It’s that time again… For those who don’t know, every year around this time, I ask a bunch of my friends and colleagues what they’re reading and then I compile it and post it here. This year, new participants Nancy Baym, Ian Bogost, Andy Jenkins, Kenyatta Cheese, and Michael Schandorf, and join regular contributors Steven Shaviro, DJ Spooky, David Silver, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, Ashley Crawford, Howard Bloom, Alex Burns, Peter Lunenfeld, Cynthia Connolly, and Erik Davis. Thanks to everyone who contributed and to those who didn’t but considered doing so.
As always the book links on this page will take you to the selected title in Powell’s Bookstore. Enjoy, and leave your own reading recommendations in the comments below.
Jason Turbow with Michael Duca The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime (Pantheon, 2010): Summertime is baseball time. Over the last decade I’ve become a real baseball nerd and any book that delves into the intricate folds of this game will usually get my attention — The Baseball Codes being no exception. It’s an in-depth look into the unwritten rules of the game (even though that’s exactly what Turbow and Duca have done here — written them down), the stories usually told by the players themselves. The abundance of names and places and times can become a little overwhelming, but if you sit and read one or two anecdotes at a time, this is a good read for any baseball fan.
Steven Johnson The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changes Science, Cities and the Modern World (Riverhead Books, 2006): You’d think a book about the London cholera epidemic in the summer of 1854 would be a pretty depressing read, but The Ghost Map is quite the contrary. Johnson interweaves the battle to control the microbial war with the minds of the men doing most of the thinking and the future repercussions of their ideas. Take a look around you, breathe deeply, be thankful for running water and give your garbage man a high five… if you don’t really feel like doing that right now, after you read this book you will.
Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010): Goon Squad caught me right in the first couple of pages as the main character, Sasha, is conferring with her therapist — something I just recently started doing myself. Sasha is a compulsive thief, I’m a depressed self-inflicted recluse. The honesty she shares with her therapist is something I’m striving for. Guess I’ll keep reading…
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (Ballantine Books, 1964): I recently caught a TV show called Iconoclasts with Maya Angelou and Dave Chappelle. Strange match-up on some levels, but the thing I was most impressed with was Angelou’s past and the people in it. She was a personal friend to Malcolm X. Hearing that and seeing Malcolm’s iconic portrait on a wall in her house made me pull this book out again. I’d recommend this for anyone’s summer reading list. The path this man’s life took is an interesting and inspiring one.
Jordan Crane The Clouds Above (Extra Fancy Edition) (Fantagraphics Books, 2005) and How to Speak Zombie: A Guide for the Living by Steve Mockus, illustrated by Travis Millard (Chronicle Books, 2010): Both of these are picture books. And both of these are illustrated by two of my favorite line artists, Jordan Crane and Travis Millard. Crane’s book is a beautifully illustrated and made, hard-bound piece of art with very little dialog — it’s almost exclusively a visual narrative that recount the “Terribly Terrific and Tremendously True Travels of Simon Jack.” Jack, a cat, talks, of course, as do the zombies in Millard’s drawings — literally: Press the buttons on the lower right and you’ll here them “speak.” Handy translations are given by Steve Mockus. Both hilarious and possibly helpful depending on what you view of our future looks like.
I have but two books that I’m reading this summer.
The first one is a collection of essays called Deleuze and New Technology edited by David Savat and Mark Poster (Edinburgh University Press, 2009). While Gilles Deleuze didn’t live long enough to see the particular web of digital and biotech that we live among today, his theory and writing clearly anticipates it. Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) concept of the rhizome as an organizational theory has a surface analogue in our Internet, and the Society of Control can be seen as Web 2.0 with a dark cape. Deleuze was critical of the “machines” that he thought about but he never bothered thinking of them as evil. He seemed to be much more interested in the forms that emerged out of our machine-assisted living. These essays are an attempt to extrapolate what some of those thoughts might have been. While Poster is the headliner in this collection, I’m looking forward to the essays by William Bogard, Verena Conley, and Eugene Thacker, whom I consider fantastic theorists in their own right.
The other book that I’m reading is Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (Ballantine/ESPN Books, 2009), 700-page sandbag of a book that includes his history of the National Basketball Association, his take on race in the league, and an endless supply of digg-bait style listicles of the Best Players, Best Teams, and other barely quantifiable attributes. I love basketball but I cringe when reading Simmons’ column for ESPN. His pop culture references read like SportsCenter channeled through an episode of Family Guy. His tangents are legendary for their pointlessness. A friend described this book to me as an overlong blog post written by a juvenile frat boy who watches too much porn. I expect that I’ll enjoy this book immensely.
My summer reading is all about music!
Scott Kirsner Fans, Friends and Followers (CreateSpace, 2009): Building an audience and a creative career in the digital age. This is a how-to book aimed at musicians and artists looking to build an online following. It’s got excerpts from about thirty interviews and is a pretty interesting read.
Greg Kot Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (Scribner, 2009): This one’s also about music and the internet and has gotten great reviews. Kot’s a music writer for The Chicago Tribune and a smart guy, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he frames the issues around music and the net.
Daniel Levitin This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Plume, 2007): I’ve taken this book with me on several vacations. Every time I hear him interviewed I’m mesmerized by his insights into why music affects us, and I’m eager to finally read it.
David Suisman Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard University Press, 2009): This is an historic academic tome about how music came to be a big business. I’m always eager to situate current trends in their historical context so I’m hoping this one helps with that.
Aram Sinnreich: Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010): Sinnreich is one of the smartest people thinking about contemporary digital music practices, and this book, due out in August, is likely to have a big influence on how people understand what Lessig called “remix culture.”
Philip Auslander Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge, 2008): Okay, this one isn’t just about music. It’s a fairly short inquiry into the boundaries between recording and live performance and the differential status and meanings of the (increasingly blurred) two.
Two books that are not about music, but which I’ve read recently and plan to reread soon are Matt Beaumont’s e (Plume 2000) and e Squared (Plume, 2010). They’re hilarious, ribald novels set in a London ad agency. The first is written entirely in emails, the second is written in emails, blog posts, and text messages. Excellent summer reading if you don’t mind bad words and want to laugh hard.
Jaron Lanier You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010): Remember the internet’s promise in the pre-dotcom era? Lanier brilliantly derails four shibboleths—‘cybernetic totalism’, ‘digital maoism’, and populist views of the Cloud, and the Singularity—that shape the ‘ecologies of mind’ in Open Source and Web 2.0 communities. Rather than big-n crowds, You Are Not A Gadget is a spirited defense of individual creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, and ‘moral rights’: the necessary ingredients for deeper meaning-making. It also conveys Lanier’s strategies for the ‘ideation’ and ‘fast prototyping’ phases of the innovation cycle.
David H. Ucko The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009): U.S. General David Petraeus and Australian strategist David Kilcullen are often credited with shaping the renewed interest in counterinsurgency (COIN) and the 2007 ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq. Ucko’s doctoral dissertation focuses instead on the U.S. military as a ‘learning organization’ and how it has facilitated and adapted to COIN. Ucko conveys the dynamic inter-relationship between how many different processes—doctrine formulation, leadership development, defense budget, technology acquisition, and stability operations—have reshaped the U.S. military as an institution for ‘military operations other than war’ like counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and stability operations.
Sarah Ellison War at the Wall Street Journal: How Rupert Murdoch Bought an American Icon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010): During a 2002 interview, the award-winning Australian investigative journalist Neil Chenoweth gave me a jaw-dropping insight into Murdoch: He uses game theory in mergers and acquisitions, and has at least three levels of games during a bid. Ellison’s fly-on-the-wall case study shows how, and is thus less like the fawning biographies of William Shawcross (Murdoch) and Michael Wolff (The Man Who Owns The News) and closer to the 1976-1983 period of authors like Michael Leapman (Barefaced Cheek). Authors in this earlier period contended Murdoch’s ‘apotheosis’ was due to his acquisitions of News of the World, The Sun, and The Times, and Ellison shows how he has not lost his touch. Whilst you were busy updating your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts, Murdoch bought and revamped a financial news empire.
William D. Cohan House of Cards: How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism (Doubleday, 2009): There’s now easily an entire bookshelf on the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Cohan’s House of Cards on Bear Stearns’ collapse stands out as a model of investigative journalism, and a worthy successor to the 1988-92 period: Michael Lewis (Liars’ Poker), James B. Martin (Den of Thieves), Connie Bruck (The Predator’s Ball) and Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (Barbarians at the Gate). Two reasons why: Cohan is a former investment banker, and he got access to ‘insiders’. House of Cards may still be read in 10-to-15 years for its lessons on dysfunction culture, power politics and status hierarchies.
Charles D. Ellis The Partnership: A History of Goldman Sachs (Penguin, 2008): For decades Goldman Sachs has been the pre-eminent ‘bulge bracket’ investment bank. On April 16th, 2010, the U.S. Securities and Investments Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud over the structuring of a collateralized debt obligation deal for hedge fund maven Henry Paulson. To understand Paulson’s strategy read Gregory Zuckerman (The Greatest Trade Ever) and Michael Lewis (The Big Short). To understand Goldman Sachs read this detailed institutional history on how its processes for culture, leadership development, and financial services innovation mean the holding company will continue to attract the ‘best and brightest’, despite the SEC case and other GFC-related lawsuits from international regulatory and supervisory agencies. If Cohan’s House of Cards conveys why institutions fail, Ellis shows how despite crises they can adapt and cultivate resilience.
Jeremy Bernstein Physicists on Wall Street and Other Essays on Science and Society (Springer, 2008): ‘Quants’ — or mathematicians and physicists who designed complex financial products such as derivatives, swaps and option pricing models — are widely blamed for the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Bernstein’s academic monograph is an anecdote and detailed rich study of how and why ‘quants’ became popular on Wall Street in the 1980s and 1990s, and the parallels of developing a knowledge base in other fields and disciplines. In doing so, Bernstein builds on Emmanuel Derman’s biography (My Life As A Quant), which captured the transition from Bell Laboratories’ isolative research culture to Goldman Sachs’ team-based, deal-flow approach. Amongst the many details and side-glances here are the Cold War’s geopolitical influence on immigrant ‘quants’, A.Q. Khan’s covert nuclear network, the linguist Michael Ventris who deciphered Etruscan B; the emergence of author Michel Houellebecq and his interest in the gothic horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft; and the role of Poisson mathematics in Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket program. My personal ‘aha!’ moment was Bernstein’s final essay, ‘Beating the System’, a guide to academic survival in Los Alamos, Livermore, and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Bernstein’s book has an intriguing synchrony to the other books on my 2010 list: how individual and collaborative research, innovation, and creativity may thrive in a well-designed and facilitative institutional context.
For as long as I can remember, Nixon-related books have occupied the highest shelf on my parents’ book collection — book’s like John Dean’s Blind Ambition and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and The Final Days. A few weeks ago, while visiting my mom, I reached up to the top shelf and plucked down The Final Days (Simon & Schuster, 1976). It’s the story of a criminal, crooked, crazed, paranoid, and totally incompetent president and the final months, weeks, and days of his reign. Great summer reading!
A few months ago, at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, I traded three brand new academic books about digital media for one used copy of Edward Espe Brown’s The Complete Tassajara Cookbook: Recipes, Techniques, and Reflections from the Famed Zen Kitchen (Shambhala, 2009). What a great deal! I started reading and cooking from this book in late spring and will continue through summer and beyond.
As its title suggests, Pam Peirce’s Golden Gate Gardening: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California (Sasquatch Books, 2010) tells Northern Californians what to plant, why, how, and when. It’s my bible — especially in summer. I’m also reading Gayla Trail’s Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces (Clarkson Potter, 2010) for some wonderful and creative tricks and techniques.
This summer, I’m working on a new freshmen seminar called “Golden Gate Park” which, if approved, will run next spring. To generate ideas and stimulate the old noggin, I’m reading, skimming, and scanning all kinds of wonderful books like Raymond H. Clary’s Making of Golden Gate Park: The Early Years: 1865-1906 (Don’t Call It Frisco Press, 1984); Chris Pollock and Erica Katz’s San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories (Westwinds Press, 2001); Sally B. Woodbridge, John M. Woodbridge, and Chuck Byrne’s San Francisco Architecture: An Illustrated Guide to the Outstanding Buildings, Public Art Works, and Parks in the Bay Area of California (Ten Speed Press, 2005); Christopher Pollock’s Golden Gate Park: San Francisco’s Urban Oasis in Vintage Postcards (Arcadia Publishing, 2003); and Hosea and Nellie A. Blair’s Monuments and Memories of San Francisco: Golden Gate Park (Calmar Printing Company, 1955).
Most of my summer reading, I suspect, will be read out loud, to Siena, our eleven-month old daughter, and revolve around stories about clever animals, being kind and curious, and going to sleep.
Eugene Marten Firework (Tyrant Books): I was sent this reader’s copy of Firework by Eugene Marten by the publisher of Tyrant Books, Giancarlo DiTrapano. DiTrapano had, not so long ago, published a limited edition of Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg, so there was good reason to pause. Baby Leg is a masterpiece and Tyrant’s edition a work of art. And Evenson had blurbed Marten’s previous book, Waste, with something bordering on awe. I trust Evenson’s blurbs.
But then I opened to DiTrapano’s brief introduction in which he describes being told by Gordon Lish that Eugene Martin was one of three great living American male authors alongside Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. Right, I thought. There’s hype and then there’s real hype, the kind that makes you raise eyebrows, reconsider Lish’s standing in the literary community, and think that this Giancarlo DiTrapano was simply full of it.
DiTrapano starts his publisher letter by stating that he smoked ten cigarettes during the last sixty pages of Firework. Well, sorry to tell you Mr DiTrapano, and my doctor, I smoked ten clove cigarettes in the first twenty pages and was up to almost one a page by the time this book incinerated in my hands.
And sorry Mr. Lish, he’s no McCarthy or DeLillo, as flattering as those comparisons are. He’s Marten through and through. To be sure there are hints of the harsh language and linguistics of those more senior figures, but Marten’s narrative takes us down another road altogether. This is bleak, bleak material and captivating beyond belief.
It’s a road trip of sorts through an America blasted by economic Armageddon and racial slurs. The main character, one Jelonnek, seems to fight inertia to the end. We never seem to get inside him. We are hapless witnesses to sometimes inexplicable acts, moments of kindness and violence that erupt from the page like smoldering matches.
Given this is a reader’s copy I shan’t quote directly from the text, but apart from the occasional line-break I swear if DiTrapano touches a word I’ll strangle him. A masterwork? I’m very tempted to say so.
First of all, I don’t have a “summer reading list.” I have precarious stacks, overflowing shelves, reading material on every flat surface, and some flat surfaces comprised entirely of reading material. Books as furniture. This doesn’t count all that stuff in my Kindle I’ll never get to. But I’ll do my best to contribute here by grabbing things within arm’s reach of my recliner without toppling any essential supports.
First up, to my left, is John Durham Peters’ Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press). (Thanks to Roy C. for pointing me to this one.) Peters is a professor of communication at the University of Iowa, and this, his first book, published in 1999, lays out the theoretical grounds of the study of communication going from Socrates and the roots of rhetoric to information theory, passing through theology, philosophy and psychology along the way. Peters sets up the book with a contrast between Socrates view of dialectic based in eros and the early Christian rhetoric of dissemination. Don’t tell me how it ends!
Underneath Speaking into the Air are Régis Debray’s Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (Verso, 1996) and Transmitting Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997). Debray coined the term “mediology” for his combination of semiotics and medium theory, which develops a theory of cultural “transmission” that seems to cover ground similar to James Carey’s “ritual” view of communication (which Carey lifted from Kenneth Burke) – but reversing the terms (I guess because he’s French and likes to make things difficult) and being less pessimistic (apparently rebelling against his French-academic-ness). Debray covers all the media theory with its critical theory bases that we get here in US graduate communication school, but I’ve never heard him mentioned. Hope to soon find out why that it is.
I came across Debray in Michael Cronin’s Translation and Globalization (Routledge, 2003). Cronin is the Director of the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland. Translation and Globalization and the more recent Translation and Identity (Routledge, 2006) examine the role of translation in the contemporary world, drawing on communication and medium theory as well as critical theory and cultural studies. Translators and the act of the translation (in business, politics and culture) serve as a medium of interconnection in a globalized world, occupying a liminal position between cultures and the worldviews generated by the fluid structures of language. Haunting these discussions (at least in my head) is Paul Ricouer’s On Translation (Routledge, 2006), which argues that all communication – even intrapersonal communication involves the act of translation: the meeting and negotiation of different webs of knowledge and conflicting motivations.
The first of the two closest books on my right is Siegfried Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media (The MIT Press, 2006). Zielinski is the Founding Director of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, and this book covers more media theory, but with a decidedly different take using decidedly different sources and examples: “a theater of mirrors in sixteenth-century Naples, an automaton for musical composition created by the seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, and the eighteenth-century electrical tale-writing machine of Joseph Mazzolari, among others.” Zielinski examines the “historical-media archeological record” and “illuminates turning points of media history—fractures in the predictable—that help us see the new in the old,” and presumably vice versa. Next to Zielinski is Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009): spoiler alert – it was Karl in the study with a kitchen knife.
M. F. K. Fisher The Gastronomical Me (North Point Press, 1989).
John McPhee Giving Good Weight (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).
Ruth Reichl Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin, 2006).
Things I’m reading:
Eula Biss Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Greywolf, 2009): I’m about halfway through this book of essays. Biss is a young (white) woman who writes about her experiences wtih race in America, using a blunt instrument for a pen. A brilliant, infuriating book. Probably not the best for the beach — you’ll get all worked up, and someone will ask you what you’re reading, and you’ll get into a conversation that might not end so well. But read it.
Kyle Gann No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s “4’33″” (Yale University Press, 2010): A fun, easygoing bio of Cage that pretends to be an indepth analysis of his most notorious piece. Possibly the only book about John Cage that could really qualify as “light reading.” If you’re curious about Cage, this is an ideal book to start with; then again, I’ve read almost all the Cage literature out there and I’m enjoying it too.
Terry Teachout Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): A thoroughly enjoyable biography of Louis Armstrong. One of those bios that is as much about the time and place as it is about the person. Teachout’s an excellent writer; he keeps the story moving along at a pleasant clip, and he’s talented at describing music as well.
In the pile to read this summer:
Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original (Free Press, 2009).
Wendell Berry Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food (Counterpoint Press, 2009).
Stieg Larsson The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, 2010).
Things not to read this summer:
Michael Davis Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (Penguin, 2009): How could a book about Sesame Street be dead boring? I guess in that way it’s something of an accomplishment. I gave up at about page 50, exasperated by yet another immigration tale of another Sesame Street founder’s great-great-grandfather. Seriously.
Juliana Hatfield When I Grow Up: A Memoir (Wiley, 2008): Ms. Hatfield provided some ’90s nostalgia and some inner-sanctum insight into the indie-rock world of that time, but mostly this book is like listening to your self-deprecating roommate talk shit on herself ad nauseam.
Jon McGregor Even the Dogs (Bloomsbury USA): An experimental novel, with the results of the experiment being not very good. One of those books that makes you wonder what was so wrong with the story that the author couldn’t just fucking tell it. Because it seemed like a good story; at least, what I could see of it.
Paul Auster Invisible (Picador, 2010).
David Lipsky Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway, 2010).
Roberto Bolaño Antwerp (New Directions, 2010).
No light reading this summer. I’m following up the current Bloom book, The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (Prometheus, 2009), with a book that asks a simple question: How does the cosmos create?
So, in addition to reading books with too many incomprehensible words and too few worthwhile insights (books that purport to pursue big thoughts, but do it in the standard manner of academic self-deception), I’m resorting to another way of reading. I’m plundering the original works of people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Dreisch, von Baer, Herbert Spencer, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Chomsky, and a mess of others. Doing it using Google book search to see what these guys have said about roughly three dozen core problems in cosmic creativity.
The delight of this hunt has turned out to be Paul Davies, the only one who actually poses the problem of how an inanimate cosmos pulls off what we used to think only gods could do–inventing everything from time and space to pornography and cigarettes. Try Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004) and The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? (Mariner Books, 2008).
And try a book that both Paul and I are in, along with Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Seth Shostak, and James Gardner, NASA’s Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context (NASA, 2010; also available as a free download) Hey, for reading that goes fast, is sweet and tasty, but delivers a big wallop, a creamola of insights, try my Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, and let me know what you think of it.
However if you prefer playing video games to plowing through a thousand pages of Joyce’s Odesseus and falling out of your beach chair with periodic bouts of sleep, I highly recommend the Google Book Search e-approach, deep dives into the minds of philosophers you would normally never think of sampling between games of badminton.
John Brunner Stand on Zanzibar (Centipede Press, 2010).
Cory Doctorow For The Win (Tor Teen, 2010).
Bruce Mau and David Rockwell Spectacle (Phaidon, 2006).
Jeff Chang Total Chaos (Basic Civitas, 2007).
Claude S. Fischer Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (University of Chicago Press, 2010): I’ve already finished this one by UC Berkeley sociologist Fischer, whose earlier book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (University of California Press, 1994), I very much enjoyed. Fischer mounts a simple argument with broad consequences: the fundamental character of America, he argues, is not individualism but voluntarism. A good read, and don’t be scared off by its size: literally half of its 560 pages are notes and references.
David Okuefuna The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet (Princeton University Press, 2008): I suppose this isn’t a book one reads, but so be it. Albert Kahn was a 19th century business magnate who became a fan of autochrome, an early method of color plate photography invented before 1910. Kahn traveled the world taking color photographs of scenes that appear deeply unfamiliar when rendered in color.
Alastair Gordon Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure (University of Chicago Press, 2008): As someone who travels a lot, I’ve become obsessed with air travel, and I enjoy the occasional book on the subject. This one isn’t new, but it’s new to me. In a see of architectural picture books, Gordon’s promises a real history, not just a set of nostalgic images.
Isabelle Stengers Cosmopolitics I (University of Minnesota Press, 2010): Stengers’s Cosmopolitiques is finally appearing in English this summer. It’s an expansion of her argument in The Invention of Modern Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), in which she continues to develop a de-objectivization of science while still treating it with a respect that many cultural theorists haven’t done. This is one of those situations in which I shouldn’t admit not having read it yet in French, but indeed I haven’t. Anyway, the “I” refers to the fact that the 650-page French edition was published in two volumes, and apparently the English will be too.
Roberto Bolaño The Return (Harper, 2010): Another summer release, this is Chris Andrews’s translation of the short stories that didn’t appear in his rendition of Last Evenings on Earth (New Directions, 2007). While I’ve read The Savage Detectives (Picador, 2008), I’ll admit that I still haven’t tackled 2666, and this summer won’t be the season for it, once again.
Iain Thomson Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge University Press, 2005): Partway through, I can say with some certainty that this is a book anyone reading Heidegger’s famous essay on “The Question Concerning Technology” for the first time or the fiftieth should also read.
Timothy Morton The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010): I’m looking forward to Morton’s short book on the interconnectedness of life. Here’s the key sentence from the blurb: “This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement.” I suspect I’ll be annoyed that only “life” gets interconnection.
For me, summer always means the chance to read fiction, and I’ve got a few in hand that I’m really looking forward to.
The first is Dan Clowes’ graphic novel, Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). Clowes is one of the great storytellers of our age, in any medium. Ghost World (Fantagraphics, 2001) and David Boring (Pantheon, 2002) were serialized in his comic Eightball, but Wilson is his first to be published in book form first. The main character — Wilson, natch — is one of the most repellent figures to emerge from Clowes’ misanthropic imagination in years, but the intricacy of the story’s construction, and the deft intertwining of its visual styles, is such that the book becomes a meditation on aging, and the unworthiness of keeping self apart from others.
Another episodic read comes from first time novelist Tom Rachman. Drawing on his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Italy for the Associated Press, and editor at the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, Rachman has written The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press, 2010) about an English-language newspaper based in Rome, and the decidedly motley collection of expat writers, editors, freelancers investors, and even readers it attracts over a half century’s run.
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) also investigates what happens to the imagination when it becomes expatriated, but from the vantage point of leaving the Philippines for New York City. A saga covering family and dynastic aspirations over four generations and nearly a century and a half of Philippine history, Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary prize before it was even published. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype.
As ever, I pick one big book for the summer. It’s usually non-fiction, but this year it will be Europe Central by William T. Vollman (Penguin, 2005). I suppose I am like every other writer in America, and perhaps the whole world, in my mix of stunned envy and blank incomprehension at how Vollman manages to publish so much and across such a range of genres. Illustrated travelogues like Imperial (Viking Adult, 2009), a seven volume history of violence, essays on femininity and Noh theater in Japan, a series of interviews with poor people about “poor people,” a memoir about hopping trains, the list just goes on and on and on. To be honest I’ve dipped in and out of his books overt the years and never really caught the bug. I’m hoping Europe Central, his twelfth novel – twelfth novel for god’s sake – will be the one to do it for me, with its weaving of personages real and imaginary splaying out from a literary exegesis of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s ill-fated and fantastically cruel invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Switching over to non-fiction, I’ll be finishing Optical Media (Polity, 2010) by Friedrich Kittler. I started it early this Spring when it came out from Polity, but then teaching and editing and everything else hit, keeping me from finishing this flawed but interesting record of Kittler’s thoughts about media captured a decade ago in his public lectures at Humboldt University in Berlin. Kittler is brilliant as ever about the technical aspects of media, but his fixation on the materialities of production and consumption, and diminutions of the “so-called humans” who actually make and consume photography, film, television, and digital media makes this a theory that’s too much apparatus and not enough dispositif.
No worries about that in Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010), because people are at the heart of this book. Robb, a renowned biographer of figures like Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud, has written a series of intersecting portraits of the famous, infamous, and forgotten residents of a great city over the past two centuries. I’m embarking on an alternative, connectionist history of Los Angeles’s art and cultural life, and so I’m hoping that Robb’s book can offer some hints about how to bring the urban scene to life in all its idiosyncrasies.
Robert Love The Great Oom: the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (Viking, 2010): Today I just dipped my toes into this recent biography of one of our greatest unsung American flim-flam saints: Pierre Bernard, a Midwest-by-San Fran-by-New York yoga entrepreneur whose dalliances and popularity made him a familiar figure on the scandal pages of the 1920s. Though a lover of the benjamins, Bernard also knew his mystical shit, and did more than anyone at the time to found an American ethos of hatha yoga as well as a kind of pragmatic and glamorous western “Tantra.” I can’t wait to dive into the deep end of this juicy and meticulously researched record of hedonic trickster spirituality, Yankee-style.
Steve Goodman Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (The MIT Press, 2010): My favorite book of Deleuzian technocultural criticism since Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone Books, 1991), Goodman’s dense, imaginative, and incredibly carefully written book presents a kind of psycho-geography of sound in our era of claustrophobic militaristic chaos and affect control. Without ever straying into theory bullshit, Goodman thinks hard and—thankfully for the reader—pares his posthuman forays into Whitehead, Kittler, and Spinoza with concrete details about specific sonic arts and technologies—dub, Muzak, noise weapons, the “planet of drums” that accompanies Mike Davis’s “planet of slums.” By approaching music in terms of actual vibration, Goodman leapfrogs beyond cultural criticism and enters a disturbing but deeply illuminating space of posthuman psycho-physiological dynamics.
Jeffrey Kripal Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press, 2010): Though one of America’s best scholars of contemporary religion, Kripal writes from his own passion and experience as well as his considerable knowledge. In this very readable and—especially for an academic—daring book, he looks at four writers who demonstrate how the modern experience of the paranormal—from prophetic dreams to UFOs—overlap the more traditional domains of the sacred. Reading this I discovered a great deal about the undersung Frederic Myers, a fascinating Brit who cofounded the Society for Psychical Research; Charles Fort and Jacques Vallee were well-known to me, and delightful to read about in a serious (but playful) scholarly context. But Bertrand Méheust, an outsider intellect whose many works of Ufology and related studies remain largely untranslated, was a revelation.
Dale Pendell The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse (North Atlantic Books, 2010): I wasn’t sure Pendell could take his considerable skills as a poet and entheogenic scholar-shaman in the direction of fiction, but The Great Bay is a wonderful addition to the subgenre of post-apocalyptic novels set in California. Covering thousands of years with excerpts from diaries, letters, and encyclopedic overviews, Pendell manages to communicate a wry earth wisdom and pragmatic DIY optimism about the big bummer that may very well lie ahead. Moreover, by covering millennia rather than follow the same characters from start to finish, he reframes the novel as a “long now” experiment that widens our perspective beyond the confines of contemporary human identity and reminds us that whatever happens, the earth and its creatures will keep spinning along.
Bret Easton Ellis Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, 2010): Ellis is one of the most talked-about of all contemporary American novelists, yet also paradoxically one of the most underrated. He’s notorious (for the violence in his books, and for his apparent partying lifestyle) rather than respected as a writer. Nonetheless, I think that Ellis is a master: a brilliantly literary novelist, and a dark visionary of the American nightmare. All of his books are amazingly strange concoctions of elements that shouldn’t be able to mesh together, and yet somehow do: minimalism, horror, deadpan humor, social satire, and anomie. His new book — just published — takes a look at the characters of his very first book, Less Than Zero. twenty-five years later. What will become of these vapid, cynical, spoiled, and obscenely rich drifters, now that they are approaching middle age?
China Miéville Kraken (Del Rey, 2010): With his brilliantly inventive, richly packed novels, China Miéville is our foremost practitioner of “dark urban fantasy,” or of what has come to be called the New Weird. His books deliciously indulge in the fantastic, while at the same time criticizing the cliches and rightwing ideologies that are all-too-frequently endemic to the genre. Think of Miéville as the anti-Toliken, or as H. P. Lovecraft updated for the new century. His new novel (to be published at the end of June) is apparently set in contemporary London, rather than in the entirely fantastic landscapes of much of his earlier work; but it promises urban underworlds, dueling magical factions, and tentacle horror.
Matt Fraction Casanova (Image Comics, 2010): Matt Fraction is one of the most interesting and inventive comics writers working today. He’s best known for his work for Marvel Comics (Iron Man, X-Men, and soon Thor as well); but his best work comes in Casanova, a creator-owned title. This is a reboot for the series, combining previously-published material (but now in full color instead of monochrome) with entirely new stories. Imagine a 1960s spy-movie hero (James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint) as reimagined by some crazed combination of Jorge Luis Borges, Groucho Marx, and Quentin Tarantino. Great illustrations, too, by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.
Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter (Duke University Press, 2010): Political theorist Bennett asks us to reject our standard oppositions between human and nonhuman, culture and nature, subjects and objects, people and things. For even worms, plastic bottles, and scraps of metal are “strangely vital,” active and assertive, possessing their own degrees of agency and force. Rejecting the idea that mere matter is passive and inert, Bennett calls instead for a “vital materialism,” an outlook that recognizes how human beings are not separate from nature, but intertwined with nonhuman beings and with “vibrant materials of all sorts.” Bennett’s book is at once philosophically profound, and written in an open, engaging, and highly accessible style. This is new thought for the new millennium.
Deborah M. Gordon Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Princeton University Press, 2010): This short book, by a leading entomologist, summarizes much of what we know about ants, and how they live and work. The ants and other social insects are among the most successful organisms in the world today. Ant colonies do not have hierarchies or chains of command, and yet they engage in extremely sophisticated emergent behavior. Gordon’s beautiful presentation is fascinating on its own account, as a description the sheer weirdness and beauty of ant life and behavior. But it is also exemplary, and of broader interest, for anybody who wants to know more about emergence and self-organizing systems.
The three most subtle and interesting books I’ve read lately are Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1994), Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 2002), and John Durham Peters’ Speaking into the Air. These, which continue to give me hours of inspiration, comprise my trio of strong recommendations for the summer.
Like Nancy above, I’m also eager to read Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, as well as some recent releases like Richard Florida’s The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity (Harper, 2010), and Daniel Pink‘s Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Riverhead, 2010). I’m also eager to get into the current debate on neuroplasticity and the web. To that end, I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010) and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010), the latter of which I hope is more insightful than everything I’ve read about it so far.
Then there are these ones:
Hillel Schwartz The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (Zone Books, 1996): In light of our culture’s shift from bits to atoms, the concept of a “copy” is shifting as well. The 600+ pages of Schwartz’s book explore the history of the idea from every angle imaginable.
Linda Hutcheon A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006): Adaptation is not only the name of the trainwreck Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film, but also the process problematized by that film. Hutcheon illustrates its uniqueness from and its place among other constructs of intertextuality (e.g., allusion, paraphrase, parody, etc.), as well as how pervasive it is in our current culture.
Régis Debray Media Manifestos (Verso, 1996): Michael Schandorf, whose own list is above, sent me the tip on this one. I’ve only perused it so far, but I can tell that Debray’s “mediology” will worm its way into my own writing in the area. The same goes for Herman Rapaport’s Between the Sign and the Gaze (Cornell University Press, 1994), especially his last chapter on Laurie Anderson’s United States.
N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman (University of Chicago Press, 1999): I’ve been rereading all of Kate Hayles’ books (e.g., My Mother Was a Computer, Writing Machines, Chaos and Order, Chaos Bound, etc.), and this one is well worth revisiting if you haven’t in a while or reading if you haven’t. The title is a bit misleading: Hayles uses the word “posthuman” to refer to what I’ve called the externalization of human knowledge. Her book follows this externalization from early computer history through cybernetics and autopoiesis to literature. It’s a ride as enlightening as it is wild.