“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.
So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.
Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.
We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.
Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.
Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.
William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”
I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.
As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.
“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.
Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.
Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.
Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.
As it always does, my to-read stack has already doubled just from compiling and editing this year’s Summer Reading List. Get ready to add to yours, because there’s plenty below that you’re going to have to check out. There are so many books to read and so many ways to read them, you have no excuse not to read every chance you get.
This year we have recommendations from newcomers Paul Edwards, Paul Tremblay, Mark Bould, and Matthew Gold, along with past Summer Reading List contributors Dominic Pettman, Dave Allen, Lance Strate, Alex Burns, Alice Marwick, André Carrington, Patrick Barber, Lily Brewer, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, Mike Daily, Brian Tunney, Gerfried Ambrosch, Jussi Parikka, Paul Levinson, Steve Jones, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself. Prepare yourself for a hefty stack of pages with words.
As always the book links on this page will lead to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the biggest and best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
Gabourey Sidibe This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017): I’m already enjoying this a few chapters in, because the chapters read well on short trips. It’s not only funny, it’s genuinely touching. Sidibe has been a breakout star thanks to TV, but what has really flipped the script on her tragic/triumphant character in Precious is her incredible wit. I’m excited to see how she writes about her successes and the setbacks put in her way.
Janet Mock Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me (Atria Books, 2017): I read Redefining Realness (Atria Books, 2014) in like t-minus three days. I was so into Janet Mock’s voice and her ability to move me, as a reader, through times and places while conveying really important principles she’s come to value in her life as a Black trans woman with Native Hawaiian ancestry. The twenty-something memoir is an interesting genre that I hope will help me age into mentoring relationships as I approach my next decade. Mock is already decisive about putting her own life lessons and interests into forms that connect with more and less privileged people, and I expect that she’s even more reflective in this book. Recently, she launched a podcast, Never Before, and the first episode with Ms. Tina Knowles-Lawson was just… poise.
Regina Bradley Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South (Peter Lang, 2017): Regina is a colleague whom I’ve had the distinct honor of befriending earlier this year. I bought this book for my partner, and I’m going to have to get my own, because I need to read these stories as much as anybody else. I made my way through some classic short stories while teaching a course on science fiction, recently, and there was nothing like this that blended hip-hop, Southern everyday life, and race consciousness; there should be, and now, there will be. She’s giving you a voice from the South for the 21st century and beyond.
Mehammed Amadeus Mack Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017): While it’s hard to keep pace with contemporary criticism, because of the pressure on academics to increase productivity, just like in every other profession, I want to say I’m catching up with people who have done the work in areas I care about. This is a study on desire, the nation, ethnicity, and religion, as well as sex, gender, and sexuality. I’m going through 2017 without knowing if there’s any such thing as loyalty to the field of queer studies. So, for me, it’s important to do work that makes academia a space where we can exist, as desiring people, from marginalized backgrounds, engaged in a dialogue that implicates all of the social formations that claim us.
Simone Browne Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015): A fantastic and long-overdue intervention, arguing that surveillance practices cannot be understood without interrogating the long history of policing Blackness.
Christo Sims Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism (Princeton University Press, 2017): Sims spent years inside an experimental NYC public school built around gaming. Its story becomes a cautionary tale of well-meaning tech philanthropy and how idealized educational technology often reinforces the status quo rather than upending it.
Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (William Morrow, 2017): I read every Stephenson new release and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015) this techno-thriller about an academic, magic, and time travel seems more up my alley.
Reading biographical and historical accounts is one method of time travel, and I also intend to read up on the subject more generally by diving into James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016). Time being a topic of great interest to me, another book on my summer stack is Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton). Two books on language also have caught my eye and are on my pile, The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown & Co., 2016), and Words on the Move by John McWhorter (Henry Holt, 2016).
Lastly, I look forward to savoring the recently published collections from two of my favorite poets, Mata Hari’s Lost Words by John Oughton (Neopoiesis, 2017), and Ego to Earthschool by Stephen Roxborough (Neopoiesis, 2017).
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (Haper Perennial, 2007), a thoroughly depressing and vitally important work of non-fiction (first published in 1973), will probably ruin your summer, but, in the long run, it will give you a profound understanding of what life was like under communism. Suffice it to say, George Orwell’s dystopian—and somewhat prophetic—depiction of a totalitarian Soviet-like state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg) was no exaggeration. Solzhenitsyn points out the crucial role of ideology—in this case, Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism—in the formation of totalitarian societies.
Douglas Murray’s new book, entitled The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017), gives an unsettling account of the recent refugee crisis and why it really is a crisis. In his rather pessimistic view, Europe is on the rocks because it has failed to assert a meaningful first-person plural that autochthonous Europeans can identify with and immigrants can integrate into. The British journalist (The Spectator) and political commentator argues—compellingly—that Europe’s current discourse around identity, immigration, and Islam is dominated by a sense of surrender and cultural masochism, which has played into the hands of far-right groups and parties.
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read is The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011) by the American cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s optimistic book traces, in compelling prose, the decline of violence in human societies from the Stone Age to the present, explaining the social, cultural, political, and psychological factors behind this surprising phenomenon.
If non-fiction isn’t your thing, you might want to pick up Alex CF’s 2016 fantasy novel Seek the Throat from which We Sing (self-released), “a visceral tale of animal mythology, of dark and foreboding rite and ritual and the desperate rasp of life.” Seek the Throat… is the prolific British artist’s stunning debut as a novelist.
The summer between my second and third year of what I once heard Matt Morris call “Doctor School” is dedicated to the delightful if not academically required preparation for my hotly anticipated comprehensive exams. Because the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh has a flexible exams program, I am putting my 70-book-and-article reading list to use toward three projects, one being an online publication entitled Sedimenta. Sedimenta, to be a semi-annual collection of critical engagements with contemporaneity, is accreting intellectual efforts toward tracing, for example, shifting subjectivities in the Anthropocene and the deracination of modernist philosophies of nature and landscape toward contemporary philosophies of ecology and deep time. Philosophically Pessimistic attitudes toward artistic practice in the final decades of a green planet are always an alluring line of inquiry as well. After the first edition, Roy Christopher will team up with me as print editor. Most of the books I’m reading this summer are to this end.
A few I’d like to highlight are: Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which caught my attention with its unsaturated hot-pink cover; Former West: Arts and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (MIT Press, 2017), which I have already lit up with tabbed passages. The intellectual enterprise of “formering the west” and its Modernity, so far, is a challenging and important one; Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (K. Verlag, 2017), confronts nineteenth-century will-to-knowledge and challenges colonial science and its reverberations in the Anthropocene. In the last year, I have become very excited about K. Verlag’s series Intercalations. In fact, it was in Land and Animal and Nonanimal (2015) I saw the word “sedimenta/tion” broken over two lines, which unearthed Sedimenta in name; Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), is likely to be my most anticipated this summer after seeing Douglas Armato flipping it backward and forward in a tweet. I anticipate that this book will enlighten-up my Pessimistic attitude toward artistic practice on a dead and dying planet. I would also like to note that whether by dexterous memory or by Freudian slip, I keep spelling it “damnaged” planet.
As above, Lucy Lippard‘s works are always so gently quaking below.
Those are for my eyes. For my ears, I have Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp) from 2010 on eternal repeat while writing for said comprehensive exams. More on personal brand, I’m playing Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There (Jagjaguwar) from 2014. Special thanks to David Lynch (and earlier, Brit Marling), for bringing her again to my attention from the Bang Bang Bar.
Brian Allen Carr Sip (Soho Press, 2017): After reading Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World (Lazy Fascist, 2014), which reminded me of the masterful compression achieved by Kenneth Gangemi in his ’69 “miniature novel” Olt, I numbered myself among his fans. I haven’t read any of Carr’s other books. Sip will change that. Take a minute and six seconds to watch the trailer for his “lyrical, apocalyptic debut novel about addiction, friendship, and the struggle for survival.” I guess TLHNitHotW was considered a novella…
Knut Hamsun Growth of the Soil (Vintage Books, 1921): “The typical quirks of Hamsun are still present, and avid readers will find his unmistakable voice booming from the pages.”– s.penkevich on Goodreads (5-star review).
James Joyce Ulysses (1922; Random House US edition, 1934): Time feels right to read Ulysses, I thought as I perused a used hardcover with dust jacket copy from a bookseller’s shelves inside an Ashland antiques emporium. It’s the complete and unabridged text, corrected and reset, containing the original foreword by the author (who “punningly referred to himself as ‘Shame’s Voice,'” wrote Paul Strathern in James Joyce in 90 Minutes), the historic decision by Judge John M. Woolsey whereby the Federal ban on Ulysses was removed in ’33, and a foreword by Morris Ernst.
My 2017 summer reading list was probably the least consequential thing to change on November 9th, 2016, but change it did. As the U.S. has careened towards authoritarianism, I’ve been trying to learn more about 20th century experiences with totalitarian governments — and especially the early stages, as that seems most relevant to the U.S. context at the moment. I visited Auschwitz last summer during the annual digital humanities conference in Poland and wanted to learn more about how norms eroded in the run-up to WWII; so, I’ve begun by reading Volker Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf, 2016). Ullrich’s careful account of Hitler’s rise to power is engrossing, readable, and distressing. What’s clear is that Hitler’s agenda was right out in the open from the beginning; as Ullrich notes, “even in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews” (104). Replace “Jews” with “immigrants” and we have reason to fear Trump’s next moves. I’ll likely take up books by Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Czeslaw Milosz (The Captive Mind) this summer if I can get through the Ullrich biography quickly enough.
As I continue making my way through these academic texts, I’m looking forward to catching up on some pleasure reading; on the top of my list right now are Zachary Mason’s Void Star (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Penguin, 2017), and Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle (Putnam, 1962). It’s looking like a dystopian summer all the way around, unfortunately.
Mike McCormack Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016): This novel came recommended to me as a book about memory, family, and small town life in Ireland. If anyone has a unique perspective on those, it’s the Irish. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.
Larry Loftis Into the Lion’s Mouth (Caliber, 2016): This is an account of the life and exploits of Dusko Popov, a fascinating figure in Allied covert operations during World War II. Largely unheralded (at least in the U.S.), it is claimed he served as the template for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character.
Nicholas Stargardt The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Basic Books, 2015): Two books in one summer related to World War II is twice as many as I’ve read in the past ten years. There’s no accounting for it. What caught my eye about The German War is its focus on the breadth and depth of German attitudes and behaviors before, during and after the war, that is, it explores the varieties of Germans’ experiences from within, on Germans’ everyday experiences and struggles with the moral and practical dimensions of the war.
Olja Savicevic Adios, Cowboy (McSweeney’s, 2016): This one caught my eye at first due to its title, which evoked the song “Cowboys Lost At Sea,” by For Stars, causing me to take it down from the shelf at the bookstore and rifle through its pages. Then the prose caught my eye, parsimonious and evocative.
Rick Shefchik Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2015): It wouldn’t be summer if I wasn’t reading at least one book about music, and this probably won’t be the only one (George Harrison’s expanded I, Me, Mine is a contender, but when it comes to the Beatles I’m mainly waiting for the second installment in Mark Lewisohn’s masterful biography of the Beatles, which I predict will be titled Turn On — you heard it here first!). I’m keenly interested in the local nature of music, its formation, its sound, and one of the most interesting and intriguing — and brief — early 60s rock scenes formed, in of all places, Minnesota. From what I can tell, Shefchik has done a yeoman’s job of unearthing details, including first-person accounts.
Meryl Alper Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017): As computers have been increasingly employing speech synthesis and voice recognition I’ve become more interested in how humans and machines communicate, and Alper’s book seems like an excellent critical look at mobile media, voice (both literally and figuratively), disability, and equality. I began reading this mid-May and am actually re-reading it over the summer with the thought of incorporating it into a seminar in the fall.
Joachim Kalka Gaslight (New York Review Books, 2017): As a lover of the ideas and literary mode of the German critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin, I could not resist this little book. It’s about the cradle of many of our troubles and so much of our optimism, the 19th century. Detectives, railways, gothic architecture, exoticism, new and strange technologies, the rise of mass consumption–these are few of my favorite themes.
August Wilson Joe Turner’s Come and Gone(Theatre Communications Group, 2008): I’m actually reading all of Wilson’s plays this summer. I have a good reason for this reading project. Black English, like Irish English, is very musical. The same is not true, for say, Shonanized English, which is more philosophical than musical. Anyway, Wilson writes like he is playing the blues on the piano. With his work, the connection between Black English and the blues is made clear. I usually read the books of Zora Neale Hurston for this kind pleasure–the music of words and sentences. But this time I’m reading Wilson.
One other thing. The great novelist Richard Wright once bemoaned that Black American literature did not have a Remembrance of Things Past. In a way, Wilson’s plays, which are set in Pittsburgh, are a working-class Remembrance of 20th century Black America.
Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016): Though this book is written by a German forester, Peter Wohllenben, it’s inspired, indeed has an afterword, by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She is just wonderful. I’ve had the pleasure drinking with her. Her aura is not totally human. Much of it has fused with the forest: the canopy, the understory, the roots, that hum of wood. Simard discovered the mother tree. It’s not only huge but shares nutrients with other, weaker trees around it by a fungal network in the ground.
Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest–let’s call it the Forest of Friendship–in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.
But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the ‘agreed’ norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet.
This way of thinking turns out to be a lot of nonsense. There is actually a Forest of Friendship. It is connected by “wood-wide web” that links roots to roots like soul to soul. And, as Wohllenben points out in his book, which I’m reading for the third time and is written with almost no poetry, trees do stifle competition. For some trees, growing too fast and with no checks is dangerous. The slower you grow, the longer you live. Of course, Dawkins, the neoliberal of the biological sciences, doesn’t have the capacity or ideology to see this socialism. He can only see competition where ever he looks.
Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016) is a remarkable, detailed and acute revisionist history that overturns our understanding of the transition from water-power to coal-burning energy systems which were more costly and far less efficient (but – spoiler alert – made it easier to control workers, suppress wages and offset costs onto the public purse). It is the best book I have read so far this year – though I am looking forward to the stiff competition China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017) will put up. Dipping into it has persuaded me to clear a day so I can read it in a single sitting.
One of my regular train journeys is the ideal length for Tor’s fantastic (in both senses) novellas – unless, of course, there are cattle on the line between Bath and Chippenham. Which happened a couple of weeks ago when I was reading Gwyneth Jones’s hard-sf-thriller-cum-ultimate-locked-room-mystery Proof of Concept (Tor, 2017), leaving me bookless between Reading and London. Every bit as good is Everything Belongs to the Future (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Laurie Penny’s dystopian vision of endless Tory austerity, and I am looking forward to the otherwise dully familiar trips that will get me to the Lovecraft revisionism of Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Tor, 2016) and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016), as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home (Tor, 2017) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017).
My summer will be devoted to getting through the William T. Vollmann backlog. He only writes big, fat far-from-portable hardbacks, so they’ve been stacking up for a while. But I hope to spend at least some of this summer sat on my fat lazy arse -– also catching up on recent novels by Andrea Hairston, Cixin Liu, Mohammad Rabie, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sofia Samatar.
Summer mostly means novels to me; an all-too brief respite from academic writing.
Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to an advance copy of Margret Grebowicz’s contribution to the excellent Object Lessons series, on Whale Song (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
I’m also looking forward to re-reading Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2003), which has just been re-released. It’s a unique instance of “incoherent geography,” and arguably the best novella to come out of Australia. Fans of Calvino, Borges, Casares, etc. should take a look.
John Cowper Powy’s ever-unfashionable Wolf Solent (Simon & Schuster, 1929) is a book I’ve been circling for decades, so will likely finally take the plunge soon.
Otherwise, I just finished Paul Beatty’s brilliant, exhausting, hilarious, and provocative novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Book that came out before summer: Mariana Enriquez Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories (Hogarth, 2017): It’s one of the best short story collections of the last decade. I couldn’t have loved it more. A heady mix of Gothic, weird, realism, and politics. Now I anxiously await for more of her books to be translated.
Summer books out now: Stephen Graham Jones Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017): A ghost story, a story about fathers, and history… The amount of creepiness, ambition, and emotion Stephen packs into this novella is unfair.
Victor LaValle The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017): I’m reading it as I type, but already this dark, melancholy meditation on parenting is messing me up.
Summer book out later: Nadia Bulkin She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017): I had the honor of writing an introduction to this short story collection. This astonishingly fierce, intelligent, disturbing collection of sociopolitical shockers will be the perfect way to end your summer and dread the fall.
Keith Morris My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (Da Capo, 2016): From 2011 through 2015, I ended up living in this forgotten about tract of Los Angeles called The South Bay. Not that it is actually forgotten about in the present tense—people still there—but the area was once home to a thriving BMX and punk rock scene, and those aspects of the land are largely forgotten about in the present tense, replaced by sprawling bars, expensive parking, and overpriced surf shops.
I picked Redondo Beach to live in, mainly because I grew up reading the town name in BMX magazines and in the liner notes of records released by SST Records. I had visited once in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but aside from that, I felt I had a brand of adopted familiarity with the place. That led me to renting a house on Mathews Avenue in North Redondo, not far from a 7-11 on Artesia Blvd.
Something about the heightened curb outside of this particular 7-11 struck me as so familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it at first. Then it dawned on me. It was the site of a photo of Henry Rollins, while he sang for Black Flag, from 1985. And it looked almost exactly the same in 2011 as it did in 1985. I never knew an address, but from that day forward, I acknowledged that I was living in the same neighborhood that Black Flag used to practice in many years before me.
I was light years away in suburban New Jersey, listening to those Black Flag songs in early skate videos, and here I was an adult living blocks away from one of the creative homes of Black Flag. It then became a past time for me to zero in on locations formerly known for their influence on SST Records releases or in past BMX magazines.
So it came as no surprise that I read My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris, in little more than a day when I bought it. Morris was the original singer for Black Flag, an original Hermosa Beach local, and one of the squares that didn’t fit into the round hole of the South Bay in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Morris and his family lived in Hermosa Beach. His dad owned a bait shop, and Morris borrowed generously from his dad’s cash register to get into all sorts of mayhem as a teen. Through the early parts of the book, Morris also animates a version of Hermosa and Redondo Beach that I never got to know — seaside working class communities unaware of their future sitting on million dollar properties, or past as a vibrant punk rock community. Morris sings for Black Flag down the street from my second house on PCH, walks the streets of Pier Ave., and parties a mile north in Manhattan Beach.
He eventually escapes his hometown, touring with The Circle Jerks, living in Silver Lake and never really returning home to The South Bay in his later years, because, in his words, he doesn’t recognize the place he came from.
Last summer, I visited Hermosa and Redondo again after being away for little over a year, and it was a strange visit. The place that had formerly forgotten or never acknowledged its punk rock roots, now had murals of bands birthed in The South Bay painted on electrical boxes. It was still expensive as shit to even be there, and a little lonely just like I had remembered it, but at least someone in Hermosa Beach had remembered the influence of Black Flag and Descendents.
I wasn’t crazy — all of the mentions of Hermosa and Redondo that I read as a teenager in New Jersey had happened. And Keith Morris’ book is a definitive place to start to learn about the history of punk rock in the South Bay.
It’s also a lesson in understanding one’s place as a legendary influence, but never attempting to capitalize on that legacy. It’s about always moving forward, wherever that road may lead.
The 33 1/3 entry on The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde by Andrew Barker (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) is excellent. The album is one of my favorites and the book covers a lot of the details you want to know as a fan. It goes into the recording of most of the songs and in the order they happened, so you get a nice feel of how the album was constructed. Definitely in a similar style to Dan LeRoy’s exemplary 33 1/3 of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique(Bloomsbury Academic, 2006).
I also recently read J-Zone’s Root for the Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure (Old Maid Entertainment, 2011) which was as hilarious and insightful as I had hoped it would be. This is a must-read if you’re a hip-hop fan, even if you’re not too familiar with J-Zone’s music. It combines a behind-the-scenes underground rap expose together with some in-depth opinions and observations from a true hip-hop head and music lover.
This one isn’t actually out yet, but it should be on people’s radars: Martin Connor’s The Musical Artistry of Rap (McFarland & Co., 2017). Martin is a musicologist who breaks down rapping with tools from traditional music analysis and this is his first book, hopefully the first of many. I’m not sure if you can get it in time for summer… If not then maybe spend the summer preparing for this book by brushing up on your music theory, etc.!
When Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading List email lands in my inbox I become paralyzed. I tend to shy away from even attempting to get my head around which books or authors I should be sharing. Roy never nudges me with follow up emails, I just get one. The guilt is unbearable. That’s surely his plan, because at the last minute I get it done. So, another year, another list. Here goes:
In the latter half of 2016 I began collecting many of Jim Harrison’s books. It became a minor obsession. Perhaps his death spurred me to backtrack through his work. I have collected a dozen of his past works of fiction, finding them in online used bookstores, recovered from libraries. Of all of these books, none have struck me as deeply as Sundog (E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence), first released in 1984. I know I added Harrison to Roy’s 2016 list, but I felt it only right to go with this first.
Changing gears, or rather countries, H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 2014) by the English author Helen Macdonald had been sitting in the unread pile for two years. After reading the rave reviews the book had received, I was concerned that it would be a mawkish read and that wasn’t a frame of mind that I felt was desirable to me at the time. I was mistaken. Having read her articles on nature and natural history in the New York Times Magazine, I felt that I should put my feelings aside and give the book a chance. It is far from mawkish. Ironically, I should have noted that Jim Harrison gave it a great review, which makes perfect sense. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say: “A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father and becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk.” Macdonald’s book is a wonderful meditation on life; part memoir, part grief, and lots of soul-searching.
Mary Gaitskill’s latest book of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017) had my head spinning. I became fascinated as she moved through the world of music, literature, politics and society, covering date rape, Charles Dickens, John Updike, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Talking Heads, Norman Mailer, Dubravka Ugresic, Hanan al-Shaykh, and more. She muses on Nabakov’s Lolita. Of Linda Lovelace she writes, “Icon of freedom and innocent carnality; icon of brokenness and confusion; icon of sexual victimization, sexual power, irreconcilable oppositions.” The book contains 31 riveting and concise essays. I suspect it is one I will go back to often.
Joan Didion South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017): Didion shares with us but two excerpts from her notebooks that up until now she has never revealed before. “Notes From The South” covers the road trip with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June of 1970, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Her eyes and ears capture everything around her as she describes a South that is largely unchanged today.
“California Notes” came about when she was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. She never wrote the piece. Instead, being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the West, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. It is a short book, I read it in a single day; a day well spent.
Thinking how to respond to this call, my first instinct was turn my head towards the left, and look at my office bookshelf to see all the volumes that I have had not time to look into over the past months. There’s lots. So some of the books mentioned below are texts that I will read, some are what I want to read and some are what I would anyway suggest to read. I will start with the latter and cheekily, suggest two recent books in our Recursions Series: Ute Holl’s fabulous study (translation) Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Liam Young’s just published List Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2017)– a book on cultural techniques of listing.
Otherwise, I will be reading a lot of things that relate to my current research projects more directly. This will mean reading about labs, art and technology, making, and such things, but a lot of that material won’t be in books but in various articles, shorter texts, interviews, and such. It also includes going back to reading or re-reading some material such as Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009). My other writing addresses imaginary media and imaginary futures, so I am reading also some fiction for that one, for example the collection Iraq +100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion (Tor, 2017) that Hassan Blasim edited.
I’m currently reading two books, each a tour-de-force in its own right/write, and I’ll definitely be continuing in their pages this summer.
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Hugo Gernsback and Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) shows how Gernsback, generally regarded as the grandfather, father, or some kind of primary progenitor of science fiction, did the same for media theory, presaging Marshall McLuhan’s way of thinking about technology and communication by decades. Wythoff’s 59-page Introduction is itself more than worth the price of admission.
I’ve never not been an ardent Beatles’ fan, so I can’t quite say that Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street, 2017) rekindled my love of this group’s music, but it certainly placed it first and foremost in my brain this summer, and Sheffield’s masterful, delightful prose makes great accompaniment to the Beatles on the new Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM Radio.
And while I’m here, a few recommendation for books I’ve already read, but which would make wonderful summer reading for anyone who hasn’t: Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler (Bitingduck Press, 2015) is one of the best time-travel novels I’ve ever read. David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton’s Red Moon (Breakneck Books, 2007) is a novel you can’t put down, with a science fictional but who knows explanation of why the Soviets lost the space race in the 1950s.
Most of my year was taken up with prep for my new book (The Playstation Dreamworld; Polity, 2017), but for the summer ahead I’d rather recommend the two better forthcoming books in the series, Xenofeminism (Polity, 2017) by the brilliant Helen Hester and Narcocapitalism (Polity, 2017), the English translation of Laurent de Sutter’s L’âge de l’anesthésie, which I read earlier in the year. Hester, a member of Laboria Cuboniks and the Xenofeminism movement, is among the most exciting writers of recent years and work on feminism and technology seems as important as anything else I can think of. Complementing this intervention, De Sutter’s book shows how living in modern society means living in a world in which our very emotions have been outsourced to chemical stimulation.
In my Hong Kong Review of Books duties, the most exciting book I encountered was Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China (Urbanomic Media, 2016), which he answered our questions about last month. Another book for the serious philosopher to look out for is Gregor Moder’s Hegel and Spinoza (Northwestern University Press, 2017), the latest in the Slovene-Lacanian revolution and coming soon from Northwestern. Last year’sAbolishing Freedom by Frank Ruda (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) is equally exciting, arguing for a renovation of attitudes towards the complicated signifier “freedom” that could get us out of the political crises we face today. In a world in which the corporate establishment and the far-Right make use of the term to assert their agendas, Ruda asks us to think again about the functions and effects of the word “freedom.” Experimental poets–of which I’m really not one–might like Robert Kiely’s How to Read (Lulu, 2017).
After all that hard work, I’ll settle down to the long-awaited new novel from the king of Scandinavian crime noir, Arnaldur Indridason. If enjoyment is everything, The Shadow District(Minotaur Books, 2017) is the only book you need.
Maile Meloy Do Not Become Alarmed (Riverhead, 2017): I finally got a copy of Maile Meloy’s new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, and somehow I am managing to save it for next week’s Solstice campout. Meanwhile, I’m taking the opportunity to re-read Meloy’s story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010). It’s gratifying to warm up to a new book from a favorite author by revisiting her older books. I should do this more often…
Meloy has an amazing touch with characters, particularly in the form of a short story. Her writing is crystal clear, seemingly without affect. The stories manage to be both hard and tender. There is a lot of loneliness, and few happy endings, yet the stories don’t seem dark or brooding or pessimistic. She lights up the way people make their way through their lives; their thoughts, their self-reflections, their awareness of and fealty to their own weaknesses.
Like so many in the summer of ’17, I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the fall of ’16. I’ve avoided Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 2016) which came out before the election. I suppose that’s because it’s a direct attack on the Democratic Party I’d supported and which had shaped so many of its policies around the concerns of people like me. With the GOP holding the presidency, both houses of Congress, the last and probably next Supreme Court appointments, and too many state legislatures and governorships to recount without weeping liberal tears, maybe a rethink is needed.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zer0 Books, 2017) is another, more techno-cultural tool for me to use on the political and social practices we inherited from the 20th century that just seem broken at the moment. Nagle is merciless in her analysis of the techno-utopian hopes of early Internet cheerleaders, and sets up a cage match between identitarian Tumblr and the lol fascism-light of the mouth breathers on 4chan. Its like cross-breeding Greshem’s Law and Godwin’s Law, wherein shit-posting drives out coherence.
I refuse to consecrate the whole summer to hair-shirting myself for my own liberal normie tendencies, so I’ll read lots of fiction, almost all revolving around Los Angeles. Top of the pile is Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown, 2016) about a low level drug kid from the South LA projects who gets sent deep into the Midwest to commit a murder.
Should be good, but the kid could probably cause more disruption by staying in the Midwest, registering, and voting Democratic.
I’m finishing up the research on my book Dead Precedents (Repeater Books, 2018), which tellingly is what I was researching during the list last year. There’s plenty of great, new work to read though.
Paul Youngquist A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press, 2017): Not since John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place (Pantheon, 1997) and the first two chapters of Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke University Press, 1999) has there been an in-depth study of Sun Ra that connects as many dots as Younquist’s. Most studies of Afrofuturism trace its roots at least back to Sun Ra, but none have done a study so specific, and studies of Sun Ra don’t necessarily make such an explicit connection to his Afrofuturist legacy (Szwed mentions the word once; Lock doesn’t use the term at all). For a broader picture, read along with Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones’ recent edited collection, Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lexington Books, 2016).
Greg Tate Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016): If you study Black Atlantic art or music, you will contend with Greg Tate. Always a worthy opponent or worth a thorough read, Tate’s work is shiny and sharp and reflects the culture that it cuts. Flyboy 2 is the second such collection of his writings for the Village Voice, Spin, the Wire, Ebony, Paper, and many other publications, as well as some previously unpublished joints.
I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:
Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.
Though it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!
Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.
If depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.
Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.
Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.
Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:
We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.
Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.
Post-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.
If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,
As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).
As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,
Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).
Chuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.
Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.
Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.
Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.
Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society, 23, 31-50.
Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.
Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.