Saturday, January 1, 2022

Readings: Exploring what It Means to Be Human

Each year I review what I’ve read in the course of the year, some newly published and some just newly discovered by me.  I look for concentrations of work by a particular author, themes that echo across multiple books and that most elusive of measures - books that speak to me. I’ve been doing this since 2010 and as I review past lists I am struck by how much my reading has shaped my understanding of the world.

Some books that I expected to make my list didn’t, even though they were well-written and by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.  Perhaps their past work set the bar too high. I had loved Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) and found his latest book The Lincoln Highway (2021), mildly entertaining and with an intriguing premise of the hero’s quest, yet somewhere it seemed to meander off the road.  In Apeirogon (2020), Colum McCann attempts an experimental approach filled with snippets of facts, metaphoric in nature. It offers a lot to analyze, and yet the profusion of details deterred me from quickly engaging with the story at its crux– an Israeli and a Palestinian who each lose a daughter to the conflict and form a friendship as they share their story  to influence the larger story.  Both are still worth a read, just not my favorites within their body of work.


There was a theme that emerged across many books that I read this year that surprised me as it spanned both fiction and nonfiction. Everyone seemed to be writing about gene-editing in one form or another. In addition to enhancing humans, the theme often connected to artificial intelligence that borders and extends human capabilities. That in turn took us into the territory of the golem, a creature from Jewish mysticism, created of clay and brought to life by man. The central question seemed to be “What does it mean to be human?” And a related theme, “What responsibility accompanies knowledge?”


The Code Breaker (2021) by Walter Isaacson sets the stage in the real world as it tells the story of our growing ability to edit genes and raises some serious ethical questions. As our ability grows, where does it end? Is there a distinction between curing an illness carried within the genes or manipulating genes to increase intelligence or physical abilities? And what does the latter imply for our world where there is unequal economic access to the very thing which can alter opportunities in life? Do we in fact create a permanent divide in classes of people passed on through generations genetically? Does that in turn force us to abandon ideas of equality that underlie our political system? Certainly people are born with different capabilities today and economics may influence their ability to pursue them, but this could take it to a whole other level. As our abilities become more “God-like,” what responsibility do we carry in how we deploy them? As always, Isaacson knows how to take facts and shape them into a compelling story. 

I have long been a fan of Marge Piercy’s poetry, but I was surprised to learn of her novel  He, She and It (2010). Set in the middle of the 21st century, this very dystopian world, weaves together artificial intelligence, enhanced humans and the golem of myth.  It took me awhile to step into it as first I needed to learn the rules of this new world which it portrayed, but once I agreed to its premise, it became quite gripping and sometimes surprisingly prescient given when it was written. 

The theme of golems continued with The Hidden Palace (2021) by Helen Wecker, following the characters from her earlier book The Golem and the Jinni (2013). I would suggest reading the earlier book first which I think was stronger. The golem, a rather earth-bound creature as defined by the very clay out of which she is created, explores and stretches the limits of her being.  And the recent book Klara and the Sun (2021) by Kazuo Ishiguro explores gene editing and “artificial friends” through the eyes of an artificial friend who has a child-like understanding of the world coupled with a deep level of humanity.

While I was on the theme of genes, I read The Lost Family (2020) by Libby Copeland which explores how a simple DNA test can upend lives, revealing a different history from that we were raised to believe about ourselves and calling identity into question. Each of these books deals with identity, what is ordained by our genes or shaped by the world in which we live.

This was also the year of Ann Patchett  as I read Run (2009) and The Dutch House (2019) along with her wonderful essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (2013) and Precious Days (2021). I especially appreciated her essays where she opens herself up to her reader. She shares who she is and what she thinks and feels and you in turn feel as if you know her.  She reveals her insights into her writing process and her reflections on how essays afford her a different way to approach her writing, a form of expression less pressured by the lengthy timeline which a novel requires to bring it to life.

Other books that intrigued me were Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) by Anthony Doerr, a complex weaving of stories, and it is indeed about stories and how they preserve us even as their recorded form is threatened with destruction through the forces of time. Dara Horn’s book of essays People Love Dead Jews (2021) has a rather startling title that is quite apropos. In one essay she explores how a young man who worked at the Anne Frank House was told to hide his yarmulke under a cap on his job lest he reveal his Jewishness and hence “non-neutrality” even as they celebrate a young woman who was murdered because she was Jewish. Lots of things in this book to contemplate. 


And finally I need to give a shout out to Heather Cox Richardson, a historian whose twice weekly talks on history and politics have enriched my year. Her book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020) expounds on many of the concepts in her discussions and is a rather timely topic. Having a historical framework is both disturbing and comforting. Disturbing in that one realizes how long we have been struggling with these same issues and comforting in that we have at times managed to transcend them, moving forward into a truer democracy and perhaps a deeper sense of humanity.

Other good reads to check out in the realm of historical fiction:

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd on the story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

Dreamers of the Day also by Mary Doria Russell