Although the task at hand for MRB contributors was to pick the top five reads of their own year, regardless of the year of publication, I couldn’t resist the challenge of attempting to keep it current. For my end of year review I therefore set myself the task of only including books published in 2017.
Having made an initial list, narrowed it down, picked my top five, and only then checked the publication date, I am sorry to report that I have failed in my task. One book on my list came out in December 2016 (I was pretty close!) and another comes out in January (I forgot mine was an advance review copy – oops!). After a brief moment of reflection, I have decided to stick to my decisions. I’ll try harder next year.
1) Wladimir Velminski – Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control and Telepathic Destiny, Erik Butler (trans.). MIT Press, 2017. pp. 128.
I have the all-knowing algorithm to thank for this first choice. I don’t know how they found out that Soviet mind control experiments are exactly my jam (telepathy?), but once they did the MIT Press were tweeting at me harder than a drunk president at midnight.
After giving way to such elementary suggestion I found this short, concise book to be packed with fascinating historical insights. It’s a flyover of the whole Soviet era: from the 1920s constructivists measuring the perfect hammering trajectory for robotic workers, to 1960s Cold War telepathic spying, to the programmes aired in 1989 attempting to hypnotise dissenting Germans as the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways weird and wacky, the core of the analysis nevertheless shows how close these experiments were to mainstream scientific thinking under Marxist conditions.
2) Mindy Johnson, Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Disney Editions, 2017. pp.384.
From one secret science to another. Johnson’s massive A2 full-colour book is perhaps the most important work of historical recovery I’ve read this year. It focuses on the inkers and painters of Disney’s golden age; the women responsible for turning pencil sketches on paper into fully-coloured and perfectly line-weighted cels. Previous writing on this subject has concentrated on the segregation between male animators and women inkers and painters, coming to the erroneous conclusion that ink and paint was therefore a lesser art form. Johnson instead devotes her energies to telling the inside story of this previously hidden art through interviews and a deep archive dive. I haven’t finished it yet (A2 isn’t a great size of book for reading on the tram!) but so far it’s been revelatory. I can’t guarantee the quality of the ending because I’ve not read it yet.
3) M.D. Penman – The Shattered, Eimurian Tales, 2017.
Having spent a truly irrational amount of money on indie comics this year I just had to include one in my end of year review. Penman’s book-length The Shattered is as close to a masterpiece as I have encountered in the medium this year. Its fantasy world has depth and believability to it, its narrative raises complex ideas while being perfectly paced, and there are some genuinely heartbreaking moments in it. On the third reading I also realised that it’s a comment on the refugee crisis, which should recommend it both for being politically astute and for its thematic understatement. This is a book to be reread, and a great introduction to indie comics for those who have yet to discover this wage-consuming world of wonders.
4) Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, Jennifer Hodgson, ed. And Other Stories, 2018. pp.192.
Okay, so this one isn’t out yet, but I’ve already read it and reviewed it (hyperlink? – Ed) and, most importantly, that review racked up a lot of likes. As a long-time fan of Ann Quin there is something satisfyingly comprehensive in this collection. Where her oeuvre previously consisted of four books and a disparate collection of stories and fragments scattered across rare collections and lost magazines, it is now very definitively five books. It also serves as an excellent overview of her career for new readers, which is my excuse for including it in here.
5) Trebor Scholz – Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Polity Press, 2016. pp.242.
The final book in my top 5 of 2017 is actually from 2016, but I didn’t receive my copy until 2017 so we’ll count it. Scholz’ study of the modern landscape of labour covers casualisation, data harvesting, the exploitation hidden behind “automation”, gamification and a series of radical alternatives which have arisen in response. There is a vast amount of hogwash that has been published in recent years about changes in our work and the digital landscape, most of which take a small, singular facet of the complex whole and use it to foresee utopias or dystopias. By moving rapidly between different areas of change Scholz has produced what I consider to be the first real panoramic view of post-2008 digitised work. It is thoroughly researched and combines a mass of interviews with the hard economic and technological facts in a way which, as someone who has worked in these areas, makes me feel like he actually knows what he’s talking about (a refreshing experience). This book might be a year old now but I still think it has the most to say about today of any other I’ve read.
– Joe Darlington