he was a punk rocker), political writing, literary and genre criticism, interviews, and the occasionally less-focused personal musing. k-punk brings together dozens of previously uncollected writings from various magazines, websites, books, and his eponymous blog in a tome that weighs in at over 800 pages. Some of the writing was unpublished when Fisher died, including the unfinished introduction to his much-anticipated fourth book, Acid Communism, a form of aesthetics and politics he envisioned as the answer to capitalist realism.

As a collection, and one done in celebration of the life and struggles of a beloved thinker, k-punk has a clear editorial direction: to showcase the breadth of Fisher's talent, the depth of his critiques in even the shortest pieces, and the insight he brought to humanities on the Left. The work Ambrose has done to bring Mark Fisher to us in this massive volume will resonate in our thinking for decades to come. It's an important reminder of the power and versatility of Leftist thinking in horrible times. - Sean Guynes-Vishniac

Read Sean Guynes-Vishniac's full review here

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