It’s that time of the year when all of your favorite media outlets are posting their “Best of 2018” lists. As I have been spending this week shopping, wrapping, cooking, baking, and enjoying the company of loved ones, I haven’t paused to sit down and write a more formal post. So I thought I’d jump on this list thing too and make a few recommendations. I’m not confident enough to call this a “Best” list, but here are are some books, podcasts, and tv shows that I found both philosophically interesting and entertaining this year. Pass along your own recommendations in the comments!
Educated by Tara Westover
(Content warning: domestic violence, psychological abuse)
Born into a survivalist family and raised in the mountains of Idaho isolated from “mainstream” society, Westover spent her childhood helping her family prepare for the end of the world. She canned food, stockpiled supplies, and learned to stew herbal tinctures from her mother, and salvage metal for her father’s junkyard. Westover relays many harrowing stories of the dangers of the combination of high risk work plus the rejection of hospital care. She provides a personal account of how women create and are prevented from creating power in interpersonal and small community settings. And she describes what it is like to have a robust practical education, but lack a formal education. Philosophers, especially those with some teaching experience, will enjoy the way that this memoir requires us to interrogate this distinction in Westover’s description of her experience transitioning from her home in Idaho to her home in the halls of academia. Philosophers will also enjoy the way that this memoir makes them think about how we as individuals are shaped by the physical places we grow up in, the expectations and lack of expectations of our parents, and that most mysterious inner drive to take matters into your own hands. Educated has landed on a lot of year end lists for good reason. It is compelling in its depiction of a life most of us do not know, and in the honesty and vulnerability Westover musters in describing for us her decision to leave it.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
(Content warning: racial violence, drug use)
This book received many accolades and won the National Book Award when it was published in 2017. I tend to read library ebooks or paperback books, so I didn’t pick it up until this year, but WOW am I glad that I did! The novel weaves an intergenerational story of a family’s life in rural Mississippi. 13 year old Jojo lives with his stoic grandfather, dying grandmother, and younger sister. He is loved and cared for, but lacks the consistent presence of his drug-addicted mother and his incarcerated White father. When his father is released from prison, Jojo’s mother collects the children to travel and pick him up. What unfolds is a story of how the past informs the present, how individual suffering affects those we love, and how institutional racism is only ever really experienced in terms of personal harms. An exemplary feat of magical realism, the novel is inhabited by ghosts and memory in way that is uniquely powerful and moving. The work is thematically and stylistically reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s, but Ward brings something all her own to this heartbreakingly beautiful tale. Ward’s prose is lyrical and evocative. She clearly has a deep, intimate love for her characters and writes them in a way that is both frank and tender. Philosophers will be drawn to the complexities Ward’s novel brings to our everyday understandings of mercy, loyalty, responsibility, and atonement.
Westworld Season 2
(Content warning: graphic violence, sexual assault)
Undergrad philosophy students, get your parents’ HBO code, because here is the show for you. Set in the unspecified future, Westworld is one of several theme parks populated by “hosts,” androids that are nearly indistinguishable from the human guests, programmed to follow narrative story lines that fulfill their guests desires. The hosts programming prevents them from injuring guests, which allows the guests to do whatever they like to the hosts without fear of retribution. Season one unfolds with one of the androids’ creators developing a “new narrative,” one of the hosts beginning to retain memories, and one of the guests beginning his own transformative journey. Perhaps the most left-brained, intentionally intellectually puzzling show on television, Westworld returned with a new season of ambiguous timelines, causal chains, and motives. And, of course, plenty of questions about the nature of consciousness, freedom and determination, and the best and worst of “human nature.” When human beings and AI interact, do they become more like us or we more like them? There are some things that seriously irk me about the writing of this show. How many times can you get away with using distant gunfire to interrupt forward plot movement? Not as many as they thought. There is a reliance on using one character’s (Bernard) attempt to recall past events as an explanatory device; he just makes a statement of his realization rather than using other, more creative storytelling techniques. But, as in season one, when there are surprises in the show, they generally feel earned and planned rather than included just for the shock of the reveal. And the scenery is full of amazingly gorgeous vistas.
For the curious, my favorite episode of the season was Episode 8: Kiksuya.
The Habitat, Gimlet Media
This podcast tells the story of six volunteers picked to live on a simulated planet Mars habitat for one year. Located on a remote mountain in Hawaii, the experiment is intended to help NASA understand what life might be like for astronauts who venture to the real red planet. How should the equipment be tweaked? But also, what will it be like for the explorers to live in such close proximity to each other while so far from home? Host Lynn Levy (Radiolab alum) communicates with the team through audio diaries that chronicle their experience. The podcast series seems fuelled by Levy’s own curiosities at the intersections of scientific conditions and human sociality. The underlying idea that every grandiose effort contains the mundaneness of human life is a humbling, and probably necessary, one. A highlight of the series is the contextualization of a composting toilet failure within a history of poop-related space mishaps. The podcast has been likened, disparagingly by many, to a reality television show. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, so long as the listener is attentive to the expectations that the series quietly sets up for itself in the first episode: this is a podcast about people, not a rigorous science report. There is plenty about the series that doesn’t work, and I also would have liked some answers to the questions of what NASA thought it learned from this kind of human interaction research. But this podcast had me thinking a lot about why we want to go to Mars, what will we take with us when we go, and what should/will we try to leave behind. Bonus: each episode ends with a cover of “Space Oddity.”