The nerds have come a long way since I realized I was one of them in middle school. Now we’re all grown up, and obsessions and interests once broached with hesitant caution and hidden with extreme care are now discussed openly. Sometimes the obscurity of the subjects and the depth of the minutia is too much to take.
Prog rock seems to be the only thing not reaping the benefits of the revenge of the nerds. Still maligned by a geeky stench and stigma, it is seemingly enjoyed by many but visibly championed by few. To defend prog, as Rick Moody puts it, is to defend the indefensible.
Well, Moody and many other literary-minded word-nerds do just that in Yes is the Answer (And Other Prog-Rock Tales), edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell (Rare Bird, 2013). It’s not all about Yes, Moody takes a stance on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Tom Junod parses the power of Peter Gabriel, Rodrigo Fresán attempts to align A Clockwork Orange and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, John Albert transcends hoodrat status by recounting his seeing King Crimson live, Beth Lisick explains the undeniable import of Rush‘s “Tom Sawyer,” and the inimitable James Greer illuminates how Robert Pollard is as Guided by Gabriel as he is The Beatles. These essays all have varying degrees of success, but hell, I even like Jim DeRogatis’ piece.
With that said, this might not be the first book-length discussion or defense of the importance of prog (see Bill Martin’s stuffy Listening to the Future or Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s spotty Beyond and Before), but it’s definitely the most readable and goes the longest way to returning prog to its status as a respectable musical genre.
Few people even marginally associated with prog are as universally revered as Brian Eno. Outside of being recognized as the inventor and purveyor of ambient music, Eno is largely associated with the other four-letter word of 1970s rock, but his first solo works were collaborations with prog guitarist Robert Fripp. His early solo records boast appearances by members of Genesis, Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Can, Cluster, and several from King Crimson, among many others. Not to mention the “Enossification” of parts of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (as Junod discusses in Yes is the Answer).
Brian Eno: Visual Music by Christopher Scoates (Chronicle Books, 2013) documents Eno’s thought and thinking through many of his records and art installations. The book is a wealth of visual stimuli, with photos from throughout his career, as well as drawings and diagrams from his own notebooks: from his collaboration with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies cards (see below) to his musical work with David Byrne and Talking Heads, David Bowie, and his solo work. There are also written contributions from Scoates, Roy Ascott, Brian Dillon, Steve Dietz, and Eno himself. In addition, there’s a transcript from a lengthy dialogue between game designer Will Wright and Brian Eno, and not the one previously available from The Long Now Foundation but a new one entirely.
The stills from Eno’s “77 Million Paintings” evoke something Marcel Duchamp once said: “I was interested in ideas–not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” The same could be said of any of Eno’s many projects. Scoates’ Brian Eno: Visual Music is an essential collection for anyone interested in one the most important thinkers, musicians, and working artists of our time.
Brian Eno once defined a nerd as “a human being without enough Africa in him or her,” and it seems the nerds have risen above their lack of Africa, except perhaps where prog is concerned, but there still may come a day…
Maybe it’s apt that I don’t remember, but I somehow came across Tom Phillips‘ “treated Victorian novel,” A Humument (Tetrad Press, 1970), nearly a decade ago at San Diego State University. Phillips took William Mallock’s A Human Document (Cassell Publishing, 1892) and obscured words on every page, leaving a few here and there to tell a new story. It’s part painting, part drawing, part collage, part poetic cut-up, and all weirdly, intriguingly unique (You can view full pages from the book at its website).
Phillips claims that he picked A Human Document because of its price-point (“no more than three pence,” he said), but Mallock’s “novel” is oddly suited for Phillips’ repurposing. The original novel is a scrapbook of sorts of journal entries, correspondence, and other ephemera left behind by two deceased lovers. Mallock wrote of these scraps in his introduction that “as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (p. 8). N. Katherine Hayles (2002) characterizes this introduction as “uncannily anticipating contemporary descriptions of hypertext narrative” (p. 78).
Tom Phillips is not the only nor the first to do such a work. According to Wikipedia,
Several contemporary writer/artists have used this form to good effect. Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her “Dictionary Columns” book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel. Similarly, Jesse Glass’ Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman’s book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. Jen Bervin’s Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Janet Holmes’s The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861-62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.
@shaviro At St Marks bookstore. Realized that I no longer fetishize books as objects in the slightest (which I used to do). Prefer etexts now. (Tweeted August 24th, 2012)
The move to digital texts, which is gaining more and more zeal by the day, has put the not only the fetishization of books as objects in jeopardy but also seemingly the want or need for them at all. It’s not that repurposed books are a last-gasp marketing ploy by the publishing industry—like pretty CD packages with bonus DVDs or 3D movies are—but that there is a reason to fetishize them. As Jonathan Safran Foer (see below) put it, “When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human.”
Books are only metaphors of the body. — Michel de Certeau
With that said, Austin Kleon stole like an artist and created a best-seller using only markers and copies of The New York Times. His Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) takes Tom Phillips’ methodology to its basic tenet: poetry as erasure.
Taking a step up instead of down, Jonathan Safran Foer opted for literal subtraction, creating a textual sculpture. Foer treated his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (Penguin, 1963), by cutting out words, creating Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010).
Giving due credit to his forebears, Foer told The New York Times, “It was hardly an original idea: it’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing — perhaps most brilliantly by Tom Phillips in his magnum opus, A Humument. But I was more interested in subtracting than adding, and also in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Foer also acknowledges the project’s constraints as well as the power of his source material, adding,
Working on this book was extraordinarily difficult. Unlike novel writing, which is the quintessence of freedom, here I had my hands tightly bound. Of course 100 people would have come up with 100 different books using this same process of carving, but every choice I made was dependent on a choice Schulz had made. On top of which, so many of Schulz’s sentences feel elemental, unbreakdownable. And his writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.
For about a year I also had a printed manuscript of The Street of Crocodiles with me, along with a highlighter and a red pen. The story of Tree of Codes is continuous across pages, but I approached the project one page at a time: looking for promising words or phrases (they’re all promising), trying to involve and connect what had become my characters. My first several drafts read more like concrete poetry, and I hated them.
As opposed to the anyone-can-do-it tack of Kleon, Foer took the tools and text at hand and made something truly new. Like A Humument before it, Tree of Codes is a unique object worthy of thoughtful consideration. As DJ Scratch once said, “The reason we respect something as an art is because it’s hard as fuck to do.” Taking elements of others’ work and making it your own is one thing. Taking the whole damn thing and completely transforming it into something else is art.
Here’s the making-of video for Tree of Codes [runtime: 3:34]:
de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Heller, Steven. (2010, November 24). “Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book as Art Object.” The New York Times.
Kleon, Austin. (2010). Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper Perennial.
Mallock, William. (1892). A Human Document. New York: Cassell Publishing.
Phillips, Tom. (1970). A Humument. London: Tetrad Press.
Wagner, Heather. (2010, November 10). “Jonathan Safran Foer Talks Tree of Codes and Conceptual Art”. VF Daily.
It’s time once again for the annual Summer Reading List. This is my tenth year of compiling reading recommendations from fellow scholars, musicians, artists, and other bookish friends. This year that includes regulars like Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, Dave Allen, Paul Saffo, Zizi Papacharissi, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, McKenzie Wark, Alex Burns, Peter Lunenfeld, Brian Tunney, and myself, as well as newcomers Nick Harkaway, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Tricia Wang, Dominic Pettman, Jussi Parikka, Eduardo Navas, David Preston, and Barry Brummett. There’s a wide-ranging, far-reaching pile of books below to be sure. My own list has doubled since I read through all of these.
I’m stoked on publishers I love and who have been very supportive being in the list multiple times. Among them are Red Lemonade, HiLo Books, Zer0 Books, The MIT Press, and The University of Minnesota Press. Many thanks to everyone who provides us reading material and everyone who contributed to the list — this time and for the past ten years. I’m just a guy who loves to read and the support is mad appreciated.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that as the shift to e-books gains further adoption, there are insights from both sides of the new digital divide in the following list. As always, the book links on this page will lead you to Powell’s Books, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on for various thoughts on many current and classic reads.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): It is a little slow and overly detailed at the beginning but becomes extremely rich when it gets to Johnny von Neumann, a man who is as little known as he was important, and the end is a truly grand and perhaps frightening broad vision of the state and future of digital life.
I’ll be kicking off with Evening in the Palace of Reason (Harper Perennial, 2006), James Gaines’ extraordinary history of J S Bach’s encounters with Frederick the Great and what they mean. It’s the clash between two radically different perceptions of the world. The book is an amazing lens through which to understand a fragment of history and various threads which run through to the present day. Plus it’s crackingly dramatic.
Then there’s Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2011), which everyone raved about a while ago but I never got to. I’ve just been sent his new book, The Teleportation Accident, which is superb. Boxer Beetle sounds like something Borges might have written if he’d been a drunken Irish libertine. It is apparently a crazed romp featuring riots, sex, murder, Darwinism, and invented languages. Now you know as much as I do.
William Gibson‘s Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2011) has been burning a hole in my pocket for a month. I’ve dipped into it, and I already know it’s fascinating, but I haven’t really had time to sit down with it and get to know it. The early sections tell me that we have different ways of working and thinking about writing, but that somehow the differences are complementary rather than oppositional, and I just feel he broadens my mind.
I have an advanced reading copy of Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son (Flux, 2012). Tom has turned out something which may end up as the next His Dark Materials. It’s not always easy reading work by people you like, but having read the first couple of chapters I’m feeling pretty confident that he won’t let me down.
I don’t have a lot of reading time over the summer. Actually, less than I normally do. But I plan to read Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, whatever draft of Cintra Wilson’s upcoming masterwork she’ll let me look at, Howard Rheingold’s new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012), and a radium-age sci- fi novel by Edward Shanks called The People of the Ruins that HiLo Books will be releasing this year, and that I hope to blurb. I’m also finally learning Python from a big O’Reilly book by Mark Lutz appropriately titled Learning Python that Mark Pesce bought me for my 50th birthday. Never too late to learn a new programming language!
I have spent the last few months teaching in Paris, so my summer reading list has a Gallic flavor this year. Francoise Mallet-Joris’ The Illusionist (Cleis Press, 2006) does not get the attention that her near-namesake Francoise Sagan gets for her sexually precocious bon-bons of the same era, but it seems to be more evocative, gender-blurring, and intriguing. Irina Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Vintage, 2007) renders the Nazi occupation of France with an absolutely singular and unsentimental voice (and the letters from her husband, included in the appendix, desperately soliciting the authorities for information of her whereabouts and condition are among the most wrenching things I’ve ever read). Also, I’m told Elizabeth Bowen’s A House in Paris (Anchor, 2002) is an over-looked classic of English modernist literature, and stands as one of the most subtle melodramas ever written; so that’s definitely on the list. Then, as a palate-cleansing chaser, I will read part three of Henri de Montherlant’s amusingly astringent (and let’s face it, misogynist) series of books collected as The Girls (Picador, 1987).
Finally, I hope to find the time to read John Crowley’s eccentrically fantastical tale Little, Big (William Morrow, 2006), since I’m intrigued by Harold Bloom’s blurb: “A neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll.” Seems like perfect upstate New York hammock reading . . . if I am lucky enough to find such a thing.
Every now and then I will read something because I need to read it. The book, journal or article will usually have some relation to my research which will then feed into my own writing and art projects. The vast majority of these sources come from writers who I have no personal connection to but who I am very grateful for having uncovered some data points that I can sample from and remix into my own creations.
But then there are other works that are made by artists, writers, theorists, and others whom I personally know, have met in the best of circumstances, or have simply met online while conducting my daily social media rituals.
It’s these latter works that I generally save for summer reading. This summer I have truly lucked out as there are quite a few titles that I eagerly anticipate digging into while simultaneously finishing my Museum of Glitch Aesthetics project. As you will soon see, even the titles of the books are enough to warrant a closer inspection of the writing therein:
I have just finished two books. Novels that have enthralled me like no others in quite some time. Both debuts from two gifted writers – one Irish one French. City of Bohaneby Kevin Barry (Greywolf Press, 2012) and HHhH from Laurent Binet (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) are so startlingly original it seems unfair to compare them to other literary endeavors, yet in literature as in digital actually, the new new thing is rarely completely new.
Page 5, City of Bohane:
‘Did he have it coming, Jen?’
‘Don’t they always, Cusacks?’
Logan shaped his lips thinly in agreement.
‘The Cusacks have always been crooked, girl.’
Jenni was seventeen that year but wise beyond it. Careful she was, and a saucy little ticket in her lowriders and wedge heels, her streaked hair pineappled in a high bun. She took the butt of a stogie from the tit pocket of her white vinyl zip-up, and lit it.
‘Get enough on me plate now ‘cross the footbridge, Mr H.’
‘I know that.’
‘Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer asking me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.’
‘Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.’
‘More ‘n talks what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusacks ‘bove on the Rises this las’ while an’ that’s three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a grá on ‘em for rowin’, y’check me?’
‘All too well Jenni.’
That conversation takes place 50 years in the future in a city in the Southwest of Ireland. Things have not improved economically. Being Irish, Barry clearly has an ear for the cadence and lilt of Ireland’s working class phrasing and further deconstructs it as if everything now, here in the future is only spoken, where words are no longer pressed to paper. The palpable violence that ghost-shades the entire book reminds me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Page 1, A Clockwork Orange:
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.
And as I consider the language and grammar deconstructions of both those chapters, the upending of rules as if rules in literature ever mattered, I’m reminded of Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalypse novel, Riddley Walker(Indiana University Press, 1998), a telling of history by the survivors that couldn’t be written – it was an oral history.
Hoban went beyond Burgess and Barry by taking the grammar deconstruction to its obvious place in a post-apocalyptic world, a place where there were no longer written words. Language then became free of grammatical constraint, where punctuation in oral history was not mandatory- it was personal. The speaker or narrator decided whether to pause or exclaim for effect, or not..
Page 1, Riddley Walker:
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyert he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and ther we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gon in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’
In all three of these books the central characters are “telling” not writing. The only narrative they’re left with is oral history.
In future the digital version of this will be known as Twitter.
In HHhH (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), Laurent Betin goes back into history to the period in Nazi Germany just prior to World War 2. It is, ostensibly, a historical novel, one that follows the rise through the ranks of the SS and SA, of the cruel Nazi, Rienhard Heydrich, who became too well known as the sinister figure “the Butcher of Prague.”
Yet is it? Heydrich did exist and he did commit atrocities across Europe during the war, but Betin is not satisfied with the genre. He wrestles openly in the book with his fear of memory polluting his attempts, as Brett Easton Ellis puts it, at “neutral, journalistic honesty.” Or as Wells Tower says “HHhH is an astonishing book – absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact.”
Here’s an example. Betin is describing how fighters had slipped out of Czechoslovakia and into France where they joined with the French army to battle the Germans:
…a few months later it will be practically a whole division and it will fight alongside the French army during the war. I could write quite a lot about the Czechs in the French army: the 11,000 soldiers, made up of 3,000 volunteers and 8,000 expatriate Czech conscripts, along with the brave pilots, trained at Chartres, who will shoot down or help to shoot down more than 130 enemy planes during the Battle of France.. But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook. This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with known facts. It’s just how it is.
Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Rereading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research – a collection of witness accounts assembled by a Czech historian, Miraslav Ivanov, under the title The Attack on Heydrich – I become aware to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made concerning Gabcik.
Remember this a novel about a true story. We know from history much of the story. Yet does the book by Miraslav Ivanov mentioned above even exist? Does/did Ivanov?
As David Lodge points out “Binet has given a new dimension to the nonfiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that…”
It is truly a work of art. And I believe that now I’ve read it, it deserves its place on my bookshelf as a future classic, where someone else can pick it up and consider its heft, both literally and figuratively.
Something that an e-reader cannot provide.
Recently I bought two books by Hans Keilson, of which Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) is the first that I have read. Keilson was born in Berlin in 1909 and during World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. It too is a short novel and is the story of a young Dutch couple who during the war take in and hide a Jew they know as Nico, then when he dies of pneumonia they must dispose of his body. It was written in 1947, so just after the war ended, and one gets the sense when reading it, that no it is semi-autobiographical.
As I note above that book was written in 1947 and recently I’ve been picking up books from the past rather than the present: Essays In Disguise (Knopf, 1990) by Wifrid Sheed (Read – amazing!), In the Next Galaxy (Cooper Canyon Press, 2004) by Ruth Stone (Poetry) (Reading now), and X20: A Novel of (not) Smoking (Harper Perennial, 1999) by Richard Beard (Up next).
To segue to fiction, I’ll be reading Thomas Malone’s Watergate: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012), because the ‘70s still fascinate, J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come (Liverlight, 2012), because even late Ballard is better than no Ballard, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (Orbit, 2012), because people who imagine interesting futures are more necessary than ever. Last year, I claimed I’d start and finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) over the summer. This year, I’ll just claim to finish it. But you never know…
This summer I am reading material that I started earlier in the year. I tend to read various books at the same time.
In terms of fiction, I am finishing Kicking, a novel by Leslie Dick (City Lights, 2001). I ran into a copy of this book quite a few years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but never got around to it. Leslie Dick is a former teacher of mine from Cal Arts who often lectured on psychoanalysis. She clearly makes use of her knowledge of Freud in this novel for key moments. The novel takes place in the seventies between New York and London. It is a third person narrative of the coming of age of Connie, a middle class kid who finds herself in a love triangle that moves between the two cities. It is interesting to wonder how some of the content in the novel may be inspired by Dick’s personal experiences in the respective cities. It’s a good read, though at times it feels a bit too “bourgeois” in the struggle the hip kids are having with the burden to live with no clear direction, and indulging occasionally in drugs.
I am also finishing The Difference Engine (Bantam Spectra, 1991), a joint collaboration of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I love used book shops, and one of my favorites is in San Diego’s 5th street and University, where they have a large collection of sci-fi. In one of my last stays in San Diego, I bought the book and did not get to read it until recently. I’m almost done with it. It’s really great to see how the styles of the two sci-fi writers blend into one. It’s a story of an alternate reality, a what-if scenario, in which the United States did not shape out to be as it is now: Texas is independent, The Confederate States have an association, and the territory on the North-West is unclaimed. In this scenario England became a major global power in part because Charles Babbage got to actually develop his difference engine, thus starting the informational revolution much earlier. It’s a bit tedious at times, but very good to read. Well researched too.
I am also reading Capote: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1988) by Gerald Clarke. The film Capote is actually based on this biography. I decided to read it after I saw the film years ago. But first I read other works by Truman Capote, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Signet, 1959) and In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966). Reading Capote’s biography is fascinating. It’s actually written like a novel. Gerald Clarke is a very good researcher. Admittedly, this book finds itself at the crux of my research because in part I read literature and related creative material to develop my own art projects. I guess this book is my transition to work-related reading.
I often cite Adorno in my own research, but have to admit that one must spend extreme in-depth time with his writing to realize that he arguably was the ultimate optimist about the quality of life. The books are not easy reads if one is impatient, but that is the point of his writing: One must slow down to understand things in life. Reading these books leads me to hope that one day academics who try to sound hip will not be so dismissive during conferences about Adorno’s misunderstood position on the possibilities of culture.
This year I started a new job as creative director at Timber Press. Among other things, this opportunity has lit the fire under a long-smoldering interest in electronic publishing: what it is, how it works, what the future holds. I’ve been spending a lot of time comparing e-book “design” and e-reader function, reading about new ways to present words and pictures, and trying to avoid saying “content” too often.
So far the thing I like the most is reading magazines and newspapers, particularly the New Yorker and the New York Times, on a tablet like the Kindle Fire or iPad. I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker for as long as I can remember, and my grandmother, who got me hooked on it, was a subscriber since the 1930s. And now, after a stretch of mostly collecting New Yorkers by my bedside rather than reading them, I have access to all of the magazines on a little device that I can mostly carry wherever I want to go. So I’m catching up, for the first time in a long time. And I love the way the magazine reads on these medium-sized screens. The apps for the Fire and the iPad are both good; the iPad is better, but both offer very good typography and, occasionally, wonderful extras, like excerpts from books or bonus photos.
I like how magazines are using tablet versions to expand the reach of their graphic design. For example, WIRED has some beautiful and striking animated photo illustrations in their recent issues, and they’ve taken full advantage of the tablet environment for things like gear reviews, where flipping through a series of reviews of headphones, for example, is an interesting and interactive experience. They’re moving past skeuomorphism, breaking free of the page, and making publishing work in the tablet space.
Then there are magazines like Katachi, which is as much a demonstration of the possibilities of digital-publishing as it is a magazine. While the copy and editing is somewhat vapid or amateurish, the design and construction is fun to play with, and makes me imagine incredibly cool digital versions of some of the craft, design, and how-to books that we produce at work.
It’ll be a long while before e-books get to be that cool, though. In the few months that I’ve had this position, I’ve watched as my fabulous ideas about e-publishing are deflated by simple facts: e-books need to be marketed with other e-books, not as apps or special publications (or they won’t sell); there’s virtually no money in selling them (yet), so we can’t put any money into their development, really; creating some kind of beautifully functioning app is way, way, way out of our budget; and yes, it really is like www.1994.com, where the reader gets to “choose the font” — and a sack of other things that, from this graying book designer’s perspective, are just wrong about e-books.
As I mentioned, I like the tablets because of their access to periodicals, which seems like one of the highest purposes of a little minicomputer. I like all the other stuff, like email and Google docs (which I’m using to write this), that I can also get on my phone, but that feel much more comfortable on a tablet.
But books? I borrow an e-book from the library, load it on one tablet or another, read a few pages, forget the tablet in the drawer at work, and end up reading the rest of the book on my phone. Until e-readers (and e-books) offer a design or user experience that justifies carrying around the little minicomputer, I have a hard time seeing an advantage over reading on my phone, since most of my reading is done in transit. The disadvantages of reading on one’s phone are compensated, for me, by how much access I have to the device. I can pull it out on a crowded bus without so much as elbowing my neighbor. I can read in the bathroom, at the coffee shop, while walking down the street (but not crossing! i swear!), even while waiting for coffee or, um, whatever else one waits for.
Maile Meloy, everything she’s written — I got on a Meloy kick earlier this year. Her Young Adult novel The Apothecary (Putnam Juvenile, 2011) was especially enjoyable, as was her book of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010).
Some books I’m looking forward to reading this summer, in whatever form ends up being the most convenient or pleasant:
This is a list of what I am reading, what I want to read and what I hope to read — these three do not always meet, but one of the best things about summer (and other non-teaching time) is that one can plan. Planning is part of the fun.
Bernhard Siegert Passage des Digitalen (Brinkman U. Bose, 2003): Siegert is perhaps the most interesting of the current German media theorists, and one of the key people behind the concept of “cultural technique.” Passage des Digitalen is a massive work of cultural history, media theory and insight into a sort of a media archaeology of digital culture. This is approached through its “sign practices”; the visual, textual, spatial and design arrangements which articulate the longer history of media as cultural technique. Siegert has fascination with such non-obvious “media” objects, or design, as water/the ocean (relates also to information theory). He is one of the “culprits” in the past 20-30 years of media theory expanding to the fields of historians, linguists and other humanities – much before talk of “digital humanities” tried to grab the field. Ok, I am cheating a bit as I just finished reading this one, but I had to include it as it deserves an immediate reread!
A lot of the stuff on my to be read list are funnily enough about diagrams, lines and design – but part of media and cultural theory. A good example is the just published Gary Genosko book Remodelling Communication (University of Toronto Press, 2012) that I am reading now. Besides being an expert on Guattari, Genosko is also a communication and media philosopher and in this book his background as a meticulous and focused writer on communications theory comes clearest. He is able to find refreshing ideas from classical theories of communication such as Shannon and Weaver, as well as develop his Guattarian-influenced ideas of transmission as transformation. As such, there is a curious link to Siegert’s approach; Genosko’s focus on models of communication could be seen to emphasize this visual, diagrammatic side to how we think the most abstract events of communication in the age of technical media. Of course, Genosko is not so much a German media theorist than someone who is keen to elaborate the mixed semiotics (Guattari) of network communications environments. Hence, no wonder that he brings back old things, like Jakobson’s phatic aspect of communications, but in a fresh way.
Besides German media theory, Guattarian influenced diagrammatics, I will definitely try to read Tim Ingold’s Lines (Routledge, 2007) – finally. In addition, I never have enough time to focus on fiction, but the one that I am going to pick up any day now is Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (Pyr, 2011). What pushed me to it was a tip from Nick Dyer-Witheford. Now, I cannot resist anymore. I’ve been more and more interested in Turkey and Istanbul since my first visit there last November. An articulation of European politics through the nanolevel as significant agent; cannot go wrong with that!
Besides planning possibles, I want to flag what is left out (because they will be published only after summer!): I wish I could add Ken Wark, Rosi Braidotti and Alex Galloway’s to the list, but that is post-summer reading list and another story….
This will be my first summer where I am not doing fieldwork in China, Mexico or some where in the US. So I’ll be soaking up sun in Brooklyn and feeding my heart lots of brain food in the form of a wonderful summer reading list. I haven’t read any books over one year because I’ve been in fieldwork, so there are many books that I want to read. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that addresses the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address.
Douglas E. Foley’s Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), is a 36-year ethnographic study on how a Mexican-American community negotiates racial tensions with the dominant white population. Foley gives a biting account of how the very attempt for Mexcian youth to learn traditional American values can often reproduce class inequalities and exacerbate racial tensions. I’m really excited to read Foley’s response to Paul Willis’s argument about class reproduction in his seminal book, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Columbia University Press, 1981). I chose Foley’s book because his work is super relevant and will help me process what I’m watching in China – the arrival of rural migrants in cities and their consumption of games, clothes ,and entertainment in malls and online, often times mimicking elites but other times inventing new rituals. Foley’s book also brings up questions around the dominance of cultural markers that Pierre Bourideu brought up in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987).
Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009), is an insider’s ethnographic account of the banking world on Wall Street. Her research reveals that macro market volatility is an ingrained part of corporate culture. Ho’s research provides so much insight into how banker’s ideas about their own self-worth reproduce our current financial system. In their world, volatility and liquidity are part and parcel to an “efficient” market and they believe in this so much that they hold themselves to the same standard. The everyday experience of job insecurity is normalized and valorized under the belief that only the best workers survive. I am quite obsessed with learning about financial history because I don’t think I can understand our world and China without a strong grasp of the ascent of financial capitalism. I am fascinated by why so many middle-class in China invest in the stock market and how they define “transparency.” And for investors outside of China, the question at the end of day is, how do I make money in a market with such little transparency. It’s so interesting to hear them ask this question when I think the US banking system is incredibly un-transparent. I want to understand how bankers define transparency in a profit-making context.
Emil A. Royrvik’s The Allure of Capitalism: An Ethnography of Management and the Global Economy in Crisis, is a view on our financial world from an organizational perspective. Royrvik’s several years of experience inside a transnational corporation reveals how managers create techniques to deal with financial crises, investments, and knowledge workers. I am excited to read Royrvik’s work because he took the time to document and understand modern corporate culture without shying away from political economy. I’m seeing this book as the academic version of The Office. I’ve been spending a lot of time with CEOs and managers in China so this book is super relevant to my fieldwork.
While ethnographers are known for capturing great stories, we aren’t necessarily known for storytelling. Why is that? Just as much as ethnography is an art in itself. so is storytelling. And like any other form of art, one can be trained into an art form and/or have some innate skills.
Ethnographers aren’t taught the methods of storytelling, such as tone, narrative arc, voice, and character development. We are taught the methods of ethnography. Depending on your academic discipline, ethnographers learn to report observations with as little interference from theory as possible or to marry observations to theories. I love ethnographies of both kinds, but sometimes they can be a bit dry.
Thought, it’s a bit unfair to except for ethnographers to become “writers.” Ethnographers have to dedicate so much time to explaining how they got their data and then contextualize it all within research questions, sampling biases, outliers, data interference, methodological decisions, theoretical arguments, and reflections. After addressing all these factors, the creative voice can be dampened. I’ve realized over the last few years that I’m not so sure I want to always write like an academic ethnographer. I don’t find writing ethnography for an academic audience to be very liberating or creative. And that’s ok. I see the value in it and I still want to write up my ethnographic fieldwork, but journal articles don’t accomplish what I believe is one of ethnography’s public projects — to engage a wide audience in universes that they may not have had a chance to witness — writers and journalists do a really good job at doing this. So my second list is comprised of non-fictional books from writers and journalists. (And there must be ethnographers who are great storytellers. Do you know of any? If so, please suggest!)
I’m re-reading Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadows: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (Simon & Schuster, 2009) because it’s so well-written, insightful, and relevant. He tells us about China told through the lens of several primary characters, which highly compliments of a character driven ethnographic work (the kind that I’ve been doing).
Philip P. Pan also suggested that I read Ted Conover’s Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants (Vintage, 1987). I’m super excited to read this because I research Mexican migration, so it’ll be fascinating to read a journalist’s recounting of migration after all these years of reading academic analysis of migration.
I’m re-reading Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012) and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Penguin, 2003). Giridharadas’s and Chatwin’s book were the only books that I read cover to cover when I was in fieldwork last year. I want to re-read them again to analyze their storytelling techniques. Giridharadas splits his chapters up by themes, like Ambition and Love, and then in each chapter his characters appear, disappear, and re-appear. Chatwin writes in 3-5 pages sections and his sparse style brings his subject of interest to life – a geographic region that is known more for being cold than a goldmine of myths.
I have to sneak in one more book that doesn’t fit on my list at all! My colleague, Jenna Burrell, who I blog with on Ethnography Matters, has just published Invisible Users: Acting With TechnologyYouth in the Internet cafe of Ghana (MIT Press, 2012). There unfortunately is a shortage of ethnographic monographs, much less any that address technology use and Africa, so this is a very important contribution to the literature. I can’t wait to dive into this book over the summer.
And since I’m already sneaking a book in, let me also tell you about three other books. Whenever I read, I always have Manuel de Landa‘s One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (Zone Books, 2000) within reach. de Landa’s book is my theory bible and every time I feel lost or need inspiration, I return to his book.
I often dream of what I read, so I have to douse myself with plenty of gossip magazines and something more spiritual to prepare myself for non-terrorizing dreams. I’m going to add Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (faber & faber, 1996) to my stack of gossip magazines that I need to catch up on.
And lastly, I love reading in other languages. I particularly love the way Spanish captures feelings — everything just feels softer, deeper, and meltier. I always return to Eduardo Galeano’s El Libro de Los Abrazos (English: Book of Embraces; W. W. Norton & Company, 1992) for inspiration, love, and peace. Galeano abandoned the long and linear historical essays for 3 to 20 lines of poetry to tell the stories of colonialism and everyday life in South America. His style of writing reminds us that writing can be in any shape.
Daniel Suarez Kill Decision (Dutton, 2012): It releases July 19th (I just read the galleys). It is an edge-of-one’s-chair, high-tech thriller that orbits around autonomous weaponized drones. Scarily, real, and plausible. Suarez is the author of New York Times bestsellers Daemon (Signet, 2009) and Freedom™ (Signet, 2011).
Samuel R. Delany Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (Magnus Books, 2012): Delany’s latest novel — his longest ever (over 800 pages) — skirts the boundaries between pornography, science fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. The book contains lots of explicit gay sex, but it also includes poignant meditations on memory and mortality. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tracks the life of its protagonist, Eric Jeffers, from the age of 16 (in the present) right through until he is in his 1990s (in the late 21st century — this is what makes the book science fiction). Nothing dramatic happens in Eric’s life, even as he lives through a period of immense social and technological change. But that is precisely the point: Delany is interested in the textures of lived experience, even at its most humble. He offers us a history of human bodies, and their pleasures and pains. He also offers us a vision of community, as a widening circle of friendships and affiliations, cemented with acts of generosity and kindness. The novel’s sexual extravagance will shock some readers, while rocking the world of others. But in any case, the book offers us a humane vision of personal fulfillment and social justice, in spite of the terrors that surround us today.
Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2011): Ian Bogost is best known as a designer, historian, and theoretician of computer games. But in this book, he discusses a wide range of “weird objects,” in order to answer the question of “what it’s like to be a thing.” Bogost encourages us to step beyond our anthropocentrism, and instead seek to comprehend other points of view: not only the points of view of animals, or other living things, but of inanimate objects as well. We do not live in a unified world, or in one that is organized around our own needs and interests; rather, we live amidst a cacaphonous multiplicity of things and processes — or what Bogost calls “unit operations” — each of which has its own features and its own set of possibilities. Bogost approaches this multifarious world as a philosopher, seeking to decipher the inner logic that makes things tick; but also as an engineer, not afraid to get his hands dirty as he explores, and dismantles, the strange contours and inner workings of nonhuman entities.
Adam Kotsko Why We Love Sociopaths (Zer0 Books, 2012): This short book offers us “a guide to late capitalist television.” Adam Kotsko considers why and how so many of the most compelling characters in television of the past decade (from Cartman to Dan Draper to Jack Bauer to Dexter) are sociopaths: figures who seem both to lack an understanding of social norms (they are devoid of human sympathy and any sense of guilt) and yet to be able to manipulate those norms masterfully for their own benefit. These figures seem to encapsulate everything that is horrible about social life in America today; and yet they are also figures of our own sympathetic identification, as if they offered the hope of overcoming the very ills of which they are the symptoms. Kotsko is a superb cultural critic, who deftly analyzes contemporary popular culture, with a keen eye toward his own (and our own) implication within the emotional currents that he describes.
Carl Freedman The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power (Zer0 Books, 2012): A definitive analysis of the strangely twisted life, personality, and political policies of our 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon; together with some cogent discussion of why Nixon’s career is still (unfortunately) relevant to us today, 38 years after he toppled from power, and 18 years after his death.
Kieron Gillen Journey into Mystery (Marvel, trade paperbacks & ongoing comics series): The strangest and most interesting series in either the Marvel or the DC universes at the moment has to be Kieron Gillen’s take on the adventures and entanglements of Kid Loki.
Matt Fraction Casanova 3: Avarita (Marvel, 2012): Matt Fraction’s ongoing creator-owned comics series Casanova is a heady metafictional and pulp-fictional brew. I’ve recommended previous volumes in earlier summer reading lists, in one of which I wrote: “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.” The same holds for the all-new volume 3, with individual issues on sale now, and available as a graphic novel in late July.
Sergio De La Pava A Naked Singularity: A Novel (University of Chicago Press, 2012): Comparisons to Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) are inevitable. At 689 pages it is a sprawling maelstrom of ideas that bullets along with a narrative that has more in common with a Neal Stephenson epic such as Cryptonomicon(Goldmann, 2003). Like Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner, 1998), De La Pava’s tale has a sport motif. But Wallace’s tennis fixation, and DeLillo’s powerful baseball setting, pale beside De La Pava’s orgasmic boxing tableaux.
On the surface A Naked Singularity could be described as a legal thriller, but one injected with musings about the nature of Television (always capitalized), recent discoveries in physics and pure courtroom slapstick that recalls Pynchon at his best (and a truly laugh out loud moment of scatological grotesqurie). There are musings on the Human Genome Project and a moment of correspondence between our protagonist, the long suffering Casi, and a death row inmate that is as moving as Wallace at his best. There’s enough paranoia for one to be reminded of a Philip K. Dick story and enough surrealism to keep a David Lynch fan content. It is both preposterous and profound, a philosophical thriller if you will set in a very gritty and very cold New York City haunted by a Golem-like creature that is depicted as a black void which could only be defeated by a naked singularity.
Ben Marcus’ stunning fourth book, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012). This is a tome that stuns at every turn, not the least because, for Marcus fans, it takes a twist into almost mainstream narrative. To be sure the obsessions remain intact; language, flesh, rubber, hair, wire, but unlike the disturbingly fractured nature of his previous works, Marcus holds the reins on an equally disturbing linear narrative.
It is intriguing how strongly family (especially children) feature in the recent wave of sub-apocalyptic North American fiction. Steve Erickson’s Our Ecstatic Days (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Jack O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist (Algonquin Books, 2008), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Vintage, 2007), and Blake Butler’s There is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) all feature the shattered remnants of family and, in each, notions of communication are central. The real apocalypse is the one of loss. Not the loss of luxury items and creature comforts but the loss of true communication. Of Language itself.
If there is a resonating tonality to The Flame Alphabet it is the dangerously dulcet tones of the Surrealist master, J.G. Ballard who, like Marcus, masterfully draws one into a truly psychologically hallucinogenic world.
There are dark hints at the Holocaust, tickles of pop culture (the children render their parents into something very much like zombies after “eating” their brains with language). And there are border-line scholarly forays into the history of Hermeneutics. Marcus hasn’t lost his experimentalist edge so much as mutated it, morphed it into something slightly more digestible. But I emphasize slightly; one should adorn a mouth guard and sound-deadening gear before opening this book. And you should read this book in silence, alone. Very alone.
Brian Evenson Immobility (Tor Books, 2012): It’s not hard to imagine Evenson’s latest as a sequel to McCarthy’s The Road set several decades further into the future. The landscape is certainly as blasted, the noxious dust is almost as pervasive. Evenson isn’t as subtle as McCarthy; it is fairly apparent that this was nuclear Armageddon – the flashing light and the bizarre mutations. This is not Evenson’s first foray into the wasteland – in his 2002 Dark Property (Thunder’s Mouth) a woman carries a dying baby across a desert waste, in a devastatingly bleak book that pre-dates The Road by five years.
Evenson shares with Ben Marcus a fascination for both language and the hazards of structured belief systems. Both question the delusions of structured religiosity and they both question notions of self-perception. Immobility and The Flame Alphabet prove that a dark canvas can still illuminate.
Colson Whitehead Zone One: A Novel (Doubleday, 2011): Whitehead is by no means a genre writer. He is what is known as an award-winning “literary” writer with five previous books under his belt, thus a foray into the Zombie zone came as a surprise for many.
But Zone One is far more than just another zombie thriller. The book carries a burden of nostalgia for an older New York City, a far more multi-textured habitat, a place where “the city itself was as bewitched by the past as the little creatures who skittered on its back. The city refused to let them go.” This is not just a post-9/11 response (as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man clearly is), however the residents do suffer from PASD: “Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It is just as much a knee-jerk reaction to a city embroiled in bureaucracy and a Kafkian labyrinth of miniscule rules, a city that once prided itself on bridled anarchy and smoke-filled bars with dim lights and solid camaraderie. (Ironically, given the life expectancy in Zone One, one of characters chain smokes pilfered cigarettes while being harangued about the habits’ dangers by another.) In what is no doubt a nod to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, what are left of the major corporations ‘sponsor’ the war effort. Looting regulations protect only the corporate brands that actively sponsor the fledgling government’s tactics.
It is, poignantly, the very minions of bureaucracy that suffer the worst fate, those who fill out pointless forms and photocopy meaningless documents ad nauseum. In Whitehead’s world there are different zombies – he never uses the term ‘zombie’ specifically, they are ‘the dead,’ ‘stragglers’ or ‘skels’ – short for skeletons. What Whitehead makes abundantly and chillingly clear is that the zombies are already here, toiling mindlessly in an office near you.
A fair percentage of the rest of the year shall be consumed by wallowing in Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), which, thus far, appears to be as mind-bendingly fabulous as I had hoped it would be.
I’m looking forward to reading Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012). Howard’s books combine accessibility with media ecological insight, and in this book, Howard brings a practical, media literacy oriented approach to the great concern of finding balance among the services and disservices of new media.
I’ve been hearing really good things about Terrence Deacon’s recent work, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (W. W. Norton, 2011), as it relates contemporary thinking in systems theory (e.g., complexity, autopoiesis) to the question of consciousness, so I just recently added it to my list.
As a media ecology scholar, Elena Lamberti’s new contribution to McLuhan Studies, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies (University of Toronto Press, 2012), is a must read, and her discussion of McLuhan’s relationship to Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis speaks very much to the question of methodology in our field. Christine M. Tracy’s The Newsphere (Peter Lang, 2012), which follows up on some of Neil Postman’s insights about news in the television age, is also on my list.
Speaking of Postman, I will be giving Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1985) a close rereading for a new book project I’m working on, and along with it I’ll be rereading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1932) and Brave New World Revisited (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1952), and his later novel, Ape and Essence (Dee, 1948), another dystopian vision set in the aftermath of global warfare and destruction.
One book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading is The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath by Joe Lieberman and David Klinghoffer (Howard, 2011). I’m not sure if our 24/7/365.25 culture is quite ready to reverse its accelerated pace or retrieve the concept of the day of rest, but the Technology Shabbat movement is a response to our overheated media environment, and I’m interested in the topic as a media ecological practice, as well as a spiritual one.
Aaron C. Brown Red-Blooded Risk: The Secret History of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Brown is risk manager at AQR Capital Management and a high-profile rocket scientist. Red-Blooded Risk introduced me to risk ignition: using “an optimal amount of risk” for “exponentially growing success” (p. 35). I had encountered this idea in the early trading careers of Bruce Kovner and Paul Tudor Jones II in the currency markets, and in the film Limitless: Brown provides a conceptual framework to understand their success. Brown has different views on the Dutch Tulipmania bubble; the Kelly Criterion; Harry Markowitz’s Modern Portfolio Theory, and Value at Risk. For how to use these insights, also read Dylan Evans’ Risk Intelligence: How to Live With Uncertainty (The Free Press, 2012). Brown’s previous book The Poker Face of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) persuasively argues that Wall Street’s roots lie in gambling and speculation.
Michael T. Klare The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012). Klare is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Amherst’s Hampshire College. Race focuses on the collision of resources scarcity, investment, international security, and geopolitical crises and flashpoints. Klare brings clear analysis to the Arctic, deep-offshore oil and gas drilling, mining, rare earths, hydrocarbons, and food production. As with Klare’s earlier books, Race is a primer to understand the volatility in global commodities markets, and the recent speculative bubble in rare earths.
John Lewis Gaddis George F. Kennan: An American Life (The Penguin Press, 2011). Kennan (1904-2005) was a United States diplomat, grand strategist and public intellectual credited with formulating the Cold War strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. The Yale historian Gaddis spent almost 30 years researching and 5 years writing this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The sections on Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ (1946), ‘X’ article (1947), and stint at the US State Department (1947-50) are insightful about how advisers can influence policymakers, how deep knowledge and experience can shape leaders, and the challenges of navigating organizational politics. Kennan emerges as a complex, ambivalent figure who became a realist critic of US foreign policy and an award-winning diplomatic historian. Gaddis’s in-depth research takes the reader deep into Kennan’s mind. For a contrasting view, check out Marc Trachtenberg’s The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2012).
John Gerring Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework(second edition, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Gerring is a professor of political science at Boston University. A major insight of undertaking a political science PhD is how methodology is central to social sciences research. Gerring provides an integrative approach to conceptualizing research problems; descriptive arguments and measurements; causation; and pluralistic, inclusive ways to use different methodological traditions. Familiarity with research design and methods will give you the frameworks and tools to critically evaluate and synthesize information.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (Riverhead, 2012): A year ago, for this very same list, I was knee deep in Paul Theroux travelogues beneath the depths of the Hudson River en route from Jersey City to Manhattan and back. With real books in my backpack, somewhere between half-eaten Clif Bars and that unopened can of Red Bull that lingers as a reminder that I aspire to be energetic but remain energy-less at the end of a typical day.
Years can be dynamic.
The Red Bull is gone (exchanged at a corner store in Jersey City for a bottle of seltzer), and suddenly I’m driving a car down Century Boulevard next to Los Angeles International Airport, listening to NPR because you can’t read and drive legally, even in Los Angeles. Last week just happened to be their own version of a Summer Reading List, and I listened contently, glad that for once, it didn’t involve politics.
A bookstore, I can’t remember whom, mentioned A Sense of Direction in passing. I heard the words “pilgrimage” and “writer” and that was enough for me to take a mental note of the book and download it later on the weird contraption that advertises diapers and lets me read books without going to a book store or library.
I am only a chapter or so into the pilgrimage. The dedicated pilgrimage has just started for that matter. But I’m taken by Lewis-Kraus’ sense of existential malaise and his attempts to come to terms with the fact that he should be writing, and living, but can’t get past the lives he’s started thus far.
He begins in San Francisco, blissfully living on the cheap with his engineer younger brother, after a relationship has crumbled. This works, for a time, but both decide to move on. (Gideon to Berlin, Micah to Shanghai.) While in Berlin, the author falls in with a crowd that does what Berlin asks of them: live for cheap, enjoy the now, smoke cigarettes and attend art openings.
Lewis-Kraus does all this and more, but never rises above the situation to cast judgment on his friends for simply being in Berlin. He sleeps with women in relationships, doesn’t read the books he’s committed to reading and debates the position of Jews in modern Germany. He casts doubt on himself, wonders what and where he “should” be going, and escapes, for a weekend, to Estonia.
There, he commits to a pilgrimage with a friend across the northern tip of Spain. And that is as far as I’ve gotten so far. But I’ve been hooked the past few hours on it. Lewis-Kraus’ writing is self-deprecating without reaching for a laugh button. He is honestly lost, searching for something to give purpose to his life, and openly inviting the reader on a journey that questions the past, embraces the idiosyncrasies of the present and wonders how to make sense of the future.
Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf, 2012) and The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World (John Murray, 2012): Finally decided to order these after seeing them mentioned by people I respect a lot (e.g., Steven Shaviro, Charles Yu, William Gibson, et al.). The former is a surrealist noir novel like no other. The latter is an exploration of our device-riddled times (à la Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital), and may very well outmode my new book. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp (see his recommendations above). This, Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Night Shade, 2010) are my selection of current-ish novels.
Matthew Battles The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012): These short stories baffle and bewilder even as they entice and engross. Matthew Battles is able to achieve in just a few pages what most writers can’t do in a whole book. Where some build machines, Battles sharpens blades. This tiny tome and its tiny tales betray his position as a Harvard librarian: His subject matter(s) and mastery thereof are seemingly limitless.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): I ordered this on Howard Rheingold’s recommendation (see above). It’s as dense as he says it is, but it also rewards the patient read. It’s obvious early on that Dyson set out for this to be the definitive history of the birth of the digital.
As ever, I’m also reading and re-reading several older books. Among them are,
Bettina Knapp Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989): I’ve been dragging this book around for years since finding it at A Capella Books in Atlanta. I picked it up not only because it has “metaphor” in the title but also because the first chapter is about Alfred Jarry. I’ve read most of it once and a lot of it several times. Knapp’s approach is unique and generative, I revisit it regularly, and am planning to do so again in the coming weeks.
Anthony Wilden System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (Tavistock, 1972): Josh Gunn recommended System and Structure to me during my comprehensive exams defense, and I wish I’d come across it sooner. Wilden’s bird’s-eye approach makes this a meta-book that ties all sorts of areas together, from systems theory and semiotics to psychoanalysis and structuralism. To say that Wilden’s work has been slept-on is a gross understatement.
Victor Turner Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Cornell University Press, 1974): Again with the metaphors… I’ve found my recent research drifting across the line into anthropology, and Victor Turner has become one of my favorites. His extensive ethnographic studies of ritual and rites of passage are illuminating and provide homologies galore. This and his The Ritual Process (Aldine de Gruyter, 1969), as well as Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (University of Chicago Press, 1960) are my current sources. The same can be said for Mary Douglas, whose work I’ve also been devouring, especially Purity and Danger (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) and Risk and Culture with Aaron Wildavsky (University of California Press, 1982). It’s good to cross the lines sometimes.
What are you reading this summer? Let us know below.
SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.
I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.
Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7’s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.
Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.
Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.
While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.
Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.
This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.
Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.
Zines, well, mostly skateboard and BMX zines, defined my formative years. They were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices, has occurred. FREESTYLIN’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network” (p. 116, 122). All nostalgia aside, zines are making a comeback, albeit in book-form. Anthologies of old, DIY photocopied publications are making their way through the labyrinth of quasi-traditional publishing.
GSD changed my life. He taught me design. Post-zine design. Pre-computer design. He made me perform leading on long-ass articles by hand, and checked my accuracy by pica. The progenitor of skeleton-less moves that changed skateboarding, skate zine and grunge typography/design. Way before what’s-his-name. In my book at least. And it don’t stop. He don’t stop. I’ve received multiple packages in multiple mailboxes due to multiple relocations over the years since our physical paths diverged. All of them filled with evidence of his creative continuum. CARE packages stocked with vinyl and plastic from his band CUSTOM FLOOR, back issues of Arcane Candy, and thick-ass zines chronicling life, Stingray obsession, and ongoing brilliant collaborations. My Skate Fate collection has survived hurricanes and flooded garages, sacredly stored in boxes and solidly kept dead-center. I can remember how it sounded when I shot Garry from deep within Mt. Baldy Pipeline — 10 o’clock or so at 4 p.m. some Friday (probably) approaching two decades in the rear-view and dead set on forward momentum.
A little closer to home, Greg Siegfried’s zine Need No Problem was a mainstay of our quaint, little Southeast Alabama skate scene. Hailing from Ozark, Greg was the first of us to skate and is still going strong. Need No Problem chronicled the comings and goings of ramps and spots and those who rode them not only in Ozark, but all over the Southeast.
Inspired by GSD’s The Best of Skate Fate book, Greg recently compiled all of the issues of Need No Problem into one volume. Like all of these collections, it’s a compilation of snapshots from an era that has long passed, the current incarnations of same having moved online years ago.
I have toyed with the idea of compiling my zines into a single volume, but alas having not been as diligent as Rodger Bridges, I am missing many issues. Mike Daily is putting together an Aggro Rag collection, which will totally rule… Anyway, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. As I said in Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow” (p. 117). Still true.
My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.
In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”
Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.
In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.
Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.
“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.
Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.
Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:
Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.
Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.
Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.
As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.
In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.
The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylettdescribed as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”
9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”
As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.
My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:
I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,
Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.
Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancockputs it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:
Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.
To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.
Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Coupland, brick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:
If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].
So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).
Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.
The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with Hip-hop, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, Hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss. Two recent books explore the technology of Hip-hop beyond the turntable.
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas
When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording (for a full discussion of these differences, see Schloss, 2004). Unlike today’s iPods, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but boomboxes remain a part of the iconography of Hip-hop.
The Boombox Project illustrates that the reception of Hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. Here is the book trailer for The Boombox Project [runtime: 0:40]:
From mixtapes to mash-ups, Hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This is the crux of my Hip-hop Theory — much more on that soon). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is done via software, iPods, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. The tools are neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. Can I get a witness?
Yes! No one has explored this undulating landscape more than Aram Sinnreich. His Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) is one half theory, one half practice and establishes an argument that sampling is the latest legitimate form of musical expression, an argument that seems silly to both sides of the debate. Busting a sextet of binaries, Sinnreich makes quick work of complex terrain, mixing media theory and musicology, as well as copyright and counterculture. Mashed Up is the most complete book I’ve seen on our current culture of convergence.
In honor of the boombox, indulge me for a few more minutes and check out this video from The Nonce. It’s “Mix Tapes” from their 1995 debut World Ultimate (Check for cameos from members of Project Blowed) [runtime: 3:34]. Dope:
Oworko, L. (2011). The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground. New York: Abrams Image.
Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Sunnreich, A. (2010). Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Apologies to the late, mighty Hangar 18 for stealing their title for this post.
In the words of biographer Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (no relation) was so full of original ideas that he begged to be misunderstood. He did for music what Duchamp and Warhol did for art: His work questioned and critiqued the establishment in which it existed. Infuriating to many, inspirational to others, his place in the history of art, music, and other creative acts is undeniable. As Kostelanetz (1989) wrote, “Even though these ideas usually attract more comment than commentary, more rejection than reflection, he is, to an increasingly common opinion, clearly among the dozen seminal figures in the arts today” (p. 47). Ironically, his most famous composition 4’33” consists of no written music or planned sound whatsoever: It’s four and a half minutes of silence.
As a matter of course, there can be never be real silence in human endeavor, which was Cage’s whole point (To wit, one of the many recent books on Cage and his work states it plainly in its title: No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann; Yale University Press, 2010). The idea that any sound — be it ambient, noisy, environmental, whatever — can be music is the core of Cage’s aesthetic belief. As he wrote in Silence (1961), “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (p. 3-4). We’ve seen this play out in everything from turntables and tape machines to Moog synthesizers and laptops. Musical rules create similarity. Serendipity comes from difference. For Cage, making music was a matter of making music strange.
John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 edited by David W. Patterson (Routlege, 2002) is the only book out that concentrates on Cage’s early career, and it includes contributions from an international collection of art and musicology scholars. Insights into his early years are rare, and this book is full of them, insisting correctly that revisiting his early years proffers up a deeper understanding of his later work and philosophy. For instance, his time in my adopted home of Seattle marked an oft overlooked turning point. Cage lamented the move to an increasingly urban society until he learned to listen to it — as music. This transition was paramount to his abandoning traditional composition, his shift to a percussive composition style, and his move squarely into the avant-garde.
There has been much writing about John Cage’s music, by him and by others. For the uninitiated, the editor’s introduction does a nice job not only of placing this book in its historical context but also of providing an overview of the writings about and by John Cage.
Though his work was arguably as groundbreaking and influential as Cage’s, Iannis Xenakis is a lesser-known and written-about composer. Like Cage, he used strange maths in his compositions. His own book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Pendragon, 1971), set out to, well, formalize his mathematical approach, and it illuminates much of his work in the process. In Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2011), James Harley sets out to do the same. A composer himself, Harley studied with Xenakis and completed two compositions on the UPIC (Unité Polygogique Informatique de CEMAMu), Xenakis’ computer system “based on a graphic-design approach to synthesis” (p. x). This background obviously informs his writing, but his aim is to give the reader an entry point into Xenakis’ complex techniques and compositions, as well as his intellectual history and his contributions outside of music. I can’t claim to know if he succeeded — math and music both look like alien linguistics to me — but in its updated paperback from, Xenakis should help spread the word about Xenakis’ work and help secure his place in the history of experimental music.
Paul Hegarty’s book, Noise/Music: A History (Continuum, 2008), follows experimental music and noise from the aforementioned John Cage to Japanese noise artist Merzbow (who remixed a track from Xenakis’ Persopolis in 2002), illustrating the vast influence of the former, and if you already think progressive and experimental music is too nerdy for you, then Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s new book, Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (Continuum, 2011), is not a book I would recommend. If you’re interested in an overly academic treatment of a selected history of prog rock, then this might work. I feel especially nerdy critiquing a book so nerdy (I have my twenty-sided die at the ready), but there are a few things about this text that need to be addressed.
There are always differences of opinion as to what should be included or excluded in a book about a particular genre or subgenre, and the authors admittedly were not trying to be comprehensive; however, mentioning The Decemberists (in an already questionable chapter about folk) and completely omitting the mighty Mogwai is a glaring oversight and downright reprehensible in a book about progressive music, a book that also discusses Black Metal at length. And while I’m at it, what about Neurosis (one record is mentioned here in passing), Isis, Jesu, Godflesh, Pelican, and Cave In, as well as the many progressive Hip-hop acts (e.g., dälek, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, New Flesh for Old, DJ Spooky, New Kingdom, Techno Animal, et al.)? At least a brief discussion of prog-core and progressive Hip-hop seems appropriate. The authors’ close reading of prog’s nerdy bits and album art is not only chronically annoying but also regularly myopic, often leaving them blind to the bigger picture when it matters most.
Even if it misses some key trajectories and follows others too closely, Beyond and Before does a fine job of placing progressive rock in its historical context. Their discussions of the core artists of this movement (e.g., Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rush, et al.) is solid as well. As I said, the authors weren’t trying to be comprehensive, they run skimpy on Brian Eno and David Bowie (giving Kate Bush as much space as the glam rock dual pillars; prog-pop stalwart Todd Rundgren doesn’t garner a mention at all), but their treatment of Peter Gabriel is worth mentioning. His work is discussed throughout the book, as it should be. He’s been active, innovative, and successful as long as anyone else associated with progressive music. Their inclusion of a chapter on the women of prog is as commendable as it is contemptible (when will female artists cease to be categorized as such and be considered in their own right?). Whereas neo-prog group Porcupine Tree finds a solid home in these pages, Hegarty and Halliwell seem hesitant to classify Radiohead as same, but spend a lot of ink discussing their work, deservedly so (who’s keeping the progressive torch burning brighter than those guys?).
Here’s John Cage performing “Water Walk” in January, 1960 on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret [runtime: 9:23]:
The peripheries of music are always sliding outward as the universe of sound continues to expand. If you’re bored with your current listening, follow Cage’s own advice that one shouldn’t listen to music that one no longer hears. Make music strange and find your limits. These books discuss a few of the major artists going postal with the envelope.
Cage, J. (1961). “The Future of Music: Credo.” In Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Gann, K. (2010) No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ . Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.
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