2020 Favorites: Books, Essays & Other Writing

Fave books, essays, reportage, poetry, and other more fluid forms.

One of the positive side effects of the gloomy and mesmerizing year numbered 2020 was having more time to read.

But it wasn’t just due to the Godardesque SMS* sent by the planet that turned literature into a handy medium of escapism. Writing this article has been obstructed by the fact that all the books & magazines I read from January to August are packed away in cardboard boxes, 2573km away from where I dwell now – Paris. 

Moving to the new city (that was soon quarantined) redefined the weekends. Instead of routine social gatherings that set a stamp of tiredness on the two following days, I would spend most of my free time on reading – novels, essays, literary magazines (The New York Review of Books now arrived to my mailbox routinely, contrary to its (non)delivery in Estonia). The geeky confined lifestyle turned out to be more enjoyable that I’d expected, it also explains why bookstores are reporting a record year.

Against the popular belief, I think the world would be a better place if people would read & think more, Netflix & business less. And no opportunity to try and lure more people to read should go wasted. So here they are, my reading recommendations from 2020.


*The reference to Godard’s SMS originates from a recorded interview of his, befitting of year 2020.

“Do you know what SMS means? You send them all day long and you don’t know what it means. “Short Message” and what then? No no… I know what it means. It means “Save My Soul.” People they send the SMS like we used to send the SOS because they are all alone, they want to be with someone. That’s what in means, “Save My Soul.””

2020 reading list

The below list features most of the books I read in 2020, with a few missing casualties caused by lacking memory. There were many that I could indefinitely go on raving about, and others that didn’t speak to me as profoundly – either because of the subject matter or due to the cadence and articulation that the author used for self-expression.

In some cases, my reaction to a book was shaded either by the high expectations from reading the same author’s other works or just not being in the mood for a particular style or form. The lists’ order is random, a mishmash of fiction and non-fiction; essays, novels, and poetry. A note to self for 2021: limit reading the 20th century canon of American authors, and look up more European and Eastern literature.

Fave & deeply moving:

Coventry (2019) by Rachel Cusk [link], Decreation (2005) by Anne Carson [link], The Art of the Novel (2003) by Milan Kundera [link], Democracy (1984) [link], Salvador (1982) [link], The White Album (1979) [link] by Joan Didion, Intimations: Six Essays (2020) [link] & Feel Free: Essays (2019) [link] by  Zadie Smith, Essayism (2017) by Brian Dillon [link], The Years (2018) by Annie Ernaux [link], Walks with Men (2010) by Ann Beattie [link], The Sea, The Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch [link], The Whole Story and Other Stories (2004) by Ali Smith [link], Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 (2019) by Peter Schjeldahl [link], Chairs (1952) by Eugene Ionesco [link], Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) [link] & Fair Play (1989) [link] by Tove Jansson, The Paris Review Interviews, I (2006) by The Paris Review [link]

4 out of 5 points:

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (2020)  [link] & The Lonely City (2016) [link] by Olivia Laing, The Poetics of Space (1958) by Gaston Bachelard [link], The Joke (1994) by Milan Kundera [link], Miami [link] (1987) by Joan Didion, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) by Guy Debord [link], The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W. G. Sebald [link], Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2020) by Jia Tolentino [link], The Pond (2015) by Claire-Louise Bennett [link], The New Yorker Stories (2011) by Ann Beattie [link], Confabulations (2016) by John Berger [link], The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (2017) by Slavoj Žižek [link], This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2015) by Naomi Klein [link], An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974) by [link] & Things: A Story of the Sixties and a Man Asleep (1965) [link] by Georges Perec

Nearly no chemistry:

Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill [link], In the Dark Room (2019) by Brian Dillon [link], Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951) Theodor Adorno [link], Late Writings (2007) by Clement Greenberg [link], Mythologies (1957)  [link] & A Lover’s Discourse : Fragments (1977) [link] by Roland Barthes, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1975) by William H. Gass [link], Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) by Deborah Levy [link]

Reading through 2020

The one author whose works’ overarching mood feel most suitable to the year 2020 is Joan Didion. Didion with her calculated and artful reportage on the politics and zeitgeist of the Americas in the 70s through to 90s. 

favorite books 2020

But to start from the very beginning of 2020, my January days passed with Kundera’s brilliant non-fiction, The Art of the Novel (1986), and Peter Schjeldahl’s art criticism, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 (2019), which itself turned out to be an artwork molded into literary cast. A few weeks before Covid hit, while on vacation in Paris, I stumbled upon Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and it occupied a spot on my side table for the next 4 months from where it was occasionally lifted up and read. It was followed by Zadie Smith and Jia Tolentino essay collections, both acute reflections of our modern society and its spectacles, if only a bit skewed towards posing questions relevant to well-off Western metropolitans.

Late spring, to complement the quarantine depression, I read a book on climate crisis by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2015). As much as I admire Klein’s knack for anticapitalist subjects and her work as a researcher – she reads up on her subject for years before writing a book – the proposed solution to climate crisis (native people demanding historic rights to their land, thereby stopping the oil industry’s expansion) felt all but naive and sugar-coated for a comfortably well-off Western reader. If Klein had pondered on the issue for longer, she may have concluded that the demand for the dirty oil starts from consumer choices, and had thereby suggested to her readers to plainly consume less. I also looked up some classics such as Mythologies (1957) and A Lover’s Discourse : Fragments (1977) by Roland Barthes. The prevailing quarantine-age mood may be to blame, but both books read as a pretentious and outdated meditation on subjects that many contemporary, and especially female, writers have illustrated more convincingly.

favorite books 2020

Early summer, I switched to lighter reading, taking on my solo trip to Helsinki a couple of Tove Jansson’s books: her autobiographical short story collection Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) and the novel Fair Play (1989), also autobiographical, which depicts the relationship between two female artists, living at opposite ends of an apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic. Jansson’s short stories offered a nostalgic lookback into childhood, with our family on boat trips on Finnish lakes and exploring the forest paths, acutely experiencing the animal and plant life around me. The Sea, The Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch was a shamelessly amusing novel to read, a modern-day Netflix show with all its unforeseeable turns and a pace that refused to slow down right until the end. Murdoch’s book was also entertainingly British with its egomaniacal protagonist, a retired actor and theater director Charles Arrowby, voicing Latin aphorisms and cooking eccentric dishes such as an egg poached in hot scrambled egg. (Iris Murdoch explained the critics of her enlisted meals in the book: “But me and John eat like this all the time.”) As a review in The Guardian put it, Murdoch wrote novels of ideas about love, as well as the occasional love letter to ideas. 

Reading the collection of interviews with 20th century writers and poets The Paris Review Interviews, I (2006) felt like binge eating literary popcorn. Each interview was brimming with references to fellow authors, and I finished the book with a list with 50 additional books to read, each feeling urgently major. This also made me complicit in what the British author Rebecca West may have had in mind when she claimed in her own Paris Review interview: “People have no desire to read anything new…. They don’t even look onto the past. They look onto the certified past.” But, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, there is entirely too much good literature around, and something must be done to stop it. The only possible way to deal with this seemed to find and read all those books.

best books 2020

I read most of my 2020 canon while in Paris, first in the lush fern-laden oasis in the midst of Jardin de Tuileries, then confined in my apartment in Paris 3rd. During this period, I grew more interested in exploring what a friend called “writers’ writers” – authors whose works carry a substantial essence while also being admirable for their form and phrasing. Reviewing my reading notes and Goodreads’ “Read” list, I detect an inclination towards female writers and literary forms more stylized (William H. Gass, Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, even Annie Ernaux) and at times eccentric (Anne Carson, Brian Dillon, Claire-Louise Bennett) than the traditional novel: essays, short stories, interviews, reportage, poetry.  As most of these books are still effectively in my mind, I expanded on a selection of them below.

best books 2020

One contemporary author I like to return to is Zadie Smith. I’m a longtime reader of Smith, her White Teeth (2000) being a landmark novel of my early 20s. This year, I read her short essay collection on Covid19-induced changes Intimations: Six Essays (2020) and Feel Free: Essays (2019) which I’d recommend to anyone looking for intellectual yet humorous reportage on our modern society. Pondering on similar subjects was also The New Yorker reporter Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2020), yet the essays fell short due to their lack of cultural and socio historical context, making the book’s subjects ephemeral, something that I suspect will not happen to Zadie Smith’s or Susan Sontag’s writing. Tolentino’s was nonetheless a blissful and entertaining book, you can check out the opening essay here.

Another essayist I read, this one writing mostly art criticism (for Frieze), was Olivia Laing. Her 2020 collection Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency was an intelligent excursion into the lives of artists and literary figures such as David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Agnes Martin, Joseph Cornell, Derek Jarman and Hilary Mantel. Laing’s other book, The Lonely City, written four years earlier, also relied on art as a medium for exploring the loneliness of metropolises (enter the works of Edward Hopper).

Strolling in the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, I spotted The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W. G. Sebald, an author revered by many of my friends, in a bookstore and gave it a read. I can’t say that I disliked its quasi-philosophical meandering from one 19th century curiosity to another (consider the history of silkworm farming, or herring fishing, or Rembrandt’s paintings), but the style was not what I was currently interested in. 

2020 best books

In November, the anti-capitalist stars aligned and I happened to watch Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966) while reading Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951) and Perec’s Things (1965), each a meditation on and a disapproval of consumerist society. Together with Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Ernaux’s The Years (2018), these works made me wonder how intellectuals were criticizing capitalism already 60 years ago and regardless, it has steadily advanced, both for better and worse. Ignorance is bliss, and one probably shouldn’t read these books unless willing to feel discomfort for daily lifestyle choices.

During my last weeks in Paris, I rediscovered the short story collection The Whole Story and Other Stories (2004) by Ali Smith, the writer that seems to have a whole lot of fun writing her books that are a treasure trove of puns and playful use of form. I recently heard someone asking why Smith is so “unfriendly towards her readers,” the question implying that her books are unnecessarily literary and difficult to follow along. I’d object and ask “what kind of reader?” as it is exactly for this unapologetically whimsical style that I appreciate Smith’s writing the most. Here’s Ali Smith in her The Paris Review interview

“Puns were originally sacred. If you look back at the beginning of the writing down of language, in sacred rites, puns are everywhere. Ritualists in religions used puns to mark the important, the holy, or the sacred places in the ceremony. A pun heralds or marks the point at which transformation takes place, where a magic thing happens.”


“We carry with us all the people who have made us and the people we make and the lives we make, and the world we make continues on from what we make of it.“

2020 Fave short fiction & longform essays

An even more random list of short stories, interviews, and essays that caught my attention, skewed towards works published in the past three months + what’s available online.

Short stories: 

Color and Light by Sally Rooney, link
A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri, link
The Winged Thing by Patricia Lockwood, link
1 = 1 by Anne Carson, link 

Essays & reportage:

What Have We Done to the Whale? by Amia Srinivasan (New Yorker), link
Between Light and Storm by Esther Woolfson (Granta), link
The World Brain by Mark Alizart (Purple Magazine), link
The World Brain by Mark Alizart (Purple Magazine), link
Plants Know by Emannuele Coccia (Purple Magazine), link
The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu (New Yorker), link
The Oldest Forest by Lucy Jakub (The New York Review of Books), link
My Three Fathers by Ann Patchett (New Yorker), link
Cooking with Iris Murdoch by Valerie Stivers (The Paris Review), link
How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism (New Yorker), link
Eileen Gray’s Infinite Possibilities by Martin Filler (The New York Review of Books), link

Thoughts on + clippings from 2020 favourite books

While every single book in the “Fave” list above left its undeniable mark, some were especially consequential. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend the below-listed books to everyone, especially to readers who are into literature with a consistent narrative and little patience for literary flâneurs. Of these authors, Rachel Cusk Annie Ernaux, and Tove Jannson are the least eccentric yet no less moving authors.

Coventry (2019) by Rachel Cusk

rachel cusk coventry

“Every so ofter, for offenced actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Conventry. I don’t know what the origins of the expression are, though I suppose I could easily find out.“ 

The playful self-aware irony is the trademark of Rachel Cusk’ writing, one that can divide readers into two groups: acolytes and critics. While her writing style is radically pragmatic, the borderline cynicism is recurrently asking for remittal via an occasional display of vulnerability. The statements of Cusk’s essays sprout from a delicate exploration of human nature and relationships, topics varying from driving a car, making a home to contemplating a divorce.

As a collection, Coventry can affect one as the ultimate empathy-builder, all the while distancing the reader from the author. Going through the essays, it is difficult not to start questioning Cusk’s arguably selfish ways of life and the effects her choices have had on others, especially the close family. Contemplating about Coventry reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect. Didion wrote that “character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” It is Cusk’s acceptance of her choices that makes her writing agreeable and enchantingly reflective.

Naturally, the best person to propose the most apt explanation of her subjective writing style would be Cusk herself. Here’s a passage from her interview with The Paris Review:

“But yes, it’s an ethical situation. I think I could hew that close to the line in a sustained way because I had studied and questioned the ethics of human interaction so intensely in my own life. My lack of ego, of subjective self-regard, has been very useful in that way, even if it’s made experience more painful than it perhaps ought to have been. But it meant I could use myself dispassionately as an example. It gave me a chance to find what was universal in the particular circumstances I had in front of me.”

Passage from Cusk’s essay Coventry via Granta:

“Stories only work – or so we’re always being told – through the suspension of our disbelief. It’s never been altogether clear to me whether our disbelief is something that ought to be suspended for us, or whether we’re expected deliberately to suspend it ourselves. There’s an idea that a successful narrative is one that gives you no choice in the matter; but mostly I imagine it’s a question of both sides conspiring to keep the suspension aloft.”

Passage from Making House via The New York Times:

“The house a woman creates is a Utopia,” wrote Marguerite Duras. “She can’t help it — can’t help trying to interest her nearest and dearest not in happiness itself but in the search for it.” The domestic, in other words, is ultimately more concerned with seeming than with being: It is a place where personal ideals are externalized or personal failures made visible. These ideals, as well as the forms of failure they create, are ever-changing: The “search for happiness” is a kinetic state, and it follows that the most seductive of all the illusions of homemaking would be the illusion of permanence”

Democracy (1984) and Salvador (1982) by Joan Didion

joan didion democracy

Recently, everyone I discuss books with seems to have looked up Joan Didion, a writer already venerated in her contemporary literary and journalistic circles. And she’s in vogue still – The New Yorker recently published an essay-long ode by Brian Dillon on a single image caption that Didion wrote for Vogue when working there in the 1960s. The latest New York Review of Books featured its own tribute, written by Hilton Als who had found adept words to describe Didion’s writing:

“… there’s an energy to her writing—what she might call its “shimmer”—that goes beyond a given piece’s surface story, and that sheds an awful and beautiful light on a world we half see but don’t want to see, one in which potential harm is a given and hope is a flimsy defense against dread. Didion’s ethos is a way of seeing what’s particular to the world that made her, and that ultimately reveals the writer to herself.”

Didion was a prolific writer in a multiplicity of forms, from magazine articles to movie scripts, personal essays to political reporting, a novel now and then. The Didion I enjoy reading most is her magazine writing from the 1980s. The “prolonged amnesiac fugue” that she writes about in her calculated reportage of contemporary American politics is hauntingly fitting to 2020.

I revisited Didion’s Democracy (1984), one of my favorite works of fiction for its distantly objective writing that’s yet acutely emotional, both for its nation and characters. I also discovered that Didion’s reportage slash literary essays Miami (1987) and Salvador (1982) were both initially published as 3-article series for The New York Review of Books and read both together with her other essays, many of which were published in the collection named The White Album (1979).

This passage from Miami seemed like a good example of Didion’s writing: 

“…words from a language in which deniability was built into the grammar, and as such may or may not have had a different meaning, or any meaning, in 1963 in Miami, where deniability had become in many ways the very opposite of the point.”

If you’re interested in reading something by Didion, start with her books Democracy (1995) or The White Album (1979). Or look up the essays Hollywood: Having Fun about 1970s film industry, and New York: Sentimental Journeys on the Central Park jogger case.

Here’s the beginning of Didion’s reportage on the LA scene:

““You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”

—Cecelia Brady in The Last Tycoon

To the extent that The Last Tycoon is “about” Hollywood it is about not Monroe Stahr but Cecelia Brady, as anyone who understands the equation of pictures even dimly or in flashes would apprehend immediately: the Monroe Stahrs come and go, but the Cecelia Bradys are the second generation, the survivors, the inheritors of a community as intricate, rigid, and deceptive in its mores as any devised on this continent. At midwinter in the survivors’ big houses off Benedict Canyon the fireplaces blaze all day with scrub oak and eucalyptus, the French windows are opened wide to the subtropical sun, the rooms filled with white phalaenopsis and cymbidium orchids and needlepoint rugs and the requisite scent of Rigaud candles. Dinner guests pick with vermeil forks at broiled fish and limestone lettuce vinaigrette, decline dessert, adjourn to the screening room, and settle down to The Heartbreak Kid with a little seltzer in a Baccarat glass.”

Essayism (2017) by Brian Dillon

brian dillon essayism

If one is able to surpass the notion that Brian Dillon’s writing mimics the very authors he is writing about, Essayism can offer a rich literary feast. The book’s impracticality is also its charm. Regardless of its few shortcomings, at least in my opinion, such as melancholy divergences into the storyline of Dillon’s personal depression, the book is a constellation of essayistic and highly articulate writers and their works. 

Dillon introduces the reader to the etymology of the word essay: essayer dates from the 12th century, derived from the Latin base exagium, meaning a scale. An essay is an act of weighing something outside of itself, a weighed consideration, control. Essayism amounts to nothing less than a considerate and controlled attempt to write a tribute to Dillon’s most revered authors. It was also the book I left with the most underlined, scribbled and jotted down pages.

The authors mentioned include Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, Theodor W. Adorno, William H. Gass, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, Jacques Derrida, Elisabeth Hardwick, Cyril Connolly, Emil Cioran, Susan Sontag, W. G. Sebald. The list is incomplete.

Here’s the 1st sentence (also the 1st paragraph, the 1st page, and a good part of the 1st chapter) of the book:

“On essays and essayists. On the death of a moth, humiliation, the Hoover dam and how to write; an inventory of objects on the author’s desk, and an account on wearing spectacles, which he does not; what another learned about himself the day he fell unconscious from his horse; of noses, of cannibals, of method; diverse meanings of the word ‘lumber’; many vignettes, published over decades, in which the writer, or her elegant stand-in, described her condition of dislocation in the city, and did it so blithely that no one guessed it was all true; a dissertation on roast pig; a heap of language; a tour of the monuments; a magazine article that in tone and structure so nearly resembles its object, or conceals it, that flummoxed readers depart in droves; a sentence you could whisper in the ear of a dying man; an essay upon essays; on the author’s brief and oblique friendship with the great jazz singer; a treatise on melancholy, also on everything else; a species of drift and dissolve, at the levels of logic and language, that time and again required the reader to page back in wonder – how did we get from there to here? – before the writer’s skill (or perhaps his inattention); a sermon on …”

As a Joan Didion fan, I also logged Dillon’s musings on her reportage.

“… Let’s join Joan Didion in 1967 at the Hoover Dam, in a scene of ominous calm that I have read and reread and whose consoling power I cannot explain. Or rather here is Didion three years later, in her Essay ‘At the Dam’ in which she tells us that since her visit there the dam has never been entirely absent from her imagination, though she cannot quite tell why. In the middle of a conversation in New York or Los Angeles, the dam will come to her mind, ‘its pristine conclave face gleaming white against the harsh rusts and taupes and mauves that rock canyon hundreds or thousands miles from where I am.’ Aspects of the dam loom to mind: roaring generators, ominous intakes and outlets for the water that powers them, bronze sculptures that recall the optimism of 1930s, power cables snaking away into the landscape, the seeming emptiness of the place, cranes moving above her ‘as if under their own volition.’ Neither the dam’s history nor the power (with transparent sexual overtones’) embodied there will explain why the structure lives in her mind almost daily. “There was something beyond all that, something beyond energy, beyond history, something I could not fix in my mind.” Then she recalls the star map incised in marble which, her guide told her, was carved to inform future visitors, long past human habitation, about the date of the dam’s construction.

‘Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.'”

Decreation (2005) by Anne Carson

anne carson decreation

Picked up at random at a bookstore’s poetry section, Anne Carson’s unfathomably creative collection of poems, essays, opera librettos, screenplays and other forms was a mind-altering read. All the wildly imaginative literary plots, moving the reader from Aphrodite to Antonioni to Demosthenes, mélange as a meditation on decreation – an activity described by Simone Weil as “undoing the creature in us.”

Decreation is a mixture of poems and essays, one on solar eclipse, another on sleep (“There is so much sleep to be read, there are so many ways to read it.” … In Aristotle’s view, sleep requires a “daimonic but not a divine” kind of reading. Kant refers to sleep as “involuntary poetry in a healthy state.”); one on Antonioni, interpreting his visit to a madmen’s asylum. Carson is as excellent as a scholar as she is inventive as a poet. Decreation was certainly the strangest and the most beautiful book I read this year.

The poem Guns and Desire I by Anne Carson:

Guns and Desire I 
What does it matter to me that there were other people to love

Guillermo’s Sigh Symphony by Anne Carson:

Guillermo’s Sigh Symphony
Do you hear sighing.
     Do you wake amid a sigh.
           Radio sighs AM,
               Shortwave sighs crackle in from the Atlantic.
           Hot sighs steam in the dawn.
    People kissing stop to sigh then kiss again.
Doctors sigh into wounds and the bloodstream is changed for ever.
        Flowers sigh and two noon bees float backwards.
               Is it doubt.
                  Is it disappointment.
                     The world didn’t owe me anything.
                         Leaves come sighing in the door.
                  Bits of girl sigh like men.
           Forgeries sigh twice.
Balthus sighs and lies about it, claiming it was Byron’s sigh.
        A sigh may come too late.
               Is it better than screaming.
                  Give me all your sighs for four or five dollars.
                                A sigh is weightless,
                     yet it may interrupt the broadcast.
                  Can you abstain.
          What is that hush that carries itself up each sigh.
        We hunt together the sigh and I,
sport of kings.
          To want to stop is beyond us.
The more sighs shine the more I’m in trouble – some kind of silvery stuff –
                        you thought it was the sea?

The Years (2018) by Annie Ernaux

annie ernaux the years

The Years by Annie Ernaux, one of the most acclaimed contemporary French writers, is an autobiographical memoir that blends personal and public life from the author’s birth in 1940 through to 2006. The chronologically moving storyline is narrated as a collective and impersonal “we” or “one,” eluding the use of “I.” Ernaux’ telling of the her generation’s story nonetheless has an ever-present author, reminding herself to the reader via mnemonic photographs inserted at the beginning of each chapter.

Having recently moved to France, this book was a welcome window into the French sentiment towards the second half of the 20th century. The detail-oriented and anthropologically curious Ernaux has also managed to intertwine into her book the story of 20th century rise of capitalism together with the side effects of a sinuous appearance of radio, TV, MP3, and PCs into our lives. In her own words,

“All was derision and gleeful, festive fatalism.” And later in the book, “With all the intermingling of concepts, it was increasingly difficult to find a phrase of one’s own, the kind that, when silently repeated, helped one live.”


“And we who were undeceived, who seriously examined the dangers of advertising with our students; we who assigned the topic “Does the possession of material goods lead to happiness?”, bought a stereo at Fnac, a Grundig radio-cassette player, and a Bell & Howell Super-8 camera, with a sense of using modernity to intelligent ends. For us and by us, consumption was purified. The ideals of May ‘68 were being transformed into objects and entertainment.”

With delightful observations that at times required that she invent her own terms to describe something barely explicable (such as palimpsest sensation – a sensation of re-experiencing past moments while adding a new layer of current thoughts. A manuscript on which the original writing has been scratched out to make room for new writing).


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