The best books about touching the reality of modern life

Who am I?

I’m a literary scholar by training (my doctorate is in comparative literature), but the more I experienced and thought about how digital technologies were “rewiring” me, the more connections I made to earlier cultural ideas about personhood, privacy, isolation, and community. My first book, The Four-Dimensional Human, used this training to observe digital life from an outsider’s perspective. It was shortlisted for the UK’s largest international non-fiction prize and named a WIRED Book of the Decade. Picnic Comma Lightning continues this project to explore digital realities and illusions, and the books I’ve recommended here have all influenced my own desire to capture the particular poetry of these bizarre, networked times. 


I wrote...

Picnic Comma Lightning: The Experience of Reality in the Twenty-First Century

By Laurence Scott,

Book cover of Picnic Comma Lightning: The Experience of Reality in the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Picnic Comma Lightning was one of the first books to document the fracturing of our shared contemporary reality, now widely seen as a major threat to democracy. Our world is one where we can capture life on our camera phones, yet we can’t agree on the facts of what really happened.

In this tour of modern illusions, you’ll encounter influencers and eavesdropping objects, and discover the overlooked obscenity of Donald Trump. What is the future of genuine emotion in a world where our feelings are for sale? How do we find an authentic online voice when our internet audiences are unknowable? And when something undeniably real occurs (like the death of a loved one), how does it fit into our digitised experience of reality?

The books I picked & why

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No One Is Talking About This

By Patricia Lockwood,

Book cover of No One Is Talking About This

Why this book?

Patricia Lockwood’s novel catches the weird rhythms of our digital lives, exploring the ways our jokes and observations and obsessions swirl around in the collective mind of social media. She is brilliantly funny on the contortions and kinks of our online language. No writer is better at skewering the neuroses behind a meme, the irony of hashtags, and documenting the subtle ways our own realities get filtered through the profane and wonderful prism of the internet. This is an obscene and hilarious book with a tender, tragic heart.

No One Is Talking About This

By Patricia Lockwood,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked No One Is Talking About This as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Patricia Lockwood is the voice of a generation' Namita Gokhale 'A masterpiece' Guardian 'I really admire and love this book' Sally Rooney 'An intellectual and emotional rollercoaster' Daily Mail 'I can't remember the last time I laughed so much reading a book' David Sedaris 'A rare wonder . . . I was left in bits' Douglas Stuart * WINNER OF THE DYLAN THOMAS PRIZE 2022 * * SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2021 * * SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2021 * * A BBC BETWEEN THE COVERS BOOK CLUB PICK * ______________________________________________ This is a story about…


Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard (translator),

Book cover of Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

Why this book?

I was stunned when I read Barthes’s book on photography! His primary question in this short work is why photographs affect him in ways different from other art forms. He finds a new language to describe how they hit his nervous system and provoke his emotions. While Barthes figures out the mysterious aura of old images, we begin to learn how they affect us as well. This is a beautiful, erotic work about suspended moments in time, as well as an elegy for loved ones preserved in this haunted medium. 

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Camera Lucida as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This personal, wide-ranging, and contemplative volume--and the last book Barthes published--finds the author applying his influential perceptiveness and associative insight to the subject of photography. To this end, several black-and-white photos (by the likes of Avedon, Clifford, Hine, Mapplethorpe, Nadar, Van Der Zee, and so forth) are reprinted throughout the text.


The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

By Andrew O'Hagan,

Book cover of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

Why this book?

Andrew O’Hagan is a contemporary master of the literary essay, and in this book we have three long non-fiction pieces linked by his investigations into the online world. O’Hagan was the ghostwriter for Julian Assange’s doomed autobiography, and here he tells the story of this adventure – it’s a publisher’s nightmare but a dream for the psychoanalyst, as the line between Assange’s invented self and the reality of his life begins to collapse. The other two essays also explore mercurial identities online, with a portrait of the rumored, shadowy inventor of Bitcoin, and the brief life of a Frankensteinian amalgam of O’Hagan’s own making – a cyber-persona who has an address, a credit card, and who can buy drugs on the Dark Web. O’Hagan even manages to meet his creation’s mother.  

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

By Andrew O'Hagan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The slippery online ecosystem is the perfect breeding ground for identities: true, false, and in between. We no longer question the reality of online experiences but the reality of selfhood in the digital age.

In The Secret Life: Three True Stories, Andrew O'Hagan issues three bulletins from the porous border between cyberspace and the 'real world'. 'Ghosting' introduces us to the beguiling and divisive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose autobiography the author agrees to ghostwrite with unforeseen-and unforgettable-consequences. 'The Invention of Ronnie Pinn' finds the author using the actual identity of a deceased young man to construct an entirely new…


10:04

By Ben Lerner,

Book cover of 10:04

Why this book?

I go to Ben Lerner’s writing for the shimmering atmospheres of his fictional universes. 10:04 is set in contemporary New York City and follows the narrator-writer through his urban routines. But between his health scares, relationship worries, and professional commitments, the novel thrums with a strange, uneasy beat as the narrator questions the fabric of modern life in a large city. He feels the sublime abundance of the commodities that surround him, whose very abundance is precarious. The book meditates on the fragility of the global supply chains that bring cans of ground coffee onto supermarket shelves and into our baskets. There is also a superstorm approaching, which threatens the city’s power. Lerner is wonderful on twenty-first-century, first-world malaise.

10:04

By Ben Lerner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 10 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A stunning, urgent, and original novel from Ben Lerner (The Topeka School and Leaving the Atocha Station) about making art, love, and children during the twilight of an empire.

Winner of The Paris Review's 2012 Terry Southern Prize

A Finalist for the 2014 Folio Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award

In the last year, the narrator of 10:04 has enjoyed unlikely literary success, has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal medical condition, and has been asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. In a New York of increasingly frequent superstorms and social unrest, he…


To The Lighthouse

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of To The Lighthouse

Why this book?

If you like thinking about moments when we’re able to touch the pulse of reality, Virginia Woolf is your friend. Her novels aim to “go deeper” into the submerged lives of her characters, to imagine what it felt like for them to sit in a room, thinking of someone they used to know, watching a tree’s branches through the window swaying in the storm, all while trying to hold on to a coherent sense of themselves as people in the world. To The Lighthouse is a masterpiece within this bigger project, set largely in just two days in the life of the Ramsay family, in their seaside house. Within this narrow plot, human experiences detonate with blazing beauty, leaving you with a feeling of exquisite sadness for the passing moment.  

To The Lighthouse

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked To The Lighthouse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Radiant as [To the Lighthouse] is in its beauty, there could never be a mistake about it: here is a novel to the last degree severe and uncompromising. I think that beyond being about the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality.”—Eudora Welty, from the Introduction.The serene and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet absurd Mr. Ramsay, and their children and assorted guests are on holiday on the Isle of Skye. From the seemingly trivial postponement of a visit to a nearby lighthouse, Woolf constructs a remarkable, moving examination of the complex tensions and allegiances of…


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Interested in fine art photography, Isle of Skye, and romantic love?

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