Things I enjoyed reading this year by CJ Q. '23

everything from autobiographies to magic the gathering blog posts

I’ve never really done a year-ender blog post, and I don’t really have plans to. I’m also not the kind of person to have new year’s resolutions. But I couldn’t come up with anything else to post, and I wanted to share some cool things I read with y’all, so I guess I’m writing this.

All of these things I read for 21W.022, Reading and Writing Autobiography. We read a lot of things in that class, and here are my favorites:

Sea Urchin (892 words). A short article about trying sea urchins for the first time and adolescence. It’s a short, satisfying five-minute read.

But there’s nothing. I’m too obviously desperate, utterly hopeless. Instead, it seems, I can eat. I’ve always liked food, but now I’m bent on trying everything. As it is, the days are made up of meals, formal and impromptu, meals between meals and within meals; the streets are a continuous outdoor buffet of braised crabs, cold buckwheat noodles, shaved ice with sweet red beans on top.

The Empathy Exams (9783 words). A powerful, moving essay about medical acting, empathy, and the human desire for being understood. Worth every minute I read it, and worth every minute I read it again. Definitely in the top three of things I’ve read all semester.

Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response. My Stephanie script is twelve pages long. I think mainly about what it doesn’t say.

Unnecessary Burden (≈800 words). A lot of the essays we read in the class were student essays from previous intro writing classes, and this was one of my favorites. It’s a short graphic essay about education.

“You know Abigail, right? She KNOWS that I’m applying to liberal arts colleges, so WHY does she ask a recommendation letter from the ENGLISH teacher? She’s applying to MIT! Now he wouldn’t write a letter for me. Ugh, Abigail is such a selfish jerk!”

Educated (100k words). We had to do a book review for the class, and I chose this book. The author talks about her experiences growing up with survivalist, religiously fanatic parents, and her struggles of leaving them to educate herself. I enjoyed the book, not only because I related to the author’s upbringing, but because it shows a portrait of abuse, trauma, and growth.

It’s a gripping narrative of how abuse can affect someone so deeply, even years after the event. It’s a story that masterfully wraps itself around the shape of trauma, of knowing the patterns well enough to impose its emotions on a reader who may not have experienced it before. Reading about the author growing from all of that was so satisfying. I think it deserves all the hype it’s gotten.

Tyler stood to go. “There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.”

I turned to Mother, waiting for her to add her voice to mine, but she was silent. Her eyes were fixed on the floor as if Dad and I were not there.

There was a moment when I realized she would not speak, that she would sit there and say nothing, that I was alone. I tried to calm Dad but my voice trembled, cracked. Then I was wailing—sobs erupted from somewhere, some part of me I had not felt in years, that I had forgotten existed. I thought I might vomit.

Fiction

Pedantique’s Proposal (≈4000 words). Content warning: abuse, torture, death. To read Pedantique’s Proposal, open the link, read the first few paragraphs, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click the link with CODE NAME: Pedantique.

A piece of interactive fiction set in the SCP universe. The SCP Wiki is a collaborative writing website about the fictional SCP Foundation, a secret worldwide organization that aims to contain anomalous and supernatural objects and keep them hidden. In-universe, the website is a database containing descriptions of these objects, which are given numbers like SCP-3999 or SCP-137. Pedantique’s Proposal is an interpretation of what SCP-001 could be, and it’s my favorite.

Item #: SCP-001

Object Class: [DATA EXPUNGED]

Special Containment Procedures: [DATA EXPUNGED]

Description: [DATA EXPUNGED]

Ra (≈130k words). Hard science fiction fantasy exploring magic-turned-physics. I loved its worldbuilding, and its fully developed, internally consistent magic system, which means that there’s a lot of magibabble, but it’s magibabble that makes sense. It’s mixed with exciting action that raises the stakes with every other chapter. If you decide to read only one of the novels I mention, my first recommendation is this.

The first magic spell is spoken by a 90-year-old retired Indian physicist named Suravaram Vidyasagar on 1st June 1972. It is one hundred and seventy-nine syllables long, comprising equal parts Upanishadic mantra and partial differential equation.

The effect of Vidyasagar’s spell is nothing at all.

“If you have the slightest recollection of what’s happened to you in the last five-and-a-half weeks you’ll recognise this as Vidyasagar’s First Incomplete Field Equation, which I showed you on the first day of the course. You will also remember that when I showed it to you, I told you it has three errors in it. I corrected the first error right away. Can somebody tell me what that was?”

Czarnecki’s tone of voice indicates that he wants this answer fast.

“Pi should be two pi,” shouts a voice from the mid-left of the theatre.

Homestuck Epilogues: Candy (≈95k words). Homestuck is an epic, eight thousand page webcomic. It’s hard to explain what Homestuck is quickly, but some of its themes are coming of age, silliness, reality and canonicity, friendship, and identity. It’s a creation myth, a fantasy story with several fun magic systems, and it’s also just a story about being a kid is hard and no one understands. Homestuck is, hands down, one of my favorite pieces of media.

Candy is half of the Homestuck Epilogues, an interesting conclusion to Homestuck that deals with largely the same themes, but revolves around adulthood and responsibility. It’s kind of hard to enjoy without reading the original, and I’m not sure I can convince you to read Homestuck in two paragraphs. Really, I’m just including it here so that I can shove you these great excerpts.

JOHN: i dunno. it doesn’t seem responsible, really… to dedicate my life to something so important when i’m in a place where i can’t even find the energy to think that getting out of bed in the morning is “important.”
JOHN: in fact, it seems like it would be a pretty fucking selfish thing to do.
JOHN: what if i get distracted because i’m sad?
JOHN: what if i fuck up by staring too tragically into the distance on an important mission, and i get killed in a stupid way?

DAVE: mr president
DAVE: you said…
DAVE: i reminded you of the adult dave from your timeline […]
DAVE: anyway no offense but
DAVE: are you really sure i remind you of him
DAVE: there are a lot of times where i dont feel like im at all living up to that guys example
DAVE: a lot of times i feel like im just going along with shit
DAVE: like my buddy organizes a badass rebellion and im just like duh yeah alright
DAVE: sounds cool guess ill scout around the jungle and rig a bunch of shitty statues of liberty to explode if those are the orders […]
DAVE: but compared to that guy i apparently turned out to be
DAVE: i dunno
DAVE: i feel like
DAVE: a lesser version of myself somehow
DAVE: not lesser maybe just like
DAVE: i somehow ended up as the version of me who didnt stay as true myself as i could have
DAVE: like
DAVE: i entered this world already considered a god
DAVE: already celebrated as a genius
DAVE: what was there left to achieve
DAVE: i still did a lot of incredible and stupid shit that i guess im pretty proud of
DAVE: idk
DAVE: something feels hollow about a lot of what ive done the last bunch of years
DAVE: or i guess about a lot of stuff in general

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (84k words). Philosophical musings turned novel, in both the “book” sense of the word and “new” sense of the word. The book is about many things, like kitsch, metaphors, tyranny, romance, and decisions. The beginning and middle felt rather slow to me, and it’s hard to read at times, but the end was redeeming enough that I consider it good enough to mention.

When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina—what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she had felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.

Until that time, her betrayals had filled her with excitement and joy, because they opened up new paths to new adventures of betrayal. But what if those paths came to an end? One could betray one’s parents, husband, country, love, but when parents, husband, country, and love were gone—what was left to betray?

Sabina felt emptiness all around her. What if that emptiness was the goal of all her betrayals?

Mono no Aware (6396 words). I realized that all of the favorite works I’ve mentioned so far were novel length, so I’m including this, which is one of my favorite short stories I’ve read. It’s a science fiction short story, but it’s less about the science and more about getting in touch with a culture you’ve lost. Deeply moving. Lots of Ken Liu’s short stories are great, by the way; if you liked this, you might like “The Paper Menagerie”.

Between the two boys is a nineteen-by-nineteen grid of straight lines. A handful of black and white stones have been placed on the intersections.

Once every two weeks, I have the day off from my regular duties monitoring the status of the solar sail and come here to teach the children a little bit about Japan. I feel silly doing it sometimes. How can I be their teacher when I have only a boy’s hazy memories of Japan?

But there is no other choice. All the non-American technicians like me feel it is our duty to participate in the cultural-enrichment program at the school and pass on what we can.

Not fiction

One more time (2700 words). An interesting article about how repetition is linked to musicality. Definitely try listening to the demos in the article; they’re pretty cool.

The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.

Sums of periodic functions (1290 words). Of all the math articles I’ve read this year, this is the one that surprised me the most. It’s probably not interesting to a general audience, oops. But it has some pretty cool results about periodic functions and their sums.

Sums of periodic functions can be peculiar indeed. In fact, we can prove the following astonishing theorem: If $P$ is a polynomial function of a real variable, and the degree of $P$ is $n$, then $P$ is the sum of $n+1$ periodic functions.

You Construct Intricate Rituals Which Allow You to Touch The Skin of Other Men (523 words). Probably my favorite poem of all the ones I’ve read this year.

shake his hand. look him in the eye and smile. but don’t tell
him you’ve been moisturizing with Dove peach-mango lotion.

How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity (7300 words). I was originally going to link to Nuts & Bolts, a series of articles where head designer Mark Rosewater explains how they design Magic the Gathering sets, and the surprising amount of complexity and thought involved in the process of making something as simple as a piece of cardboard.

A white character who’s depressed is going to want to do exercise routines and contracts-to-call.

A blue one is going to want to talk it over and figure out exactly what’s wrong.

A black one is going to want to take action—to regain locus of control.

A red one is going to want fewer constraints, and permission to just feel.

And a green one is going to be looking for ways to let go of the pain. To make peace with the parts of the situation they’re not going to be able to change.

The key recognition is that all of these ways of being are okay. They’re all good, they’re all evolved and refined, they’re all adaptive and workable.

Excellent Sheep (74k words). A thought-provoking read about about aspiration and elite education. While I think it’s disorganized at times, and while I don’t agree with all of what’s written in the book, there’s a lot of good parts that are individually well-written. It’s enough that I think it’s worth reading at least the first third of the book, if only for reading things to think about.

The irony, then, is this. Elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, teaching, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged, as a whole, than kids have been for several decades: more concerned about the state of the world and more interested in trying to do something about it. It is true, as well, that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college—a very big “if”—they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, and prestige.