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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

Things I enjoyed reading in 2020 by CJ Q. '23

if you read even one of these i will be happy

I was going to name this post “Things I enjoyed reading this year: the sequel”, as a callback to last year’s post.01 At the time of writing it was named Things I enjoyed reading this year, but I edited the title to make it more sensible. But then I decided that this wasn’t sustainable, and next year I’d rather not write “Things I enjoyed reading this year: the sequel 2”. Anyway, here’s this year’s list.

Things I read for class

None of the readings for 24.900 Intro Linguistics, were especially interesting, and 24.902 Intro Syntax, didn’t have readings. So the only class I took this year where we read things was 21M.600 Intro Acting, and we didn’t even read that many things, which will explain the short length of this list.

Elements of Style (≈3500 words). An essay about playwriting; we had to read five such essays and this was my favorite. Despite not writing plays myself, and I don’t think I’ll ever write plays, I got some valuable insights about writing in general from the essay.

Jesus. Right from the jump, ask yourself: “Why does this thing I’m writing have to be a play?” The words “why”, “have”, and “play” are key. If you don’t have an answer then get out of town. No joke. The last thing American theatre needs is another lame play.

Fefu and Her Friends (18k words). MIT Music and Theater Arts staged their own production of the play, and we were asked to read the script as well as watch. The script itself is hilarious at times, dark at others, and absurd all the way, tackling issues under a profound feminist lens. It strikes me as the kind of play more often studied than acted, which is a shame, really, since MTA’s production breathed an interesting dimension into the script.

FEFU: …We’ll see. (Fefu goes to the doors. She stands there briefly and speaks reflectively.) I still like men better than women.—I envy them. I like being like a man. Thinking like a man. Feeling like a man.—They are well together. Women are not. Look at them. They are checking the new grass mower… Out in the fresh air and the sun, while we sit here in the dark… Men have natural strength. Women have to find their strength, and when they do find it, it comes forth with bitterness and it’s erratic…

Fiction

17776 (≈35k words). Speculative multimedia fiction about American football and the future. I know precious little about football, but I thoroughly enjoyed this anyway. Gave me a lot of Homestuck vibes when I read it, mostly due to its presentation: 17776 is driven through dialogue, images, and animations. If you only read one of the longform pieces I mention, read this. Has an equally excellent sequel.

It’s clear that the sport of football needs to change. And the $64,000 question, my friends, is simple: “how?” Something is terribly wrong. The writing’s on the wall: youth participation in the sport is down, thanks in large part to their parents’ concern for their health.

In recent years, the NFL has something is terribly wrong. In response to numerous clinical studies regarding something is terribly wrong, the league has taken action — and something is terribly wrong. Oh no. Something is terribly wrong.

There Is No Antimemetics Division (≈75k words). Content warning for violence, torture, death. Read SCP-055, then There No Antimemetics Division, then SCP-2256, then Five Five Five Five Five.

Set in the SCP universe, named after the eponymous SCP Foundation, a secret worldwide organization that aims to contain anomalous and supernatural objects and keep them hidden. This series is specifically about antimemes, ideas with self-censoring properties. How do you contain something you can’t record or remember? Hands down among my favorite works of fiction, ever since I read the first half two years ago.

Marion has long since stopped listening. “You dullard,” she says now she can finally speak, “I’m your chief of Antimemetics.”

“We don’t have an Antimemetics Division,” Clay says.

“Yes, you do. We do.”

A Practical Guide to Evil (2.2m+ words). Content warning for violence, torture, abuse, death.

An ongoing coming-of-age fantasy web serial. Anti-hero Catherine Foundling joins the evil empire to reform it, and is quickly plunged with decisions, power, and responsibility. What if there was an in-universe explanation not just for why superpower exists, but also plot armor, turning the battle around at dramatic moments, and villains waiting for heroes to finish their monologues? I’m halfway through the second book and I already love it. Typos abound, but are forgivable given the rate and quality of writing.

“It doesn’t matter how flawless the scheme was, how impregnable the fortress or powerful the magical weapon,” he said. “It always ends with a band of adolescents shouting utter platitudes as they tear it all down. The game is rigged so that we lose, every single time.”

He smiled at me, a dark sardonic thing.

“Half the world, turned into a prop for the glory of the other half.”

“I didn’t have dreams, when I was a kid. I learned to fight because that’s what we do. I was clever, I suppose, so the chief picked me for College and I figured – why not? The company fights weren’t interesting but they weren’t boring, and some of the classes were worth the time. Then one day I looked around and realized I was about to graduate. It scared me, Catherine, because I was going to become a soldier and there was nothing I wanted to fight for.”

Saga (450k+ words). Content warning for sex, violence, death.

Epic space opera comic book series with stunning art, deep worldbuilding, and moving themes. Two lovers from long-warring intergalactic races flee authorities to raise their newborn daughter. On hiatus. I haven’t read a lot of comics, but even if I read more, I would predict Saga would still be my favorite. The first issue can be read for free.

Once upon a time, each of us was somebody’s kid. Everyone had a father, even if he never provided anything more than his seed. Everyone had a mother, even if she had to leave us on a stranger’s doorstep. No matter how we’re eventually raised, all of our stories begin the exact same way. They all end the same, too.

Exhalation (6552 words). Here is the token “favorite short story I read this year”. Science fiction short story about death and the second law of thermodynamics. You may know Ted Chiang from Story of Your Life, which was adapted to the 2016 film Arrival.

It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end.

CORDYCEPS: Too clever for their own good (63k words). Content warning for violence.

Despite being in AO3, this is a standalone novel. The description captures it perfectly: “Someone wakes up in a mysterious facility with no memory of how they got there. This turns out to be the ideal state of affairs, and is swiftly ruined.” Hard to say much more without spoiling it. Enjoyable read, although the middle third was a tad predictable.

Honestly, who hasn’t woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how they got there? Like, that’s a universal human experience, right? It’s not weird? I’m asking because I actually don’t know.

Not fiction

The World as I Knew It (3980 words). An essay by none other than Powers ’23, published in Angles 2020. A gripping story about a high school relationship.

Angles consists of essays written for intro writing classes. Everything in this year’s issue was great, but if you don’t have time to read all of them, my other favorites were Coffee: Grounds for Reflection and I AM A GHOUL. And, well, my essay, of course.

By the time it was dark outside I was laying on my bed, looking up at the ceiling, terrified of what had begun. My written confessions from the day were damning, and they were true, and they would have consequences. Looking back at these old pieces of paper, I see now that I knew all of this before I’d even met Emma. Of the many things I professed to not believe in American History class that morning, one in particular catches my eye now: “I don’t believe in wearing my heart on my sleeve. I know that I do.

What Did I Learn as an Undergrad? (2117 words). This is by Ben K. ’15. I first heard of him from ESP, of which he’s an alum. Since I’ve read it last summer I’ve thought about it three or four times over the past semester, and even reading it now, I still think about it.

ESP certainly continues to care about its core mission, but with other values and other organizations it’s less clear: will ESP continue to fight the battle for student independence, even when it makes some enemies and conflicts with other goals? Will my floor, Bonfire, continue to collectively value leadership in the same way? Will the ASA continue to understand just what it means to say that “it is the highest responsibility of the [ASA] to act in the best interest of the MIT Community and of the Student Activities which it represents”? And is it even right for any of those organizations to carry on my values, as new members come in with their own expectations and ideals?

The Mind Is In The Body (7878 words). More writing from MIT graduates, this time from Rachel F. ’12, whom I know as an alum blogger. I first read this post shortly after the events of Summer HSSP Day 1, and it helped me understand that some part of my reaction to the failures was due to trauma. The resources in this post have been helpful in understanding that.

If you feel like you may have symptoms of PTSD but you dismiss their validity because you haven’t experienced some kind of clearly “qualifying”, archetypal traumatic event, or can’t pinpoint what caused your distress, or often think “well, others had it worse” — please don’t dismiss yourself so easily. PTSD is a very wide spectrum, and can be caused more by the brain’s inability to process an overwhelming event than by the event itself.

The WEIRDest People in the World (≈200k words). History, anthropology, psychology and economics shape this account of how strange the Western mind is, and traces its development. Fascinating insights. A nuanced and complex book that still manages to be clear and fluid with its arguments. Don’t quite agree with everything, but at the very least, the experiments and anecdotes helped widen my understanding of the world. I’m a third of the way through the book, but I already like it enough to recommend it.

Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values. Until recently, this skill was of little or no use and most people in most societies have never acquired it. […] What is this mental ability? What capacity could have renovated your brain, endowing you with new, specialized skills, as well as inducing specific cognitive defects?

The exotic mental ability is reading. You are likely highly literate.

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics (≈125k words). If you know some amount of linguistics, then SpecGram is a treat. The self-described “journal in satirical linguistics” publishes a monthly issue filled with hilarious articles and puzzles. Think The Onion if it was about linguistics. Although almost all of the book’s content are reprints from their archives, I bought the book anyway because it’s a neat compilation, and also because I love SpecGram enough to throw money at them. I certainly don’t know enough linguistics to understand, like, a quarter of the jokes, but I think part of the reason I want to study more linguistics is to be able to understand more of SpecGram.

An apparently new speech disorder a linguistics department our correspondent visited was affected by has appeared. Those affected our correspondent a local grad student called could hardly understand apparently still speak fluently. The cause experts the LSA sent investigate remains elusive. Frighteningly, linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious. Physicians neurologists psychologists other linguists called for help called for help called for help didn’t help either. The disorder experts reporters SpecGram sent consulted investigated apparently is a case of pathological center embedding.

Designing an Authentication System (7844 words). This is another technical piece, a dialogue describing how Kerberos works. Despite being written in 1988, large parts of it still describe how Kerberos works today. Mathematically-inclined readers would probably enjoy it; most of the dialogue feels like reading a progression of insights to solve a math problem, as it doesn’t have much technical details.

Euripides: Your workstation system sounds really good Tina. When I get mine, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to find out your username, and get my workstation to think that I am you. Then I’m going to contact the mail server and pick up your mail. I’m going to contact your file server and remove your files, and–

Athena: Can you do that?

Euripides: Sure! How are these network servers going to know that I’m not you?

  1. At the time of writing it was named Things I enjoyed reading this year, but I edited the title to make it more sensible. back to text