A Year in Reading: Greg Afinogenov

December 4, 2020 | 12 books mentioned 4 min read

I imagine all these essays will be preoccupied by pandemic reading in one form or another, and this one is no exception. In the spring I was on sabbatical, working on a project that was going nowhere and then watching my summer research plans evaporate over the course of a week. The least significant of casualties, for sure—but it made me read voraciously in compensation. (I should say I almost never read a book as soon as it comes out, so this list will be free of current-year promotion of books by my friends and so on.) Novels, poetry, left-wing politics: almost everything except scholarship in my field. Never have I felt my own academic training in eighteenth-century Russian history to be more futile, especially since I had a book to promote that came out in March. Ha ha.

The novel that struck me deepest was William Gass’s The Tunnel. An exploration of the “passive vices” (hypocrisy, self-pity, resentment, and so on) and their gradual effect on the life of a deeply loathsome history professor, in some ways it is a catalogue of familiar campus-novel tropes—down to the obligatory extramarital liaisons with undergraduates—and in others it is much, much more. Its fundamental question is how to assign blame for evil, how this man became himself and how the reader might share in his flaws despite recognizing him for what he is. Gass’s prose is so precise, artful, and luminous it is almost distracting, but the tragic, brutal sweep of the novel’s final arc left me literally shaking as I finished the book.

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I also loved William Gaddis’s JR, another doorstop by a great male “writer’s writer” I’d never had time to read. It is famously difficult, being made up entirely of unattributed dialogue which the reader has to attribute using context clues and verbal tics. Yet, like a long hiking expedition, the novel trains the reader to read it over time, and by the end it had begun to seem almost natural. Its painstaking reconstruction of America as a society built from top to bottom on grift and exploitation is worth trudging through the difficult early portions.

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The last novel that was a highlight of this year for me was Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl, a journey through the alt-queer coffee-shop underground of the 1990s through a character who can change his gender presentation at will. I love the general vibe of the book, but what makes it stand out is its careful analysis of our own everyday gender performance. It’s forensic in an almost Victorian way, showing how a lock of hair or a pin can subtly shift gradations of masculinity and femininity in ways that alter both others’ expectations of us and our own expectations of ourselves.

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Thanks to the Verso and Haymarket sales this year, I didn’t lack for left-wing reading material. Sitting around and reading books about antiracism or labor is no substitute for talking to your own neighbors and coworkers and organizing with them to achieve material change, but it was nice to feel like my organizing lived in a historical context. Alice and Staughton Lynd’s Rank & File was especially valuable here—it’s a compendium of the stories of ordinary men and women from the early twentieth century to the 1990s as they took on not only their own bosses but the bureaucracy of their own unions as well. Working people rarely get to tell their own stories; this book is an exception, and the energy, anger, and humor of regular Janes and Joes comes through on every page.

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I also took the opportunity to dive into the work of Mike Davis, the premier leftist enfant terrible scholar of our era, who predicted the COVID-19 pandemic and the California fire season, who understands the history of street protest better than any TV talking head, and whose work is packed with urgently relevant analysis even if it was published decades ago. Start with City of Quartz, but don’t miss Prisoners of the American Dream, Late Victorian Holocausts, or Planet of Slums. I agree with Avery Minelli that Set the Night on Fire never quite comes together, but it’s still very much worth reading.

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Three very different books helped me understand the broader historical context of what was happening in the streets this summer. First, Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, which resists the civic moralism of the “civil rights era” as liberals tend to see it. Ella Baker was a militant who never confined her organizing to elections and who correctly saw that the emergence of charismatic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. could be as dangerous to the movement as it was helpful. Black Lives Matter owes a lot to her. Second, Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, a study of 1960s Black Marxist revolutionaries who successfully organized against both Chrysler and the UAW in a struggle against shop-floor and citywide racism, is worth reading not just for the specific details of the case but as a study of the century-old intersection of Marxism and Black politics in the United States. From a more global perspective, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa—despite being written in 1972—debunks myths about the “positive side” of European colonialism and the “complicity” of Africans in their own subjugation that remain current even today. Rodney was an influential Guyanese Marxist who was assassinated in 1980 at the age of 38 by his political opponents, which adds a note of tragedy to the book. The Verso edition is an outrageously poorly-edited scan, so find an older edition if possible.

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Finally, I read a lot of poetry. I’m not very good at talking about it, but the highlights of my year were Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which manages to fit a lifetime of high-resolution snapshots of sensuous and affective experience into a powerful little volume, and Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, which defly combines a radical anticolonial politics with a stately, classical poetic sensibility I warmed to very much.

“History is that rusty anchor holding no ship in the bay,” Hutchinson writes, and so it is. This year was a lesson both in feeling the anchor’s immobile presence and its unmooredness. It will be here next year, if, perhaps, a bit more eroded.

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teaches Russian history at Georgetown. He is the author, most recently, of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia's Quest for World Power (Harvard University Press, 2020). He is also an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords in DC.

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