Summer Reading List, 2016

If you’re like me, you haven’t even read all of last year’s recommendations, but here’s another great pile of pages to read! This year’s list boasts contributions from newcomers Rita Raley, Gerfried Ambrosch, Pat Cadigan, Emily Empel, Alexander Weheliye, André Carrington, Douglas Lain, Christina Henry, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, and Joseph Nechvatal, as well as veteran listers Janet Murray, Lance Strate, Peter Lunenfeld, Ashley Crawford, Lily Brewer, Dave Allen, Rick Moody, Alex Burns, Patrick Barber, Michael Schandorf, and myself.

Lily at Green Apple Books
Lily Brewer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Pat Cadigan

Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series hasn’t received half the attention it deserves. The first three books––Rituals (Plus One Press, 2012), Reflections (2013), and Resurrections (2014)––are available now and two more are coming. It’s the secret history of the world, told with so much wit and panache, that you’ll feel like your IQ went up a few points.

Occupy MeTricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (Gollancz, 2016) is also not to be missed. It’s not a gentle ride, but you can handle it. This is a book for your wild side.

Paul McAuley has followed up Something Coming Through (Gollancz, 2015) with Into Everywhere (Gollancz, 2016). Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on what’s going on in the McAuley-verse.

Liz Williams is a writer who has been shamefully overlooked, even after she was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are plenty of great books to choose from but if you’re wondering where to start, go with Snake Agent (Open Road Media, 2013), the first book in her Detective Chen mysteries. After that, you won’t need any help from me.

Finally… I spent the first four months of last year having chemo for my incorrigible cancer. The shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award kept me entertained and thinking about things not related to carcinomas.

Those six books are:

Station Eleven took the prize but really, all six are winners. Trust me.

Rick Moody

Conjunctions 66: Affinity: Which I have a piece in, but that’s not why I want to read it. It’s a great issue, of one of the greatest literary magazines in the country, which is also now one of the longest-lived literary magazines.

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016): She’s one of my favorite stylists operating these days.

A Collapse of HorsesBrian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016): Brian’s technicolor stories of the West and violence and human psychology are always excellent, and always underrated, or not as well known as they should be. I’m excited to catch up on the recent stuff, which I know less well than the early stuff.

Dorthe Nors, So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016): One of the truly great writers of Western Europe, and just now acquiring a bit of a following in the US. She’s Danish, but sort of half Woolf, half Welty.

J. C. Hallman, Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between Wiliam and Henry James (University of Iowa Press, 2013): Which is a book about the correspondence between the James brothers. I started it at the beginning of the semester, and really loved it. I want to finish.

Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): I hate most music writing these days, except that I love Ben Ratliff. I am tempted to buy almost everything he recommends, even the extreme metal stuff…

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper Perennial, 2008): Well, you know, a lot of people already know about this book. I know about it chiefly from reading Derrida, and last year I decided I had put it off long enough. I dip in and read a few pages, and then go and read the commentators some more.

Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg (New York University Press, 2015): The first great Arabic novel, or so they say. But most of them haven’t read it. A book I have long aspired to. Hoping to get to it this summer!

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): Because I have now finished 1 and 2.

Rita Raley

I might be remiss if I began this list without mentioning the two new books in the Electronic Mediations series from the University of Minnesota Press, but I am genuinely excited about Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and Jennifer Gabrys’ Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (2016). In the wake of recent translations of Gilbert Simondon’s work into English, “technical objects” (emerging in part from the Industrial Revolution) are increasingly central to critical conversations in media and science and technology studies. Hui builds on Simondon and Heidegger in his philosophical account of the “digital objects” that constitute our contemporary socio-technical milieu, posing timely questions about the individuation of both objects and humans in relation to technical systems. Equally timely is Program Earth, Gabrys’s cultural and theoretical analysis of environmental sensing, which should I think be required reading for anyone interested in issues of media and environment. Ranging from spillcams to smart cities and participatory urbanism, Gabrys demonstrates with sharp critical acumen the extent to which “the earth” is programmed, monitored, experienced, and, one hopes, engaged.

Track ChangesBut the big academic text for me this summer is of course Matt Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016). I’ve been following along, as one does with a Kirschenbaum project, and reading around the edges, as with the recent piece in the Paris Review, but I’m eager to sit down and work through the thing itself.

I’m also looking forward to making my way through the formidable collection, Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015), which follows from a ZKM exhibit a couple of years ago, and David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). I have been teaching and studying Jhave’s work for some time, and I can’t wait to see the book-length treatment of what he calls TAVITS (text audio-visual interactivity). And the MIT book I want to insist everyone should read is Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy: For a Digital Posthumanities (2016). As Hall persuasively argues, it is not enough to develop post-theoretical paradigms when our various circuits of scholarly communication are still embedded in humanist practices. With a thorough account of the recent transformations in academic publishing, Hall challenges both individuals and institutions to develop models of knowledge dissemination better suited to our technological and socio-economic landscape.

Summer is for me the time for essay and short story collections. Like many I imagine, I’ve been tracking the development of some of the entries for the “Digital Keywords” project at Culture Digitally, and now I am eager to dip into the whole collection, out soon from Princeton University Press. Absent a new Alice Munro compilation (sigh), I’ve lined up Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, 2012), Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno (Vintage, 2000), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015) for August. And Lauren Groff’s story in the New Yorker last summer (“Ghosts and Empties“) has led me to pick up her novel, The Monsters of Templeton (Hachette, 2008).

Summer is also the time for comics and graphic novels. I want to start with Jeff Smith’s RASL (Cartoon Books, 2013), which I’ve not yet read, but then I’m looking forward to Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (HarperCollins India, 2010), Ozge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016). Last summer’s reads in this category are also worth a mention: Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future (Metropolitan Books, 2015) and Sydney Padua’s marvelous The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015).

And speaking of image-word experiments, I keep recommending Mark Z. Danielewski’s serial novel, The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015-), to anyone who will listen but I have to say it’s Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain (Pantheon, 2016) that seals the deal.

Alexander Weheliye

Here are a few books I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

Lance Strate

Here in New York, the Broadway musical Hamilton has been all the rage for the past year, so I have decided to start my summer reading off with The Federalist Papers, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (Signet Classics, 2003, originally published 1787-1788 under the pseudonym of Publius). While we’re on the subject of authors with the initials A.H., my list also includes Ends and Means: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Ideals by Aldous Huxley (Transaction, 2012, originally published 1937).

I recently received a copy of The Book of Radical General Semantics by Gad Horowitz with Colin Campbell (Pencraft International, 2016), and I would want to read it under any circumstance, but all the more so because I recently became president of the New York Society for General Semantics. I also plan on rereading Lewis Mumford’s The Condition of Man (Harcourt, Brace, 1944). And I have heard great things about the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015), so that’s on my list as well.

StoneFor scholars in the field of communication and media studies, Arthur Asa Berger is a familiar name, having authored many books on media and popular culture, and I look forward to reading his newest, Writing Myself into Existence (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2016). Regarding communication, I also have on my list Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015) by Sherry Turkle, a scholar often included in media ecology circles. And on the related topic of the study of time, I am also including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Poetry books play a prominent and pleasant role regarding summertime reading (and the rest of the year as well), and this year my stack includes a collection by David Ossman of Firesign Theatre, Marshmallows and Despair (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015), and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

My son has recommended the work of playwright Jenny Schwartz, so I’m also including two of her plays, God’s Ear (Samuel French, 2009), and Somewhere Fun (Oberon, 2013). Finally, there’s a mystery novel I just have to read, Death by Triangulation by John Oughton (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015).

Gerfried Ambrosch

Being an information junkie, I mostly read non-fiction. The last two works of fiction I have read were Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (Bantam, 1984), which I highly recommend (It’s a great summer read and a real page-turner), and, for research reasons, the Quran (not such a page-turner). The former tells the story of a chap called Alobar, an 8th-century Eurasian king, who, having escaped execution, is granted everlasting youth, finds a female companion with whom he shares this gift, and experiences many strange things over the course of several centuries. His extraordinary life story eventually intersects with that of a young waitress from Seattle and several other curious characters in this darkly humorous novel. (Come to think of it, the story told in the Quran is not dissimilar – minus the humor.)

The Righteous MindI don’t usually plan ahead in terms of a reading list (I studied English Literature and had to work through extensive reading lists for years…), but the two books that I’m currently reading are The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Vintage, 2013) and The Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), whose expertise is in ancient history.

Human morality, says Haidt, is highly intuitive. But we use reason to justify our moral intuitions, many of which are based on disgust and communal concerns about ‘sanctity’ and reputation. Thus, argues Haidt, our morality has its roots in our evolution as a tribal, cooperating species. A fascinating read!

I’m about halfway through Richard Carrier’s highly scholarly, yet captivating, book on the historicity of Jesus. The prolific historian presents a mountain of evidence suggesting that there never was a historical Jesus. One by one, he debunks every existing argument in support of the widespread belief that the cult of Jesus had to have originated from an actual historical figure, a hypothesis for which there seems to exist no evidence whatsoever.

The third item on my summer reading list – Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy by Ibn Warraq (Encounter Books, 2011) – should make for a superb read. The title says it all. Warraq, who is described as an ‘Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Koranic criticism,’ criticizes the ‘erosion of our civilizational self-confidence’ under the influence of such intellectual heavy weights as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Controversial!

André Carrington

I’ll be talking about my own book on a few occasions this summer, so I’ll start there. My book is Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Speculative BlacknessI think people might be interested if they’re into African American/Black Studies, science fiction & fantasy, comics, representations of Black women, fan culture, or the politics of cultural production. Speculative Blackness analyzes gendered, sexual, generational, and global constructions of Blackness in speculative fiction—including science fiction, fantasy, and utopian works, along with their fan cultures—to illustrate the relationship between genre conventions in media and the meanings ascribed to race in the popular imagination.

Currently, I’m reading the graphic memoir Marbles by Ellen Forney (Avery, 2012) in order to supervise a student’s senior project in which it’s a primary text. I’ve had it for over a year, but I’m ready to read it now that it’s turned into a professional responsibility, too.

Next up will be the remainder of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. I’m on #46 now… I got Marvel Unlimited specifically to read this, and it’s been useful to catch up with other comics I’ve missed in the recent past. I’ll have more to say about this soon because I’m writing about it.

A couple novels I’ll be reading this summer are Minion (St. Martin’s, 2004) and Bad Blood (St. Martin’s, 2008), by the late L.A. Banks. They’re the respective first volumes of her vampire huntress legend and werewolf series. I’ve never had the constitution for horror before but I want to be able to handle it—I just read Daniel Jose Older’s novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine, 2015) and it was thrilling, but scary.

There’s some other horror/supernatural fiction I’m reading for research this summer, by Mervyn Peake, and a few stories that I’m hoping to teach in a Science Fiction course that are in my colleague Heather Masri’s expansive anthology. I’ve never been the best reader of short fiction, for some reason. But students do well with shorter texts, for obvious reasons.

I’m also really, really going to read this comics biography of Rosa Luxemburg (by Paul Frölich; Haymarket Books, 2010), really soon.

Emily Empel

As a professional futurist, I’m always astounded by the lack of female voices in future-orientated conversations, especially those highlighted in mainstream media. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with making a place for women to think and talk about the future. By some chance, I was asked to guest edit an upcoming summer issue of MISC (a journal of insight and foresight), focusing on women. I rallied a small group of women to join forces and we were able to explore what would happen if you sourced a future-view entirely from the perspectives of women. Our efforts resulted in the issue’s special feature, “The Future According to Women.”

This was all great, and for months, I enjoyed daily conversations with some pretty bad-ass women (over 40 of them). I didn’t realize how addicted I had become to these interactions until we finished compiling the piece—and I was left with the same feeling as after a breakup. Below are some books that I read immediately to mend my heart post-project. Naturally, they are all authored by women. Enjoy!

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedAlexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Editors, The Feminist Utopia Project (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2015): With 57 views of a wildly different future, this book is a nightstand staple. You’ll not only want to read a chapter a night (each penned by a different author), but you’ll also want to send a copy to all your friends and suggest starting an impromptu bookclub to discuss every chapter in-depth. There’s some seriously groundbreaking futuring hidden in this book. If you read it, tweet me your favorite vision of utoptia (@localrat). I’m always so curious what other people choose.

Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls (Knopf, 2016): Lest we forget that the future currently belongs only to the few, Nancy Jo explores how a lack of consideration in creating technology and a predominantly bro culture in the Valley is driving a cultural shift that takes power away from girls and their futures. Fair warning: this book will make your stomach turn. We hear about how powerful social media has been for driving social change, while Nancy Jo covers the counterview—writing about the status quo with a vengeance.

Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies (Simon & Schuster, 2016): I had to pick this book up after hearing it touted countless times on my favorite podcast, Call Your Girlfriend. As more of my friends partner off and marry, it’s fascinating to learn about how the role of single women has evolved over time. I especially love the chapter that equates single-lady friendships to long-term partnerships.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex (Harper, 2016): A must-read for any parent, friend of a parent, or friend of a teacher. I heard Peggy’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and was blown away. Peggy critiques sex-positive culture, arguing that girls don’t have access to these interactions until later in adulthood. Her idea of multiple virginities is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve read about in ages.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (Picador, 2016): Ever since devouring Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (a must-read classic), I’ve been very curious about this concept of loneliness and how it might manifest in a more digital and urban world. Olivia’s writing is hauntingly beautiful, and made me rethink our modern notions of progress and development.

Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador, 2016): Motherhood is undervalued and important. So is the opposite: a woman’s choice to eschew parenthood. This collection of essays is honest, heartfelt, and not to mention, critical for understanding the future of women.

As I said, my breakup with “The Future According to Women” devastated me. If you have any other book recommendations, authored by bad-ass women, please don’t hold out. It will be a long summer otherwise.

Joseph Nechvatal

I suggest my sex farce poetry book Destroyer of Naivetés that was released last year on Punctum Books. Destroyer of Naivetés is an epic passion poem that takes up a position of excess from within a society that believes that the less you conceal, the stranger you become.

An audio recording of Destroyer of Naivetés will be released this year on the Entr’acte label out of Antwerp.

Christina Henry

I read two or three books a week – sometimes more if I’m not bumping up to the end of a writing deadline. I’ve got a stack of about 200 or so books that are waiting for me to read them, and yet I can’t stop buying new books to add to the pile.

What I read tends to depend on where I am in the writing process. I read a mix of fiction (all genres) and nonfiction, but I tend to read more fiction when I’m starting to write a book and more nonfiction when I’m finishing one – mostly because I don’t want another author’s fiction voice interfering with my own. I’m finishing up a manuscript now so there’s more nonfiction queued up than fiction at the moment.

Geek Feminist RevolutionKameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (Tor, 2016) is an immediate reading priority. I love her writing voice, and she’s the kind of writer that talks about issues I care about – feminism, geek culture, women in science fiction and fantasy among other topics – in a way that always has me nodding along saying, “Yes, that is true. Yes, that is all true.” I’m looking forward to reading this collection and recommending it to everyone I know.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (Picador, 2016) was recently released in paperback. I’m very partial to history books that take a small slice of a historical event (like WWII) and put it under a microscope.

Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl (Knopf, 2016) is released the day after Labor Day (our unofficial end to summer), but it’s still one of my most anticipated new releases. Hiaasen’s sharp writing and dangerous wit make him one of my favorite writers. His books are full of insane, unpredictable characters that make me laugh out loud.

Alex Burns

This summer, I’m noting books on economic statecraft — the intersection of a state’s economic power, resources, and international financial markets — for possible future postdoctoral research. Robert D. Blackwell and Jennifer M. Harris’ War By Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Belknap Press, 2016) lays out a United States view of increasing liberal democracy in the world via investment and trade. Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell’s The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton University Press, 2016) advances the thesis that newly powerful authoritarian states challenge the United States and threaten its international alliance structure. William J. Norris’ Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control (Cornell University Press, 2016) explores China’s contrasting approach which is rooted in a deep understanding of grand strategy and effective use of sovereign wealth funds. For a theoretical understanding of these dynamics David A. Baldwin’s Power and International Relations: A Conceptual Approach (Princeton University Press, 2016) is helpful. For translating economic statecraft insights into actionable trade ideas, Richard L. Peterson’s Trading On Sentiment: The Power of Minds Over Markets (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) describes why hedge funds use behavioural finance and sentiment analysis to arbitrage Great Britain’s Brexit vote on the European Union and other political risks.

Janet Murray

The book I am most excited about this month, and setting aside time to read slowly and take in at many levels — intellectual and existential — is Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2015). It is an attempt to answer the title question in the face of the challenge from animal cognition researchers to Chomsky’s claims for a unique, innate, universal syntax processor in the human brain. Berwick, one of the world’s leading natural language AI experts, and someone I worked with at MIT on educational applications and have enormous admiration and respect for, supplies the computational model to support Chomsky’s revised and streamlined linguistic model for a minimal shared processor.

Why Only UsThe idea is that a small but powerful module is unique to us, and that its key function is to support the medium of human abstract thought. But this is more than a technical explanation of an arcane controversy in cog sci — it is a profound exploration of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from whatever we think may be going on in the minds of our primate close cousins and the feathered, furred, and finned members of our large extended family of life forms. It is a short book, lucidly written despite the challenging complexity of the argument. The logic is clear, and every page connects to a large body of research pro- and con- and every chapter opens up a new set of both disturbing and thrilling questions about who we are and how we came to be us. In some ways this may be the light side of the force that counters the better known and to me very foolish worries about the “singularity.” Kurzweil’s schema erases the difference between human and robot brain (except as matter of processing power), Berwick & Chomsky would move us further from the animal brain. It is, in my view, one of the signal projects of the humanities in the 21st century to help us understand our place in this new chain of being in which instead of the dumb beasts and angels to define our place, we have smart ravens on one side and even smarter computers on the other. I’m devouring this book in the hope of coming out the other end, whether assenting to or resisting their theory, with a much sharper map of this new territory.

Charles Mudede

Alfie Bown

My wife and I launched the Hong Kong Review of Books this year and its meant a huge number of exciting new books have passed through our hands. Picking just a few was difficult, but these would be a few of the stand-out books of the year so far that I’d recommend making special time for this summer. I’ve stuck to 2016 to make my choices easier.

Create or DieStephen Lee Naish, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): Frank Booth: is there a more interesting Hollywood icon, especially from the perspective of psychoanalysis? Naish’s book explores Hopper’s powerful character in detail, but goes far further, analyzing Hopper as actor, director, advertiser, artist, political activist and more, delving into every corner of the career of this fascinating man. Blending critical distance with personal account of Hopper’s influence on him, Naish’s book is a page-turner printed by a university press, maybe the only one…

Laurent de Sutter, Théorie du Kamikaze (PUF, 2016): As yet only in French, this is one to hope comes out in translation soon. De Sutter’s powerful argument is that suicide bombing, or “kamikaze” cannot be simply seen, as it so often is, as a sacrifice of personal life to serve a greater cause (i.e religious fundamental ideology), making it a giving up of identity. Instead, du Sutter claims that the act of “kamikaze” in fact belongs in the world of images. The act of kamikaze, for de Sutter via Debord, is about creating a visual image of explosion and spectacle, giving it a new meaning in relation to postmodern image-obsessed society.

Grant Hamilton, The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature (Zero Books, 2016): This book I was lucky to get a sneak peak at, and is to be published this summer. It applies the philosophy of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) to literature, asking new questions about what kind of object a book really is. How do we relate to the book object in the way we do, and why? A very original book that makes readers reflect on themselves.

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (Allen Lane, 2016): It may no longer be trendy to put Slavoj on your reading list, and there are those slamming Žižek’s comments on refugees today. But whatever your position, this book forces the important conversations about the current crisis that far too few people are having.

Coming just at the end of last year, I had to leave out two other texts that have been transformative for me: Steven Shaviro’s Discognition (Repeater Books, 2016) and Samo Tomšič’s The Capitalist Unconscious (Verso, 2015), both of which must be read.

Dave Allen

Where to begin? As always, I’ve left this to the last minute, so forgive me the short blurbs!

Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Back Bay, 2016): What a riveting memoir; Mann describes her adolescent and adult life in excruciating detail. No stone is left unturned, including the hate mail she received after her photos of her children, undressed, were published in a New York Times article and review of her work. And then came the stalker. As Patti Smith wrote of this book, “Hold Still is a wild ride of a memoir. Visceral and visionary. Fiercely beautiful. My kind of true adventure.”

Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel (Grove Press, 2016): When Jim Harrison passed away, we lost one of America’s foremost masters of the novella. The Ancient Minstrel consists of three such novellas. The opening story, from which the book takes its title, sees Harrison making fun of his own reputation, although some were not happy with his Author’s Note where he considers his own aging “…and feeling poignantly the threat of death I actually said to myself, “Time to write a memoir.” So I did.” The part that offended some readers was where he imagines dying after choking on a fishbone and sprawling in an alley — he is discovered by a female jogger who stands over him in shorts. I’ll not be the spoiler here, but suffice to say Harrison crosses the line in his own, inimitable style. He’ll be missed.

SPQRMary Beard, SPQR (Liveright, 2015): Growing up in northern England, I often visited a local ancient wall named after the Roman emperor, Hadrian. Hence its name — Hadrian’s Wall. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome and the Romans. Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has delivered “a sweeping revisionist history” as the back cover blurb says. And it is true. As she herself writes – “Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans themselves did.”

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (Vintage, 1990; 1925): This year I started to collect and read books written in the early to middle years of the 20th Century. That is how I discovered Willa Cather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours, in 1923. (I’m amazed that I came so late to Cather’s work.)

The Professor’s House is a remarkable book. It follows a middle-aged professor whose life becomes disturbed when his wife takes on a new house for them to live in. The idea of moving unsettles him deeply, so deeply that he begins to assess his entire life from youth to adulthood. His realization that he must live alone comes to him quickly and disturbs him further — “…because there was Lillian, there must be marriage and a salary. Because there was marriage, there were children. Because there were children, and fervor in the blood and brain, books were born as well as daughters. His histories, he was convinced, had no more to do with his original ego than his daughters had; they were a result of the high pressure of young manhood.”

Two other early books that I highly recommend are by the author John Williams Stoner (NYRB Classics, 2006; 1965) and Butcher’s Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007; 1960). Stoner follows a very similar curve to The Professor’s House. Another college professor who’s life is upended by his work, marriage and eventually trying to make sense of his own destiny. Butcher’s Crossing is a lightly-veiled allegory for the Vietnam War. Both are powerful novels.

Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (McSweeney’s, 2016): I’m sure there are quite a few readers of this list that know of Diane Williams. They may also understand when I write that pinning down Williams’ work is not easy. Her latest book consists of 40 short stories, and by short I mean very short. Others have described her stories as “folktales that hammer like a nail gun.”

In a recent interview she was asked how she came up with the title. She answered: “The book’s title is taken from the story “The Little Bottle of Tears,” from the line: “How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.” So then I must have thought, I am not sure — end, end — Why can’t it all begin with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine as well?”

Why not, indeed.

And finally, these. All wonderful reads:

Lily Brewer

This May I started a road trip, alone, from Houston to Los Angeles. After three weeks on and around (the/I-)10 and while in LA, a friend and I ventured to one of the downtown coffee shops. Despite two counts of street harassment upon reaching the threshold, I noticed the space had all the accoutrement of Urban Coffeeshop (TM): an expensive espresso machine, an iPad checkout, prerequisitely uncomfortable, unpolished metal furniture with exposed soldering. But there was something unsettling about the place: The spaces in between the objects overtly reading “Coffeeshop” were too big, and the more I think of it, were growing. The A Field Guide to Getting Lostinfant succulent dryly planted in a lightbulb shell (clearly with no expectations of outgrowth) was an inch too far from the wall, not enough to be at risk of falling but still too close for comfort; two decoration cappuccino cups and saucers were slightly askance, off-center, and alone on an oversized; “reclaimed wood” shelf installed a half a foot too close to the ceiling to be useful but not so close as to keep up the illusion of its authenticity. I tried to attribute this spatial absurdity to the overarching, over-reaching psychology of the city, like it was a fake place, a coffee shop playing at being a coffee shop, a site of unsettled transience that will be gone within a year as construction drives up the surrounding property values while driving away the customers unwilling to pay the harassment tolls, the baristas, in between acting and writing gigs (why don’t they act for me a decent pour?) share the same transience as their market value shifts within the rifts in the walls.

Now unable to sleep knowing this spatial distortion exists and unable to blame it on the recently rediscovered gravitational waves rippling through contemporary science circles, this summer I try to work through this structural exaggeration through studies of space: in movement through it (Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost [Penguin, 2006] and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life [University of California Press, 1984]); in geographical place (Maggie Nelson’s Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions [University of Iowa Press, 2011] and Alice Notley’s Culture of One [Penguin, 2011]); in the built environment (Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage, 1992; 1961], Mike Davis’ City of Quartz [Verso, 2006], and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas [MIT Press, 1972]); and in material fragments (Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho [Vintage, 2003] and Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder [Soft Skull, 2005]). Perhaps I am road weary, but I’m unable to shake the effects of these uncanny, dimensional deviations and can read little else in what lies in my immediate vicinity.

Ashley Crawford

Don DeLillo Zero K (Scribner, 2016) and David Means Hystopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): It has been said by others, but I will join the chorus and state that Zero K  is DeLillo’s best book since 1997’s magnum opus Underworld. While there have been a handful of booklets in between (Falling Man, Point Omega), they were little more than rough sketches towards this cooly executed masterpiece. With its futuristic underground “hospital” and the cult-like, cryonics-obsessed believers of The Convergence it tackles, along with other massive subjects, notions of the Singularity. At times it has the feel of science fiction in its cold, austere settings, but at heart it is a brilliant meditation on mortality. DeLillo has returned to his throne.

HystopiaDavid Means’ Hystopia is a strange, schizophrenic work. It carries an extraordinary premise. JFK has survived a number of assassination attempts and is in his fifth term as President. The Vietnam War drags on and hordes of psychologically damaged Vets are returning to America where they are treated with hallucinogens to “enfold” their traumatic memories via Kennedy’s Psych Corps, a new X-Files-like national entity devoted to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene. Many evade the system and run amok, burning the country and reenacting the worst horrors of the war upon unwitting civilians. It is a piece of metafiction with a novel within a novel, medical reports and other detritus. It begins with tonal streaks of J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo and, others have suggested, David Foster Wallace. There are hints, in its metafictional readjustment of history, of Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle (where America lost WW2) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (where America won Vietnam, Woodward and Bernstein were murdered before revealing Watergate and Nixon is in his third term). There are powerful hints of the influence of other powerful Vietnam books such as Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Even the strange word used for the title, “hystopia” suggests an abundance of weirdness; the melding of “historical” and “hysteria” linked with “dystopia.” Even just the “hyst,” which according to the urban dictionary suggests “concentration breaker,” “mind robbing” and “subliminal thievery” suggests the worst excesses of this alternate 1960s America.

Unfortunately, despite the looming presence of a mass-murdering psychotic Vet, strange hallucinations, conspiracy theories and an America in flames, there are moments when Hystopia descends into what Ben Marcus famously dubbed, in his 2005 Harper’s attack on Jonathan Franzen, as “kitchen fiction” (indeed, quite literally in the rural kitchen scenes) or what Robert Hughes once suggested in Culture of Complaint as “bugs fucking to Mozart” in the Arcadian forest scenes. Means finds ways in which to avoid his own dystopian hell-hole by setting at least a third of the book in an idyllic, forested rural outpost and describing, in saccharine tones, the development of not one, but two love stories (this is balanced to a degree by a deranged mother who falls into fits of demented glossolalia.)

Mixing the dark with the soft dilutes the impact of an otherwise startling novel. The mix of the surreal with the syrupy means that Hystopia lacks the final bite of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet or McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. David Means needed to decide whether to remain in the Kitchen or in Armageddon. Still, this is a stunning read, if for the well-crafted premise and language alone.

Patrick Barber

My hopes for an eloquent, expansive summer reading list have been unceremoniously girdled, chopped, topped and limbed by Annie Proulx’s remarkable Barkskins (Scribner, 2016), a 700-page epic novel that follows two families through the colonization of North America and, concomitantly, the systematic destruction of that continent’s forests. I laid hands on this brick of a book just before a three-day weekend camping on the coast, where I was pleased to find that the kids are adept enough in entertaining one another that I was allowed several hours of nothing but reading: reading on the beach, reading at the campsite, reading in the tent. BarkskinsA doorstop such as this is not something one generally recommends for “beach reading,” but aside from the intimidating bulk, the book is (pardon the pun) pitch-perfect for vacation days where you can actually schedule in a couple hours of reading time. The only problem, of course, is that it will be over too soon.

Proulx wastes no time diving into her tales, and fans of her earlier work will recognize the seeming effortlessness with which she unspools great lengths of story. I’ve already read a few sections of this novel, trimmed and edited to short-story length for the New Yorker, but the excerpts didn’t foretell the magnificence of the book as a whole. Proulx’s way of mapping out her novel is deliciously gratifying: time moves forward in echoing blocks, so that we may read about the same passage of decades from two or three different perspectives, and the overlappping of the generations adds to the sense of reverberation as the events and characters trickle down through the years.

Compared to many of her earlier works, Barkskins is distinguished by more complexly and sympathetically drawn characters, and less of her signature brutality and suddenness (though such bluntness is still very present). Some characters have wonderful, loving lives, despite the rugged times and desperate circumstances, and the book in general carries more joy than the average Proulx. I’m presently about halfway through, and am sensing a reconciliation coming as the various families attempt to rebuild their timber businesses amidst an imminent colonial revolt and the expansion of their empires ever deeper into the continent. Along with the sadnesses that accompany the death and destruction of the various humans in the book, the most heartbreaking aspect is the slow, sure, wholesale eradication of the old forests of our continent, and the similarly relentless erasing of the First People who made their lives in those forests. Proulx takes no delight in this gruesome arc, yet her story depends on it. Leaning on thorough descriptions and well-turned visits into the psyches of the various characters, the author deals the cards of fate with a careful, yet impassive hand. That such a wondrously extensive tale feels flowing and effortless is a testament to Annie Proulx’s astonishing abilities as a storyteller and writer.

Some other books you should read this summer:

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2015) Brutal, fascinating, and a whirlwind of voice and cadence. I am still working my way through this book, but the first section of it remains one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever experienced as a reader.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (NYRB Classics, 2009): An explanation of natural farming from the Japanese contrarian who invented it. Fukuoka is mercurial and blunt, but his approach to plants and nature is open-hearted. After hearing about his techniques for so many years, I am enjoying reading about them in his own voice.

And three debut short story collections. All brilliant, yet flawed, and certainly worth your time:

Douglas Lain

The first thing to tackle on any summer reading list would be your guilt books. That is, not books that are guilty pleasures, but rather books whose presence on your book shelf makes you feel guilty because the title is so obviously worthy and yet it has gathered dust. For me the big guilt book would be Slavoj Zizek’s Less Than Nothing (Verso, 2013). This was Zizek’s much anticipated “big book on Hegel” from 2013. It’s 2016 now, the book is still sitting on my shelf in between The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2009) and Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011).  A few years back I finished reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1976), and this would’ve made a good follow-up if I’d read it promptly. Time to dust it off and tackle it now.

The Divine Madness of Philip K. DickAnother book that I’ll be reading this summer is Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick (Oxford University Press, 2016) a book I was assigned to read for the Hong Kong Review of Books. As a Philip K. Dick fanatic, and having read Lawerence Suttin’s fine biography Divine Invasions (Harmony, 1989) when that book came out 20 years ago, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what a clinical psychologist will make of the life and literature of Philip K Dick. The pull quote from the back of the jacket is fascinating, “Despite Dick’s paranoia, his divine madness was not a sign of mental illness, but a powerful spiritual experience conveyed in the images of science fiction.” I’m sure reading this will make me pine for my younger days when I was more prone to mysticism.

Jeff Bursey’s Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016) is a book I look forward to rereading as I try to promote it for Zero Books. Bursey is a Canadian novelist and literary critic and his book on outsider literature is due out from Zero on July 29th. I’ll be rereading this one because, of the titles due out in July, this one comes closest to sharing my own sensibilities. As a somewhat neglected novelist, I am glad to be publishing Bursey’s book on Matt Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, and Joseph McElroy.

On the political side of my summer, I’ve currently got Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000) open on my nightstand. Dunayevskaya is a somewhat overlooked Marxist. She was Trotsky’s secretary for a time and then broke with him when Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union was a “deformed worker’s state.” Dunayevskaya was sure that the Soviet Union was merely State Capitalist and her book on Marxism demonstrates that her insights were consistent.

When it comes to fiction I’ll be reading Geoff Nicholson’s 2014 novel The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Nicholson is one of my favorite novelists. I recently interviewed him for Zero Book’s new line of books entitled “Advancing Conversations” and his first book Street Sleeper (Quartet, 1987) is a classic.

Michael Schandorf

When I was young, I read. All the time. But I didn’t really know how to read. Not really. My eyes scanned the lines. My mind made images. In middle school, in the 80s, I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club. (I wish I still had all of those books. Even Anne McCaffrey’s dragons.) One of books that came from that association, and that left many images (but little solid) behind, was EonGreg Bear’s Eon (Tor Books, 2015; 1985). Those images lingered for decades. Earlier this year, I realized that the only non-academic (or at least not directly work related) reading I had done for what seemed like years was from the Finnegans Wake on my bedside table. So when I recently stumbled upon a rumpled paperback copy of Eon, I grabbed it. Then I found out it was part of a trilogy: Eternity, the sequel, and Legacy, the prequel. I slowly savored and digested all three over the next few weeks. Not only did the decades-old images from the first book match what I found when I returned to them, they were startlingly recognizable, tangy, and clear. Now, over the summer, I have a short stack of Greg Bear books to saunter through and linger over, including City at the End of Time, Slant, the novella Heads, and a collection of relatively early short stories, Tangents. I can’t claim to be a science fiction expert, but I’ve read a bit.

The most interesting thing, for me, about science fiction is how strongly it inevitably reflects the present. To get an idea of this, find yourself a copy of Tom Shippey’s Oxford Book of Science Fiction Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2003) and read through history in the shape of the future. Feel the development of the collective imagination sculpted from the shifting present, from H. G. Wells’ hydraulic mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, through the nuclear visions of mid-century, to the biological, neurological, psychological, and cyberpunk that tracked the changes, and the fears, of a century that hoped despite itself. Greg Bear’s work is largely part of the biological, neurological, and psychological exploration of the technological that came of the 1980s and 90s, a legacy of Cold War preoccupations that shifted into cyberpunk. And, having looked again, I can now recognize the influence it had on me. Bear is often fascinated not only by the evolutionary and technological extension of human neurobiology, but by the possibility of nonhuman psychologies, the intelligence of the viral or the plant-like. Slipping through such stories as a kid contributed significantly to my curiosity about differences in psychological perspective and the relations among perception, conception, and language. It’s a good time for such interests. Quite a lot of very interesting reading is surfacing about perception and conception beyond our traditional and convention blinders of visual bias, including Matthew Fulkerson’s The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch (MIT Press, 2013), Gary Tomlinson’s, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity (Zone Books, 2015), and Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, & Simon Gottschalk’s The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2013). These will also season my summer, but I’m looking forward to curling up in the sunshine with my new, old, Greg Bear books, and wading again through future histories past.

Peter Lunenfeld

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last year as a fellow at the Huntington Library working on a book about the cultural histories of Los Angeles, so my list this summer focuses on Southern California. But, as former journalist turned studio hack Don Ryan wrote back in 1929, Los Angeles is the “city with the aspirations for the Los Angelicization of the world!”

To start, I’ll be reading (and in some cases rereading) the entirety of Kevin Starr’s multi-volume magnum opus, Americans and the California Dream. Starr is a national treasure, writing equally well on architecture as on literature, with an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and an open style that invites rather than repels lay readers. The series includes: Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (Oxford University Press, 1986), Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1986), Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1991), Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1997), The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (2002), Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2003), Coast Of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2002 (2006), and Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (2011).

A Burglars Guide to the CityTo take a break from all this history, I’ll tackle Don Ryan’s Angel’s Flight (Boni & Liveright, 1927), the book from whence the quote above was pulled. It’s perhaps the first great novel from and of Los Angeles in the 20th century. Ryan presaged elements of Raymond Chandler’s noir on the one hand, and the dark satire of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust on the other, telling tales of the city as its boosterish Babbitts intersected with the seediness of downtown Los Angeles, decades before it became hipsterized into today’s real-estate friendly acronym, DTLA.

On my shelf is Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a new biography by Jeff Guinn. To complement this well-researched contemporary account, I’ll read Ed Sanders’ The Family, originally published in 1971, as a way to burrow further into the dark side of LA in the ‘60s. A member of a band called The Fugs as well as a poet, Sanders really catches the vibe of the era, and profoundly understands while remaining contemptuous of Manson’s descent into murder and madness. I’m looking forward to Emma Cline’s The Girls (Random House, 2016), a novelization from the other side of Manson’s pimpy grift. To round this out, I’ll take another look at Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace, 1991), which Manson had fellow cons at McNeil Island Penitentiary explain to him (Manson was not exactly a big reader), and from which he drew some of the rituals to which he subjected the Family and its hangers-on. From grokking to orgiastic water ceremonies, there’s a weird throughline from ‘50s science fiction to the Spahn Ranch (with a stopover in Dianetics and Scientology, but you’ll have to wait for my book for that story).

On the non-SoCal beat, I’m looking forward to A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals, 2016) by bldgblog.com’s Geoff Manaugh, an innovative rethinking of urbanism and architecture via true crime. Speaking of true crime, I’ll be reading the most recent book of another historian’s life work, Rick Perlstein’s third volume of the story of the American right since the 1960s. Both Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Nation Books, 2009) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2009) were rare books by a non-movement historian that conservatives were willing to acknowledge, and in some cases even admire, for their rigor and straightforward approach to the growth of the post-WWII right. Not so The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2015), which was insufficiently idolatrous towards the only elected president the Republican right likes to invoke from the last hundred years (TR was too anti-trusty, Coolidge and Hoover – well, they were Coolidge and Hoover, Ike kept taxes high and wasn’t enough of a war-monger, Tricky Dick was too crazy, Bush I wasn’t crazy enough, and Bush II while crazy, invaded Iraq instead of Grenada and tanked the economy to boot). Perlstein is a major guide to how we got to where we are now, with one of the two major parties of the 20th century having in the 21st nominated an ignoramus billionaire (millionaire more likely) reality television star, who is mentally unstable, racist, and misogynist, not to mention being a mutant orange rage machine. This is neither the Californian nor the American Dream, it is a nightmare which we must fight.

Roy Christopher

I’m anxiously awaiting the July release of Megan Abbott‘s next book, You Will Know Me (Little, Brown & Co., 2016). Her last three had me riveted all the way through. And too late for summer but eagerly anticipated is James Gleick‘s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016), which comes out in September (I got an advanced-reading copy, and it is awesome; more on that later). In the meantime, there are these:

discognitionSteven Shaviro, Discognition (Repeater, 2016): I do my best to read novels and biographies during the summer, but the research and the nonfiction creeps in anyway. In Discognition, Steven Shaviro parses the thick thicket of thinking using examples from science fictions of all kinds. Discognition explores the area between sentience and consciousness through computers, aliens, and slime molds, as well as several specific kinds of human—from philosophers to killers.

Doug Stanhope, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story (Da Capo, 2016): Stanhope’s new book, as it states right on the cover, is a love story and a memoir. If you want to know what he’s done since his last DVD or since the last time you saw him live, check Youtube. Most of this book happens before that was even possible. Many a buried back-story is unearthed here: Doug’s earliest days as a road comic, when he actually lived on the road – in his car; his stint as an innovative, master cold-calling telemarketer; one-nighters, hell gigs, middling, featuring, telling jokes to the elderly on a tour bus, and “making it” in all of its elusive meanings; many days and nights of performances, beverages, and substances. There’s quite a lot of the latter, and Mother is there for every phase, step, and bump along the way. [See my full review on Splitsider]

Rasheedah Phillips, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) (AfroFuturist Affair, 2014): Afrofuturist Affair creative director Rasheedah Phillips’ debut, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) finds her applying an African concept of time. Using quantum physics as her fictional playground, Phillips reprograms our ontology with interweaving tales of temporal trials and travel. Also check out her edited collections, Black Quantum Futurism: Space-Time Collapse I: From the Congo to the Carolinas (2016) and Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I (2015), featuring essays by Rasheedah Phillips, Moor Mother Goddess, Warren C. Longmire, Almah Lavon, Joy Kmt, Thomas Stanley, and Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani. I’m using these in research for my book Dead Precedents (Repeater, forthcoming) along with Jim Gleick’s new book and André Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016; see above), among others.

Since I spent the past several months finishing (read: “writing”) my dissertation, the following are all lying around my place in various states of unread:

Otherworldly Weirdness in Our Own World

The human brain’s relationship with reality is fickle at best. The slightest ripple in our expectations can send us off one of many available edges. In his book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2011), Thomas Ligotti paraphrases Peter Wessel Zapffe, writing,

Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear–that is, as ‘selves’ or as ‘persons’ strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on (p. 25).

When the continuity of that connection is corrupted, we are set adrift.

CHAMELEOIn Chameleo (O/R Books, 2015), Robert Guffey’s friend Dion has the continuity of his consciousness severely corrupted. Dion’s reality is already shaky at best, so Guffey sets out to document and investigate the odd goings on around Dion. Quoting Theodore Sturgeon, Guffey says, “Always ask the next question.” Chameleo turns on this very fulcrum: It is a series of next questions asked not necessarily until the questions are answered, but until all of the possibilities are exhausted.

Dion is followed, harassed, and interrogated by groups of people seen and unseen. “Invisible midgets” begin infiltrating his home after he is taken in for questioning about a load of missing night-vision goggles he had nothing to do with. These diminutive, invisible people sometimes appear as aberrations in Dion’s peripheral vision. Imagine the painting of railroad tracks on the tops of trains. If you’re looking at the train from above, you only see the tracks–unless you’re watching very closely. Project Chameleo is based on a much more technologically advanced version of this very concept: invisibility by adaptive camouflage, like a texture-mapped, technicolor chameleon. That’s one of the simplest examples of the alien technology in this complex and confounding tale. If you’d like to dip your toe in a bit further, The Believer posted this excerpt. As the inimitable Pat Cadigan puts it, “Guffey is my kind of crazy. He understands that the universe is preposterous, life is improbable, and chaos rules: get used to it.”

After the Saucers LandedChaos definitely rules in After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain (Night Shade, 2015). It chronicles the biggest letdown one can face: having your dreams come true, but having them be less than dreamy. The aliens that Ufologist Harold Flint had sought his whole life landed in a flurry of B-movie tropes and cringe-worthy clichés. Their arrival turns out to be the least strange thing that happens.

Many of the major Ufologists and alien-abduction researchers get name-checked: Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, J. Allen Hynek, and others, as well as art and creative types like John Cage, Fluxus, and Rudy Rucker (via his book Saucer Wisdom). The verisimilitude makes this story seem all too possible. Having read this directly after Chameleo, I can say that fiction and nonfiction are more difficult to tell apart than ever.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that both of these authors have previous works equally worthy of your attention. In particular, check out Robert Guffey’s Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form (Trine Day, 2012) and Douglas Lain’s edited collection In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post 9/11 World (Night Shade, 2015). Weirdness awaits!

Summer Reading List, 2015

The slim slice of the Zeitgeist we capture on the Summer Reading List every year sometimes reveals certain notable nodal points. There are the big releases this year, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1, but Rita Raley’s review of the latter got as many mentions as the book did. This year’s book-to-read is McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red from Verso, followed closely by Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke University Press. The oddest recurrence was Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” from Bloomburg Bussinessweek. Those odd ones are what make this thing interesting.

This year’s list boasts recommendations from newcomers Linda Stone, Benjamin Noys, Nick Ferreira, and Kristin Ross, and regular contributors Richard Kadrey, Lance Strate, Rick Moody, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Howard Rheingold, Lily Brewer, Christopher Schaberg, Brad Vivian, Peter Lunenfeld, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Paul Levinson, Alex Burns, Ashley Crawford, and myself.
Lily at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Benjamin Noys

I like to read a big non-fiction work over the summer. This summer it’s Anders Enberg-Pederse’s Empire of Chance (Harvard University Press, 2015), which is a study of Napoleon’s military campaigns and how military thinking tries to control the problem of contingency. This was recommended by Derek Gregory, at his excellent blog Geographical Imaginations, and it gives me an excuse to indulge my embarrassing military fetishism with a relatively clean conscience.

TorporMy dose of theory will be Sylvère Lotringer’s long-gestated book Mad Like Artaud (Univocal, 2015), which I hope will be a suitably mad work on the ‘mental dramas’ of Antonin Artaud. This should be read alongside the Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (Semiotext(e), 2015). Kraus is Lotringer’s ex-wife, and this semi-autobiographical novel, originally published in 2006, tells of the painful gestation of Lotringer’s work on Artaud.

For a summer of poetry and revolution, or revolution and poetry: The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015) is their first major work since the Glenn Beck baiting Coming Insurrection in 2007 and reflects on the tensions and problems of the wave of struggles since 2007. Verso have reissued The Dialectics of Liberation (Verso, 2015), the collection of papers from the 1967 conference held at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, which gathered all the figures of the counter-culture, from R. D. Laing to Stokely Carmichael to consider the question of violence. It’s worth looking at the footage to get a sense of the passionate and violent debates. After Joshua Clover’s excellent Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), I’m looking forward to reading the next two poetry books by the Commune Editions triumvirate: Jasper Bernes, We are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) and Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015). Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp, 2006), underground utopian anarchist poetry of the 1970s, has become a touchstone today.

To end the summer on a truly bleak note, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin, 2015), which reissues two of his rare and expensive collections of harrowing horror fiction, is promised in October.

Kristin Ross

I’m generally reading 3-5 books at the same time, some for research and some for pleasure. My summer reading list is pretty demonstrative of that: It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, books and comics.

Warren Ellis just released Cunning Plans (Summon Books, 2015), a collection of his various talks that stretch over a wide range of themes from fiction and science fiction to magic and technology. (Spoiler: they’re really all the same thing.) Ellis is perhaps best known for his comic work, but reading these is a particular delight because his personal voice is even better. It’s a quick read—I burnt through it in two days—but packed with things that will make you think a long time after you finish it.

How to Write About MusicSometimes things sit on my Kindle, lurking, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). Once I started it, though, I couldn’t stop. The screen soon told me I had “35 minutes left in this book,” and I had to set it down. I had gotten so emotionally attached to the characters and the world, I knew I would be crying as I finished it, and I had plans that night. Couldn’t be crying.

Comics are really exciting right now. The second volume of The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics) written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie comes out on July 14th, so it’s a good time to read Vol. 1: The Faust Act (Image, 2014). Rockstars as actual gods. I’m not going to say more. Need I, even? This is also the team that did Phonogram (Image, 2007) and if you haven’t read that, ignore all my other recommendations and read that first. The long-awaited third volume of that series comes out in August. I’m a fangirl, and this reads like a breathless recitation of my ardor, but I don’t apologize for it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015) is only on Issue Four, so you should get on that now. The individual issues have essays in the back, a different prominent feminist each time, and those likely won’t be in the first collection. Those essays enhance the whole experience of the story; really, they’re giving a overview of the whole experience of women in these times. Also, the back cover is worth the entire price every time. Did I mention this is about “non-compliant” women being sent to a separate prison planet and they’re about to fight in a televised full-contact sport called Megaton and it’s drawn in 70s sexploitation style?

Then, there are my research books, which have honestly been just as enjoyable lately as my fiction. The 33 1/3 Books team recently released How to Write About Music, a textbook on exactly what it says it’s about. It’s great—educational while being wholly enjoyable and reading it is like taking a course by a great professor. I’m sure it will be used in classrooms, but for solo reading it functions beautifully. Bonus, awesome intro by Rick Moody, a veteran of this reading list.

This last one is very specialized, but if you have any interest in Britpop, it’s essential fun. Part oral history, part timeline of a genre, John Harris’ Britpop!: Cool Britannia and The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is entertaining and as complete a history of the rise and fall of Britpop you can find. Plus, it’s just too great to listen to the musicians talk shit on each other.

Lance Strate

I have great admiration for poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, and this summer I plan to dive into her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (Norton, 2014). I also want to catch up on one of her earlier volumes, Deep Play (Vintage, 1999). And this may seem like something out of left field, but my list includes Revolution for the Hell of It (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1968) by Abbie Hoffman, partly out of sixties nostalgia, but mostly because I understand that Hoffman was under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, among other things, and I’m curious to see how much media ecology he incorporated into his own ideas about subversive activity.

The Human AgeI imagine it would be appropriate to include a book on reading in a reading list, and I’ve included Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (Penguin, 2009), which comes highly recommended. To balance out a book on literacy, I have also added a book on orality, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by the great anthropologist and media ecology scholar, Jack Goody. Of course, reading also includes rereading, and I plan to return to J. T. Fraser’s seminal volume on the study of time, Time: The Familiar Stranger (Tempus Books, 1987), in preparation for a research project I’ll be tackling in the fall.

It seems that the term affordances comes up quite a bit in discussions of technology and media these days, and I think it will be worthwhile to go back to the source, James J. Gibson’s An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1986), as it also constitutes an important contribution to the media ecology literature. Additionally, I think I’m going to learn a great deal from Zhenbin Sun’s recently published Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China (Springer, 2015), and I think the time is right for me to tackle Bruce Kodish’s massive Korzybski: A Biography (Extensional Publishing, 2011).

One of the books I am most looking forward to reading is Where Seas and Fables Meet: Parables, Fragments, Lines, Thought (Guernica, 2015), by B. W. Powe, a leading Canadian poet, literary theorist, and media ecologist. Another is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And for a science fiction fix, Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2008) should do nicely.

Rick Moody

I’ve just finished reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions), edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, which is in fact exactly what it seems to be, the transcripts of Borges’s classes in English literature delivered in Argentina in 1966. I was so excited to read this book and had to wait through the 14 weeks of my own class in American Experimental Writing to get to it! I was not disappointed! One thing that is wonderful about Borges’s class is how eccentric the topics are: Chaucer barely gets any mention at all, Shakespeare is mainly confined to “Coleridge’s feelings on,” Milton is mentioned a couple of times. On the other hand, the earliest English poems (Beowulf, etc.) come in for several lectures, and Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning get the extended treatment. The course ends with Stevenson, after a cursory nod at Dickens. And so it is apparent that Borges, despite voluminous knowledge about our literary history (which he never learned about at university, because he never attended university), had very idiosyncratic taste in English literature. The second great thing about the book is that Borges can’t really seem to confine himself to the literary subject entirely. So there’s a lot of attention given to what a miserable and foul-looking guy Johnson was, and even more to Coleridge’s abandonment of his wife and the effect of opium on his poetry, and there are ahistorical digressions now and then (In Cold Blood, of all things, makes a brief appearance). This is a gossipy, funny, enthusiastic treatment of the subject, produced by a guy, it’s worth saying, who was entirely blind and unable to read at the time he delivered the lectures, so that they are the record of his memory of these texts. Professor Borges, accordingly, is not really a book about English lit in the dull, good-for-you way, it’s a book about the love of reading, something Borges always stands for, to his credit, and as such it’s 100% delightful. Perfect for any book nerd’s beach reading.

Christopher Schaberg

I’ve just finished reading the philosopher Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which is a fascinating blend of travel writing and what the late David Foster Wallace might have identified as an experiment in “new sincerity.” It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, one the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.

I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf Press, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to is satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it — and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.

HotelIf you’ll forgive a bit of aslant self-promotion, Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this November, but, moving on…

Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Read these!

Zizi Papacharissi

The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 2015): Because only one person can talk about whales, dolphins, and Heidegger in the same paragraph, and in so doing, help one reimagine the future (and the past or present) of media studies.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand (Penguin, 1995): Because I am trying to figure out whether technologies learn, and if so, how.

Watch Me: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Scribner, 2015): Because she’s a cool cat. And because reading memoirs is the highbrow equivalent of reading gossip mags.

Nick Ferreira

I love the idea of summer reading but for me, summer reading is the same as my reading during the other three seasons: usually a mix of some non-fiction that I flip around, some fiction I hope captures my short attention span, and a bunch of magazines I’m constantly trying to catch up on.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Penguin, 1993): I’ve picked this book up multiple times but was never able to finish it. With California’s drought currently (finally?) making national headlines, I decided to pick it up again and am still slowly but surely making my way through. There’s a lot of information here and it’s hard for me to keep track of names, places, dams, rivers, etc. but so far it’s reminded me that places like Southern California wouldn’t exist as we know it without the rerouting/intervention of Western rivers. Side note: I also enjoy reading about these government projects that created some of the most awesome skateboarding and BMX spots in the country.

The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski (Duke University Press, 2015): This came into the library I work at recently, and I immediately checked it out. I’m looking forward to spending time learning more about the physical aspects of that seemingly abstract, but very physical thing we rely on everyday.

DaybookDaybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m not sure I really understand Truitt’s sculptures beyond how simple and poetic they are: The slight structures seem like quick flashes of color from a landscape, but only extremely brief slivers of time. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Daybook was one of the best artist’s journals. It’s nice to pickup and read a random entry, especially in the morning.

The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard (Berkeley Medallion, 1962): Even though J.G. Ballard’s books are quite depressing, I keep coming back to read them. Last sumer I read, High-Rise, a novel about an architect’s failed utopian vision. This summer I plan on reading The Wind From Nowhere. Like most of the Ballard stories I’ve read, this one is deceptively simple: a westward wind, from nowhere, is gaining power throughout the novel forcing people to live underground and completely change their lives. The whole story seems implausible but I’m sure it will be just as frightening as High-Rise and Concrete Island.

Magazines I’m trying to catch up on: The New Yorker, Apartamento, Thrasher, and, N+1.

Linda Stone

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge (Viking, 2015).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Viking, 2014).
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

Paul Levinson

OutlanderMy prime reading plan for this summer is Outlander (Dell), the 1991 time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon. Why? Well, I’ve been watching, reviewing on my blog, and mostly enjoying the Starz series based on the novel for the past year. I was drawn to the series as a sucker for most things time travel, and by the fact that Ron Moore, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica creator, is the Outlander show-runner on TV. Now, just about every time I criticized something in the TV show, someone would respond with, “You need to read the novel, it’s much better.” I make it a point not the read novels that TV series and movies are drawn from, if I haven’t read them already when the screen presentation begins, because I like to judge the screen story on its own terms. I also have a theory I call “the first love syndrome in media,” which holds that what we love most when a narrative is presented in different media is the one we first experienced — think about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Gabaldon’s novel this summer, and will be sure to report back to the world when I do.

Ashley Crawford

Brevity. Two astonishing books. Both published in 2015. Both, by eerie coincidence weighing in at 880 pages: Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (Pantheon) and Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow). Both Epic in Scale and in Concept. And, apart from that, they have next-to-nothing in common.

Apart from my ongoing admiration (even adoration) for Ballard, Dick, and Gibson (with the exception of his latest, The Peripheral) my tastes have tended to drift away from Science Fiction, and Seveneves is nothing if not pure Sc-Fi. But, it’s Stephenson, one of the most audacious and ambitious writers around. I have read all of his works and have never failed to be astonished by his knowledge and ability to articulate complex and nerdish concepts while developing remarkable characters and sub-plots, and Seveneves is no exception. An epic space opera in extremis, it begins with an almost Biblical Armageddon when the moon inexplicably explodes, leading to a Science-based form of Rapture for the Chosen.

Stephenson may have destroyed the moon, but according to some, Mark Z. Danielewski is out to destroy the Book, at least according to the NPR review of The Familiar which carries the headline: “Will ‘The Familiar’ Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close.” However if anything, judging by all too many whining Amazon reviews, he has succeeded in destroying the Kindle. The Familiar is a much-needed reminder of how beautiful the printed tome can be. It may be more accurate to suggest that Danielewski may well have helped save the printed book. The first volume of a much-ballyhooed 27 “episodes,” it features startling revelations both visually and in terms of ambitious narrative. Bristling with interconnecting voices, it encompasses domestic drama, cyberpunk, crime noir, and pop culture (to his credit Danielewski doesn’t even try to conceal his touchstones, indeed he revels in them). There is a tremendous and thorough analysis of The Familiar at the LA Review of Books worth checking out.

There’s 1,760 pages of Summer contentment.

Dominic Pettman

I hope to inhale as much Vilem Flusser as I can, during the break, since I can’t get enough of these new translations, curated by Siegfried Zielinski. Two titles I haven’t got to yet are through the always The Blondeswonderful Univocal: On Doubt (2014) and The History of the Devil (2014). Roberto Esposito’s Persons and Things (Polity, 2015) is flaring on my radar. Like many other people reading this list, I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and the two sequels in Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy series. Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) is sitting on my desk, and I’m a fan of all her work. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (Stanford University Press, 2015) in which the author imagines a scenario where Walter Benjamin survived his attempt to escape Europe and spent a couple of decades laying low and writing in New York/- /seems like an intriguing experiment in theory-fiction: something I very much enjoy, when done well. In terms of fiction, I still haven’t read Peter Watt’s Blindsight (Tor Books, 2008), which is apparently required reading for SF people. I’ve heard great things about Mat Johnson’s Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). If I manage to find a beach I’ll probably get to volume two of Elana Ferrante’s Napoli series. And, finally, how could I resist a book with the following premise: “The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is a hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, all of whom must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Howard Rheingold

A a student at Reed in the 1960s, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in the halcyon days of the hippie incursion and saw the collapse of innocence during the summer of love, moved there permanently in 1970, so I lived through the events — many of them traumatic — chronicled in David Talbot’s book The Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2013) — the horrible response of San Francisco’s City Hall, police and health departments to the hippie immigration, the flowering of the gay community in the days before AIDS and the horror of the epidemic (I’ve never  been fond of Dianne Feinstein as a senator, but Talbot shows how her response as mayor to the AIDS crisis — in light of the Reagan administrations criminal neglect (San Francisco contributed three times the money for social services for AIDS that the US government did for several years), the trauma of the Zebra serial murders, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White, White’s acquittal (“the Twinkie defense”), the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. Talbot was a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner when it was a real newspaper, before he founded Salon (I was on the original founding team), and he did a great job digging up the stories behind the stories and weaving them into a compelling narrative history. If you want to know what San Francisco was like before the tech culture, read this.

The advent of inexpensive digital devices, including sophisticated environmental monitoring devices, and networked communications has heralded a new kind of science that melds crowdsourced amateurs with professionals. Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a well-written, well-documented, must-read if you want to see one surprising new direction science and the discovery and validation of knowledge is going.

One of Stephen King’s best and one of the best time travel stories ever — including a meta-story about the potential effects of time-travel on time itself — is 11/22/63 (Gallery Books, 2012). It is a testament to King’s talent that although we know Lee Harvey Oswald succeeded, readers are suspended in scary, thrilling disbelief as the protagonist repeatedly goes back in time to prevent it. Wrapping it all up is a love story. Great great escape reading.

Steve Jones

As has become usual my summer reading is very much about music. First on the list is Alyn Shipton’s biography of Harry Nilson, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Oxford University Press, 2013), because he was unique, and the one documentary I’ve seen was pretty unsatisfying (interesting, but Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boysunsatisfying). I’m not so much interested in connecting the dots from his life to his music as I am in learning about the milieu in which he found himself. Perhaps somewhat in that same vein I’m planning to read Harvey Kubernik’s Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, 2012), because that was a unique place, interestingly from about the same era. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I am continually fascinated by the conjuncture of people, place and time, and so the next book also fits the pattern, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir (faber & faber, 2015). Rounding out the list I’ll be indulging my interest in technologies and techniques of sound engineering and synthesis with a work of non-fiction, Glyn Johns’ Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles , Eric Clapton, The Faces (Blue Rider Press, 2014), and a work of historical (or so I presume) fiction, Seam Michaels’ Us Conductors: A Novel (Tin House Books, 2014).

Lily Brewer

In between paragraphs of thesis, traveling, and moving during my last summer as a pre-Phd student, I’m punctuating my writing and incessant unsettled-ness with the following reading. I’m going to start my list with the books I jump-started my summer with, the first of which was Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotext(e), 2000). It’s idiomatically appropriate for my mid-twenties summer, and her prose once again concusses me and leaves me in a mute heap, incapable of writing ever again. I’m halfway through Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays that cries sanctuary for my imperfect feminism and problematic faves. And continuously re-re-re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2006) will never, ever not be appropriate.

Magazine MovementsFor homework, Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Picador, 2001) again, Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data (Duke University Press, 2015), and Laurel Forster’s Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Forms (Bloomsbury, 2015) are jostling for priority. (Along with these, I have a massive article and book reading list for the Fall, but I’ll spare you as if I were sparing myself.)

For fun, I’ve compiled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: A Novel (Knopf, 2013), Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta Publications, 2013), Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (Penguin, 2008), and for re-reading, Zadie Smith’s anything-she-ever-wrote. Late-August bonus will be Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa, 2011), a Chicago author with whom I was a short-time office mate, (well, while getting my Art History M.A., I was the receptionist to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s writing department office where she was contemporaneously chair, sooo.).

I’m rushing the rest of this list in order to get back to Megan Abbott‘s The Fever (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2015) and afterwords Dare Me (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2013) and after that every novel/story/blog post/tweet Abbott’s written since 2012. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2011) completely ruined me. Hers are what teenage, girl-nightmares are made of, that make me simultaneously self-conscious and estranged from myself, in the terrifying way that can only accompany growing up.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Much of my summer reading pile is accumulating in a corner created by media theory or media archaeology, critical discussion of the Anthropocene, and ongoing contributions to the conversation around speculative realism in its several guises. In other words, media, things, and the systems (or stuff) of the planet. These are not, of course, isolate categories but deeply and reciprocally constituted and blended. The Undersea NetworkThus Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke (2015), which untangles the vast array of telecommunications cables we’ve strapped across the oceans’ floors (arguably the real world-wide web), not just from a technical but also an ethno-geological sensibility. It’s compellingly written and photographed, and my odds-on pick for media studies book of the year. Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) opens the field explicitly, walking the reader through a variety of critical and aesthetic discourses that cluster around the deep mining of data mining or what he terms the “Anthrobscene,” a term which is meant to encompass the obscene spectacle of technological obsolescence and media waste. McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene from Verso (which appeared at almost exactly the same moment) very much demands to be in dialogue with Parikka (and vice versa), dismantling as it does the Romantic notion of a return to nature by way of Russian philosophy and Russian cybernetics and California science fiction (Wark gives us the Carbon Liberation Front as his nonhuman protagonist). For those looking for an introduction to the debates around speculative realism and nonhuman ontologies, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things and Richard Grusin’s edited volume on The Nonhuman Turn (both, again, from the University of Minnesota Press) are essential; similarly, Shaviro (to whom we all seemingly owe a debt for resurrecting the primer as an animated writing genre) has a brief book containing Three Essays on Accelerationism from Minnesota’s Forerunners series. Shaviro’s is in fact one of two breezy Forerunners titles in the stack, the other being Shannon Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City, which treats urban environments as no less geo-tech than Starosielski’s oceans and beaches and Wark on the Aral Sea. Further demonstrative in this regard (and just-arrived) is Starosielski and Lisa Parks’s co-edited collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, 2015), containing essays from Mattern, Jonathan Sterne, and Paul Dourish, among others.

Media theory’s romance with drones also continues this season, notably in Adam Rothstein’s succinctly-named Drone (from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series; 2015) and Grégoire Chamayou’s ambitious but reportedly overwritten A Theory of the Drone (New Press, 2015); of these, I suspect I will prefer the Rothstein. Jeff Scheible’s The Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is another small, neat-looking book (as befits its subject matter) which zeros-in on dots, parentheses, and hashmarks (but oddly, not the @-symbol). Jeremey Douglass, Mark C. Marino, and Jessica Pressman’s tripartite study of a single piece of electronic literature, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, is now available from the Univeristy of Iowa Press (2015). For the Kittler Kidz, meanwhile, worthy of mention is a special journal issue of Theory, Culture & Society on Kittler co-edited by Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld containing an astonishing variety of work (and it’s all currently open accessed—what are you waiting for?), and a new compilation of translated Kittler (with afterword by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) entitled The Truth of the Technological World (Stanford University Press, 2014). Finally, Richard Barbrook’s Class Wargames (Minor Compositions, 2014), which draws on the seemingly improbable genre of tabletop wargames for education in the street-level tactics of class struggle; the connection is perhaps less improbable when, as Barbrook details extensively, no less a personage than Guy Debord was an aficionado of the genre, designing his own juex d’guerre.

Deep Mapping the Media CityNot so much summer reading as something I’m reading right now (along with seemingly half my Twitter feed) is Paul Ford’s remarkable “What is Code?” published online in, yes, Businessweek. 38,000 words on not just code but coding culture. Ford is rapidly becoming my favorite technology writer, capable of tossing off lines like “A computer is a clock with benefits” or “You probably have a powerful SQL-driven database in your pocket right now” like it’s nothing.

I’ll leave fiction aside, except to mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015), volume 1 of 27 as anyone who has been following the project knows. If you want a foretaste of what MZD is up to, Rita Raley and colleagues (Raley is perhaps his best current reader) give us a look over in the LA Review of Books.

Finally, military history, my other typical summer reading genre: the Waterloo bicentennial is upon us, and predictably there have been a slew of books on what is habitually termed history’s most iconic battle (a rather ghastly moniker). Timothy Clayton gives us a weighty new history in his Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (Abacus, 2015), drawing on previously unpublished or undocumented sources; Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath (Overlook Press, 2015) begins where the volleys and bayonets end, and treats both the burial of the dead and the residue of the campaign as well as the transformation of the Belgian countryside and subsequent memorialization of the battle. My favorite entry, however is a small little book by Brendan Simms entitled The Longest Afternoon (Basic Books, 2015), which details the King’s German Legion’s defense of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the center of the battlefield, a small-unit action embedded amidst the densest concentration of men and guns the Napoleonic Wars had ever seen. Simms gives us something not unlike the grit and detail of Blackhawk Down for the black powder era, while also exploring the significance of what exactly these Germanic troops were doing in the service of Great Britain (and the implications for subsequent German nationalism). If you read one Waterloo book, read this one.

Richard Kadrey

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Charles Stross’s new Laundry novel, The Annihilation Score (Ace, 2015). If you don’t know the Laundry books, they follow the adventures of a secret British government organization that protects humanity from all sorts of sinister supernatural forces. The books are funny,action-packed, and smart. The Annihilation Score is hard to talk about without a lot of spoilers, but I can say this: If you like your secret agent stories peppered with dark humor, twisted science, and eldritch horror, you’ll probably enjoy Stross’s newest (and the rest of the Laundry series too).

With Zer0es (Harper Voyager, 2015), Chuck Wendig, most famous for his Miriam Black books, tries his hand at the techno-thriller and does pulls it off nicely. After they’ve all been busted, a group of misfit hackers are brought together in the wilderness to work for the government. However, even though they’re supposed to be working for the good guys, something seems…wrong. And it gets darker and more frightened as the novel goes on. Mixing elements of high-tech thriller and horror, Zer0es is Wendig at his best.

The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the best fantasy author you’ve probably never heard of. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics, 2015), she rewrites old fairy tales, bringing out hidden depths of feminist power, violence, and sexuality. These days, there are dozens of books that rewrite classic folk tales, but Carter was one of the first to do it, and no one out there has matched her combination of intelligence, great writing, and dark sensuality. Some books I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had a chance to read yet include the first collection of Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2015) by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. The series is a science-fiction take on the women in prison scenario. Frankly, I would probably skip a book with that premise if it had been written by anyone less savvy than DeConnick, whose Pretty Deadly series (Image, 2014) is also worth reading. I’ve been waiting for Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, 2015) for months now. Written by Chuck Palahniuk and set ten years after the original novel, it tells the story of a suburban dream home as it comes crumbling down with the reemergence of everyone’s favorite psychotic alter-ego, Tyler Durden.

There are two music books are also on my list. The first is Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Tarcher, 2014) and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music (Melville House, 2015). I’m sucker for stories of how modern pop culture has been influenced by and influenced supernatural beliefs, so Season of the Witch is a no-brainer. Future Days covers the emergence of influential post-war bands such as Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Kraftwerk.

I’ve been holding off reading Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song (thesickbagsong.com) until I finished writing my new book. Sick Bag is a collection of Cave’s poetic scrawls on airline vomit bags while on tour. Not only do you get the neatly printed finished version of each story/poem, but you get an image of the bags themselves, covered in Cave’s quick and surprisingly controlled handwriting, complete with cross-outs and doodles. LAPD ’53 (Harry N. Abrams, 2015) is a collaboration between James Ellroy and the LA Police Museum. The book is a collection of 50s-era crime scene photos accompanied by Ellroy’s text telling the stories of both the crimes and the cops who worked on them.

Brad Vivian

I plan to read on the theme of indifference throughout the summer in preparation for a collaborative symposium in the fall. The theme also relates to my ongoing research on the topic of witnessing (bearing witness to historical injustice, atrocity, or tragedy). One aspect of my research concerns the degree to which witnesses seek to address and counteract indifference (and larger ethical questions that follow from doing so).

Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2007) is first on my list. Scott (a Continental philosopher who specializes in phenomenological and post-structuralist traditions) provides a deep meditation on the catalysts for and uses of indifference in human experience as it manifests across a number of phenomena. The book emphasizes two features typical of this writer’s work: a careful attention to the etymological origins, as well as semantic elusiveness, of the very term “indifference”; and a balanced but rigorous questioning of conventional moral paradigms as they apply to the notion of indifference—socially, politically, ethically, and existentially. Scott pursues these tendencies across diverse forms of textuality and embodied experience.

I also plan to study Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 2007). This volume is regarded as some of Derrida’s most thoroughgoing thinking about religion. In comparison with Scott, Derrida focuses on arguably one of the ultimate topics related to indifference in the Western lineage—that of death, in various forms. Derrida concentrates on normative perceptions of responsibility and rationality for the occurrence, response to, and acceptance of death, largely derived from dominant religious traditions. The book has become an essential resource in discussions of indifference—a reflection on the very moral commitments to which something like indifference forms an ostensible antipode—as well as on relevant ethical questions more generally. Derrida characteristically traces the aforementioned issues as they develop across a number of classical and modern philosophical and literary corpuses.

Agamben and Indifference by William Watkin (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) might also occupy my time during the summer. Watkin’s work approaches the concept of indifference by interpreting it as a consistent thematic that animates much of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. His treatise would thereby provide another distinct vantage on the topic, examining indifference as both a methodological principle of Agamben’s philosophy (allowing ontological, political, judicial, or institutional systems to exist as they are) and a defining characteristic of its analytic objects (a feature of those very systems, in other words). Consistent with Agamben’s work in general, this approach suggests insights regarding the relationship of indifference to human rights, state power, and violence.

Finally, I plan to return (after a previous reading) to philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (City Lights, 2001). The early modern philosopher Spinoza is a crucial reference for much of late twentieth-century Continental thought, especially its post-structuralist iterations. Spinoza’s linkage of ethics and ontology provides a critical precursor for modern strains of Continental thought that question conventional moral paradigms (especially in their most didactic modern forms) and examine questions of self, action, responsibility, and ethics beyond good and evil, as it were. I’m also intrigued, in this case and in general, to the idea of re-reading works that one has previously read—especially challenging philosophical books, which merit periodic or repeated study. Deleuze’s dense prose applied to Spinoza’s highly demanding philosophy combines, in this case, to reward careful re-reading.

Peter Lunenfeld

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This gets my nomination for the best opening line of the summer. It’s from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015), and it and The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), the new one from William Gibson, are both on my list. Bruce Sterling, also of that generation of SF novelists, once told me that among the odder attributes of his genre was that to be successful, you had to be very good at imaging a world in which not only you but everyone you know and love was either obliterated or had never existed in the first place. Both Stephenson’s apocalypse and the alternate realities scenario that Gibson paints reinforce Sterling’s point.

suburban-warriorsI’m enmeshed in writing a post-WWII narrative history of Los Angeles, so the existence of others is very much with me. On the shelf are Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis Books, 2014), the brilliant and brilliantly designed new history by Cal Art’s Louise Sandhouse; Davide Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2000); LA native Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991); Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2013); Lisa McGirr’s classic analysis of Orange County and the John Birch Society, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2002); and Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, by William Deverell (University of California Press, 2005), probably the premiere historian of the Southland working today, and also Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The 20th Century still has the gravitational attraction of a neutron star on our imaginations, so to break away, I’m planning to read The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) by the German polymath Jürgen Osterhammel. Advance word is that the book is sprawling and panoptic, less a universal history than a multivalent perspective.

To return to the 21st century I’ve been rethinking the relationships between art and technology and have gone back to two foundational texts, both available on-line as pdfs. The first is Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology; A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), which was the first catalogue that Michael Govan had uploaded after he became LACMA’s director. Bookending LACMA’s project is Jack Burnham’s catalogue, Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, from his seminal show at the Jewish Museum in 1970.

Finally, even though it’s not a book yet, it soon will be, so I’ll recommend programmer Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” At 31,375 words, there’s a whole lot to argue with here, but as a whole it’s impressive and I’m willing to bet that it’ll be your best (and probably only) download from Bloomberg Businessweek this summer.

Alex Burns

David Graeber The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015): David Graeber is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who coined the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99%.” I read Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as a revelation on how bureaucracies rely on asymmetric knowledge to function. The essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” is both a critique of Western futures studies, and is also an explanation for why research and development ventures often do not lead to actionable social change. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) has further insights on how to cultivate counter-power and why anthropological ritual works.

David Harvey The Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006): Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The 2007-09 global financial crisis and the Great Stagnation (economist Tyler Cowen) has led to a revival of proto-Marxist critiques of the political economy. Harvey’s analysis of demand problems, labour processes, and capitalist organization is amongst the most detailed of these proto-Marxist critiques. The Limits to Capital is a guide to how elite oligarchical collectivism relies on capital accumulation and extractive profit-taking. Increasingly, these processes now underlie the private equity model of asset management now used in Western universities. For a discussion of profit-taking in the context of neoliberal capitalism see David M. Kotz’s The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015). For a comparison with the European Union see Pablo Beramendi, Silja Hausermann, Herbert Kitschelt and Hanspeter Kriesi’s collection The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla Introduction to Computational Social Science: Principles and Applications (Springer, 2014): Claudio Cioffi-Revilla is the Director of the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University. Computational Social Science (CSS) is an emerging paradigm at the edge of computational intelligence, social science methodology, environmental science, and engineering. Cioffi-Revilla acknowledges Herbert A. Simon’s influence to envision how computation would change the study of social complexity. This guide combines relevant computer science knowledge (such as on the Unified Modeling Language and object-oriented programming) with examples of CSS methods: automated information extraction, social network analysis, social complexity, and social simulations. CSS promises to be an exciting meta-methodology that will advance new approaches to
cumulative knowledge.

Knowledge Representation...Uri Wilensky and William Rand An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling: Modeling Natural, Social, and Engineered Complex Systems with NetLogo (MIT Press, 2015): Uri Wilensky is Director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. William Rand is Director of the Center for Complexity in Business at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Agent-based models simulate the actions of individual and collective actors to create observable social phenomena and possible systems change. This is the best guide to the NetLogo programming language for agent based models created by Wilensky and which is popular in academic courses. For an alternative introduction to agent-based models see Steven F. Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2012). For agent-based models in the computer programming language Prolog see Michael Gelfond and Yulia Kahl’s Knowledge Representation, Reasoning, and the Design of Intelligent Agents: The Answer-Set Programming Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

David Aronson and Timothy Masters Statistically Sound Machine Learning for Algorithmic Trading of Financial Instruments (CreateSpace, 2013). Algorithmic and high-frequency trading have changed the microstructure of financial markets. This has led to a fierce public debate between proponents (Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box) and critics (notably Michael Lewis in Flash Boys). Aronson and Masters provide an instruction manual to a black box available from TSSBSoftware.com to trade financial markets using a proprietary machine learning platform. For relevant background on machine learning see Peter Flach’s Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (MIT Press, 2012); and David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey Ma The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Jeffrey Ma was part of the MIT Blackjack Team who inspired Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House (The Free Press, 2003) and the film adaptation 21 (2008). The House Advantage gives Ma the opportunity to address the historical inaccuracies in Mezrich’s book and to explain how the MIT Blackjack Team used probability theory and other mathematical tools to do card counting. This overlooked book indirectly provides an insight into why some Wall Street hedge fund managers had important developmental learning experiences whilst learning blackjack, poker, and backgammon at a young age. It joins a collection of memoirs by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), Aaron C. Brown (Red-Blooded Risk and The Poker Face of Wall Street), David Einhorn (Fooling Some People All of the Time), and William Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula) on the strategies that some Wall Street hedge fund managers and risk managers use to cultivate an edge which leads to positive expectancy. Ma’s success can be contrasted with Nathaniel Tilton’s later experiences in The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012); with Haseeb Qureshi’s approach to expertise cultivation in How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker (Haseeb Qureshi, 2013); with Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells (Via Regia Publishing, 2012); and with Ole Bjerg’s two books Poker: The Parody of Capitalism (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso, 2014). For an insider memoir on backgammon and trading using early computer networks on Wall Street see Michael Goodkin’s The Wrong Answer Faster: The Inside Story of Making the Machine That Trades Trillions (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

Roy Christopher

As Dominic Pettman mentioned above, I am one of the many looking forward to finishing Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy trilogy from Zer0 Books. The series includes In the Dust of This Planet from 2011, and the recently released Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). I finished the former a few weeks ago and can’t wait to dig into the two follow-ups. In addition to my interest in Ken Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I’ve also been picking up titles based on his recommendations posted in various places online. Two such titles are the collections Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (Nebula/Autonomedia, 2015). The former is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, introduced by the inimitable Mark Fisher. The latter is the collected texts of the Situationists in Scandanavia “and elsewhere,” edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobson. They’re both full of applied poetry: the kinds of fragments, aphorisms, and images that ring in your head long after the book is closed. One of my favorites from Cosmonauts…: “The culture industry makes people believe that they participate in culture” (p. 129).

Savage MessiahI just cracked open Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (NYU Press, 2015), and so far it looks like it lands somewhere between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… (Harper Perennial, 2005) and Cass R. Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). I came across Young’s massive historical text via an excerpt about the weird 1990s, connecting Ted Kaczynski with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which makes all kinds of sense, but I’d never seen it done.

Aside from the latest from the usual suspects, I’ve been collecting dusty, old paperbacks by several dusty, old authors. Most notably Robert Sheckley, who  is an underrated master of the short story. His stories remind me of my first glimpses into these weird worlds via Harlan Ellison, back before I was much of a reader. Semiotext(e)’s SF anthology (AK Press, Edinburgh 1989), co-edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, includes selections from Sheckley’s Amsterdam journal. Here’s one for the writers we like to read and the ones we aspire to write like:

Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous — no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose — my own. The directions of its interest may change, even by morning. But what does that matter if I simply follow them, along for the trip rather than the payoff (always disappointing), enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion. Wise-sounding words which I hope describe where I’m really at.

——————

Many, many thanks to all of the contributors above new and old, and to the invited who didn’t have time to contribute but responded to say so: Tricia Wang, danah boyd, Jeffrey Sconce, Mark Amerika, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mark Fisher, Dave Tompkins, Jeff Noon, and Chris Kraus. Next year!

Scanning the Skies for Daylight Deities

Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:

Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?

Dad: 43 years total.

Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?

Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.

I want to believe.

The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets

The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:

An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).

In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).

Heaven's GateSome such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).

In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.

Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).

The Secret Space AgeFrom merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:

hoytrHE821o

References:

Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.

Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.

Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.

Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.

Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.

Summer Reading List, 2014

As school finally releases its grip on our attention and summer eases in around us, it’s time to peruse book pages for pleasure. If you’re like me, you’re still working through stuff from last year’s list. As my friend Kristin Ross tweeted recently, “Lately when I think about my mortality, the primary sadness I feel is in regards to all the books on my ‘to-read’ shelf.” We may never get to them all, but here are 2014’s summer recommendations.

Lily upstairs at Myopic Books in Chicago.
Lily upstairs at Myopic Books in Chicago.

This year’s list boasts newcomers Christopher Schaberg, Brian McFarland, and Alice Marwick, as well as veteran Summer Reading Listers Ashley Crawford, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Brad Vivian, Lily Brewer, Peter Lunenfeld, Alex Burns, danah boyd, Steve Jones, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Benjamin Bratton, and myself. As usual, unless otherwise noted, the book links will lead you to the book’s page on the Powell’s site, the greatest bookstore on the planet.

Lance Strate

At the top of my reading list for this summer is On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education, and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-First Century (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013) by Ellen Rose, an outstanding scholar. And speaking of great scholars, I have Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s most recent work, Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) high up on my stack as well.

Marshall McLuhan and Northrop FryeI am also looking forward to reading B. W. Powe’s important study, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy (University of Toronto Press, 2014). This looks to be a summer for biographical and semibiographical works, as I also have lined up In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) by Gerald W. Haslam with Janice E. Haslam, and Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, 2013) by Brett T. Robinson, as well as The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance (Anchor, 2007) by Fritjof Capra.

I’ve picked up some second hand books that I intend to enjoy this summer, including two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. One is a stray volume of his collected works that combines two of his major publications, The Conduct of Life and Society and Solitude (Macmillan, 1910). The other is Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Journals (Programmed Classics, 1968), selected and with an introduction by Lewis Mumford (which alone is worth the price of purchasing the book). And then there’s Understanding Understanding (Harper & Row, 1974), by Humphrey Osmond, with John A. Osmond and Jerome Agel, which I am understandably curious about.

For poetry, I can’t wait to delve into the long awaited volume from Dale Winslow, Tinderbox (NeoPoiesis, 2013). And in graphic novels, there’s Volume 21 of The Walking Dead, real brain food that I’ll no doubt gobble up in one sitting when it comes out in a few weeks.

Christopher Schaberg

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (Penguin, 2013) charts “a year’s watch in nature”—the author goes out to the same small plot of forest every day over the course of a year, and reflects on being (and non-being) at myriad scales. Haskell calls this place the “mandala”: seen in a certain way, it’s like a microcosm of the universe. The book reminded me of object-oriented ontology put into practice. In other words, it’s a work of praxis: an experiment in constraint and wonder, with the fruits (or more precisely, flora and fauna) of this endeavor recorded in sprightly prose.

But what if the mandala were not a spot in the woods, but a color? And what if the temporal frame were not a year but ongoing, indeterminate and blurry? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) reflects on blue hues across literary, artistic, and philosophical registers, and as the color shoots through her own life in ways that are at turns visceral and vaporous, ambient and affective. The book unfolds as a sequence of playfully (il)logical propositions, at once echoing Wittgenstein while venturing into new poetic territory.

Prismatic EcologyJeffrey Jerome Cohen has taken the impulse to color in another direction. His searching edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) does exactly what it’s title says: It pushes way beyond traditional “green” readings of nature, environment, and ecology. The chapters find deep reservoirs of semiotic value and biotic interplay across the spectrum of colors, reaching into perceptual zones as seemingly unnatural and alien as x-ray and ultraviolet. Collectively, this book comprises a tour de force that could be the core of an entire seminar on cutting edge environmental theory. (I plan to adopt the book this way in an environmental humanities seminar at Loyola University New Orleans in the near future.)

Of course a more traditional way to go about ecological thinking is to ground it in place. Jim Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The River Swimmer (Grove Press, 2014), revolves around my own home region of northern Michigan. The two novellas in this collection (“The Land of Unlikeness” and “The River Swimmer”) are paragons of the form; even as their plot lines unravel typical (for Harrison) male fantasies and nativist wish images, the stories are gently hilarious, disturbingly violent, softly sublime, and eerily haunting. Harrison has a way with the novella that exhibits incredible formal control and concision, even as the stories sprawl out to epic and even magical proportions. Throughout each story, the aura of Michigan seeps through details as striking and elusive as the spring marshy air, the texture of river currents, and rare bird calls.

Another geography I recently found myself reading about, somewhat unexpectedly, was New York City. Thomas Beller’s new biography of J.D. Salinger (subtitled The Escape Artist; New Harvest, 2014) suggests that the landscape and atmosphere of New York shaped Salinger’s writing and consciousness to a large degree. I don’t know the city terribly well, and I have not read a single work of fiction by Salinger (I know, I know!), but the fact that Beller manages to lure me into and guide me through these intertwined (and to me, unfamiliar) topographies speaks to a certain ecological acuity present in the book. But it’s an eccentric ecology, attuned to human culture and the patterns and quirks of things like publishing, personae, and literary production. To call this biography ‘ecological’ may sound strange, but it’s precise in the sense that Beller breaks from a simple, linear-narrative biography and develops something more networked, something more (to recover a theoretical term perhaps overused but still apt here) rhizomatic.

Alice Marwick

I read two kinds of books during the summer: academic books that get me jazzed about research, and anything page-turnery I can read on my Kindle while lying around in the sun.

I’m in an academic book club and by far our favorite title this year was Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014). It’s a mind-blowing ethnography of young black men in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how the constant intrusion of the police and penal system systematically undermines their familial and romantic relationships. Goffman is a really gifted writer, and her book not only hammers home the horrific social impact of American mass incarceration of African-American youth, but includes a methods chapter where she discusses how living in a primarily black, masculine environment for six years affected her own subjectivity and relationship to academia. It’s the rare academic book I can’t put down and I would recommend it to anyone.

Goffman’s book has inspired me to finally read legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012) which tackles the same issues from a legal perspective. Alexander examines how today’s legal system has perpetrated systemic African-American disenfranchisement and inequality, much like the Jim Crow laws of years past.

The Democratic SurroundNext on the list after that is Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read yet considering what a huge influence Turner’s smart, literate histories of the 20th century have been on my own work.

In fiction, my favorite discovery of the year was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, but I get very irritated by writers who can imagine a world with cybernetic augmentation, mass terraforming, etc. etc. but can’t get beyond run-of-the-mill patriarchy. Kirstein’s Steerswomen are scholars who travel around their realm, making detailed maps and observations about the natural environment. This, of course, deeply appealed to me as a social scientist, and I loved seeing Rowan, the chief steerswoman, use her version of the scientific method to puzzle through the various trials and tribulations that come her way. While the setting seems at first to be your typical medieval fantasy world, Kirstein expertly reveals throughout the series that it may be more than it seems. A fantastic, engaging series that is simultaneously nerdy and feminist. I can’t recommend these books highly enough, especially now that the rights have reverted to Kirstein and she’s released them all as ebooks.

I’m also planning on reading the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which is also speculative fiction but from an almost Lovecraftian perspective. The first book, Annihilation (FSG Originals, 2014), described a team of scientists sent out to explore the abandoned Area X. Why it was abandoned, who commissioned the expedition, and what happened to the previous teams remains a mystery, but the sense of dread that sets in as you watch the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor—all women—navigate the uncertainty of the landscape. Without putting too fine a point on it, this book creeped me the hell out. The second book, Authority (FSG Originals, 2014), focuses on the institutional apparatus that supports the expeditions, which doesn’t sound terrifying but I’m hoping doesn’t lose the momentum of the first.

Other than that, I’ll be finally trying to finish The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), which is like half of a really good book interspersed with a lot of boring short stories, catching up on various mystery, sci-fi, and dystopian series that have new books out, and perhaps making a dent in my “to read” PDF folder. Preferably while out in the sun.

Brian McFarland

Krysztof Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2013) provides a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time, as he understood them, played in it.

If you read this as a confused teenager seeking power amid your angst, this book will remind you of the joy and freedom that was embedded within all that poetry. While reading I had that rare joy (that only books can provide) of remembering a former self experiencing a book and transforming that experience by re-visiting the text again. That’s not so clear, but Krysztof Michalski had the same fascination with passages that confounded my younger self- and here I was years later remembering that confusion and achieving understanding of it many years later. A powerful read and the author does a nice job of making difficult concepts clear.

Bradford Vivian

This summer, I’m studying various books on the subject of witnessing. Last year, I researched treatises on time and politics and, presently, I’m seeking to analyze the rhetoric of witnessing in light of temporality and the politics of time. To that end, my summer reading list features works that approach witnessing from unconventional angles and, in so doing, attempt to understand it in novel ways.

Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) illustrates one of the best features of her writing in general: her ability to connect canonical philosophical concepts and lineages to the concrete realities of public and political affairs. Here, she relates the Hegelian politics of recognition to conventional humanitarian, moral, or political discourse that assumes one witnesses in order to identify the basis for some common humanity and historical experience. Oliver helpfully pushes our approach to witnessing beyond recognition, in whatever form, as its guiding telos.

In this context, I also plan to closely study Jacques Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (Fordham University Press, 2005). This text is reputed to feature many of Derrida’s customary deconstructive topoi-my interest resides, in particular, in the extent to which that his reflections throughout Sovereignties are said to echo his remarks on impossibility and possibility elsewhere regarding related topics-specifically, forgiveness and mourning. That is, I’m interested in his understanding of how the impossibility of something like witnessing, forgiveness, or mourning might nonetheless accomplish productive ethical and political work.

The Generation of PostmemoryFinally, I’ll be preoccupied with Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2012). In this text, Hirsch takes up a line of thought that others have begun to explore in their own scholarship (notably Celia Lury in Prosthetic Culture and Alison Landsberg in Prosthetic Memory): namely, the degree to which one can remember someone else’s memories. Many discourses of witnessing presuppose that memories may somehow be affectively transferred from survivors or participants in history to future generations who did not witness the original events. This kind of work necessarily involves reflections on the communication of memory via literature, art, and media while raising important questions about the ethics and politics of witnessing.

Lily Brewer

I graduated from my SAIC Art History graduate program last May, and within the first 25 days of said graduation, starved for novels, I had read 15 novels, textbooks, and other non-fictions: I feel I have read all the great books already, but will continue to pursue others. Here is a representative sample of both.

After reading Lydia Davis’ remarkable collection of short stories in Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), wherein one story she outlines a systematic, syntactical, and secretly heartbreaking analysis of 27 fourth graders’ get-well letters to a classmate Steven. I’ve dipped my toes in her The End of the Story from 1995, but so far have found it more depressing than my summer warrants. Especially when read alongside S. D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), written as multiple emails’ soliloquy with image attachments, I’ve found that contemporary fiction writing, for me, needs to be carefully vetted by the public before I set my eyes to it. However, learning from my mistake and in an ameliorative effort, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (Wesleyan, 2010) so far relieves me with strange, sparse, deadpan scans of the backs of books, discount cards, and “Wet Paint” signs, and the narrative is obscure, or rather clandestine, or maybe not even there, and refreshing. I’m tired of narratives.

The Rings of SaturnWith that said, despite his overwrought account of the failure of memory in the sleepy wake of post-WWII PTSD, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1999) records scattered memories of scenes as they come to the narrator, with images anchored within two lines of its antecedent. I hope the image and text in his The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997) is just as meticulously and personally designed when I begin it soon.

Christian Bok’s Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1999) inspired me toward Jacques Roubaud’s Mathematics (Dalkey Archive, 2012), but  unfortunately in name only: Bok’s stupifyingly researched, fractal, picture poem on crystals and their study has eaten Roubaud for breakfast. Giving the latter a shot anyway, I thought his memoir on his mathematical academic career would be as cynical toward the academy as Barbara Browning’s detective(?) novel I’m Trying to Reach You (complete with screenshots of YouTube videos of, likely, the author herself in interpretive dance performances inspired by the death of Michael Jackson; Two Dollar Radio, 2012) and maybe even Chris Kraus’ memoir/erotica/art-history-laced-in-latex Video Green (Semiotext(e), 2004), but both Mathematics and Kraus’ novel Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e), 2012) have fallen short so far. I have high hopes anyway while finishing those and Roubaud’s The Loop (Dalkey Archive, 2009).

Finally and always already on my list are Sylvia Plath’s journals, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Jacob Bronowski’s works on science and its critics, and textbooks on our solar system’s planetary landscapes. Like the tradition set by Marianne Moore and the second law of thermodynamics, this female, like her Amazon shopping cart, is a chaos.

Steve Jones

A Man Called DestructionSummer reading this year will veer even further toward pleasure and away from work, and even more toward indulging my interests in popular music, I’m glad to say. In no particular order I’m looking forward to reading Romany and Tom: A Memoir, by Ben Watt, that promises to be a fascinating look at British music and life before the Beatles broke. For somewhat similar voyeuristic reasons, you might say, I’m planning to read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home (Little, Brown & Co., 2014), for its chronicling of the home life of people at the center of 1980s literary London. Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction (Viking Adult, 2014), is also on my list. I’ve only known the Chilton myths, so I’m looking forward to something a bit more journalistic about hiim. I’ve also got Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity (Riverhead, 2014) on the list, for light reading and a laugh. To round out the music titles I’ve got Greg Kot’s, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway (Scribner, 2014). The Staples family have a singular place in popular music that I hope Kot is able to contextualize. I also very much want to read Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Domain (Oxford University Press, 2014), that’s actually been an intention for a long time. As I look at it now, it’s quite an indulgent list, really, and that makes me quite happy to see.

Benjamin Bratton

My reading list for summer 2014 is made up of largely overlooked titles. In most cases, they are lesser-known works by well-known authors, both fiction and non-fiction. In a couple cases, it’s a chance for me re-visit some favorites that have strongly influenced my recent work. If any of you read any of these over the next few weeks and write something on it, send me a link.

J.G. Ballard Crepuscular Enclave (Picador, 2014): This posthumously-published novel takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, occupied by British forces who live and work behind what is supposed to be the most impenetrable fortress ever devised (obviously modeled on the USA’s Green Zone in Baghdad). After the mysterious disappearance of several soldiers, none of which are officially listed on the base’s manifest, the camp Psychiatrist begins to suspect that the real purpose of the compound is not what it seems. With with two of her patients, awaiting dishonorable discharge for desertion, she makes a furtive pact to investigate what is on the other side of the “barrier.” In time they come realize that “every outside is an inside”and that the architecture of the fortified enclave is the same as a concentration camp.

Hiromi Matsui and Ken Nomo, editors, She Gets Confused (Flying Over the Dateline): Tokyo-Los Angeles Art & Architectural Practices, 1990-99 (Rizzoli, 2013): The catalog for this show featuring art and architectural practices that were based in both Los Angeles and Tokyo during the 1990s and whose work expresses influences from both sides of the Pacific. Of particular interest are extremely inventive “mobile multimedia” projects, experimental manga titles that strongly influenced on the Osaka School of typography, and a series of UCLA student projects for the Japanese space program. I remember with fascination the essays debating the controversy over the design competition for a Yukio Mishima memorial in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district (officially won by Angry Pineapple Now! after Studio Unit 731b withdrew in protest.) Purchase of the proposed site and construction of a memorial to the controversial right-wing Japanese poet, actor, body-builder, and political activist was provided by a local construction magnate, but outcry from Korean-American and Chinese-American Angelinos resulted in withdrawal of permits by the city. Amazing lenticular book cover design by APPPA.

Dr. Joseph Wang Programming Nanorobotics (O’Reilly, 2014): This introduction to programming essentials from O’Reilly Media books continues their excellent series of software/hardware primers in emerging programming fields. Nanorobotics has become a really interesting platform for design and development, especially in conjunction with standard 3D biotechnology tools. Autodesk’s systems are still the most widely used, including their prosumer iPad apps (like 123Gene and AutoProtein, which even my little boy can use to design DNA and print-to-order “biobricks”). I am more interested in what the new logic and behavior protocols can do (namely OOGL and NovoGenXL) especially in conjunction with Google’s Android Robotics OS. My previous work toying with nanotech skin-based sensing systems is something I would like to develop further for other surfaces with other machine behavior profiles.

That Which is Not What is NotSlavoj Žižek That Which is Not What it is Not (Punctum Books, 2014): I had a chance to spend some time with the intrepid Slovenian Philosopher earlier this summer at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where we were both teaching. We had a memorable conversation about Jacques Lacan’s notion of “Lamella,” a kind of monstrous brainless undead asexually reproducing indestructible goop. Žižek has used the term in his reading of David Lynch films, as a substance that is horrific and uncanny. I pressed the point that as far as Astrobiology is concerned this kind of matter is pretty ordinary, and that the sorts of things that we take to be “normal” (having a face, inside the symbolic order, sexually reproducing, etc.) are really the bizarre and exceptional forms. He agreed with this (I think), and we discussed H.P. Lovecraft and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which somehow lead him to anecdotes about Stalin’s body double’s true height and why he liked the new Robocop more than the original. Apparently, he deals with the concept of Lamella at greater length in this short independently published book, and even manages to relate it to the Dave Eggers/Emily Gould collaboration, The Tweed and Tonic Diaries (a text so deeply horrible that neither of us could bear to read more than a few pages —on that we agreed).

Also: Nick Land Urbanatomy Guidebook: Shanghai Expo 2010 (Urbanatomy, 2010); H.D.A. Miralles Historias: Los Edificios son Demasiado Largos (BIS Publishers, 2012); Nigel Worth The Cartoon Guide to Contemporary British Sculpture (Ridinghouse, 2014).

danah boyd

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014) blew me away. Through deeply embedded ethnographic work, Goffman illustrates how young black men must navigate the abusive nature of policing practices from their earliest years, forcing them to develop sophisticated strategies to achieve some sense of agency in an unfair world. This book is raw and brilliant, providing key insights into aspects of American inequality that aren’t fully understood by more privileged folks.

Picking UpAnother book that delighted me to no end is Robin Nagle’s Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), where she joins the New York City Department of Sanitation to better understand the often invisible infrastructure of waste collection that keeps our city functional. Did you know, for example, that more sanitation workers die on the job each year than policemen or firemen? And do you know the history of how NYC went from a site of filth to an impressively functional sanitation machine? This book will tell you this and more.

Most histories of the internet start with big tech companies. But if you dig deeper, there’s a more complex story. In the 1930s, the US government brought together leading artists like John Cage and the New Bauhaus folks alongside artistic organizations like MoMA and anthropologists like Margaret Mead to imagine what “democratic media” might look like in response to the “fascist media” of film. As Fred Turner beautifully documents in The Democratic Surround (University of Chicago Press, 2013), the communities that emerged around this helped imagine interactive technologies as we know them.

It’s easy to bash security theater when spending another day trying to navigate the TSA, but the US’s obsession with security isn’t just annoying; it’s downright dangerous. In Against Security (Princeton University Press, 2014), Harvey Molotch offers a series of case studies that shed light on how we used security to implement practices, policies, and infrastructure that fundamentally disenfranchises and harms the very people it’s designed to protect.

My publisher would probably murder me if I didn’t list my own book, published in February, among the list of key summer reading. It’s Complicated (Yale University Press, 2014) is an attempt to synthesize a decade’s worth of work into young people’s engagement with social technologies by responding to various fears and anxieties that enshroud discussions of youth. Kids do care about privacy. Bullying is more complicated than you think. The internet is not the great equalizer. And our online safety discussions are often a distraction to real risks youth face. More importantly, what teens are doing today is trying to reclaim a space of their own because we adults have made it so darn difficult for teens to socialize with their friends.

Peter Lunenfeld

My bifurcated research into media art and media design trifurcated when I started looking at digital humanities as well, and with a long-standing project on the cultural history of Los Angeles, has now morphed, re-mixed, and metastasized into a weird beast that I no longer quite understand or recognize, but one that demands to be fed with bushels of books over summer breaks.

ExcommunicationFor the media philosophy side, I’ll start with Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation by Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark (University of Chicago Press, 2013). I want to see to see how these three formidable figures link their contributions together in the book, as collective writing becomes a bigger part of contemporary humanities culture (three authors here, five authors in Digital_Humanities, ten for 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10; MIT Press, 2013).

More than a decade ago I wrote an essay about speed-up called “25/8,” so I’m interested in Jonathan Crary’s take in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This book has been very present on my grad students’ bibliographies, and I want to catch up with them (an anxious mode of text-reception befitting precisely what I figure Crary will be discussing).

I read Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) on-line over time as he posted various versions, but I want to sit down and take it in as a totality now that it’s been published in book form. The chapter on motion graphics is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and the final version is copiously illustrated.

In co-writing Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), I had to come to grips with just how tenaciously literary scholars want to hold onto the field as “theirs,” even though it seems quite evident to me that DH is far more. That said, I want to look more deeply at two of the best from that side of the aisle, with a close reading of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (Verso, 2013) and a microanalysis of Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).

I’ll beat a hasty retreat back to the realms of the visual, spatial, and tactile with Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (MIT Press, 2013) by the London-based wonder duo Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and LA architect Greg Lynn, whose Archaeology of the Digital (Ram Publications, 2014) features a series of interviews and project analyses from a show he did at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

In a similar vein, I plan to dive into the catalogues from some major shows about LA architecture and design from the past year, with Wendy Kaplan’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” from LACMA, the Getty’s Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 curated by Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, and Never Built Los Angeles, which Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin organized for the A+D Museum.

The buildings in Southern California, even the unbuilt ones, are amazing, but so too is the food that Angelenos eat in and around them. Roy Choi, chef, originator of the food truck phenomenon, and all around bad-ass, has written L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (Ecco, 2013) which is a must read for anyone trying to figure out the future of the City of Angels. To look at its past, Gustavo Arellano’s sections on SoCal in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner, 2013) are also required reading. For a window onto right now, I’m looking forward to Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture (Riverhead, 2013) which promises to contend with L.A.’s particular mix of the high and the low, the spicy and the sublime.

Finally, I’ve decided that I want to read all of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. There are only twelve of them, with two short story collections, written between 1951 and 1964. I probably should be reading them while drinking martinis (shaken but not stirred), but I’m an Angeleno, and it’s already hot outside, so I’ll be opting for cucumber-jalapeno margaritas instead.

Dominic Pettman

Most of my summer reading will consist of canonical texts concerning “Eros & Civilization,” which is a new course I’ll be teaching at the New School for Social Research in the Fall. But when I manage to steal away from such agonistic Grand Narratives, I’ll be hopefully getting a chance to read the following:

Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle: Book 2 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014): Yes, obvious I know. But I found Book 1 as inexplicably compulsive as many others, and I’ve heard volume 2 is even more absorbing.

An Ideal for LivingEugene Thacker An Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014): I read this techno-remix mind-melt in ms. form over ten years ago, and am keen to revisit it again, now that it’s been given a new life by Gobbet Press. A nice appetizer for Thacker’s incredibly transporting book on pessimism, which will hopefully come out in a year or so.

Eduardo Kohn How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (University of California Press, 2013): People I trust have been raving about this book for the past year, so I better catch up. Kohn seems to be doing something similar, yet different, from what Hugh Raffles did in his splendid book, In Amazonia (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Yuriko Furuhata Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Duke University Press, 2013): This book won a SCMS prize a year or so ago, and having read some of Yuri’s subsequent work-in-progress, this has rocketed to the top of the to-read pile. She uses specific sites to do astonishing historical revisions of interest to any scholars of critical media theory. Plus, I envy her virtuoso use of English.

Mark Fisher Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Zer0 Books, 2014): Another obvious one, but Fisher’s writing is always worth reading, at the level of the sentence, the aesthetic, the politics, and the idea.

Marguerite Yourcenar Two Lives and a Dream (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988): Part of my ongoing project to read every word Yourcenar ever wrote, and remind the world that this remarkable woman needs to be rediscovered in a big way (a lá, the new marketing machine for Clarice Lispector). Truly humbling to be in the presence of such a brilliant and creative mind.

Zizi Papacharissi

I have been reading Listening Publics by Kate Lacey (Polity, 2013), and am deeply regretting not having read it before turning in my own latest to Oxford University Press, Affective Publics: Sentiment and the New Political. It is a beautifully written and engaging book that reviews what form practices of listening took on in the past, and thus, makes us all reconsider what practices of listening mean for contemporary political cultures. I could not recommend more highly, especially to those interested in how newer media platforms can help revive tired civic habits of the past.

I also recently read and thoroughly enjoyed How Voters Feel by Stephen Coleman (Cambridge University Press, 2014), on what it means to feel like, rather than act like or think like a democratic citizen. Coleman examines how  narratives, dreams, and memories inform performances of voting or non-voting, and what sorts of feelings about democracy and civic engagement these generate for people. The book focuses on what living in a democracy might feel like, rather than require of its citizens, and in so doing, it refocuses attention on the meaning of feelings for political engagement, without divorcing them from the organizing logic of rationality.

The Hybrid Media SystemThe Hybrid Media System: Political and Power (Oxford university Press, 2013) by Andrew Chadwick is another volume I recently finished and highly recommend, especially to those looking for a book to assign in basic courses on mass media (whatever the term may refer to these days), media systems, mass communication and new media, and all those courses that represent the core of our field. Having read this, many textbooks feel dated to me now. This volume describes the organization, logic, and function of contemporary media in immediate and engaging terms. It is a must read for all students of media, and interested parties in general.

Finally, I am trying to muster the energy to read Thomas Piketty’s much discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014). I have gone through the first chapter and had to ask myself whether all those who bought and pushed it to the top of best seller lists actually finished reading it. It is a very smart book, and one that had to be written, I am just not sure yet that the same issues have not been presented, in a slightly different contexts, by other social scientists already. I look forward to reading more, and more on this when I am done doing so. Happy reading!

Mark Amerika

Who has time to read? My world is one of continuous partial attention. Complicating matters is that I can no longer read anything without simultaneously writing something. Let’s call it riff-reading.

The best writing does absolutely nothing for me in the way of story, plot, character, authenticity, voice, setting or conventional meaning-making i.e. the predictable middle-brow or preprogrammed academic literary and theoretical styles that easily meet expectations. Rather, it immediately stimulates my muscle memory in a way my neurons never saw coming. Once the neurons are triggered and I am starting to go out of control, I too find myself writing-while-reading in the margins of my mind, iPhone, notepad, etc. What this means is that the best writing, the writing I come back to, is writing that awakens the writer-in-me, even if that writer is really anybody but me.

Powell's Books rules.Fortunately, I often spend my summers in Portland, living and writing in my loft a mere six blocks away from Powell’s, arguably the best bookstore in America. My nightly visits to Powell’s open me up to books I might never have heard of were I to depend solely on the Internet or, worse, academic culture, to tell me what’s hot and what’s not. Which is why my summer reading is always an eclectic mix of the unexpected. This year is no different. These are the first books I have unearthed from the endless shelves that I immerse myself in:

Anne Waldman Gossamurmur (Penguin, 2013)
Christine Weirtheim mUtter–bAbel (Counterpath Press, 2013)
Melissa Broder When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother (Ampersand Books, 2010)
Kate Durbin E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2014)
Dodie Bellamy The TV Sutras (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)
Chelsea Martin The Really Funny Thing About Apathy (sunnyoutside, 2010)

and one old guy too (who, page for page, happens to be the most underappreciated living American fiction writer):

Steve Katz The Compleat Memoirrhoids (Starcherone Books, 2013)

For more on my literary (and other) thoughts, I have two Twitter accounts:
@markamerika
@remixthebook

Ashley Crawford

Blake Butler Three Hundred Million (Harper Perennial, 2014): Alongside Ben Marcus, Blake Butler has rapidly become one of my favorite authors of recent years. His last two forays, There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) and Sky Saw (Tyrant Books, 2012) were terrifying in scope and ambition. They were essentially abstractions, vivid, nightmarish images sown together with bloody twine to form shimmering, apocalyptic narratives. Three Hundred Million sounds like something of a departure for Butler. For one thing, judging by pre-publication blurbs, it appears as though he has veered into a more straight-forward approach (if that can ever be said of Butler!) – for the first time in his oeuvre he names characters – a psychopath called Gretch Gravey and a burnt-out cop called E.N. Flood. That fact alone suggests a more accessible narrative. But knowing Butler that’s a bit like describing Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night as a straight forward detective novel. I expect the unexpected.

ConsumedDavid Cronenberg Consumed (Scribner, 2014): What’s not to be intrigued? He is one of the world’s most literary contemporary filmmakers, consuming and then exhuming, as it were, the works of the likes of Burroughs, Ballard and DeLillo for source material. As this is a first novel it will be intriguing to see if Cronenberg’s visual panache can be matched in the written word, but the themes are certainly suitably Cronenbergian: disease, depravity and conspiracy. Evidently the story of two journalists who become involved in the complexities surrounding a French philosopher’s death – it may be Umberto Eco on acid?

William Gibson The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014): It’s rather impossible to know which direction Gibson is going to go in with this. Where Thomas Pynchon’s last outing, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), sounded like a precursor to some of Gibson’s recent speculations, this one is evidently back to the “far future” – which, with Gibson, probably means next year. The pre-pub blurb is certainly intriguing complete with veteran’s benefits for neural damage suffered from implants during time in an “elite Haptic Recon force,” Beta-testing a new game, where “Little bug-like things turn up,” but “it might also be murder.” Gibson, to date, has never failed to supply a decent narrative drive, although perhaps not as visionary as his first novel, he has an uncanny knack for picking themes that seem strangely relevant to our near-future(s).

Okwui Enwezor, Homi K. Bhabha, and Hilton Als Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Skira Rizzoli, 2014): Whilst the other books listed here must go down as pleasure, this one is work-related as part of doctorial research where Harold Bloom’s American Religion meets Barney’s art, Ben Marcus’ novels and moments of David Lynch. Yeah, weird. But River of Fundament is an extraordinary film/artwork which I strongly recommend for those who do not have allergies to the extreme. Inspired in part by Norman Mailer’s Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, his infamous classic that chronicled the passage of a narrator through the stations of death and reincarnation (here reinterpreted as Mailer’s own aspirations to be the Great American Novelist). Barney has outdone the Cremaster Cycle on many levels. If one likes the films of Lynch, Cronenberg, and the more extreme moments of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, River of Fundament is a must-see. Hopefully the main text by Okwui Enwezor will provide an insight into a baffling but brilliant project.

Alex Burns

Michael Findley, Daniel Nielson, and Jason Sharman Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014): The authors use an innovative experimental research design to investigate over 3,800 corporate service providers in 181 countries that establish anonymous shell corporations. These untraceable corporations are used for money laundering, covert financing, and offshore tax havens. One of the major findings is that corporate service providers located in major Western countries including the United States are more likely to flout international regulations of the World Bank and the Financial Action Task Force. The authors propose Transnational Experimental Relations as a new sub-discipline of international relations to conduct further research using field experiments.

Gordon Clark, Adam Dixon, and Ashby Monk Sovereign Wealth Funds: Legitimacy, Governance, and Global Power (Princeton University Press, 2013): In 2010 as the global financial crisis unfolded a new type of funds management emerged as a dominant force in international markets and financial media coverage: sovereign wealth funds. This rigorous study examines what sovereign wealth funds are, how they function in transnational economies, and includes case studies from Australia, Norway, Singapore, China, and the Gulf States. A model of how good academic research can dispel media hype cycles.

Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014): Piketty’s multi-year research program is one of the sources for multi-country data on income inequality. This book became a bestseller in 2014; crossed into the financial and popular media; and ignited a backlash against Piketty’s data collection and policy suggestions. Rather than Karl Marx, Piketty’s research continues a tradition on social elites pioneered by Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and most recently, Jeffrey A. Winters. The backlash against Piketty in part reflects an elite strategy of ‘wealth defense’ and civil oligarchical trends in the United States (Winters).

David Weil The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It (Harvard University Press, 2014): Boston University professor Weil is now the Obama Administration’s first Wage and Hour Administrator. This confronting book on labor economics contrasts the asset and private equity style of management with the lives of independent contractors and outsourcing firms. Many of the trends that Weil identifies already apply to universities, and will continue to unfold over the next decade.

The Second Machine AgeErik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014): Brynjolfsson and McAfee continue a debate on technology shaped by Norbert Wiener (The Human Use of Human Beings) and Alvin Toffler (Future Shock). This book catalogues recent growth in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related fields, and how these innovations might change workplaces in the next two decades. Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that recent innovations will lead to societal transformations (Toffler), yet they may also create a new economic underclass (Wiener; Piketty; and Weil). A primer to critically interrogate the preferred futures of Bangalore and Silicon Valley.

Riccardo Rebonato and Alexander Denev Portfolio Management Under Stress: A Bayesian-Net Approach to Coherent Asset Allocation (Cambridge University Press, 2014): Modern Portfolio Theory faced critique after the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nouriel Roubini emerged as superstar critics. This book develops a post-MPT approach to asset allocation and portfolio management that uses Bayesian nets: probabilistic models of belief networks. Rebonato and Denev’s insights and formal models articulate ways to deal with extreme events and risk management that has resonances with the therapeutic literature on post-traumatic growth and resilience.

Henrique Andrade, Bugra Gedik, and Deepak Turaga Fundamentals of Stream Processing: Application, Design, Systems and Analytics (Cambridge University Press, 2014): A decade ago business management literature hypothesized the emergence of real-time companies. SAP’s enterprise resource planning platform was one way. Tibco and Streambase’s complex event processing engines are another way. This book provides a conceptual and methodological overview of stream processing that deals with high-volume, real-time data streams – with sections on system architecture, development, analytics, and case studies. Stream processing is an example of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s transformative technologies, and that benefit Piketty’s economic elites. For one application in financial services, see Yacine Ait-Sahalia and Jean Jacod’s High-Frequency Econometrics (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Jacob Shapiro The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton University Press, 2013): During the Bush Administration’s so-called Global War on Terror the study of terrorist organizations was a ‘hot topic’ in security studies. This book is one of the best post-GWoT studies to combine agency theory with a careful study of internal documents from terrorist organizations. Shapiro identifies a dilemma: leadership need for control versus the need to be clandestine. His findings can also be read as a specialized form of Clayton M. Christensen’s influential Disruptive Innovation Theory, as applied to terrorist organizations.

Don Webb Through Dark Angles (Hippocampus Press, 2014): H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) influenced contemporary horror and weird fiction, films, and subcultures. This book collects the Lovecraftian-influenced short stories of Austin, Texas writer Don Webb. The short stories hint at Webb’s on-going practice-based research into the anthropology, linguistics, and sociology of operative magic (the Egyptian heka) as a liminal methodology to achieve, embody, and to cultivate Desire.

James H. Austin Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen (MIT Press, 2011): Over the past decade Austin has published a series of books on Zen and contemporary neuroscience. This book summarizes Austin’s research program, and offers guidance for mindfulness meditation practice. Rather than beliefs or doctrines Austin advises: “what you may glimpse are some of your brain’s innate resources” (p. xxiii). Austin’s latest book Zen-Brain Horizons: Towards a Living Zen (MIT Press, 2014) continues his personal research journey.

Roy Christopher

Records Ruin the LandscapeDavid Grubbs Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014): The last time I saw the name David Grubbs, it was attached to a record by Grubbs’ band with Jim O’Rourke called Gastr Del Sol. I got this book for Lily because she loves John Cage more than she loves me. Given the Grubbs connection though, I’ll probably read it before she does.

Lance Strate Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014): It’s high time that Neil Postman’s ideas were revisited, and, having studied under Postman himself, Lance Strate is the ideal scholar to do it. Media ecology as a perspective is more important now than ever. This is the source and the voice of its views in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the upgrade.

Eugene Thacker An Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014) and In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] (Zer0 Books, 2011): Eugene Thacker has been quietly building an impressively wide and weird body of work. An Ideal for Living is a deserved re-issue of the anti-novel he was working on during our 2006 interview. In the Dust of This Planet is Book One of his re-imagining of horror, philosophy, and their intersection. Both are worth a look. Or three.

Lisa Gitelman Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014) and N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2013): James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. In one way or another these two books are about the widespread implications of that idea.

Jonathan Crary 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013): This has been on my list since Jussi Parikka mentioned it last year. Now that it’s out in paperback, I suspect it will get the wider attention it deserves.

Mark Fisher Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Zer0 Books, 2014): Just the introduction, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future,” is worth the price of this book. Fisher glides effortlessly across the surfaces of Joy Division, Burial, Kanye West, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and many others, sometimes trying to see past his own reflection, others just describing how he looks. It’s enough for me to add him to the short list of writers I aspire to write like, along with Rebecca Solnit, David Toop, and Terry Eagleton (I’m not kidding myself, but one should dream large).

I tend to read more music biographies during the summer. I’ve already knocked out Lexicon Devil, Keven Dettman’s 33 1/3 book on Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and both of D. X. Ferris’s Slayer books. I’ve collected a pile of books on New York’s late-1970s no wave movement, including David Nobakht’s Suicide: No Compromise (SAF Publishing, 2004). In addition, I’m hoping to finally get to John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Da Capo, 1998).

Summer Reading List, 2012

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 PapacharissiSteven 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.

Lily reads to Howard the donkey. (Photo by Cynthia Bayer)

In spite of their inevitable variety, a few books end up on more than one list every year and emerge as the salient texts of the zeitgeist, or at least our little slice of it. This year I am proud to announce that those books are by friends, mentors, and contributors to previous and current Summer Reading Lists. They are Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012), Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), and Mark Dery‘s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), as well as James Gleick‘s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Pantheon) from last year.

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.

Howard Rheingold

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.

Nick Harkaway

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 have Murakami’s 1Q84 (Knopf, 2011) by my bed, and I’m dying to get to that, too, along with Carne Ross’s Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Blue Rider Press, 2012) — but I may blink and fall back on P. G. Wodehouse’s irresistible golfing stories in The Clicking of Cuthbert (CreateSpace, 2011) — at least for a while. The title story, in particular, says more about writers and how we live than any other single text I know. And it’s great fun. Everyone talks about Jeeves, but for my money it’s Emsworth, golf, and Ickenham. Call me cussed…

Douglas Rushkoff

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!

Zizi Papacharissi

I am reading Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) by John Protevi and The Affect Theory Reader (Duke University Press, 2010), by Melissa Gregg and Greg Seigory Seigworth (Eds.) among other books on affect. I am looking for new ways to explain how digital formations connect to the political — so hoping these will give me some new ideas.

Also hoping to have time to read:

The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (Yale University Press, 2012) by Joseph Turow (Hardcover) and The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (Penguin, 2011) By Eli Pariser, because they look interesting!

Finally, I am re-reading Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) and Judy Wajcman’s Feminism Confronts Technology (Penn State Press, 1991) for inspiration.

Dominic Pettman

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).

In terms of creative critical theory, I will be reading Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s edited collection, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects (produced by the very promising POD publishers, Punctum, 2012). Otherwise, I always like to keep up with other authors in Minnesota’s Posthumanities series, and this summer they are releasing Vilem Flusser’s Lovecraftian book about a giant killer squid, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). I also look forward to Mark Dery’s razor-wire wit and insights in his new collection, also from Minnesota, entitled I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.

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.

Mark Amerika

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:

Alex Forman Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents (Les Figues, 2012)

Tan Lin Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking: [AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE] (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2010)

Robert Arellano Curse the Names (Akashic Books, 2011)

Lidia Yuknavitch The Chronology of Water: A Memoir (Hawthorne Books, 2011)

Anakana Schofield Malarkey (Biblioasis, 2012)

Dave Allen

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 Bohane by 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).

And two new books for the summer that just arrived: The Art of Fielding: A Novel (Back Bay Books, 2012) by Chad Harbach (We’ll see what all the fuss is about) and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown, 2012) by Susan Cain (I’m expecting great things).

Peter Lunenfeld

This summer I plan to stop being the only person I know who hasn’t read last summer’s big book, James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Pantheon, 2011). As alternate beach reading, I’ll pack (as I have an atavistic attachment to the physical object of the book) David Graeb’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) and Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Geert Lovink described this to me as the first anarchist classic in a long time.

Continuing the heavy lifting, I’m looking forward to David F. Dufty’s How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection, which may prompt me to tackle The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (eds. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem), a pretty thick tome that has been sitting reproachfully on my shelf.

Also on my shelf are Matthew K. Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011). I should read both of these before Digital_Humanities – a book I co-wrote with Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp – comes out this fall from MIT Press.

On the aesthetic side of things, I’m continuing with a long process of research into LA’s cultural history, so I’m reading Beth Gates Warren’s Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011) and Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (East of Borneo Books, 2012), edited and with an essay by Susan Morgan, a companion volume to a wonderful show Morgan organized at the Schindler House about the seminal architectural writer and feminist. Not about LA at all, but no less intriguing is Kodwo Eshun’s new volume for Afterall’s series of books on individual artworks. Eshun’s Dan Graham: Rock My Religion (MIT Press, 2012) should be a great mash-up.

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…

Eduardo Navas

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 have a long term project on Theodor Adorno called Minima Moralia Redux. For this reason I have been reading three of his major works in the last few months: Negative Dialectics (Continuum, 1981), Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer; Stanford Univeristy Press, 2007), and Aesthetic Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

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.

Lined up next are Eugene Thacker‘s In The Dust of this Planet (Zer0 Books, 2011), which is a fictional/theoretical text on our obsession with the possibilities of destruction of the earth; Dominic Pettman’s  Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which deals with post-human philosophy influenced by the theories of Agamben; and Mackenzie Wark‘s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (Verso, 2011), which I look forward to as I am a fan of the Situationists.

 

David Preston

Robert Stone Fun With Problems (Mariner Books, 2010)
Haruki Murakami 1Q84 (Knopf, 2011)
Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Simon Winchester The Professor and the Madman (Harper Perennial, 2005)
David Edwards Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (Harvard University Press, 2010)
Lars Martinson Tonoharu (Top Shelf, 2008)
Neal Stephenson Reamde (William Morrow, 2011)
David Foster Wallace Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)

Patrick Barber

The short version:

I’m reading The Information by James Gleick (Pantheon, 2011). On my phone.

The long version:

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.

Books I’ve read recently and enjoyed:

Emily St. John Mandel The Lola Quartet: A Novel (Unbridled Books, 2012): Read mostly on the beach, in actual book form!

Elmore Leonard Raylan: A Novel (William Morrow, 2012)

Julian Barnes The Lemon Table: Stories (Vintage, 2005): Most of it, anyway.

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:

Nell Freudenberger The Newlyweds: A Novel (Knopf, 2012)

Hari Kunzru Gods Without Men: A Novel (Knopf, 2012)

Vanessa Veselka Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011)

Jussi Parikka

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!

For my dose of network theory, I will grab Geert Lovink’s new book Networks Without a Cause (Polity, 2012) and in a universe where I would have endless time (one has to try to write as well, not just read!), I would read Katherine Hayles’ new book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Although, why write so much when people have written already such books that definitely need to be read?

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….

Tricia Wang

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.

I am already anticipating that these three ethnographies of capitalism are going to be quite complex and bring up a lot of questions, so I’m going to have to do some background research on finance. I’m going to start with some financial history from David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (Melville House, 2011), and Niall Ferguson The Ascent of Money: A Financial history of the World (Penguin, 2009). I’ve already been reading a condensed version of Carroll Quiqley’s Tragedy and Hope (GSG and Associates, 1975), and all I can say is that it’s absolutely mind-blowing. I’m not sure if I will have time for Jackson Lear’s Something for Nothing: Luck in America (Penguin, 2004), but I’ve been told that this book is a must read for understanding America’s culture of risk. Several people have recommended John Cassidy’s How Markets Fail: The Logic of Market Calamities (Picador, 2010) as a good primer on the economy. Lastly, I’ve already found several blogs that are provide great insight into the world of banking. Joris Luyendijk’s Banking Blog at The Guardian is a anthropological dive into the world of finance. Michael Lewis’s An Investment Banker’s Take on Life is the banking world from a banker. I like Felix Salmon’s finance blog at Reuters because he writes in an accessible way and provides a snapshot of what news most investors are reading everyday.

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 excited to read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbia Undercity (Random House, 2012). Boo is a journalist who has always focused written about the underclass and I want to study how weaved in her first hand experience with the main characters.

Elisabeth Pisani wrote about her first hand experience with HIV/AIDS works in The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). I want to understand how she addressed a serious topic by weaving in her own voice and her main characters, who were all involved in her fieldwork.

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).

I’m re-reading Leslie Chung’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) because she did a wonderful job of capturing her character’s personality and the system’s pressures.

Philip P. Pan suggested that I read Karl Taro Greenfield’s Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation (Harper Perennial, 1995) for inspiration on writing up my stories. Anything Pan suggests is a must read.

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.

Paul Saffo

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).

Steven Shaviro

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.

Ashley Crawford

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.

McKenzie Wark

Mark Dery I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)

Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011)

Jack London The Scarlet Plague (HiLo Books, 2012)

Raoul Vaneigem La Résistance au Christianisme (Fayard, 1993)

Yann Moulier Boutang Cognitive Capitalism (Polity, 2012)

Marisa Jahn Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition (Walker Arts Center and REV-)

Frederick Baron Corvo Hadrian the Seventh (Ballantine Books, 1969)

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification and the Desire to Conform (AK Press, 2012)

Lance Strate

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.

Speaking of spirituality, the new book by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl (Jewish Publication Society, 2012) is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience, and it is near the top of my stack of books.

Also in my summer plans are The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor, 1997), The Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1981), as well as an odd little item I picked up in Brier Rose Books in Teaneck, NJ (one of the few remaining used bookstores in the area), Poem Outlines by Sidney Lanier (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), and another volume I purchased there, Thomas Stanley’s translation of the ancient Greek lyric poet, Anacreon (Merrill & Baker, 1899). And I am anxious to read the next trade paperback collection of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Vol. 16:  A Larger World (Image Comics, 2012).

Alex Burns

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.

Jim Hopkinson Salary Tutor: Learn The Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You (Business Plus, 2011). I saw Hopkinson’s presentation on salary negotiations at SXSW Interactive in March 2012. “Rock your negotiation!” he scrawled at the book signing afterwards. This step-by-step guide focuses on how to do ‘due diligence’ on a new role; how to thwart the ‘evil HR lady’; and handling interviews, job offers, and raises. This accessible primer is an introduction to tournament theory: how rank-order differences can shape individual contract and salary negotiations. Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Milles’ Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals (Stanford University Press, 2010) is a good follow-up read as is Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane, 2011). Hopkinson’s work can also be modeled using real options theory: Jonathan Mun’s Real Options Analysis: Tools and Techniques for Valuing Strategic Investments and Decisions (second edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2006) is a good methodological guide.

Tadas Viskanta Abnormal Returns: Winning Strategies From the Frontlines of the Investment Blogosphere (McGraw-Hill 2012). Viskanta brings curatorial flair and precision to his investment blog Abnormal Returns: a daily summary of financial news and market insights that is forecast-free. His books are a good introductory overview to the investment process, portfolio management, risk, active management, alternative assets, and other topics. His chapter ‘Smarter Media Consumption’ on Fischer Black’s ‘noise’ traders highlights why I spend far more time these days on ThomsonReuters Datastream than on the Disinformation website. If you want to understand investment at the level of a professional fund manager, then check out David Swensen’s Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (second edition, The Free Press, 2009); Anti Ilmanen’s Expected Returns: An Investor’s Guide to Harnessing Market Rewards (John Wiley & Sons, 2011); David Smith and Hany Shawky’s Institutional Money Management: An Inside Look at Strategies, Players, and Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2012); John Maginn, David Tuttle, Dennis McLeavey and Jerald Pinto’s Managing Investment Portfolios: A Dynamic Process (third edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2007); and John B. Abbink’s Alternative Assets and Strategic Allocation: Rethinking the Institutional Approach (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

Jack D. Schwager Hedge Fund Market Wizards: How Winning Traders Win (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Schwager’s Market Wizards books regularly top the ‘must read’ lists of professional traders for their insights on trading psychology, diverse strategies, and tacit-to-explicit learning. I found Schwager’s interviews with Ray Dalio, Edward Thorp, and Joel Greenblatt to be amongst the best of the Market Wizards series. Trading insights can inform decision-making and resilience, can help you to cultivate an edge in difficult situations, and can warn you of false beliefs, asymmetric knowledge that others may have, and blindside risk. For an alternative collection of interviews read Maneet Ahuja’s The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds (John Wiley & Sons, 2012) and Steven Drobny’s The Invisible Hands: Top Hedge Fund Traders on Bubbles, Crashes, and Real Money (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). For a history of hedge funds, read Sebastian Mallaby’s More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010). For an immersive account of what it feels like to trade, read Jared Dillian’s Street Freak: Money and Madness at Lehman Brothers (Touchstone, 2011); Peter L. Brandt’s Diary of a Professional Commodity Trader: Lessons From 21 Weeks of Real Trading (John Wiley & Sons, 2011); Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine (Allen Lane, 2010) on the 2003-07 speculative bubble in subprime housing mortgages and the 2007-09 global financial crisis; Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane and Paul Willman’s academic study Traders: Risk, Decisions and Management in Financial Markets (Oxford University Press, 2007); Mike Bellafiore’s One Good Trade: Inside the Highly Competitive World of Proprietary Trading (John Wiley & Sons, 2010); Brett Penfold’s The Universal Principles of Successful Trading: Essential Knowledge for All Traders in All Markets (John Wiley & Sons, 2010); and the works of trading psychologists Mark Douglas, Ari Kiev, and Brett N. Steenbarger.

Brian Tunney

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.

I’m hoping he can do the same for me.

Barry Brummett

I am now reading Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide by Bryan Crable (University of Virginia Press, 2011), and it’s pretty good.

Roy Christopher

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.

I’m also trying to get a decent grip on the decided looseness of the varieties of speculative realism by reading Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011). I also added several of Graham Harman‘s books to my Kindle, which I typically find more useful for novels, and Paul J. Ennis’s Post-Continental Voices: Selected Interviews (Zer0 Books, 2010) provides an excellent introduction to this field of fields.

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.

Expanding Minds: Books on Hacking Your Head

Thinking about our own minds often seems so pataphysically impossible as to be useless and silly, but, to paraphrase Steven Johnson (again), trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves. By contrast, trying to expand and enhance it seems much easier. You can expand your mind without really understanding how it happens. There are many ways to make your brain feel bigger, and these three new books provide many steps in that direction.

Upgrade your grey matter because one day it may matter.
— Deltron 3030

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level by Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans (Wiley, 2011), the “unofficial sequel” to Ron’s previous book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain (O’Reilly, 2006; which I mentioned previously). From the sublime to the silly, extensive lists of mental activities, experiments, and games comprise these books, and they’re as fun as they are fertile.

Many of the hacks here take advantage of the fact that the way you see your mind and your world are often radically related, if not often the same thing. What I mean is that a lot of these are not just mental exercises, but tricks for productivity, ways to communicate better, hacks for breaking bad habits, tips for time management, and creative ways to be more creative. It’s not just about the hacks though. Mindhacker is also stocked with other (re)sources: Relevant URLs, books, and articles are listed on every page, along with the stories of the hacks’ origins, and the book’s website has even more, including pieces of code as well as complete programs.

Speaking of programs, Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008) tackles maximizing the mind from a programmer’s point of view, and it overlaps and complement’s the books mentioned above nicely. Maps, models, recipes, and other scripts and schedules are a part of Hunt’s push, but you don’t have to be code nerd to get plenty out of this book. It has helpful tips for everyone. Chapter four, “Get in Your Right Mind,” even suggests rock climbing, which I regularly use to clear my mind’s cache.

From the grounded to the grandiose, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2011) stretches the mind in multiple manners, also blurring the line between the brain and the world. Clark’s extended mind thesis posits the mind beyond the body… Sometimes. That is, sometimes we perform a Dawkinsian flip, seeing the biosphere as an endless network of DNA regardless of organismal boundaries; sometimes our brains and the brains of others are emphatically embodied. It’s a simple but sizable distinction. Where we draw those lines changes everything about how we see the mind and the world.

Other than a few minor missteps (e.g., In his conclusion, Clark unfortunately defines the mind as a “mashup,” when really he just means that it’s extremely diverse, infinitely adaptable, and ultimately mysterious), Supersizing the Mind is one of the better books I’ve seen in the neurosciences in a while.

If you want a brain book that’s handy and fun, I definitely recommend Mindhacker and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Those two, along with Dan Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006), will get you a long way toward optimizing your cognitive output. If you want something a bit more theoretical, check out Supersizing the Mind. Either way, get to mining and minding your mind. It is still legal.

Summer Reading List, 2011

As usual, the Summer Reading List is the time of year when I ask a bunch of my bookish friends what they’re reading. It’s always a good time, and this year we have newcomers and old friends Howard Rheingold, Michelle Rae Anderson, and Zizi Papacharissi, as well as Summer Reading List vets like Alex Burns, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, Peter Lunenfeld, Erik Davis, Michael Schandorf, Patrick Barber, and Brian Tunney.

As always, the book links on this page will lead you to Powell’s Books, the best bookstore on the planet, except where noted otherwise. Read on.

Howard Rheingold

I’m re-reading J. Stephen Lansing’s Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali (Princeton University Press, 2006) as part of my continuing research into cooperation studies. The water temple system in Bali is a complex, beautiful, and remarkably effective social and ecological management system that is coordinated through rituals that neatly solve water-sharing social dilemmas that vex much of the planet.

Also, Robert K. Logan’s The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2007) as part of my research into the possibility that [using] the Web [mindfully] might actually [help] make people smarter.

Alex Burns

Jeanne De Salzmann The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff (Shambhala, 2010): De Salzmann (1889-1990) preserved the writings and movements of the Graeco-Armenian teacherGeorge Gurdjieff, and founded groups in New York, London, Paris, and Caracas. The Reality of Being articulates her unique, ’embodied’ perspective on the Fourth Way, drawing on forty years of reflective notebooks. De Salzmann wrote: “Man remains a mystery to himself. He has a nostalgia for Being, a longing for duration, for permanence, for absoluteness–a longing to be.”

Ronald A. Havens The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson: The Complete Volume (Crown House Publishing, 2009): Erickson (1901-1980) developed clinical hypnotherapy, and influenced neuro-linguistic programming (the Milton model). Through topical study of his writings, Wisdom covers Erickson’s insights about the unconscious mind, therapeutic change, utilisation, and trance induction techniques. A useful overview to the philosophy and methodology of Ericksonian hypnosis.

Charles Hill Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (Yale University Press, 2010): Hill is a diplomat who contends that engagement with literature is a way to understand statecraft. Ranging from Homer, Thucydides, and Machiavelli to Milton, Thoreau, Mann, and Rushdie, Hill explores how literature illuminates themes of order, war, the Enlightenment, and the contemporary nation-state. Literature provides a wisdom tradition to reflect on and engage with the international order.

Richard Ned Lebow Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2010): Counterfactuals are ‘what if?’ thought experiments that can probe causation and contingency. Lebow considers World War I, the Cold War, Mozart, and fictional alternative histories. He develops sophisticated protocols for evidence, theory-building, and theory-testing that will enrich social science, from archives and variables, to minimal rewrites and statistical inference.

Donella H. Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green, 2008): Meadows (1941-2001) was an influential environmental scientist and lead author on the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972). Thinking in Systems is Meadows’ introduction to systems thinking, non-linearities, feedback, and leverage points. A way to build individual and societal resilience to complexity and global challenges.

Michael Scheuer Osama Bin Laden (Oxford University Press, 2011): Scheuer was head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s unit on Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) and provides a corrective to earlier books. Scheuer depicts Bin Laden as a dynamic strategist with a deep knowledge of Muslim religious traditions, military logistics, and a long-term, dynamic vision for victory. Although Scheuer’s estimative assessments and specific conclusions will be debated, he also provides extensive end-notes, and a helpful guide to primary and secondary sources for further research.
Douglas Walton, Chris Reed, and Fabrizio Macagno Argumentation Schemes (Cambridge University Press, 2008): Argumentation schemes are processes of argument and inference which underlie human communication. Walton, Reed and Macagno provide an overview of how argumentation schemes inform fields from artificial intelligence to legal expert opinion. They classify and explain 96 different argumentation schemes and show how software tools like Rationale can be used to map out different inference structures.

Cynthia Connolly

Anything by MFK Fisher.

That’s my reading list!

Michelle Rae Anderson

I’m writing a semi-autobiography called The Miracle in July, and this finds me preoccupied with the elements of truth in fiction. I enjoy the intersection of truth and fantasy in following books:

Lidia Yuknavitch The Chronology of Water (2011): Lidia is a swimmer and a storyteller with a wild, self-serving past fueled by anger at helplessness. Beyond the usual “unbelievably shitty childhood” narrative found in most modern memoirs, in the Chronology of Water you’ll find a refreshing lack of apologies for the betrayal of secrets and an unusual writing style that mimics (to me) the little waves of breath in speech, as if the author is sitting there in the room reading the words to you.
Water-y loves, a dead baby, and a search for what “home” means are all critical parts to this story. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that is Lidia’s boob you see on the cover of the Chronology of Water. Pretty impressive for a middle-aged tit, I’d say.

Eric Kraft Herb N’ Lorna (AmazonEncore, 2010): I’ve been in love with this book since I discovered the first edition in my deeply religious grandmother’s car on the way to her memorial service back in the late 1980s. The story begins with a young man who, just as he is about to say a few loving words about his grandmother at her funeral, discovers that she and her husband spear-headed the discrete erotic, kinetic keepsake sculpture movement in the early 20th century.

Maybe it’s the coincidence in which I found the book and how the book begins, maybe it’s Kraft’s mesmerizing command of the well-played sentence, or maybe it’s that I’m just a sucker for a truly wonderful, touching love story…but this is the book that made me really believe in the power of writing a story that resonates, and inspired me to try my hand at it.

Robert Hough The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Grove Press, 2004): This is the fictionalized, bittersweet memoir of the ferociously determined and beautiful Mabel Stark, a real lion tamer from the early days of Americana traveling circus performers. Working with huge, wild cats with the strength to maul tiny Mabel was nothing compared to the discrimination she faced from the Big Tent owners, and her five husbands could never take the place of her one true love: a white Bengal tiger named Rajah, a 500 lb. cat who considered her his mate.

Graphic bestiality scenes, shocking turns of plot and opportunity, and the ultimate price paid for love makes the Final Confession of Mabel Stark a riveting page turner. I mean, if you’re into that.

Steven Shaviro

Minister Faust The Alchemists of Kush (Kindle Edition; Narmer’s Palette, 2011) and Nnedi Okorafor Who Fears Death (DAW Trade, 2011): These two books are quite different from one another. But they are both brilliant works of Afrofuturist speculative fiction, linking past, present, and future, and moving between myth, magic, and grim social reality. Both novels confront visions of self-empowerment and self-healing with the horrors of genocide in South Sudan. The Alchemists of Kush is like a prose equivalent of some fusion between the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra and the gritty urban hiphop of the Wu-Tang Clan. Who Fears Death is a magic realist parable of future Africa, like a prose equivalent of Jill Scott channeling M’bilia Bell.

Ivor Southwood Non-Stop Inertia (Zer0 Books, 2011): This is a book about what it feels like to be a “precarious” worker, or a permanent temp worker, in the New Economy. Mixing cool analysis with telling anecodotal detail, Southwood dissects the ways that unemployment and even everyday life have been transformed into new forms of soul-shattering, mind-numbing labor, and how sheer economic constraint polices and disciplines us more effectively than oppressive social institutions were ever able to manage.

Evan Calder Williams Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Salvagepunk, or Living Among the Ruins (Zer0 Books, 2011): Zombie attacks, or the stirrings of new collective urges. The Sex Pistols told us that we had No Future. Public Enemy told us that the apocalypse already happened. Several decades down the road, Williams describes how this catastrophic no-future is unevenly distributed. This book has striking insights, on nearly every page, about how the future has been systematically stolen from us. The sheer ferocity of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse matches that of the undead social and economic order we live in today.

China Mieville Embassytown (Del Rey, 2011): Last year, on my Summer Reading List, I recommended China Mieville’s then-new book Kraken. This year, Mieville makes the list again. He’s one of the finest writers of speculative fiction (or “weird fiction,” as he prefers to call it) alive today. But in Embassytown, Mieville surpasses himself — it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. In terms of genre, the book is a space opera. But it’s really about language, desire, and the nature of self-deception. Human beings share a planet with an alien race that only speaks the truth; but salvation for both species depends upon “our” ability to teach “them” how to lie.

K.W. Jeter The Kingdom of Shadows (Kindle Edition; Editions Herodiade, 2011): Jeter is one of our finest, and most underrated, writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This is his first new book since his post-cyberpunk masterpiece Noir, published over a decade ago. I’ve just started reading The Kingdom of Shadows, so I’m not entirely sure yet what it is about. But it seems to involve Nazis, classical Hollywood, the uncanny reality of cinematic projections and other images, and strange metamorphoses of the skin.

Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Sean Watson, Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (McGill Queens University Press, 2011): An introduction for a broad readership (but without sacrificing rigor and dense thought) to one of the most important, but also most reviled, trends in the history of Western philosophy. V. I. Lenin said it best: “Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than is stupid materialism.”

Zizi Papacharissi

Richard Schechner Performance Theory (Routledge, 2003): Self-explanatorily, it is about performance theory — contains a favorite quote: “Performing is a public dreaming.” This is about drama and performativity in, and the drama and performativity of everyday life. Not specific to the internet, but I like to read this and imagine how it applies to play and performance online, and artificial agents and intelligence, including of course, robots.

Adrienne Russell Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition (Polity, 2011): I am a fan of slapping the word network in front of theories and concepts in order to remediate them (network society, networked publics, networked sociality, erm, networked self). It actually works 🙂 Networked is a great way to summarize a lot of things that have been going on in the field of journalism, including what Hermida (2010) refers to as ambient journalism. Really look forward to reading this.

David Gauntlett Making is Connecting (Polity, 2011): Pushing beyond ideas of convergence culture and cognitive surplus, and offering an informed and fresh explanation of how these processes come to be, and what they mean to people.

Joss Hands @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture (Pluto Press, 2011): Been thinking lately that, depending on context, sometimes online activism is more meaningful that offline mobilization. And sometimes not. Hoping that this book will help me think through this a bit more.

John Urry Cimate Change and Society (Polity, 2011): Intriguing, and a new way of thinking about things.

Also looking forward to Daniel Miller’s Tales from Facebook and Charlie Beckett’s book on Wikileaks and the threat of new news, both out from Polity later this Fall.

Erik Davis

For the last year, I have been part of the editorial team preparing a rather mammoth edited selection of Philip K. Dick’s largely unpublished Exegesis that should come out in late Fall from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So most of my summer reading is a marathon swim through Dick’s dense, wonderful, insightful, disturbing, boring, and deeply bizarre explorations of metaphysics, cybernetics, madness, mysticism, and God. It is an exhilarating and exhausting project to work on, but the material, for all its eccentricities, seems strangely timely, and I expect it may have the resonance of the Red Book when it appears (it even has lots of great diagrams and metaphysical doodles.) That said, the tome will only represent something like a tenth of the whole document, so this grail for the PKD nuts out there will remain half empty—which is probably just as well, since the desire for revelation is as revelatory as revelation itself, maybe more so.

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics (W. W. Norton & Co., 2011) is a fabulous social and science history about the relationship between consciousness culture, philosophy and physics in the 1970s. He shows how the “big picture” questions initially stirred up by the confounding weirdness of quantum physics were lost in the pragmatic postwar world until a countercultural crew of freak physicists, quantum philosophers, meditators, paranormal aficionados, and speculative no-longer-materialists delved into the weirdest of the weird. Without a hint of snark, Kaiser tells the counter-cultural tales of figures like Jack Sarfatti, Fred Alan Wolf, and Nick Herbert, and books like Capra’s Tao of Physics (Shambhala, 1975). Science-wise, the heart of his story is Bell’s Theorem, whose deeply mindfucking argument for quantum nonlocality—that particles separated at birth can somehow “know” the state of their superposition twins through what is essentially some “faster than light” process or medium linking discrete spacetime reference points—became, for the hippies, a ground for a scientific understanding of all sorts of psi phenomena and hardcore mystical states. Along the way, though, they revived the philosophical issues surrounding quantum reality, which paradoxically are starting to bear practical fruit today, when Bell’s Theorem is a mainstay of quantum information science and esoteric cryptography.

Kaiser is a great science writer, not so much because he is good at describing quantum weirdness (he is, but so are other popular writers, including some of the folks—like Fred Alan Wolf—that he is writing about here). Kaiser is a great science writer because without sounding like the academic he is, his approach is deeply and successfully informed by historical and sociological methods of understanding how science happens: how ideas grow, propagate, and twist their way through changing historical scenes, especially scenes related to institutions, publications, networks of colleagues, and funding sources. And in the 1970s Bay Area, this productive social matrix got seriously strange, with alternative institutions, tech millionaires, and a visionary culture of interdisciplinary research infused with psychedelics, mysticism, and paranormal explorations. The quantum (meta)physical engagement with the nature of “consciousness” leads to some silly New Age science for sure (some of which we can blame on these folks) but it also asks us to really follow through the implications of quantum physics and to recognize how little we understand consciousness—and particularly the possibilities of “expanded consciousness.”

Along the lines of the technology of expanded consciousness, I have often gotten a lot out of Ivo Quartiroli’s posts on his indranet blog – intelligent, critical, but calmly expressed concerns about online culture and consciousness from the perspective of a programmer nerd who is also a hardcore meditator and intelligent spiritual seeker. His new book The Digitally Divided Self (Silens, 2011) is a kind of tech-nerd mystic’s version of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), where some of the familiar (and not so familiar) concerns about the effect of the Internet on our brains, minds, bodies, and selves (including lots of research) are shot through with a bracing spiritual critique grounded in what one might call “post-rational” states of consciousness and experience. The philosophical language (around “reality” let’s say) is sometimes too simple, and he slips into some rote neo-Luddism at times, but this is very solid technology critique that takes the possibilities of spiritual practice very seriously—including the possibility that the training of attention through meditation may provide exactly what we need to dodge the dubious fate of becoming servo-mechanisms of the hive mind and manipulative networks of influence and distraction. Though it could have gone through another few rounds of editing, Ivo’s voice—concerned, compassionate, incisive, non-judgmental—is a unique and powerful one. Not a jeremiad, but a dharma combat.

Speaking of post-rational states of consciousness, I am incredibly happy to finally be reading Phil Baker’s Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2010), the first book-length biography about the legendary occultist and fine artist, who was born in 1886 and died in the 50s. Spare is a fascinating fellow. As an artist, he transformed the aesthetic vibe of Beardsley-esque decadence into a unique and under-appreciated body of work (paintings, drawings, and amazing portraiture) that manages to be at once elegant, haunting, and deranged—the latter element at times reminiscent of Bacon. Moreover, Spare is arguably the most important—and almost certainly the most storied—British occultist after Crowley. His ideas and practices, highly idiosyncratic and deeply interfused with his remarkable artistic productions (especially his sigil magic), built a modernist bridge between the Edwardian culture of pseudo-traditionalist occult lore and a more Freudian, avant-garde, and psychologically radical embrace of the abject, the erotic, the unconscious—a bridge that makes him the godfather of chaos magic. Baker is a wonderful writer, careful, intelligent and tart. He also knows his London, and the Spare that emerges in his portrayal is very much an avatar of that unique and ancient town: humble Cockney beginnings, the bright years as a smoldering wunderkind, and then a long plunge into poverty, obscurity, and a deep weirdness that brought him in touch with Kenneth Grant, to whom we owe some of Spare’s legend. Spare emerges as an almost Blakean character, a visionary Londoner whose poverty could not keep the visions at bay.

Ashley Crawford

Joshua Cohen Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010): Damn you Joshua Cohen. You’ve cost me dearly. Not only in time I couldn’t really afford (work suffered horrendously), but in the way you’ve twisted the world around me. Expending the energy to tackle an 827 page book takes a leap of faith to be sure. It also takes a few strong nudges. When those nudges come in a trinity one has to take a deep breath and dive in. The triumvirate, all discovered in a morning, started with an excerpt on Ben Marcus’ website, rapidly followed by noticing a rapturous blurb by Steve Erickson and then an intriguing interview by Blake Butler on 21cmagazine.com. Marcus, Erickson, and Butler are all heroes. They all wallow in language like words are the salt in the Dead Sea. But then a further google uncovered numerous comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. Ahem. And indeed, after several exhausting weeks, I can say that Joshua Cohen joins their ranks with enviable chutzpah. I am not one of the Affiliated, but trust me, you don’t need to be. Cohen essentially paints with words, creating vast canvases that embrace everything from surrealism to science fiction, from heart-wrenching heartbreak to heart-warming hilarity. Despite the sheer weirdness of structure, there is a clear-cut narrative here, albeit with a moment of cunnilingus that would make David Cronenberg blanch. Cohen has created an alternate universe richer than any in contemporary literature. Steve Erickson, in his blurb for the book, states that “the only question is whether Joshua Cohen’s novel is the Ark or the Flood.” My question back is, is it feasible that it is both?

Blake Butler There Is No Year: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2011): It was perhaps inevitable that Blake Butler would do this. The seeds were already planted in his haunting novella Ever (Calamari Press, 2009) and his blistering, apocalyptic Scorch Atlas (Featherproof, 2009). There was already no doubt that he could write like an angel on bad hallucinogens. But there was no way one could have predicted the horrific tsunami that is There Is No Year – an experimental tour de force essentially unlike anything I have encountered in waking hours. Indeed I read it in a grueling two-day marathon that was not unlike those nightmares one has where one’s limbs are frozen and something unseen is pursuing you. Sleep paralysis is not unusual, but it is in broad daylight. In a blurb for Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Thomas Pynchon stated that Erickson “has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality…” – it is an accolade that would have worked perfectly for Butler and There Is No Year. Indeed, reading this book is like being trapped in another person’s (deranged) psyche. It is, in essence, the story of a family; a father, a mother and a son who live in a melting world that has been assailed by a mysterious ‘light’. They remain unnamed, generic, which only adds to the sense of inevitability the book seems to exude. Upon finding a new home they also find a ‘copy family’. But that, it turns out, is the least of their problems. Indeed the copy family is the least original notion in a book of utter originality (Philip K. Dick utilised the same notion of simulacra or doppelganger in his 1954 story “The Father Thing” and it has appeared elsewhere), but Butler uses this trope to chilling affect. The ever trustworthy Ben Marcus claims that Butler has “sneaked up and drugged the American novel. What stumbles awake in the aftermath is feral and awesome in its power.” Feral is a good description here; Butler has gone off the leash, ignoring the rules of both grammar and sanity. Indeed, there is no year here, no month, no day, no hour. There is no distance, at least in the normal sense. But there is a narrative, in a feverish, nightmarish way. A number of comparisons have already been made to David Lynch (Butler admits to Lynch’s dense and macabre Inland Empire being something of an influence) and, inevitably, with both its “haunted house” theme and typographical mayhem, Mark Z. Danielewski’s brilliant House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000). Both Lynch and Danielewski certainly hover somewhere in this Stygian night-scape, but There Is No Year stands on its own. Terrifying, ferocious, claustrophobic, a maelstrom of beautifully mangled words, a prose poem of paranoia. Butler has often complained of insomnia, but if these are his nightmares he may well be better off awake. I received my copy of There Is No Year a day after finishing Joshua Cohen’s equally brilliant epic Witz. My love-life, my social life, and my day job are in tatters, but Cohen and Butler (alongside such other Millennialists as Ben Marcus, Grace Krilanovich, Brian Evenson, Steve Erickson, Brian Conn, and others) more than prove that the Great American Novel is well and truly alive, albeit in wonderfully mutating forms.

David Foster Wallace The Pale King (Little, Brown, 2011): The publication of The Pale King has reignited the fascination that David Foster Wallace seems to inevitably ignite. His books, especially Infinite Jest, have inspired books in themselves and his suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, garnered not dissimilar coverage to that of Kurt Cobain. Indeed, DFW became the literary equivalent of a rock star. There was good reason for this. As anyone who has delved into Wallace’s disparate world(s) will attest, he had a voice like no other, regardless of whether he was working in obsessive reportage style or moments that border on pure surrealism. At times Wallace’s conceits border on the science-fictional – his first novel, Broom of the System (Penguin, 1986), is set in and alternate Ohio, where the primary landmark is a 100-square mile artificial desert of black sand, complete with imported scorpions and known as the Great Ohio Desert, or G.O.D., constructed to give its denizens a reminder of their pioneering roots. Similarly a Cleveland suburb has been re-built to emulate the outline of Jayne Mansfield’s body. In Infinite Jest (Little, Broan, 1990) he transforms the entire northeastern United States into an uninhabitable feral zone – an almost Ballardian virtual tropical jungle generated by dumping toxic waste in the area. In this instance, the U.S. has graciously given this land to Canada after ruining it for future civilizations. It is dubbed the Great Concavity to Americans and the Great Convexity to Canadians In this world North America envelops the United States, Canada and Mexico and is known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporate entities secure naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations, thus Jest is undertaken during The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U). And then there is one of the central tenets of Jest – the mysterious video-entertainment that is literally deadly. The Pale King eschews much of this other-worldly wizardry, but, Wallace being Wallace it’s not quite the real world either; IRS agents are issued new Social Security numbers, all beginning with the number 9, [a fiction] the IRS building facade is a gigantic 1040 form, picked out in terra-cotta tiling, and one of the agents has the ability to levitate when truly engrossed in his work. It’s not the masterpiece that was IJ, but to fans it is a sad and tantalizing read.

Grace Krilanovich The Orange Eats Creeps (Two Dollar Radio, 2010) Appearing almost simultaneously with Justin Cronin’s best-selling The Passage (Ballantine, 2010) comes yet another vampire book. Both feature blood-sucking ghouls and both feature young girls, and both have more than a hint of the end of the world. And yet, they have absolutely nothing in common. One will entertain, the other will come close to performing a lobotomy on the reader. Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps is a hyper-adrenalized journey through nocturnal spaces that reek with the stench of decay and mold. The journey screams with a post-punk adrenaline, like Nightwood on really bad acid. The hinted and occasionally overt sense of transgression blisters the page. The book features a perhaps overly orgasmic introduction by Steve Erickson who claims that The Orange Eats Creeps may well represent a “new literature”, a statement that cannot help but make one squirm. Rather than “new” per se, Krilanovitch has inherited streams of surrealist and grotesque elements that coil through the likes of Djuna Barnes, Comte de Lautréamont, George Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Kathy Acker, and William Burroughs. To Erickson’s credit however, direct comparisons to such authors, beyond their clearly visceral use of language, would be meaningless. But Erickson does get it right when he describes Orange as “a vampire novel then as Celine would have written, with dashes of Burroughs and Tom Verlaine playing guitar in the background: hallucinatory, passionate, hardcore… a fiction of open wounds, like this savage rorshach of a book etched in scars of braille.” Krilanovich must have been forced to hold her ego in check given further comments from the likes of Shelly Jackson: “Like something you read on the underside of a freeway overpass in a fever dream,” she writes. “The Orange Eats Creeps is visionary, pervy, unhinged. It will mess you up.” And then the renowned Brian Evenson wades in with: “Reads like the foster child of Charles Burns’ Black Hole and William Burroughs’ Soft Machine (Grove Press, 1992). A deeply strange and deeply successful debut.” Burns’ Black Hole (Pantheon, 2008) is indeed an apt contemporary comparison. Set in a similarly bleak American outpost of ravaged suburbia, Black Hole is a searing portrait of adolescent alienation. Krilanovich goes one step further by inserting us firmly and uncomfortably inside her narrators often deranged skull, riding her seismic fluctuations of body temperature which seem to swirl dangerously from sexual overdrive to permafrost. Whether Krilanovich’s characters are literally vampires remains beside the point. Describing the ancestors of our protagonist, Krilanovich evokes figures that could be supernatural, but could as easily be simple environmental vandals: “Their contribution to the world lies in pockets of poisonous gas underground, that white swath beating at the door with the swollen fists of the unhappy dead; it wisps under the cabin window sash, animating that season’s psychos in a spark of electrified crackling fat that’s so irresistible they must drag their bones out the door…”

Patrick Barber

James McCommons Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service—A Year Spent Riding across America (Chelsea Green, 2009): Necessary if you’re planning a train trip this summer. A good capsule history of trains in the US either way.

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 2011): A thorny collection of interwoven stories that is well worth the trip.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Shadow of the Wind (Penguin, 2005).

Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists (Dial Press, 2011).

China Miéville The City and the City (Del Rey, 2010): Perfect for transit commutes, this book made my train ride to a faraway teaching job a really good time this spring.

Brian Tunney

For the past few years, I have been on an extensive Paul Theroux kick. And that continues, this summer, with The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific (Hamish Hamilton, 1992), a travelogue written by Theroux throughout an 18-month journey that covered Meganesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and ends ultimately, in Hawaii.

The account was published in 1992, when I had just graduated high school and considered a trip to New York City from my suburban home in New Jersey a trek. But I’m not here to discuss relativism. I just thought New York was a faraway place (30 miles) and that my awesome bedroom in my parent’s suburban home was safer and all that I had ever known.

I guess my distant interest with the author started early in college, when I was forced to read his first travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar. At the time, book reading wasn’t really what I wanted to do, nor was travel by train through Europe, into Asia, and back again over a four-month journey, as Theroux does in the book. But I forced myself through the book, correctly identified the points my professor wanted me to and didn’t look back.

A decade later, I re-discovered the same book in a box stowed away since college, and decided to reread it. Instantly, after gaining a somewhat nominal level of experience with travel through distant and unknown (to me) parts of the world, namely Connecticut and Thailand, Theroux’s writing grew on me. He had a knack for entering into a new part of the world and not passing a subjective judgment after two hours in the new location. Instead, Theroux entered, observed, questioned and conjectured until he simply decided to move onto the next place. His approach was anthropological without adhering to structure, engaging, and altogether the next best thing to actually running around the world by train for a year at a time.

In 2008, Theroux returned to The Great Railway Bazaar with Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a re-tracing of his journey some twenty years later. And although he had gained some years, he goes out of his way to traverse the same path, exploring the changes in government, culture and the land’s greater history along the way. (Not surprisingly, much had changed, including the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the post 9/11 treatment of Arab countries and a worldwide energy and economic crisis.) He also goes out of his way to integrate regional literature and past interpretations of the lands he visits (Rimbaud is a frequent reference, but so is Arthur C. Clarke and a host of other influential writers along the way) into the lands he visits.

After Ghost Train, I craved more, and I turned to Theroux to teach me about the world’s greater workings, including Africa (Dark Star Safari) and China (Riding the Iron Rooster). And now I find myself 90-pages into his paddle boat explorations of New Zealand, Australia, and lands I haven’t yet reached in the book. So far, he’s attempted to tackle racism, alcoholism on a societal scale, the killing of animals, and wind in a small paddle boat along the Australian coast. He also just bought a gun in case he’s overrun by wild pigs in the outback.

I read, most days, on a train to and from work, knowing the exact outcome of my day sometimes before it begins. Paul Theroux’s writing is my daily escape from the norm, a window into an once unknown world, and an attempt to reconcile all of the problems of the world by talking to each person he meets one on one and having a beer with them at the end of the day.

I only hope that one day, Paul Theroux stands next to me on the train underneath the Hudson River and wants to talk.

Michael Schandorf

This summer I’m reading about how we enact and comprehend space and time, how our spaces affect our thinking and interaction, and how time relates to cognition. And I’m starting with Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment (Harvard University Press, 2009). Noland is a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, with a background in dance. The combination has led her to the study of body movement and the enactment of culture in a broad sense. In Agency and Embodiment, she explores a range of theoretical positions, including Marcel Mauss’s early sociological and anthropological theories, the phenomenology of digital art, and post-modern/post-colonial performative agency. The breadth of this contextualization of embodiment promises a rich perspective.

Next up, Erin Manning’s Relationscapes (MIT Press, 2009) covers loosely similar territory. Manning is the Director of Concordia University’s Sense Lab in Montreal, the scope of which is reflected in her book’s subtitle: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Manning offers a theory of movement that connects incipient emotion to the production of language in a theory of “prearticulation” that suggests David McNeill’s studies of gesture in linguistics and cognitive psychology, but with a wider scope that encompasses aesthetic production.

From “prearticulation” to Premediation (Palgrave, 2010)… A decade ago, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation (MIT Press, 2000) brought a crucially important rigor to the theorization of media studies. Grusin’s latest, Premediation, is an update and expansion of the theory of remediation that examines the changes in media communication and cultural tenor following the September 11th attacks. In essence, Grusin argues that the blinding pace of information transmission, combined with a general cultural mood of trauma and fear, has shifted our relationship to time from the present focus of mass media communications in the late 20th century to anticipation of the immediate future that dominate much of today’s mass media, especially on cable news. The processes of premediation, Grusin argues, are an attempt to protect the social and cultural psyche from the terror of unforeseen shocks like those of 9/11.

Moving on from largely visual and mediated interactions, Brandon LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories (Continuum, 2010) explores the nature of space, particularly contemporary urban spaces, in terms of sound cultures and the audial embodiment of our lived spaces. LaBelle is an artist and writer teaching at the National Academy of Arts in Bergen, Norway, and Acoustic Territories appears to be an expansion of the themes in his previous book, Background Noise (Continuum, 2006), which focused more exclusively on consciously aesthetic production. Sound is a crucial sense for most of us for purposes of social identification, but the role hearing places in our conceptualization and enactment of space and time is largely taken for granted. I’m looking forward to digging into LaBelle’s treatment.

Finally, a book whose connection to these themes is a bit more tenuous – but one I’m really excited about – is R. Douglas Fields’ The Other Brain (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Neurons and their physiology have been the focus of brain research and the basis of cognitive theories since their discovery and early description. But neurons only make up about 15% of the brain. Most of the rest of that mass is glial cells, which have historically been brushed aside as ‘helper cells’. Fields reviews important recent research on glial cells showing that they do far more than “help”: glial cells organize and structure neurons and modulate both neuronal transmission and synaptic activity. They communicate both with neurotransmitters and globally with broader chemical and bioelectrical signals, making them far more important to the processes of cognition than has been previously acknowledged. Thinking is more than synapses as mind is more than thinking.

Peter Lunenfeld

Summer is when I catch up with fiction and read a few things that might touch on work when it kicks back into gear in the fall. There’s an old joke that professors will never admit to reading something, they are always “rereading.” But I’m fully willing to admit that this is the summer I’ve decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for the first time. I’ve never carved the time and attention out for his 1K+ page masterpiece. Now I am.

I’ve been writing for The Believer and decided to work my way through the novels of its three co-editors. A few years back I read Heidi Julavits’ third book, Uses of Enchantment (Anchor, 2008), a fantastic novel about young women and the myth and mystery of memory, and I now plan to read in reverse, tackling her second book, The Effect of Living Backwards (Berkley Trade, 2004). I recently went to the Hammer Museum in LA where Heidi and Vendela Vida both read. Vendela’s was from The Lovers (Ecco, 2010), and the excerpt she chose was so poignant and evocative of place and time (Florence, a quarter of a century ago) that her novel, along with its predecessor, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Harper Perennial, 2008), are on my list. To round off my Believer kick, I’m also planning to read third co-editor Ed Park’s Personal Days (Random House, 2008), a novel of contemporary office life.

I consumed the uneven Steig Larsson trilogy, and continue to explore Scandinavian crime fiction. So this summer, I’ll probably read some or all of Jo Nesbø’s Oslo-based noir mysteries, including the neo-Nazi themed The Redbreast (Harper, 2008), the heist story Nemesis (Harper, 2009), and the serial killer-driven The Devil’s Star (Harper, 2011 ; though sexual-serial killings was the lamest part of the Girl With that Tattoo who Lit Stuff on Fire and Kicked Nests). On the other hand, I’ve never read mysteries by anybody with an ø in their name, so perhaps that will make up for it.

In the fall, I’ll continue working on a series of essays about Los Angeles and its history, and one of the books I’m looking forward to reading for this project is Spencer Kansa‘s Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake, 2011). Cameron was a fascinating figure, the lead actress in Kenneth Anger’s film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and the consort of the endlessly fascinating Jack Parsons, rocket pioneer, co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab, nemesis of L. Ron Hubbard, and Satanist. Parsons and Cameron tried to give birth to a Moon Child, but that’s a long story…

Finally, through the summer I’ll be playing around with an app that Chandler McWilliams developed for my new book, The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading (MIT Press, 2011). The app is called GenText, takes the last chapter of the book – a stand-alone history of the computer as culture machines titled “Generations” – and renders it accessible at three levels — abstract, page, and full section — with a dynamic interaction between the levels that literalizes the metaphor of “zooming” into a text. The book’s companion website, points you to it as well as other e-pub goodies.

Roy Christopher

I’m currently working on my book, The Medium Picture (for Zer0 Books), so most of my reading lately has been related to the writing. That means essential texts from Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, Howard Rheingold, Doug Rushkoff, Paul Levinson, Steven Johnson, Ted Nelson, Lev Manovich, Kate HaylesPeter Lunenfeld, David Weinberger, Stewart Brand, Jay David Bolter, Janet Murray, McKenzie Wark, and others — all of which lead me to newer stuff like…

James Gleick The Information (Pantheon, 2011): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the book of the year.

Peter Lunenfeld The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading (MIT Press, 2011): The subtitle of Peter Lunenfeld’s newest book is “Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine.” Lunenfeld employs downloading and uploading for cultural consumption and production respectively. His metaphors are apt, and astutely frame the computer’s role in our current culture. This is an important little book that should not be ignored.

Adam Bly Science is Culture (Harper Perennial, 2010): I love magazines, and one of my favorites was Seed. Adam Bly is/was their editor (they’re online-only now), and one of my favorite parts of Seed was the Seed Salon, in which two scientific or literary luminaries — whose interests are often unexpectedly juxtaposed — discuss a pressing science issue. Well, Bly’s new book compiles all of the Seed Salon sessions in one place. It includes such pairings as David Byrne and Daniel Levitin, Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler, Jonathon Lethem and Janna Levin, Benoit Mandlebrot and Paola Antonelli, Will Self and Spencer Wells, Jill Tarter and Will Wright, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, and Robert Stickgold and Michel Gondry, among many others. Unexpected things emerge when pairs of minds like these come together.

Elizabeth Parthenia Shea How the Gene Got Its Groove (SUNY Press, 2008): In How the gene Got Its Groove, Shea argues that the gene is no more than a figure of speech, a trope, a metonymy for a unit of life-stuff that may or may not exist. It’s an intriguing romp through lingustic strategy, the tenuousness of language, and indeed the rhetorical nature of science itself.

McKenzie Wark The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (Verso, 2011): Ken Wark‘s been writing around and adjacent to the Situationists for years. It’s awesome to see him finally dive into their strange land in earnest. There are many texts on Guy Debord and the Situationists, but few dig as deep or get their work the way Ken Wark does. As a rare bonus, the hardback comes with a fold-out dust cover with a graphic essay composed and drawn by Kevin C. Pyle based on selections from Wark’s text.

Steven Shaviro Post-Cinematic Affect (Zer0 Books, 2010): I’ve been meaning to write about Steven Shaviro‘s new book since I got it last year. It’s a fascinating exploration of four cinematic artifacts: Grace Jones’ “Corporate Cannibal” video, and the films Boarding Gate (2007), Gamer (2009), and Southland Tales (2006), the latter of which is one of my recent favorites. The book’s title comes from Shaviro’s central claim: that so-called “new media” hasn’t killed but transformed filmmaking, and since media artifacts as such are “machines for generating affect,” these four works represent perfect occasions to discuss our current state of post-cinematic affect.

————

Well, that’s what we’re reading this summer. Time to get to it.

[Pictured above: Lily checking out The Hitch. photo by royc.]

The Essential Tension of Ideas

One of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas and thereby spurs innovation. Where the car used to provide this mass connection, now it hinders it. Increasingly, our cognitive surplus is sitting traffic.

Ideas are networks, Steven Johnson argues in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Riverhead, 2010). The book takes Florida’s tack, comparing cities to coral reefs in that their structure fosters innovation. Good ideas come from connected collectives, so connectivity is paramount.

Human history in essence is the history of ideas. — H. G. Wells

On the other end of the spectrum, in a recent post about Twitter, David Weinberger writes,

…despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

His description sounds like we’re evening out our representations of our online selves, reconciling them with our IRL selves, initiating a corrective of sorts. Coincidentally, in their sad version of “The SEED Salon,” a recent issue of WIRED had Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss the roots of innovation (by way of plugging their respective new books; here they are discussing same at the New York Public Library). Kelly states,

Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

It sounds as though Weinberger and Kelly are calling for or defending a sort of “infodiversity,” which one would think would be a core tenet of media ecology. As Kelly puts it in What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010), “Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information” (p. 10). He continues in WIRED,

To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

In science, Thomas Kuhn called this idea “the essential tension.” In his book of the same name (University of Chicago Press, 1977), he described it as a tug-of-war between tradition and innovation. Kuhn wrote that this tension is essential, “…because the old must be revalued and reordered when assimilating the new” (p. 227). This is one of those ideas that infects one’s thinking in toto. As soon as I read about the essential tension, I began to see it everywhere — in music, in movies, in art, and indeed, in science. In all of the above, Weinberger, Johnson, and Kelly are all talking about and around this idea, in some instances the innovation side, and in others, the tradition side. We need both.

One cannot learn anything that is more than one step away from what one already knows. Learning progresses one step or level at a time. Johnson explores this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From by evoking Stuart Kauffman‘s “adjacent possible” (a term Johnson uses hundreds of times to great annoyance). The adjacent possible is that next step away. It is why innovation must be rooted in tradition. Go too far out and no one understands you, you are “ahead of your time.” Take the next step into the adjacent possible that no one else saw, and you have innovated. Taken another way, H. G. Wells once said that to write great science fiction, one must adopt a perspective that is two steps away from the current time. Going only one away is too familiar, and three is too far out. As Kelly puts it in the WIRED piece, “Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.” A new technology, literally “the knowledge of a skill,” is–in its very essence–the same thing as a new idea. For instance, Apple’s Newton was too many steps ahead of or away from what was happening at the time of its release. I’m sure you can think of several other examples.

Johnson, who has a knack for having at least one (usually more) infectious idea per book, further addresses the process of innovation with what he calls the “slow hunch.” This is the required incubation period of an innovative idea. The slow hunch often needs to find another hunch in order to come to fruition. That is, one person with an idea often needs to be coupled with another who has an idea so that the two can spur each other into action, beyond the power of either by itself (see the video below for a better explanation). It’s an argument for our increasing connectivity, and a damn good one.

That is not to say that there aren’t and won’t be problems. I think Kevin Kelly lays it out perfectly here:

…[T]here will be problems tomorrow because progress is not utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expending possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now (p. 101).

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Here’s the book trailer for Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From [runtime: 4:07]:

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References:

Florida, R. (2010). The great reset. New York: Harper.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from. New York: Riverhead.

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. New York: Viking.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The essential tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weinberger, D. (2010). “Why it’s good to be boring on the web.” JoHo The Blog.

WIRED. (2010, October) “Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on where ideas come from.” Wired.com.

The Mesh We’re In: The Ecological Thought

If Special Agent Dale Cooper actually did quit the FBI and retire in Twin Peaks, this might be the book he would write. His beliefs in the connectivity of all things, Tibeten philosophy, and respecting others are all represented throughout The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010). Actual author Timothy Morton puts so many aspects of our world into perspective that it makes describing this book and its ideas difficult. His writing flows like so much water over the falls, but the falls are the hard part.

Is this an environmental book? Yes and no. It’s environmental, anti-environmental, and post-environmental. The ecological thought knows the only way out is through. It’s not back-to-Nature, it’s get-past-Nature. It’s not about balance, it’s about difference. According to the ecological thought, this is the mesh we’re in:

Do we fill the hole in the world with holism or Heidegger? Or do we go all the way into the hole? Perhaps it’s a benign hole: through it we might glimpse the Universe. Many environmental writer tell us to “connect.” The issue is more about regrouping: reestablishing some functioning fantasy that will do for now, to preserve our sanity. Yet this is radically impossible, because of the total nature of the catastrophe and the fact that there is no script for it (we are “still here,” and so on). It’s like waking up: it becomes impossible to go back to sleep and dream in good faith. The ecological disaster is like being in a cinema when suddenly the movie itself melts. Then the screen melts. Then the cinema itself melts. Or you realize your chair is crawling with maggots. You can’t just change the movie. Fantasizing at all becomes dubious (p. 31-32).

Sustainability is a fantasy. Your Prius is no more or less sustainable than your bicycle or your diet. This world is not sustainable. There’s no “re-enchanting” it. There is only enchantment. The end isn’t coming; it already happened. This is what the end looks like. It’s camouflaged to look like the now.

“The effect of mimicry is camouflage…” wrote Jacques Lacan, “It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled — exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare” (p. 99). Morton writes, “Camouflage, deception, and pure appearance are the stock in trade of life forms” (p. 18). Non-humans do so many things that are supposed to be what separates us (e.g., language, imagination, reason, play, technology, etc.). Solidarity is the only choice. And why are there life forms at all? “Only because it benefits some replicators to clump together” (p. 85). Please, don’t draw lines in the mesh.

Space isn’t something that happens beyond the ionosphere. We are in space right now. — Timothy Morton

Do you realize, we’re floating in space? — The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?”

“There is a bigger picture here” (p. 121). Indeed. Perspectives abound. The Ecological Thought thinks irresistible, impossible, impassible things, because it has to. Because we all have to.

References:

Lacan, J. (1977). The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. London: The Hogarth Press.

Lynch, D. & Frost, M. (Producers). (1990). Twin Peaks [Television series]. New York: ABC.

Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.