Walter Benjamin is best known as a cultural critic, but he wrote all sorts of other forms and formats. Poems, parables, fables, short fiction, rhymes, riddles, and jokes, as well as transcriptions of dreams, all found their way into his extensive notebooks. According to Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski’s introduction to The Storyteller (Verso, 2016), he also left behind a fully outlined a crime novel.
Further on in The Storyteller, Benjamin affirms Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that once a form has obsolesced, it becomes important as art, a transition possibly orthogonal to his to-do regarding the aura. “To give a name to this watershed,” Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (2011) write, “we will use the word trajectory. A work of art—no matter the material of which it is made—has a trajectory or, to use another expression popularized by anthropologists, a career (Appadurai, 1986; Tamen, 2001)” (p. 278). Once the novelty has worn off, once the work is placed in another context, then moved to yet others, repackaged and fetishized, its meaning changes. It becomes something else.
Intentionally transforming one work into something else, Frances Cannon illustrates many of Benjamin’s aphorisms, poems, thoughts, and dreams in Walter Benjamin Reimagined (MIT Press, 2019). “While intoxicated on mescaline in 1934,” writes Esther Leslie in her foreword,
Benjamin doodled an embryonic shape of twisty lines that is composed of words from lullabies, and puns between the words for sleep and sheep–sleep, little child, sleep, my kiddikin, go off to sleep, sheep, little sheep. It is word and image at once (p. x-xi).
Lots of Benjamin’s writings lend themselves to lines, and like “Unpacking My Library” above (p. 56), Cannon’s drawings add a whimsy and a charm to some of his already playful words. It’s an excellent companion to other works by and about Benjamin.
Like that other work, Benjamin’s only autobiographical writing published in his lifetime, One-Way Street and Other Writings (Belknap Press, 2016), originally released in 1972, is enjoying renewed attention. “Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of a place,” writes Susan Sontag in her introduction to the 1997 version, “and how he positions himself in it, navigates around it.” Like his contemporaries, the Situationists, his goal was to lose his way in a place with which he was very familiar, to get lost within the known. The book is the same. As Greil Marcus puts it in this new edition, “writing not in service of any argument but that of the pleasure of its own form” (p. xx).
That thought reminds me of one of my favorite digressions in Benjamin’s writings from yet another collection: Chapter 6 of Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007) is called “Daintiest Quarters: Notebooks,” and starts off,
Notebooks are a part of the fundamental equipment of writers, artists, architects, scientists, in short, all intellectuals who devise things—thoughts, images—that they need to record and register: Notebooks are handy traveling companions, places for the safekeeping of drafts. They provide storage space for ideas and data. When necessary they can release sheets to be passed on or inserted into another context (p 151).
Benjamin was nothing if not versatile.Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso, 2014), compiles transcripts of Benjamin’s many radio broadcasts. In addition, the last section of the book features Benjamin’s various essays on the medium. Meanwhile, Benjamin and the Media by Jaeho Kang (Polity, 2014), considers his versatility—as a writer and theorist—and explores its implications. It’s the best introduction to his lasting relevance since Rolf J. Goebel’s edited collection, A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Camden House, 2009).
Benjamin, Walter. (2016). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Belknap Press.
Benjamin, Walter. (2016). The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness. New York: Verso.
Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Walter Benjamin’s Archive. Translated by Esther Leslie. Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, & Erdmut Wizisla. New York: Verso.
Cannon, Frances. (2019). Walter Benjamin Reimagined. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kang, Jaeho. (2014). Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
There has never been a better time to get off-line, soothe your spirit, and build your brain with a stack of books. We’re back again with reading recommendations for just that. This year, our 15th, we have ideas from newcomers Nisi Shawl, Veronica Fitzpatrick, and Penni Jones, as well as the return of Rick Moody, Douglas Rushkoff, Cynthia Connolly, André Carrington, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Zizi Papacharissi, Jussi Parikka, Peter Lunenfeld, Joseph Nechvatal, Lily Brewer, Dominic Pettman, Paul Levinson, Brian Tunney, Paul D. Miller, Alex Burns, and myself. We know what you’ll read this summer!
As ever, the book links below lead to the title at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
“Summer reading” will forever conjure the halcyon months after I graduated college. Condensed milk lattes and serial killers; my metabolism may have changed but my taste in therapeutic pleasure reading is evergreen.
I just reread The Likeness (Penguin, 2009), the second of Tana French’s Dublin murder squad novels. The series is literary catnip for international police procedural enthusiasts, but the real draw is French’s focus on the intimacy and perceptual acuity of detection. Her books are populated with eyebrow hitches and side-cut glances, all the little ways people read each other and give themselves away. This one is about a doomed undercover op set among reclusive The Secret History-style grad students—thus my favorite, and a fine place to start.
Before that was Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Hogarth, 2017), the merits of which are hard to describe without sounding unduly condescending (“more than the sum of its parts!”). If the premise of an affair seems simple, and the prose style minimal (plus texting transcripts), Conversations is plenty complex and abundant in original insights re: interiority, hooking up, and radical politics, plus it’s a real, rare pleasure to read young women described and describable as wielding “a remorseless intelligence.”
Finally: the only book(s) adjacent to travel I want to read are L.S. Hilton’s Maestra series (so far Maestra [Putnam, 2016] and Domina [Putnam, 2017]), which follow a young female sociopath with an extensive art history education and impeccable style, sort of American Psycho on the Rome leg of Eat, Pray, Love with more niche sex clubs. And every coming-of-age novel I picked up in the last year, I read out of the pain of missing Elif Batuman’s romantic Ivy League epic The Idiot (Penguin, 2017).
Bernard Stiegler The Neganthropocene (edited and translated by Daniel Ross; Open Humanities Press, 2018): In the essays and lectures here titled Neganthropocene, Stiegler opens an entirely new front moving beyond the dead-end “banality” of the Anthropocene. Stiegler stakes out a battleplan to proceed beyond, indeed shrugging off, the fulfillment of nihilism that the era of climate chaos ushers in.
Maria Stavrinaki Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History (Stanford University Press, 2016): Dada is often celebrated for its strategies of shock and opposition, but in Dada Presentism, Maria Stavrinaki provides a new picture of Dada art and writings as a lucid reflection on history and the role of art within it.
Jonathan Fineberg Modern Art at the Border of Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2015): Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain is a broad investigation by one of the foremost scholars of modern art of the relationship between modern art and the structure of the mind and brain. Based on Fineberg’s Presidential Lectures at the University of Nebraska, this book examines the relationship between artistic production, neuroscience, and the way we make meaning in form.
I have such a delightful summer and fall lined up that I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude. I expect some of the things I’m going to read will reinforce that feeling. As usual, my habits are geared toward nonfiction:
Jenifer Lewis The Mother of Black Hollywood (Amistad, 2017): I bought this in audiobook format, because I love her voice. From interviews, I think this will be a truly humbling and inspiring read about her extraordinary career and the challenges she’s faced with bipolar disorder.
Mamadou Dia 3052: Persiguiendo un Sueño (Hahatay, 2017): The story of the author’s life from Senegal to Spain. Every couple years, I try my best to make it through a book in Spanish; this one, recommended by my esteemed colleague Dr. Jeffrey Coleman, is a little hard to find stateside, so I might have to take a field trip.
The Good House (Washington Square Press, 2004) is prime Tananarive Due. It’s horror, but of the redemptive sort, and deals with a particularly African American issue: the violent deaths of our young men.
Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brisset (Aqueduct Press, 2014), is a gorgeously elegiac tale of love and planetary cleansing, told in cleverly overlapping narratives that gradually reveal what has been saved and lost over the numberless eons covered. It’s a swift read, but a deep one.
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press, 2013), is a nearly perfect sojourn in an imaginary land. It reminds me very much of early Ursula K. Le Guin.
I have been reading a lot of poetry recently, in part because I have been co-teaching a class at Brown called Writers on Writing that’s half prose and half poetry. I taught this course in the spring with the poet Sawako Nakayasu, whose book The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014) would be on any list of contemporary collections I really love. (It’s about ants!) In the fall I’m teaching with the excellent Monica de la Torre, whose Public Domain (Roof Books, 2008) is likewise a contemporary poetry must-read.
Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press, 2017) was the last book we read for class in the spring, and I’m still thinking it through. It’s sort of half experimental poetry, half incredibly powerful and moving critique of official governmental responses to the treatment of indigenous peoples in the United States of America. The experimental part demonstrates the struggle of First Peoples to deal with the oppressor tongue of American culture in a way that seems unique to me. What a great and powerful book.
Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) came to my attention through Monica, and it is in part about Don Mee Choi’s father’s photographs of wars and conflicts in Southeast Asia. (The author is Korean, but her father, as a photographer, ranged as far as Cambodia, as I understand the story so far.) Photos are included in the text. Again, there’s a mixture of poetical methods here, far more than in a conventionally “confessional” work. The poems are sly, funny, devastating. Don Mee Choi’s voice is a knowing, tragic, and comic thing that orbits around the work in ways that deepen and complexify the field of investigation.
David Grubbs is my friend and occasional collaborator (and I can’t overlook to mentioned his first book, a work of criticism called Records Ruin the Landscape [Duke University Press, 2014] that I admire a great deal), and an unparalleled musician, above all, but his first book of “poetry” is now out, a book-length prose poem called Now That the Audience is Assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), which is sort of a long meditation on experimental music making and the ekphrastic route through which one might describe such an endeavor. I have used quotation marks to describe the work as “poetry” simply because I think there’s such a great area of hybrid activity between prose and poetry these days that things that people are describing as poems to me are also very conventionally be understood as “prose” as well. Grubbs’s book might also be understood as music! It’s an incredibly promising and funny first imaginative work by an artist who seems able to produce in almost any medium.
Mark Haskell Smith Blown (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2018): I’ve been a big fan of Mark Haskell Smith for about eleven years. His novels are clever and fun, with one-word titles packed with innuendo. His protagonists are often regular folks who find themselves plunged into worlds where they don’t belong. The stakes are high and the outcomes are hilariously subversive.
Ariel Gore We Were Witches (Amethyst Editions, 2017): Gore’s raw honesty while challenging the status quo is enlightening and inspirational. Her latest release is a “memoirist-novel” that draws on her experience as a struggling artist and single teenage mother in a time when the phrase “family values” was synonymous with women like her being demoralized and demonized.
Christopher Buckley No Way to Treat a First Lady (Random House, 2002): I read several of Buckley’s political satire novels in rapid succession of seeing the movie Thank You for Smoking which was based on his 1994 novel of the same title. Somehow I missed No Way to Treat a First Lady, which is about a United States first lady on trial for murdering her philandering husband. For some reason the plot is very attractive to me right now.
Alexandra Sokoloff Stealing Hollywood (Amazon Digital Services, 2015): This book is meant to arm authors with screenwriting tricks that will strengthen and simplify novel writing. Is it too good to be true? I’ll let you know.
Charles Salzberg Second Story Man (Down & Out Books, 2018): If Salzberg’s previous works are any indication, this novel won’t disappoint. Second Story Man is a crime caper with alternating points-of-view between two lawmen and a master burglar. The criminal taunts the men who are hunting him as the stakes grow higher. Sounds like the perfect beach read to me!
I’m writing at least half a dozen things right now, with no time for reading, but here are three recommendations, all fiction, of books I’ve recently finished and much enjoyed:
Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon) was [is due to be] officially published on June 12, but I was fortunate to get an advance copy. Watts is a gifted science fiction writer, with a knack for combining disparate threads of science rooted in hard-as-nails science, and he does this par excellence in his latest novel. This time it’s far-future humans far away from Earth, in a tense web woven of AI, biology, cyberpunk in the flesh and robots with music. Not only that, the novel is just 192 pages.
Heather, the Totality (Little, Brown, 2017) is also short – 134 pages – and is written by someone, Matthew Weiner, whose work you may well know in a very different medium, television. Weiner brings the same incisive understanding of the underside of human nature he brought to The Sopranos and Mad Men to this explosive little novel, which sports only one line of actual dialog. What’s it about it? Here’s what I’ll tell you: A few months ago, I noticed a guy eyeing a woman in a supermarket parking lot. It happened very quickly, and I stayed in my car until the woman got safely into hers and drove away. As I drove back on the highway, I realized there was something, I don’t know, really angry in his gaze, certainly more than just appreciation. That’s the ignition point for Heather, when her Manhattan father notices a construction worker ogling his 14-year old daughter.
And I’ll complete this triad by highly recommending for your summer reading pleasure Come Out Tonight by Bonnie Rozanksi (Amazon Digital Services, 2011; whose The Mind Traveler appeared on my list last year). This one’s not that short – more than 200 pages – and every page is worth reading. It’s mostly a police mystery, with a dash of science fiction, when a top-notch researcher working on a powerful new sleeping aid is savagely assaulted and left in a vegetative state. Her boyfriend, her father, and all manner of suspects abound, and Rozanski brings her unerring eye for New York detail to this story, noting how, after a subway car pulls out of Grand Central, it “futzes around” for a few minutes. Don’t futz around regarding this novel — snap it up!
Ordinarily, when invited to contribute to my husband’s famed Summer Reading List, I include more books, more force, more flourish; this summer, in between and during stops on my way to L.A. through Reno from Houston for my yearly research and exhibition road trip in preparation for my dissertation, my list becomes shorter and shorter. This is that short list.
My immediate reading right now is Johanna Drucker’s The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018). Drucker will be known to some as a book artist, to others as a scholar of modernist art, to still others as a leading figure in the digital humanities community. Here, however, in this short chapbook, she is a diagnostician of the contemporary public sphere. Heady title notwithstanding, Drucker’s focus is squarely on the everyday of our collective media and discourse, both united under the rubric of what she terms aesthetics. Like other writers (Angela Nagle, #recentcontroversiesdulynoted) she seeks to dismantle the notion that there is anything inherently progressive in art or aesthetics, or that associated leftist tactics can in any simple, causal, or mechanistic way constitute a “resistance.” Instead, Drucker turns toward an account of cultural phenomena as “extrusions” or “manifestations” of our swirling, affective engagement with an all-consuming and resolutely non-partisan media spectrum. The key term to emerge here is the phantasmatic: no mere simulacrum, but the metastasizing of meme into reality fabric. In this there are also sympathies with the “eversion” hypothesis, a word William Gibson first introduced in Spook Country (Penguin/Viking, 2007) to describe the virtual’s quotidian intrusion into the real world, so-called. Likewise, Drucker offers a direct critique of digital dualism, the notion that what’s on our screens is somehow less real than our (somehow?) more authentic analog surroundings. By contrast, screen and the everyday now co-constitute the real, held together by the quantum gel of the social, presented here not as relation but as medium, a medium which one doesn’t have to be Einstein to see the Commander-in-Cheese has mastered. (Don’t like the thought of quantum gel? Call it covfefe instead.) This one is essential, folks.
Following the Drucker, my next project will likely be Justin Joque’s Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). I mean, come on, Justin, you had me at deconstruction, machines, writing, and cyberwar! Starting with the brute-simple observation that what contemporary militaries dub cyberwar or netwar is carried via malignant computer code—which is to say texts that literally take things apart (think Stuxnet)—Joque asks what it means to entertain the weaponization of a philosophy, namely the book’s titular deconstruction. Also on deck are a brace of books from the MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series, Nick Montfort’s The Future (2017) and Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (2018).These entries are intended to provide fast and accessible but critically engaged introductions to a topic; still, the secret (don’t tell) is that one reads such books at least as much for their author as for their individual subject matter, and such is the case here. Tar for Mortar (Punctum Books, 2018), meanwhile, is still another short chapbook, Jonathan Basile’s archaeology of Borges’s multitudinous Library of Babel (Basile having also programmed a computer simulation of same). Speaking of multitudes, Chicago’s Interacting with Print (2018) volume bills itself as a multigraph: a monograph-length book collectively authored by some two dozen leading scholars of nineteenth century print culture and book history, composed with a wiki so as to interleave their expert voices rather than produce the standard edited collection. Finally, my colleague Tita Chico’s monograph The Experimental Imagination just out from Stanford, offers a historicized account of the entanglement of literature and science during the Enlightenment, a period when (she argues) the language of the one co-created the discourse of the other—a story that is all the more relevant now that the science wars have been phantasmatically mobilized.
This summer I am returning to a book that has been reissued. Giuliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion came out in 2002 but was out of print for a long period, and Verso has now republished it. Bruno’s work is a great example of the methodological innovation that I also read as inspiring “media archaeological” work: moving across art history, architecture and built environments, gender, cinema and many other contexts. And it is beautifully written. This time round I am reading it in a specific context of (media) archaeologies of fashion, which relates to our AHRC-funded project on the fashion film.
Another inspiring scholar, Matthew Fuller, has a new book out on sleep (How to Sleep: The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness; Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (Verso, 2014) came out some years ago, but Fuller’s book is clearly following the same footsteps and has opens up with this wonderful outline of the book’s aim: “Sleep is quite a popular activity, indeed most humans spend around a third of their lives asleep. However, cultural, political, or aesthetic thought tends to remain concerned with the interpretation and actions of those who are awake.”
David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) is also on my reading list in the pile of books unofficially labelled “things media archaeological” – also Susan Murray’s new book on the history of the color television – Bright Signals (Duke University Press, 2018) — can be broadly said to belong to the same category of interesting takes that deal with media history, perception and technicity.
I am reading Joanna Zylinska’s Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017) too as I am in the midst of preparing a project proposal on Operative Images. Eric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato’s book War and Capital (Semiotext(e), 2018) arrived recently in the mail and is one of the books I aspire to read. In order to understand contemporary capitalism, one studies it as a military operation. Next one on my reading list is Janine Marchessault’s Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies (MIT Press, 2017) that came out last year already but I am a bit late to reading it. Besides being interested in what it says about ecology and the Cold War, I think it might have good points useful for our Lab Book project, a book about humanities and media labs that in many ways go back to the Cold War (as a forthcoming book by Ryan Bishop and John Beck argues well). And today I learned that the English translation of Markus Krajewski’s The Server (Yale University Press, 2018) is out. Translated by Ilinca Iurascu, the book is one key reference point in the German cultural techniques literature and outlines a cultural history of servantry from the technological point of view too.
This summer I have five books out. So, I will happily be spending time away from books, computers, and reading.
But, here’s what I read in the process, and highly recommend:
Rod Hart Civic Hope:How Ordinary Americans Keep Democracy Alive(Cambridge University Press, 2018): A prescient analysis of letters to the editor, dating back to the fifties. Reminds how much and how little, at the same time, things have changed in politics. Beautifully written; a love letter to democracy.
Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2002) Perhaps you read this when it first came out. Reread and realize how every idea of yours you thought original, she wrote about decades ago.
Chris Nashawaty Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story (Flatiron Books, 2018): My father has this strange Rodney Dangerfield as cartoon character statue in his house that speaks some of his most infamous lines. Amid piles of CDs and videos, old assortments and antiques, this Rodney Dangerfield animated doll thing stands out as a reminder that my father kinda raised myself and my brothers on Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy and movies. From Easy Money to the long sought after record Rappin’ Rodney, Dangerfield’s character was used as a basis for my father to relate to his sons.
Granted, not the best role model, or traditional form or father-son relations, but it encapsulated something we’re still able to relate on all these years later. I believe that fascination with the comedian began with his appearance in Caddyshack, and to this day, whenever it’s on TV, I pretty much put everything aside and watch it.
Also to this day, it’s quite apparent that the movie makes little to no sense at all. As it would happen, that belief stretches far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. In April 2018, writer Chris Nashawaty released the book Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story, and I quickly read through it within a few days of buying it.
Beginning with the story of National Lampoon magazine, followed by the writing and creation of Animal House, the book tracks the story of the writers and director as they take life experience (and lack thereof), lighting in a bottle moments that featured young comedic legends in the making and all of the behind the scenes mayhem that formed the basis for the movie. I won’t divulge much here, except that I was correct in assuming that the movie makes little to no sense, and that the finished product was the result of editing down a rough four and a half hour cut into something that could be bought and sold in Hollywood.
With the addition of an animatronic gopher, large improvisational bits from Bill Murray and more than few drunken blowups from the cast and staff, the movie ultimately went from critical disaster to earning over $30 million at the box office.
It also pushed a 57-year-old Rodney Dangerfield out of Vegas and into the movie business. Though Dangerfield didn’t think he was funny during the filming of the movie (because the director’s staff couldn’t laugh at him while filming), he went on to foster an odd father-son relationship for myself, my dad and my brothers.
Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is what my kids used to tease me about as a “big fattie” summer read. I’m long overdue to grapple with this book as part of understanding the links between neoliberalism and what I’m calling the California Design Ideology.
As for the rest of the summer, I want to catch up with the recent output of friends and colleagues who I can’t keep up with during the year.
I still need to read rather than browse Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Harvard University Press, 2014) which is just what it sounds like, an analysis of the ways in which how we see affects the ways that we come to know. Johanna came out with not one but two more books in the spring of 2018: Downdrift (Three Rooms Press, 2018) is an eco-fiction that begins with the voice of an Archaean, “the most ancient creature on earth”; The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018) melds quantum physics with social analysis. Given that I can’t understand how quickly the global polity has deteriorated in the past one thousand days, I’m open to new paradigms.
Todd Presner, David Shepard and Yoh Kawano’s Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Harvard University Press, 2014) joins Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles’ The Library Beyond the Book (Harvard University Press, 2014) as titles in and around digital humanities that I want to follow as a reminder that ars longa, vita brevis, and that (I hope) certain political winds are briefer still.
Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s new book Organization after Social Media (Minor Compositions, 2018) wants us to construct “social technologies based on enduring time” and value action over weak ties. The .01% knows that likes and followers are nice, but what moves the world and the art world (at least right now) is cold, hard cash. Andrea Fraser’s bespoke big data project, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (MIT Press, 2018), is a brick of a book designed by the wonderful Geoff Kaplan. It organizes the deep research that Fraser put in to understand exactly how culture and power intersect by looking in detail at the political contributions by board members at more than 125 of the most important museums showing contemporary art in the United States.
Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) also interrogates culture’s tortured relationship with power, but from a deiselpunk perspective, creating an alternative past in which the Futurists take over the Regency of Carnaro to wreck havoc on their enemies. It was a nominee for the 2016 Sidewise Award, Best Short-Form Alternate History. In my alternate history, it won.
Finally, there’s Made Up: Designs Fictions, edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger (Actar, 2018), which I’d recommend even if I didn’t have a short piece in it. Caveat lector should be the motto for all summer reading lists, in any case.
Michael Fallon Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s (Counterpoint, 2014): Explains the various art scenes in LA and how that scene always was considered the bastard child of contemporary art in the eyes of the NY art critiques and beyond. It explains how the landscape and place was a strong influence on the art and for my own life, having grown up in LA, I see how much this scene influenced me, even as a child. It has helped me inform my own artwork.
Jane Friedman The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press, 2018): A candid guide to career pathways for (academic) writers, how the publishing industry works, how to build an author platform, the role of entrepreneurship, and diverse money-making strategies. Part of the series Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.
Annie McClanahan Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture (Stanford University Press, 2017): McClanahan is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine. Austerity and debt have defined the post-2008 socio-economic landscape. This book draws on behavioral economics, cultural analysis, and other disciplines to critically examine the economic, social, and historical transformations in the United States economy – and their impact on contemporary life. Credit, debt, and property speculation now reshape our individual subjectivity: McClanahan contends that these changes are likely to endure in the future.
Arne De Boever Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2018): De Boever teaches American Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. This book examines how books, film, and other popular culture have communicated to a wider audience the economic realities of the post-2008 world. De Boever finds that black box algorithms have replaced commodities in popular imagination.
David Graeber Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018): Graeber is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who was involved in Occupy Wall Street’s direct action protests. This book expands on Graeber’s 2013 essay “On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (Strike Magazine) to examine why neoliberal capitalism creates a range of meaningless jobs that its employees know are pointless. Graeber also includes survey responses from international readers on the bullshit jobs they have had to endure, and the creative strategies developed to cope with them.
Suzanne Buffam A Pillow Book (Canarium Books, 2016): Full of anecdotes and lists related to pillows and sleep, Buffam’s book is the perfect before-bed meditation. I read this one at night before I sleep, my head appropriately on my pillow.
Hieu Minh Nguyen Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018): Nguyen balances words on a page with such heart-pounding delicacy, I can only take a few at a time. These poems feel by turns like they will shatter apart or stab you to death. Either way, they’re honed to a deadly point and pointed right at you. It’s as beautiful as it is painful.
Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri: I was doing research on intertextuality, as you do, and I came across a book comparing the work of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri with those of his forebear Amos Tutuola (the auspiciously titled Intertextuality and the Novels of Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri by Durojaiye Owoeye). I decided to take a closer look. I immediately recognized that Brian Eno and David Byrne ganked the title of their 1982 record from Tutuola’s second novel (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; faber & faber 1954), which I took as annoying but also as further endorsement. I’ve been reading Tutuola’s books as fast as I can find them, and I’m stacking up Okri’s for after (e.g., The Famished Road, Astonishing the Gods, etc.). Someone—not the authors, of course—called this stuff “magical realism,” and I guess that’ll have to do.
Tade Thompson Rosewater (Orbit Books, 2018): Though I’ve been reading a lot of Nigerian literature lately, I didn’t know Tade Thompson was originally from there (He is Yoruba) when I started reading this. The deft way that Rosewater jumps time periods and switches from the actual to the virtual and back is a sure sign that a steady hand is in control. The story is also mind-expanding. It’s cyberpunk, but it’s also so much more. This is the first book of his Wormwood Trilogy, so there’s thankfully more to come.
Susan Lepselter The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny (University of Michigan Press, 2016): I’ve been researching UFOs and alien abductions for the last several years for no reason other than curiosity, and Lepselter brings together nodes I haven’t seen connected in other books on these topics. Using the possible presence of aliens as an avatar for alienations of all kinds: persistent hauntings, captivity stories, conspiracy theories, uncanny memories. In the end, this is not a book about UFOs and things far away. It’s a book about the aliens at home. It’s a book about the United States.
During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.
As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.
Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.
Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.
It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.
Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.
Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.
“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.
So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.
Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.
We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.
Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.
Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.
As it always does, my to-read stack has already doubled just from compiling and editing this year’s Summer Reading List. Get ready to add to yours, because there’s plenty below that you’re going to have to check out. There are so many books to read and so many ways to read them, you have no excuse not to read every chance you get.
This year we have recommendations from newcomers Paul Edwards, Paul Tremblay, Mark Bould, and Matthew Gold, along with past Summer Reading List contributors Dominic Pettman, Dave Allen, Lance Strate, Alex Burns, Alice Marwick, André Carrington, Patrick Barber, Lily Brewer, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, Brian Tunney, Gerfried Ambrosch, Jussi Parikka, Paul Levinson, Steve Jones, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself. Prepare yourself for a hefty stack of pages with words.
As always the book links on this page will lead to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the biggest and best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
Gabourey Sidibe This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017): I’m already enjoying this a few chapters in, because the chapters read well on short trips. It’s not only funny, it’s genuinely touching. Sidibe has been a breakout star thanks to TV, but what has really flipped the script on her tragic/triumphant character in Precious is her incredible wit. I’m excited to see how she writes about her successes and the setbacks put in her way.
Janet Mock Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me (Atria Books, 2017): I read Redefining Realness (Atria Books, 2014) in like t-minus three days. I was so into Janet Mock’s voice and her ability to move me, as a reader, through times and places while conveying really important principles she’s come to value in her life as a Black trans woman with Native Hawaiian ancestry. The twenty-something memoir is an interesting genre that I hope will help me age into mentoring relationships as I approach my next decade. Mock is already decisive about putting her own life lessons and interests into forms that connect with more and less privileged people, and I expect that she’s even more reflective in this book. Recently, she launched a podcast, Never Before, and the first episode with Ms. Tina Knowles-Lawson was just… poise.
Regina Bradley Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South (Peter Lang, 2017): Regina is a colleague whom I’ve had the distinct honor of befriending earlier this year. I bought this book for my partner, and I’m going to have to get my own, because I need to read these stories as much as anybody else. I made my way through some classic short stories while teaching a course on science fiction, recently, and there was nothing like this that blended hip-hop, Southern everyday life, and race consciousness; there should be, and now, there will be. She’s giving you a voice from the South for the 21st century and beyond.
Mehammed Amadeus Mack Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017): While it’s hard to keep pace with contemporary criticism, because of the pressure on academics to increase productivity, just like in every other profession, I want to say I’m catching up with people who have done the work in areas I care about. This is a study on desire, the nation, ethnicity, and religion, as well as sex, gender, and sexuality. I’m going through 2017 without knowing if there’s any such thing as loyalty to the field of queer studies. So, for me, it’s important to do work that makes academia a space where we can exist, as desiring people, from marginalized backgrounds, engaged in a dialogue that implicates all of the social formations that claim us.
Simone Browne Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015): A fantastic and long-overdue intervention, arguing that surveillance practices cannot be understood without interrogating the long history of policing Blackness.
Christo Sims Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism (Princeton University Press, 2017): Sims spent years inside an experimental NYC public school built around gaming. Its story becomes a cautionary tale of well-meaning tech philanthropy and how idealized educational technology often reinforces the status quo rather than upending it.
Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (William Morrow, 2017): I read every Stephenson new release and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015) this techno-thriller about an academic, magic, and time travel seems more up my alley.
Reading biographical and historical accounts is one method of time travel, and I also intend to read up on the subject more generally by diving into James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016). Time being a topic of great interest to me, another book on my summer stack is Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton). Two books on language also have caught my eye and are on my pile, The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown & Co., 2016), and Words on the Move by John McWhorter (Henry Holt, 2016).
Lastly, I look forward to savoring the recently published collections from two of my favorite poets, Mata Hari’s Lost Words by John Oughton (Neopoiesis, 2017), and Ego to Earthschool by Stephen Roxborough (Neopoiesis, 2017).
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (Haper Perennial, 2007), a thoroughly depressing and vitally important work of non-fiction (first published in 1973), will probably ruin your summer, but, in the long run, it will give you a profound understanding of what life was like under communism. Suffice it to say, George Orwell’s dystopian—and somewhat prophetic—depiction of a totalitarian Soviet-like state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg) was no exaggeration. Solzhenitsyn points out the crucial role of ideology—in this case, Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism—in the formation of totalitarian societies.
Douglas Murray’s new book, entitled The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017), gives an unsettling account of the recent refugee crisis and why it really is a crisis. In his rather pessimistic view, Europe is on the rocks because it has failed to assert a meaningful first-person plural that autochthonous Europeans can identify with and immigrants can integrate into. The British journalist (The Spectator) and political commentator argues—compellingly—that Europe’s current discourse around identity, immigration, and Islam is dominated by a sense of surrender and cultural masochism, which has played into the hands of far-right groups and parties.
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read is The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011) by the American cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s optimistic book traces, in compelling prose, the decline of violence in human societies from the Stone Age to the present, explaining the social, cultural, political, and psychological factors behind this surprising phenomenon.
If non-fiction isn’t your thing, you might want to pick up Alex CF’s 2016 fantasy novel Seek the Throat from which We Sing (self-released), “a visceral tale of animal mythology, of dark and foreboding rite and ritual and the desperate rasp of life.” Seek the Throat… is the prolific British artist’s stunning debut as a novelist.
The summer between my second and third year of what I once heard Matt Morris call “Doctor School” is dedicated to the delightful if not academically required preparation for my hotly anticipated comprehensive exams. Because the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh has a flexible exams program, I am putting my 70-book-and-article reading list to use toward three projects, one being an online publication entitled Sedimenta. Sedimenta, to be a semi-annual collection of critical engagements with contemporaneity, is accreting intellectual efforts toward tracing, for example, shifting subjectivities in the Anthropocene and the deracination of modernist philosophies of nature and landscape toward contemporary philosophies of ecology and deep time. Philosophically Pessimistic attitudes toward artistic practice in the final decades of a green planet are always an alluring line of inquiry as well. After the first edition, Roy Christopher will team up with me as print editor. Most of the books I’m reading this summer are to this end.
A few I’d like to highlight are: Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which caught my attention with its unsaturated hot-pink cover; Former West: Arts and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (MIT Press, 2017), which I have already lit up with tabbed passages. The intellectual enterprise of “formering the west” and its Modernity, so far, is a challenging and important one; Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (K. Verlag, 2017), confronts nineteenth-century will-to-knowledge and challenges colonial science and its reverberations in the Anthropocene. In the last year, I have become very excited about K. Verlag’s series Intercalations. In fact, it was in Land and Animal and Nonanimal (2015) I saw the word “sedimenta/tion” broken over two lines, which unearthed Sedimenta in name; Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), is likely to be my most anticipated this summer after seeing Douglas Armato flipping it backward and forward in a tweet. I anticipate that this book will enlighten-up my Pessimistic attitude toward artistic practice on a dead and dying planet. I would also like to note that whether by dexterous memory or by Freudian slip, I keep spelling it “damnaged” planet.
As above, Lucy Lippard‘s works are always so gently quaking below.
Those are for my eyes. For my ears, I have Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp) from 2010 on eternal repeat while writing for said comprehensive exams. More on personal brand, I’m playing Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There (Jagjaguwar) from 2014. Special thanks to David Lynch (and earlier, Brit Marling), for bringing her again to my attention from the Bang Bang Bar.
My 2017 summer reading list was probably the least consequential thing to change on November 9th, 2016, but change it did. As the U.S. has careened towards authoritarianism, I’ve been trying to learn more about 20th century experiences with totalitarian governments — and especially the early stages, as that seems most relevant to the U.S. context at the moment. I visited Auschwitz last summer during the annual digital humanities conference in Poland and wanted to learn more about how norms eroded in the run-up to WWII; so, I’ve begun by reading Volker Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf, 2016). Ullrich’s careful account of Hitler’s rise to power is engrossing, readable, and distressing. What’s clear is that Hitler’s agenda was right out in the open from the beginning; as Ullrich notes, “even in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews” (104). Replace “Jews” with “immigrants” and we have reason to fear Trump’s next moves. I’ll likely take up books by Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Czeslaw Milosz (The Captive Mind) this summer if I can get through the Ullrich biography quickly enough.
As I continue making my way through these academic texts, I’m looking forward to catching up on some pleasure reading; on the top of my list right now are Zachary Mason’s Void Star (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Penguin, 2017), and Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle (Putnam, 1962). It’s looking like a dystopian summer all the way around, unfortunately.
Mike McCormack Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016): This novel came recommended to me as a book about memory, family, and small town life in Ireland. If anyone has a unique perspective on those, it’s the Irish. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.
Larry Loftis Into the Lion’s Mouth (Caliber, 2016): This is an account of the life and exploits of Dusko Popov, a fascinating figure in Allied covert operations during World War II. Largely unheralded (at least in the U.S.), it is claimed he served as the template for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character.
Nicholas Stargardt The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Basic Books, 2015): Two books in one summer related to World War II is twice as many as I’ve read in the past ten years. There’s no accounting for it. What caught my eye about The German War is its focus on the breadth and depth of German attitudes and behaviors before, during and after the war, that is, it explores the varieties of Germans’ experiences from within, on Germans’ everyday experiences and struggles with the moral and practical dimensions of the war.
Olja Savicevic Adios, Cowboy (McSweeney’s, 2016): This one caught my eye at first due to its title, which evoked the song “Cowboys Lost At Sea,” by For Stars, causing me to take it down from the shelf at the bookstore and rifle through its pages. Then the prose caught my eye, parsimonious and evocative.
Rick Shefchik Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2015): It wouldn’t be summer if I wasn’t reading at least one book about music, and this probably won’t be the only one (George Harrison’s expanded I, Me, Mine is a contender, but when it comes to the Beatles I’m mainly waiting for the second installment in Mark Lewisohn’s masterful biography of the Beatles, which I predict will be titled Turn On — you heard it here first!). I’m keenly interested in the local nature of music, its formation, its sound, and one of the most interesting and intriguing — and brief — early 60s rock scenes formed, in of all places, Minnesota. From what I can tell, Shefchik has done a yeoman’s job of unearthing details, including first-person accounts.
Meryl Alper Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017): As computers have been increasingly employing speech synthesis and voice recognition I’ve become more interested in how humans and machines communicate, and Alper’s book seems like an excellent critical look at mobile media, voice (both literally and figuratively), disability, and equality. I began reading this mid-May and am actually re-reading it over the summer with the thought of incorporating it into a seminar in the fall.
Joachim Kalka Gaslight (New York Review Books, 2017): As a lover of the ideas and literary mode of the German critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin, I could not resist this little book. It’s about the cradle of many of our troubles and so much of our optimism, the 19th century. Detectives, railways, gothic architecture, exoticism, new and strange technologies, the rise of mass consumption–these are few of my favorite themes.
August Wilson Joe Turner’s Come and Gone(Theatre Communications Group, 2008): I’m actually reading all of Wilson’s plays this summer. I have a good reason for this reading project. Black English, like Irish English, is very musical. The same is not true, for say, Shonanized English, which is more philosophical than musical. Anyway, Wilson writes like he is playing the blues on the piano. With his work, the connection between Black English and the blues is made clear. I usually read the books of Zora Neale Hurston for this kind pleasure–the music of words and sentences. But this time I’m reading Wilson.
One other thing. The great novelist Richard Wright once bemoaned that Black American literature did not have a Remembrance of Things Past. In a way, Wilson’s plays, which are set in Pittsburgh, are a working-class Remembrance of 20th century Black America.
Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016): Though this book is written by a German forester, Peter Wohllenben, it’s inspired, indeed has an afterword, by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She is just wonderful. I’ve had the pleasure drinking with her. Her aura is not totally human. Much of it has fused with the forest: the canopy, the understory, the roots, that hum of wood. Simard discovered the mother tree. It’s not only huge but shares nutrients with other, weaker trees around it by a fungal network in the ground.
Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest–let’s call it the Forest of Friendship–in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.
But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the ‘agreed’ norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet.
This way of thinking turns out to be a lot of nonsense. There is actually a Forest of Friendship. It is connected by “wood-wide web” that links roots to roots like soul to soul. And, as Wohllenben points out in his book, which I’m reading for the third time and is written with almost no poetry, trees do stifle competition. For some trees, growing too fast and with no checks is dangerous. The slower you grow, the longer you live. Of course, Dawkins, the neoliberal of the biological sciences, doesn’t have the capacity or ideology to see this socialism. He can only see competition where ever he looks.
Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016) is a remarkable, detailed and acute revisionist history that overturns our understanding of the transition from water-power to coal-burning energy systems which were more costly and far less efficient (but – spoiler alert – made it easier to control workers, suppress wages and offset costs onto the public purse). It is the best book I have read so far this year – though I am looking forward to the stiff competition China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017) will put up. Dipping into it has persuaded me to clear a day so I can read it in a single sitting.
One of my regular train journeys is the ideal length for Tor’s fantastic (in both senses) novellas – unless, of course, there are cattle on the line between Bath and Chippenham. Which happened a couple of weeks ago when I was reading Gwyneth Jones’s hard-sf-thriller-cum-ultimate-locked-room-mystery Proof of Concept (Tor, 2017), leaving me bookless between Reading and London. Every bit as good is Everything Belongs to the Future (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Laurie Penny’s dystopian vision of endless Tory austerity, and I am looking forward to the otherwise dully familiar trips that will get me to the Lovecraft revisionism of Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Tor, 2016) and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016), as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home (Tor, 2017) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017).
My summer will be devoted to getting through the William T. Vollmann backlog. He only writes big, fat far-from-portable hardbacks, so they’ve been stacking up for a while. But I hope to spend at least some of this summer sat on my fat lazy arse -– also catching up on recent novels by Andrea Hairston, Cixin Liu, Mohammad Rabie, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sofia Samatar.
Summer mostly means novels to me; an all-too brief respite from academic writing.
Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to an advance copy of Margret Grebowicz’s contribution to the excellent Object Lessons series, on Whale Song (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
I’m also looking forward to re-reading Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2003), which has just been re-released. It’s a unique instance of “incoherent geography,” and arguably the best novella to come out of Australia. Fans of Calvino, Borges, Casares, etc. should take a look.
John Cowper Powy’s ever-unfashionable Wolf Solent (Simon & Schuster, 1929) is a book I’ve been circling for decades, so will likely finally take the plunge soon.
Otherwise, I just finished Paul Beatty’s brilliant, exhausting, hilarious, and provocative novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Book that came out before summer: Mariana Enriquez Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories (Hogarth, 2017): It’s one of the best short story collections of the last decade. I couldn’t have loved it more. A heady mix of Gothic, weird, realism, and politics. Now I anxiously await for more of her books to be translated.
Summer books out now: Stephen Graham Jones Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017): A ghost story, a story about fathers, and history… The amount of creepiness, ambition, and emotion Stephen packs into this novella is unfair.
Victor LaValle The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017): I’m reading it as I type, but already this dark, melancholy meditation on parenting is messing me up.
Summer book out later: Nadia Bulkin She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017): I had the honor of writing an introduction to this short story collection. This astonishingly fierce, intelligent, disturbing collection of sociopolitical shockers will be the perfect way to end your summer and dread the fall.
Keith Morris My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (Da Capo, 2016): From 2011 through 2015, I ended up living in this forgotten about tract of Los Angeles called The South Bay. Not that it is actually forgotten about in the present tense—people still there—but the area was once home to a thriving BMX and punk rock scene, and those aspects of the land are largely forgotten about in the present tense, replaced by sprawling bars, expensive parking, and overpriced surf shops.
I picked Redondo Beach to live in, mainly because I grew up reading the town name in BMX magazines and in the liner notes of records released by SST Records. I had visited once in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but aside from that, I felt I had a brand of adopted familiarity with the place. That led me to renting a house on Mathews Avenue in North Redondo, not far from a 7-11 on Artesia Blvd.
Something about the heightened curb outside of this particular 7-11 struck me as so familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it at first. Then it dawned on me. It was the site of a photo of Henry Rollins, while he sang for Black Flag, from 1985. And it looked almost exactly the same in 2011 as it did in 1985. I never knew an address, but from that day forward, I acknowledged that I was living in the same neighborhood that Black Flag used to practice in many years before me.
I was light years away in suburban New Jersey, listening to those Black Flag songs in early skate videos, and here I was an adult living blocks away from one of the creative homes of Black Flag. It then became a past time for me to zero in on locations formerly known for their influence on SST Records releases or in past BMX magazines.
So it came as no surprise that I read My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris, in little more than a day when I bought it. Morris was the original singer for Black Flag, an original Hermosa Beach local, and one of the squares that didn’t fit into the round hole of the South Bay in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Morris and his family lived in Hermosa Beach. His dad owned a bait shop, and Morris borrowed generously from his dad’s cash register to get into all sorts of mayhem as a teen. Through the early parts of the book, Morris also animates a version of Hermosa and Redondo Beach that I never got to know — seaside working class communities unaware of their future sitting on million dollar properties, or past as a vibrant punk rock community. Morris sings for Black Flag down the street from my second house on PCH, walks the streets of Pier Ave., and parties a mile north in Manhattan Beach.
He eventually escapes his hometown, touring with The Circle Jerks, living in Silver Lake and never really returning home to The South Bay in his later years, because, in his words, he doesn’t recognize the place he came from.
Last summer, I visited Hermosa and Redondo again after being away for little over a year, and it was a strange visit. The place that had formerly forgotten or never acknowledged its punk rock roots, now had murals of bands birthed in The South Bay painted on electrical boxes. It was still expensive as shit to even be there, and a little lonely just like I had remembered it, but at least someone in Hermosa Beach had remembered the influence of Black Flag and Descendents.
I wasn’t crazy — all of the mentions of Hermosa and Redondo that I read as a teenager in New Jersey had happened. And Keith Morris’ book is a definitive place to start to learn about the history of punk rock in the South Bay.
It’s also a lesson in understanding one’s place as a legendary influence, but never attempting to capitalize on that legacy. It’s about always moving forward, wherever that road may lead.
The 33 1/3 entry on The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde by Andrew Barker (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) is excellent. The album is one of my favorites and the book covers a lot of the details you want to know as a fan. It goes into the recording of most of the songs and in the order they happened, so you get a nice feel of how the album was constructed. Definitely in a similar style to Dan LeRoy’s exemplary 33 1/3 of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique(Bloomsbury Academic, 2006).
I also recently read J-Zone’s Root for the Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure (Old Maid Entertainment, 2011) which was as hilarious and insightful as I had hoped it would be. This is a must-read if you’re a hip-hop fan, even if you’re not too familiar with J-Zone’s music. It combines a behind-the-scenes underground rap expose together with some in-depth opinions and observations from a true hip-hop head and music lover.
This one isn’t actually out yet, but it should be on people’s radars: Martin Connor’s The Musical Artistry of Rap (McFarland & Co., 2017). Martin is a musicologist who breaks down rapping with tools from traditional music analysis and this is his first book, hopefully the first of many. I’m not sure if you can get it in time for summer… If not then maybe spend the summer preparing for this book by brushing up on your music theory, etc.!
When Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading List email lands in my inbox I become paralyzed. I tend to shy away from even attempting to get my head around which books or authors I should be sharing. Roy never nudges me with follow up emails, I just get one. The guilt is unbearable. That’s surely his plan, because at the last minute I get it done. So, another year, another list. Here goes:
In the latter half of 2016 I began collecting many of Jim Harrison’s books. It became a minor obsession. Perhaps his death spurred me to backtrack through his work. I have collected a dozen of his past works of fiction, finding them in online used bookstores, recovered from libraries. Of all of these books, none have struck me as deeply as Sundog (E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence), first released in 1984. I know I added Harrison to Roy’s 2016 list, but I felt it only right to go with this first.
Changing gears, or rather countries, H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 2014) by the English author Helen Macdonald had been sitting in the unread pile for two years. After reading the rave reviews the book had received, I was concerned that it would be a mawkish read and that wasn’t a frame of mind that I felt was desirable to me at the time. I was mistaken. Having read her articles on nature and natural history in the New York Times Magazine, I felt that I should put my feelings aside and give the book a chance. It is far from mawkish. Ironically, I should have noted that Jim Harrison gave it a great review, which makes perfect sense. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say: “A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father and becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk.” Macdonald’s book is a wonderful meditation on life; part memoir, part grief, and lots of soul-searching.
Mary Gaitskill’s latest book of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017) had my head spinning. I became fascinated as she moved through the world of music, literature, politics and society, covering date rape, Charles Dickens, John Updike, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Talking Heads, Norman Mailer, Dubravka Ugresic, Hanan al-Shaykh, and more. She muses on Nabakov’s Lolita. Of Linda Lovelace she writes, “Icon of freedom and innocent carnality; icon of brokenness and confusion; icon of sexual victimization, sexual power, irreconcilable oppositions.” The book contains 31 riveting and concise essays. I suspect it is one I will go back to often.
Joan Didion South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017): Didion shares with us but two excerpts from her notebooks that up until now she has never revealed before. “Notes From The South” covers the road trip with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June of 1970, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Her eyes and ears capture everything around her as she describes a South that is largely unchanged today.
“California Notes” came about when she was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. She never wrote the piece. Instead, being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the West, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. It is a short book, I read it in a single day; a day well spent.
Thinking how to respond to this call, my first instinct was turn my head towards the left, and look at my office bookshelf to see all the volumes that I have had not time to look into over the past months. There’s lots. So some of the books mentioned below are texts that I will read, some are what I want to read and some are what I would anyway suggest to read. I will start with the latter and cheekily, suggest two recent books in our Recursions Series: Ute Holl’s fabulous study (translation) Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Liam Young’s just published List Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2017)– a book on cultural techniques of listing.
Otherwise, I will be reading a lot of things that relate to my current research projects more directly. This will mean reading about labs, art and technology, making, and such things, but a lot of that material won’t be in books but in various articles, shorter texts, interviews, and such. It also includes going back to reading or re-reading some material such as Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009). My other writing addresses imaginary media and imaginary futures, so I am reading also some fiction for that one, for example the collection Iraq +100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion (Tor, 2017) that Hassan Blasim edited.
I’m currently reading two books, each a tour-de-force in its own right/write, and I’ll definitely be continuing in their pages this summer.
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Hugo Gernsback and Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) shows how Gernsback, generally regarded as the grandfather, father, or some kind of primary progenitor of science fiction, did the same for media theory, presaging Marshall McLuhan’s way of thinking about technology and communication by decades. Wythoff’s 59-page Introduction is itself more than worth the price of admission.
I’ve never not been an ardent Beatles’ fan, so I can’t quite say that Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street, 2017) rekindled my love of this group’s music, but it certainly placed it first and foremost in my brain this summer, and Sheffield’s masterful, delightful prose makes great accompaniment to the Beatles on the new Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM Radio.
And while I’m here, a few recommendation for books I’ve already read, but which would make wonderful summer reading for anyone who hasn’t: Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler (Bitingduck Press, 2015) is one of the best time-travel novels I’ve ever read. David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton’s Red Moon (Breakneck Books, 2007) is a novel you can’t put down, with a science fictional but who knows explanation of why the Soviets lost the space race in the 1950s.
Most of my year was taken up with prep for my new book (The Playstation Dreamworld; Polity, 2017), but for the summer ahead I’d rather recommend the two better forthcoming books in the series, Xenofeminism (Polity, 2017) by the brilliant Helen Hester and Narcocapitalism (Polity, 2017), the English translation of Laurent de Sutter’s L’âge de l’anesthésie, which I read earlier in the year. Hester, a member of Laboria Cuboniks and the Xenofeminism movement, is among the most exciting writers of recent years and work on feminism and technology seems as important as anything else I can think of. Complementing this intervention, De Sutter’s book shows how living in modern society means living in a world in which our very emotions have been outsourced to chemical stimulation.
In my Hong Kong Review of Books duties, the most exciting book I encountered was Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China (Urbanomic Media, 2016), which he answered our questions about last month. Another book for the serious philosopher to look out for is Gregor Moder’s Hegel and Spinoza (Northwestern University Press, 2017), the latest in the Slovene-Lacanian revolution and coming soon from Northwestern. Last year’sAbolishing Freedom by Frank Ruda (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) is equally exciting, arguing for a renovation of attitudes towards the complicated signifier “freedom” that could get us out of the political crises we face today. In a world in which the corporate establishment and the far-Right make use of the term to assert their agendas, Ruda asks us to think again about the functions and effects of the word “freedom.” Experimental poets–of which I’m really not one–might like Robert Kiely’s How to Read (Lulu, 2017).
After all that hard work, I’ll settle down to the long-awaited new novel from the king of Scandinavian crime noir, Arnaldur Indridason. If enjoyment is everything, The Shadow District(Minotaur Books, 2017) is the only book you need.
Maile Meloy Do Not Become Alarmed (Riverhead, 2017): I finally got a copy of Maile Meloy’s new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, and somehow I am managing to save it for next week’s Solstice campout. Meanwhile, I’m taking the opportunity to re-read Meloy’s story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010). It’s gratifying to warm up to a new book from a favorite author by revisiting her older books. I should do this more often…
Meloy has an amazing touch with characters, particularly in the form of a short story. Her writing is crystal clear, seemingly without affect. The stories manage to be both hard and tender. There is a lot of loneliness, and few happy endings, yet the stories don’t seem dark or brooding or pessimistic. She lights up the way people make their way through their lives; their thoughts, their self-reflections, their awareness of and fealty to their own weaknesses.
Like so many in the summer of ’17, I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the fall of ’16. I’ve avoided Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 2016) which came out before the election. I suppose that’s because it’s a direct attack on the Democratic Party I’d supported and which had shaped so many of its policies around the concerns of people like me. With the GOP holding the presidency, both houses of Congress, the last and probably next Supreme Court appointments, and too many state legislatures and governorships to recount without weeping liberal tears, maybe a rethink is needed.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zer0 Books, 2017) is another, more techno-cultural tool for me to use on the political and social practices we inherited from the 20th century that just seem broken at the moment. Nagle is merciless in her analysis of the techno-utopian hopes of early Internet cheerleaders, and sets up a cage match between identitarian Tumblr and the lol fascism-light of the mouth breathers on 4chan. Its like cross-breeding Greshem’s Law and Godwin’s Law, wherein shit-posting drives out coherence.
I refuse to consecrate the whole summer to hair-shirting myself for my own liberal normie tendencies, so I’ll read lots of fiction, almost all revolving around Los Angeles. Top of the pile is Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown, 2016) about a low level drug kid from the South LA projects who gets sent deep into the Midwest to commit a murder.
Should be good, but the kid could probably cause more disruption by staying in the Midwest, registering, and voting Democratic.
I’m finishing up the research on my book Dead Precedents (Repeater Books, 2018), which tellingly is what I was researching during the list last year. There’s plenty of great, new work to read though.
Paul Youngquist A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press, 2017): Not since John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place (Pantheon, 1997) and the first two chapters of Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke University Press, 1999) has there been an in-depth study of Sun Ra that connects as many dots as Younquist’s. Most studies of Afrofuturism trace its roots at least back to Sun Ra, but none have done a study so specific, and studies of Sun Ra don’t necessarily make such an explicit connection to his Afrofuturist legacy (Szwed mentions the word once; Lock doesn’t use the term at all). For a broader picture, read along with Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones’ recent edited collection, Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lexington Books, 2016).
Greg Tate Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016): If you study Black Atlantic art or music, you will contend with Greg Tate. Always a worthy opponent or worth a thorough read, Tate’s work is shiny and sharp and reflects the culture that it cuts. Flyboy 2 is the second such collection of his writings for the Village Voice, Spin, the Wire, Ebony, Paper, and many other publications, as well as some previously unpublished joints.