Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’
May is here and there are lots of new paperbacks on the shelves. Here are just a few that have my attention.
The Last Interview: and Other Conversations Jorge Luis Borges
Days before his death, Borges gave an intimate interview to his friend, the Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube. That interview is translated for the first time here, giving English-language readers a new insight into his life, loves, and thoughts about his work and country at the end of his life.
Accompanying that interview are a selection of the fascinating interviews he gave throughout his career. Highlights include his celebrated conversations with Richard Burgin during Borges’s time as a lecturer at Harvard University, in which he gives rich new insights into his own works and the literature of others, as well as discussing his now oft-overlooked political views. The pieces combine to give a new and revealing window on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of the past century.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
When it comes to love, things are not always what they seem. In contemporary Lagos, a young boy may pose as a woman online, and a maid may be suspected of sleeping with her employer and yet still become a young wife’s confidante. Men and women can be objects of fantasy, the subject of beery soliloquies. They can be trophies or status symbols. Or they can be overwhelming in their need.
In these wide-ranging stories, A. Igoni Barrett roams the streets with people from all stations of life. A man with acute halitosis navigates the chaos of the Lagos bus system. A minor policeman, full of the authority and corruption of his uniform, beats his wife. A family’s fortunes fall from love and wealth to infidelity and poverty as poor choices unfurl over three generations. With humor and tenderness, Barrett introduces us to an utterly modern Nigeria, where desire is a means to an end, and love is a power as real as money.
Dark Back of Time by Javiar Marias
Called by its author a “false novel,” Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its “characters”–the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have “recognized themselves”–fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never “existed,” Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson
In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; translated by Kim Thompson
Back in 1984, a rebellious,17-year-old, punked-out Ulli Lust set out for a wild hitchhiking trip across Italy, from Naples through Verona and Rome and ending up in Sicily. Twenty-five years later, this talented Austrian cartoonist has looked back at that tumultuous summer and delivered a long, dense, sensitive, and minutely observed autobiographical masterpiece.
A Day in the Life by Senji Kuroi
A Day in the Life features twelve portraits of the vivid and curious realities experienced by a man in his sixties. These stories focus on the tiny paradoxes and ridiculousness we each witness and of which we often take no note. Ranging from a visit to an exhibition of blurry photographs, each taken with an exposure time of exactly one second, to the story of a man stalked through the streets by a stranger for no greater a crime than making eye contact, A Day in the Life demonstrates why Senji Kuroi is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature
Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue
Shocking, erudite, and affecting, these twenty-odd short stories, “micro-novels,” and vignettes span a vast territory, from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. to the late nineteenth-century Adriatic to the blood-soaked foothills of California’s Gold Rush country, introducing an array of bewildering characters: a professor of Latin American literature who survives a tornado and, possibly, an orgy; an electrician confronting the hardest wiring job of his career; a hapless garbage man who dreams of life as a pirate; and a prodigiously talented Polish baritone waging musical war against his church. Hypothermia explores the perilous limits of love, language, and personality, the brutal gravity of cultural misunderstandings, and the coldly smirking will to self-destruction hiding within our irredeemably carnal lives.
“Loneliness is solitude with a problem”—Maggie Nelson
Although written in numbered propositions, seemingly disconnected, Bluets is not the type of book you can open to any page and begin reading. I know this because it’s what I’d done a number of times in a number of bookstores only to leave empty handed despite trusted friends insisting on its brilliance.
Finally, I sat down to read Maggie Nelson’s book properly and discovered its flow, its rhythm, and was caught up in the attempt to understand the placement of these ruminations on—as one might infer from the title—the color blue.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke,” she begins. “And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”
Intense focus, or perhaps obsession, is what drives Bluets. At one point Nelson considers traveling the world in search of blue objects: “ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”
But Nelson does not need to travel to faraway places; she sees blue wherever she goes, and notices its absence when she doesn’t. Interspersed in Bluets are delightful facts about color: the presence of blue in nature (male satin bowerbirds build adorn their bowers with blue objects to lure females); religion (blue became a “holy” color after it was mistaken that ultramarine contained gold and was therefore valuable; and world cultures (the Tuareg, a “tribe of blue people” in the deserts of North Africa who take on the color of their deeply saturated dyed robes).
An ex-lover is remembered by the blue button-down shirt he wore on their final day together; the feet of a friend, now paraplegic, are mentioned because they’ve become “the blue of skim milk” from disuse. Quotes from Mallarmé, Goethe, and da Vinci woven into the fabric of Nelson’s thoughts fill the pages with a weight not conveyed by the book’s slim appearance.
Bluets will deceive aspiring writers. They will see short paragraphs made up of spare sentences and believe they can do it too. But the careful reader will feel the deliberation, they will know the state of the author’s cutting room floor.
In Bluets, Nelson has taken an exercise in single-minded attention and created a meditative masterpiece.
Here are some excellent paperbacks to get your April started off on the right foot.
Frequencies: Volume 2
Featuring original work by Sara Finnerty on ghosts, Roxane Gay on issues of belonging in Black America, Alex Jung on the gay sex trade in Thailand, Aaron Shulman on a frontier town of Guatemala, Kate Zambreno on Barbara Loden, and more.
Point of Impact by Jay Faerber (writer), Koray Kuranel, (art)
A gripping, provocative murder mystery from acclaimed writer Jay Faerber and stunning artist Koray Kuranel begins with one woman’s murder and branches out to follow the investigation by three people with personal connections to her: her husband, an investigative reporter; her lover, an ex-soldier; and her friend, a homicide detective. Her death will change all of their lives.
Check out a 6-page excerpt from Point of Impact
Read an interview with Jay Faerber on Comic Book Resources
Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé
From the author of A Novel Bookstore comes this delightful story about friendship across racial and economic barriers set in contemporary Paris.
Édith can hardly believe it when she learns that Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid, is completely illiterate. How can a person living in Paris in the third millennium possibly survive without knowing how to read or write? How does she catch a bus, or pay a bill, or withdraw money from the bank? Why it’s unacceptable! She thus decides to become Fadila’s French teacher. But teaching something as complex as reading and writing to an adult is rather more challenging than she thought. Their lessons are short, difficult, and tiring. Yet, during these lessons, the oh-so-Parisian Édith and Fadila, an immigrant from Morocco, begin to understand one another as never before, and form this understanding will blossom a surprising and delightful friendship. Édith will enter into contact with a way of life utterly unfamiliar to her, one that is unforgiving at times, but also full of joy and dignity.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard
Paul Hazard’s magisterial, widely influential, and beloved intellectual history offers an unforgettable account of the birth of the modern European mind in all its dynamic, inquiring, and uncertain glory. Beginning his story in the latter half of the seventeenth century, while also looking back to the Renaissance and forward to the future, Hazard traces the process by which new developments in the sciences, arts, philosophy, and philology came to undermine the stable foundations of the classical world, with its commitment to tradition, stability, proportion, and settled usage. Hazard shows how travelers’ tales and archaeological investigation widened European awareness and acceptance of cultural difference; how the radical rationalism of Spinoza and Richard Simon’s new historical exegesis of the Bible called into question the revealed truths of religion; how the Huguenot Pierre Bayle’s critical dictionary of ideas paved the way for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, even as the empiricism of Locke encouraged a new attention to sensory experience that led to Rousseau and romanticism. Hazard’s range of knowledge is vast, and whether the subject is operas, excavations, or scientific experiments his brilliant style and powers of description bring to life the thinkers who thought up the modern world.
Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz
The Death of Lysanda collects two macabre novellas by one of Israel’s greatest writers. In the title piece, we meet Naphtali Noi, a recently divorced proofreader, critic, and “creative” taxidermist, given to hallucinations and soon perhaps to add murder to his hobbies. Ants tells the story of a married couple, Jacob and Rachel, who discover that an army of the titular insects is threatening to destroy their rooftop apartment—but Rachel seems to be on their side rather than her husband’s.
In fragmented prose halfway between the Old Testament and the playful stories of Julio Cortázar, these tales take to pieces the psyches of two men—and a nation—at war with themselves.
Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast by Maeve Gilmore
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are widely acknowledged to be classic works of high fantasy, on par with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this series, Peake created the vividly detailed world — at once gothic and surreal — of Castle Gormenghast. When Peake died in 1968, he left behind the tantalizing pages and clues for the fourth and concluding book in the series.
Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake’s widow, wrote Titus Awakes, based on those pages left behind by Peake. Fans of the Gormenghast novels will relish this continuation of the world Peake created and of the lives of unforgettable characters from the original novels, including the scheming Steerpike, Titus’s sister Fuchsia, and the long-serving Dr. Prunesquallor. Published a century after Peake’s birth, this strikingly imaginative novel provides a moving coda to Peake’s masterwork.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
A bold and exciting literary novel set in South Africa that contemplates the elusive line between truth and self-perception.
Absolution is a big-idea novel about the pitfalls of memory, the ramifications of censorship, and the ways we are silently complicit in the problems around us. It’s also a devastating, intimate, and stunningly woven story. Told in shifting perspectives, it centers on the mysterious character of Clare Wald, a controversial South African writer of great fame, haunted by the memories of a sister she fears she betrayed to her death and a daughter she fears she abandoned. Clare comes to learn that in this conflict the dead do not stay buried, and the missing return in other forms—such as the child witness of her daughter’s last days who has reappeared twenty years later as Clare’s official biographer, prompting an unraveling of history and a search for forgiveness. Part literary thriller, part meditation on the responsibility of the individual under totalitarianism, this is a masterpiece of rich, complicated characters and narration that captures the reader and does not let go.
Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.
One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.
Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.
Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.
“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.
But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.
Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.
Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.
The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.
Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.
Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.
Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.
You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.
Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.
Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?
Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.
As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.
How do you procrastinate productively?
I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.
You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?
The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.
You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?
Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.
The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.
I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?
I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels
Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of big ideas. It takes its lead from Cicero’s observation that “to know our history is to know ourselves” and, with writings from the past, proves “that valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete”.
Each issue explores a single theme using archival material, newly commissioned essays, and “history’s underutilized scrapbooks: letters, diaries, speeches, navigational charts, menus, photographs, bills of lading, writs of execution.” When put together, Lapham’s is as elegant as it is meaty.
Lewis Lapham, former Editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of numerous left-leaning political books, launched the journal in 2008, bringing his political sensibilities with him. Although political criticism is included in each issue, one of the quarterly’s greatest strengths is its ability to explore society without becoming dogmatic.
The most recent issue, Spring 2012’s “Means of Communication,” while it features pieces dating back to nearly 3000 B.C. up until the modern day, there is a striking overlapping of preoccupations in many of the poems and essays.
Looking at historical correspondence we see that the 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on hand-wringing over the disintegration of language. In a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster the former praises the latter’s 1789 Dissertations on the English Language: “It is an excellent work and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing … I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our states are continually falling into with respect to both.”
A poem composed in 2800 BC predicts a singular language, an idea that feels echoed in H.G. Wells’s premonition of a singular encyclopedia. In his 1936 essay about a “Permanent World Encyclopedia,” a phrase that calls Wikipedia to mind, Wells says,“the idea of an encyclopedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. … our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development”.
One can then find the thread to language columnist, linguist, and lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s essay ‘Word for Word,’ where he explains Roget’s intentions when first creating the thesaurus: to “create order out of linguistic chaos”. After naming a few thesaurus naysayers, he continues, “Roget intended for his readers to immerse themselves in the orderly classification system of the thesaurus so that they might better understand the full possibilities for human expression. As Roget first conceived it, the book did not even have an alphabetical index—he included it later as an afterthought. His goal, then, was not to provide a simple method of replacing synonym A with synonym B but instead to encourage a fuller understanding of the world of ideas and the language representing it.” If you continue on, Zimmer ultimately asks the question, “what does it [Roget’s Thesaurus] have to offer the modern reader?”
The pieces range in length anywhere from a quote …
“The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” –Ursula K. LeGuin
… to a sidebar-sized excerpt; to a three page essay, perfect for weekend mornings in the coffee shop.
If you only thumb through Lapham’s Quarterly you get the sense that everyone working there sifts through an incredible amount of information each day. Even the short contributor bios contain obscure facts; before reading Plutarch’s “Tone of Voice,” I never knew his “paired biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans . . . [became] a source for several of William Shakespeare’s plays.”
Near the back of the book there’s a section called “Miscellany”. It has the feel of an outtake reel, a place born out of finding a mind-blowing fact and not having a place to put it. I know my life is better knowing this: “Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619.” To leave it out would have been criminal.
With contributions from Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Oliver Sacks, John Cheever, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, I’m afraid that if I gush as much as I’d like this post will be longer than the issue itself. Lapham’s Quarterly, whether tackling celebrity, food, or fantasy, delivers a quality experience every time.
Listen to this issue’s podcast, an interview with Simon Winchester, whose essay “Native Tongues” was in “Means of Communication,” and Dictionary of American Regional English chief editor Joan Hall. Then, I highly suggest you subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly.
Here are a few things that caught my eyes and ears these past few days.
Rub Out the Words: the Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 ed by Bill Morgan
I’ve always found William Burroughs intriguing — after all, he did kill his common-law wife while playing a game of William Tell, or so the story goes. I read his novel Junky multiple times but could never get into Naked Lunch, the book he is best known for. Now, Ecco has published the second volume of his letters: correspondence that spans the years after the publication of Naked Lunch to the year he left London to return to New York.
Of the collection, The Telegraph writes:
“This second volume of correspondence may not quite dispel this image of Burroughs as American fiction’s resident alien, the lexical bomb-thrower in the body of a government man – but it does offer intriguing glimpses into the personality behind the mask. …
For fans of [his] way-out approach [the cut-up technique], the letters will provide a valuable glimpse into the genesis of his most impenetrable work, the trilogy that comprised The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. …
One surprising theme in these letters is Burroughs’s cosmic indifference to the swelling counterculture. Our correspondent remains unmoved as the Sixties progress, beatniks become hippies, and even the parties he attends in Hampstead start to be filled with people ‘turning on’.”
What’s the big idea?
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
by Jennie Erdal
This past weekend’s Financial Times had an incredible essay on philosophy, literature, and the blending of the two into the philosophical novel.
Jennie Erdal, the author of the essay, begins with philosophy and philosophers: “while [they] were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels”. She continues, “The analytical style [of philosophy] rigidly separated reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.”
Of novels, she writes, “The more I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered” and that some things “can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.” Erdal then makes a case for the hybrid form, “moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims . . . Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy . . . It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two.”
It’s a brilliant read all the way through. For anyone interested in literary theory and the grander workings of fiction, this is not to be missed.
Orbital / Wonky
It can be scary picking up a new album by a band who has been around for 25 years — especially if that band, up until recently, has been on hiatus — but that’s exactly what’s going on with electronic duo Orbital who just released Wonky, their first album since 2004.
About their music, one half of the group, Paul Hartnoll, told Wired magazine, “Ultimately, it has to move us emotionally…. We can get a great big thunderous beat … but melody is the real icing on the cake for me. If I get a really good melody, I get really excited about thinking about what’s going to come. That’s when I burst into tears, thinking, ‘That’s it!’ The hook’s got you, and you know you’re going to finish that piece.”
Explaining why they’re back together and making music, he says “When you’ve got a background and a history, and a rich idea of what you wanted to do, it was a real shame to give up … It was the live aspect that I missed.”
The article features the video for ‘New France’. Here’s the video for ‘Wonky’. Not sure how I feel about the cats.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Simon Pegg’s new comedy, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, looks amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of this post, no US release date has been confirmed. Science fiction and fantasy site io9 quotes the synopsis:
“Jack is a children’s author turned crime novelist whose detailed research into the lives of Victorian serial killers has turned him into a paranoid wreck, persecuted by the irrational fear of being murdered. When Jack is thrown a life-line by his long-suffering agent and a mysterious Hollywood executive takes a sudden and inexplicable interest in his script, what should be his big break rapidly turns into his big breakdown, as Jack is forced to confront his worst demons; among them his love life, his laundry and the origin of all fear.”
They also have the trailer.
The first week in April, on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron spoke with musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein. Carrie was in the Olympia, Washington-based indie band Sleater-Kinney and is currently in Wild Flag; however, these days, she’s best known as co-creator of Portlandia, the sketch show on IFC. On the podcast, Marc and Carrie nerd out about music — and other things. One of my favorite WTFs so far.
On the Nerdist, voiceover actors Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche taught me that voiceover actors are awesome. Rob and Maurice, which I only learned from this podcast, are the creators, and voices, of Pinky and the Brain. Their vocal skills do not end there. These two guys had Chris Hardwick awestruck. A must-listen.
What caught your eyes and ears these past few days? Comments are open.
An Interview with Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Author and Illustrator of Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary is the story of 15-year-old Tina M., an Indian-American girl attending a posh private high school in California, and, like so many her age, trying to find her place in the world. A natural for self-reflection, Tina’s ripe for existentialism when her hippie English teacher introduces the subject to the class. The assignment for the year is for each student to find “true and authentic meaning and purpose” in their existence. What follows is Tina’s project. As the subtitle suggests, her search is in the form of an existential comic diary.
Interspersed with letters, as if they were written to the movement’s leading figure, Jean Paul-Sartre, Tina explores her life’s ups-and-downs — failed and newly forged friendships, tumultuous crushes, quirky family members — and her own identity. Moments of melodrama punctuate the pages: “Yes, my dear dead grandfather of French philosophical thought, the highs have swung to lows and I have fallen into something I am going to term CEM or Chronic Existential Malaise.”
Also familiar are those moments of introspection that meander into to the unknown: “I am east, west, happy, sad, normal, freakish, plain, pretty, Indian, American, and quite possibly a touch of Greek due to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Punjab Province in 327 B.C. I live in California, but someday it might be Zanzibar or the Left Bank of Paris. Maybe the right. I have no idea. Do you see how complicated it gets?”
For anyone who was the slightest bit broody in high school, Tina is a relatable character, and, without question, a likable one. She’s everyone who has ever felt out of place, who has ever wondered if they’ll ever feel normal, and, of course, if they’ll ever find someone who understands them — friend or otherwise.
Keshni Kashyap, author and filmmaker, and illustrator Mari Araki met through a mutual acquaintance and formed an admiration for each other’s work. Together they worked long hours and, as some of the story has autobiographical elements, Mari was introduced to the Kashyap family and shown around the high school that served as a model for Tina’s.
The two were kind enough to answer a few questions about philosophy, storytelling, and the collaborative process. You can find out more about them and their work at keshnikashyap.com and mariaraki.com and you can order Tina’s Mouth through the site Tinasmouth.com.
Did you always know Tina’s Mouth would be a graphic novel?
Keshni: Yes. I started working on it as a side project, and it was always meant to be a graphic novel. I have a filmmaking background, so this distinction is important to me.
How did the storytelling process differ from filmmaking?
Keshni: Because I had a ‘diary,’ I was able to do some different sorts of things. Use the images to make certain ideas bigger or more effective (the mouth, for example) or funny or contrapuntal. I could also make a visual story feel more novelistic. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but that was my intention. In filmmaking, you really have to be careful. Voiceovers are very hard to pull off. There are also a variety of other reasons that make being experimental tricky. Producers, for example. And crews of people. With Tina’s Mouth, it was always just me and Mari.
I found the illustrations and text well balanced and the art to be a nice fit with the tone of the story. Mari, how would you describe your style?
Mari: While developing my style, I never really thought about what genre or label of artwork I was creating, but some curators have said I fit into the “pop-surrealist” category so I suppose that’s how most will identify my artwork. However, I prefer just to be thought of as an artist. This way I have no unnecessary, self-imposed boundaries to my work.
Read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown
Bookrageous is one of the best podcasts out there. Every other week its three hosts discuss books centering around one theme. The topics, as well as the hosts, are always interesting, informative, and loaded with great suggestions—I always have a list of new titles by the end. Their latest show on subversive books is one of my favorites so far.
In this episode Josh from Brews and Books, Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog, and Jenn, the event coordinator at WORD bookstore talk about the subversive books they read while growing up. Their reminiscing made me think back to my own experience with books, read amongst the backdrop of hormone rushes and a desperate search for identity
Starting in my preteen years, I’d had a sense that I didn’t fit in. School life was often uncomfortable. It was an alien world of fashionable clothes, makeup, and boyfriends; when I found the energy, my attempts never came out quite right. My efforts always manifested themselves into an unintended parody.
It was in books that I found kindred spirits, whether they were fictional characters or stories about other misfits who rose above the constraints of society. I found role models in those who couldn’t care less about the opinions of others and over time the notion took.
According to Merriam Webster, “to subvert” means:
1. to overturn or overthrow from the foundation
2. to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith
And “subversive” is:
1. the act of subverting : the state of being subverted;especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.
Although it’s not a new idea and not at all surprising, I love that a book can prove so powerful that it has a profound effect on someone’s worldview—ideally in a way that makes them a better person and not causes them to do evil, although that’s been known to happen.
Josh, Rebecca, and Jenn’s conversation—and choices—reminded me that the right book put in the hands of teen can provide a burst of self-acceptance and inspire a quiet rebellion. As expected, many of our choices overlapped but there were a few I still haven’t gotten around to that are worth noting. Briefly, as they have an extensive list on their Tumblr page, they are: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
Here’s what’s been on my subversive shelf over the years (in no particular order):
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
I remember hiding this one from my parents in fear that they would think (or more accurately, know) that I was doing drugs. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and like any kid with a tendency towards OCD and manic-consumption I read anything by or about them or anyone within their circle. Tom was one of the founders of New Journalism in the 60s and 70s and in this book he goes on the road with Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters as they drive cross country in a bus doing drugs and going to Dead shows.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Stemming from, or maybe riding parallel to, my interest in the Grateful Dead was an interest in Buddhism. I remember the Eastern philosophy flipping my Western upbringing somewhat on its head. Like many teen outcasts, I had a feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t place it but something about the surrounding culture felt off. The Tao of Pooh opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world in a way my 15-year-old brain could grasp. This book paved the way for many years of on-again-off-again study of Buddhism and probably kept me sane.
Native Son by Richard Wright
As a white girl from the suburbs of Long Island, Richard Wright was my first glimpse into the black experience. Native Son, the story of a 20-year-old black kid living in 1930s Chicago, led me on a long varied journey through other black writers with books like Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Soul on Ice by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, the gritty, pulp memoir Pimp by Iceberg Slim, and feminist books by Bell Hooks.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Or any book by S.E. Hinton really. I have a vivid memory of my mom going to the library one afternoon and asking what book I wanted. I’d just finished The Outsiders and was craving more like it. “Anything by S.E. Hinton,” I said; but what I really meant was, “anything with screwed up teenagers”. Hinton’s books brought me inside the lives of tormented kids and I took comfort in their pain. The torment the characters experienced spoke to me and I could never go back to The Baby-sitter’s Club again.
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My friends and I passed this one around amongst ourselves. It’s the diary of a girl whose writing perfectly captures the “torture and hell of adolescence”. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember there being some sort of decent into drug-fueled self-destruction. Apparently it was written with the intention of being a deterrent. Oh well.
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
This book did more to change the way I saw the world than any book I’d read before or since. It was the first time I’d thought of the implications of our society’s structure. Told through the point of view of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael, Quinn explains why the agrarian culture—keeping food under lock and key—was the beginning of the end of our freedom. Reading this powerful book was one of my first eye-opening experiences.
Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I credit Coupland with rekindling my interest in reading after the long, hard slog through assigned books. He made me realize that there were books out there that could speak to the modern world in a way I could relate. While the story itself is a bit hazy in my memory, I remember how the structure was something I’d never seen before. The layout was playful and creative. It wasn’t merely text on a page, there were sidebars with odd definitions and random pictures. The story itself was about dropping out of our growing materialist culture and the search for meaning along the way. Coupland showed up at the right time with just the right tone.
Radical Thinkers Series from Verso
If you’re currently looking for subversion in theory form, I highly recommend Verso’s Radical Thinkers series. There you’ll find mind-blowing thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, and others. It just goes to show that just because you grow up, the subversion doesn’t need to end.
What subversive books influenced your worldview as a kid? Did you ever hide any books at the bottom of a clothing drawer?
On Sunday night at BookCourt, Atlanta-based HTMLGIANT editor and novelist Blake Butler read from his latest book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, his first work of nonfiction. Stemming from his own long battle with insomnia, which he owes in part to his racing mind, Blake set out to explore the many aspects of the subject, not just his own experience.
For the book, he researched insomnia’s “role in history, art, and science through its unexpected consequences on [his] personal imagination, creative process, and perspective on reality. . . . Invoking scientific data, historical anecdote, Internet obsession, and figures as diverse as Andy Warhol, Gilles Deleuze, John Cage, Anton LaVey, Jorge Luis Borges, Brian Eno, and Stephen King, Butler traces the tension between sleeping and conscious life.” For anyone familiar with the website he created, Blake’s mad-intelligence will not come as a surprise—he’s one of the most intimidating minds out there today.
I’d seen Blake read from his debut full-length novel, There is No Year, this past April and while that was fiction and this one is nonfiction, his reading style is the same for both: manic, driving, machine gun-intense, which one can assume is how he hears it in his head. It’s an infectious intonation and once listen to, his voice is forever with you as you read his words.
HTMLGIANT is a frenetic blog, now with many contributors, and has the feel of an ongoing experiement in boundary-pushing. On a daily basis it features literary and film criticism, behind-the-scenes looks at writing and writing programs, author interviews, and occasional matters of highly-structured irrelevance. When visiting the site, you’re bound to learn about something you didn’t know existed, possibly stumble onto smart commentary regarding an otherwise mundane topic, and a bookmark a bunch of posts worthy of quiet contemplation.
Butler is someone you should know about if you don’t already. He’s an original, mind-blowing voice with a trustworthy sense for talented, contemporary thinkers.
You can listen to an hour-long interview with Blake about insomnia, writing fiction vs. nonfiction, and David Foster Wallace on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi. You can follow him and HTMLGIANT on Twitter at @blakebutler and @htmlgiant.
A Night at McNally Jackson
On Monday night, three ladies of the literary world took to the floor of McNally Jackson for an intimate conversation about the writing life. Diana Abu-Jaber, author of four novels, her most recent Birds of Paradise, was joined by her editor Alane Mason and agent Joy Harris, both of nearly 20 years.
Diana began with a short reading from the book described by the publisher as, “the story of a runaway daughter, Felice, and the effect of her absence on her mother, father, and brother.” And, in the broader sense, one that “illuminates the silent crosscurrents of guilt, anger, blame, and grief that can plague a family,” which promises to “resonate with all those who have sought adolescent independence and then yearned to reconnect with their families once they are grown up.”
When Alane and Joy claimed the seats next to Diana, the mutual admiration and respect was palpable. You could feel their years together in the air. The three launched into what a touching reflection on their triangular relationship, a behind-the-scenes look inside the writing and editorial process. The night drove home the notion that a book is not always a solo act, that editors and agents matter: Alane and Joy allow Diana to indulge her “fugue state,” as they called it, and Diana knows that she has those two to ground her work in reality when the first draft is done.
As is the intention with these multi-person events, Diana was not the only draw. Her editor, Alane, is the founder and president of Words Without Borders, a groundbreaking website founded in 1999—with its first publication in 2003—dedicated to publishing, translating, and promoting contemporary international literature. You can watch Alane discuss her motivation and mission in a 2009 interview at the Big Think. You can also follow Diana on Twitter at @dabujaber.
What’s on the shelf?
The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What’s Next by Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson’s books are quickly becoming popular with help in part to the fun videos that go along with them. His last book, Where Good Ideas Come From had this awesome trailer that’s now been viewed over a million times. His latest book’s video shows the creation of the 3-D letters used for the cover image.
The Innovator’s Cookbook “features a number of conversations with creative minds from technology, business, education and the arts, talking about their methods.” In Steven’s own words, the book is an “anthology of classic essays on innovation” with “many important essays by some of [his] heroes” includig Stewart Brand, John Seely Brown, and Erik Von Hippel. Aside from the essays, it’s also a collection of conversations he’d had with innovators. Some of the innovators interviewed are “Ray Ozzie on software; Brian Eno on music and art; Beth Noveck on government innovation.”
The Best American Comics 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel
The Best American Comics is a collection of work from both new and established artists. Cult comic artist Alison Bechdel, creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and author of the biographical graphic novel Fun Home, is the editor of this series’ latest edition. In compiling the book, Alison grabbed from graphic novels, pamplet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics and webcomics. Some of the artists featured are Joe Sacco, Jeff Smith, and Dash Shaw. You can read an Interview with Alison with the AV Club where she talks about the selection process, past projects she’s worked on, and the importance of zines.
What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open.
The Brooklyn Book Festival celebrated its 6th year this past weekend. One of the panels I was looking forward to was “Crashing Genres” with science fiction and fantasy authors Cory Doctorow, Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Kelly Link—the latter unfortunately was unable to make it. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Anderson, the manager of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a great place for book buying, event going, and general nerding out. Between the three of them there was so much energy the conversation never waned.
Both Cory and Jewell, proponents of childhood literacy, have written novels for young readers as well as books for adults. Jewell’s much-acclaimed book Ninth Ward, an inspiring story with a twist of magical realism, is about a young, black girl living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina. Cory’s Little Brother is a modern-day urban dystopic novel set in the wake of a terrorist attack in San Francisco.
To begin, all confessed they had no idea what “crashing genres” meant but agreed to go with it. While sussing it out, the discussion weaved through the increasing popularity of the young adult novel, the growing acceptance of once-taboo topics, and the sense of identity genre readers carry with them and what that means when their beloved subversive lifestyle goes mainstream. What struck me most during the talk was something Cory said: “You only go to bookstores once you know you’re a reader.” It felt true and hit me as something I’d never given any thought.
As a bookworm I take it for granted that the first place I think of when considering where to spend my time is a bookstore. There are plenty in my area, all with a carefully tailored selection. Bookstores are where I’m most likely to feel most comfortable and meet like-minded people. Doesn’t everyone go to bookstores? The bubble in which I live burst at that moment. Not, not everyone does.
The question Cory opened with this statement was, “where do new readers go to find books?” As someone in the publishing industry, and as a passionate reader, it’s an important one.
Always a wealth of information, Cory went into a brief history of the mass market paperback, the main format of genre fiction and often the cheapest, which makes it a great “gateway drug”.
According to Cory (a brief internet search didn’t bring up much information so this is un-fact checked), before the bookstore chains and big-box stores there were 400 distributors of books, now their numbers have been significantly reduced, possibly to the single digits (again, couldn’t find reliable information). The larger stores who were able to buy in bulk and negotiate for better discounts with publishers passed on larger discounts to their customers. Good for customers but bad for the industry as a whole. Before this massive growth, books could be found in grocery, candy, and drug stores but with chains gobbling up the competition, and with fewer distributors, these numbers have significantly decreased. Cory’s point in all of this is that the majority of “non-readers” found books in these unconventional locations and the inexpensive price of mass markets made them a low-risk purchase..
Michael Connelly, best-selling mystery writer, in the New York Times article The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age, said, “Growing up and reading primarily inexpensive mass-market novels, it allows you to explore. I bought countless novels based on the cover or based on the title, not knowing what was inside.”
The article, citing a survey done by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, says that since 2008 the publishing industry has expanded over all but mass-market paperback sales have fallen 14 percent. Claims of the mass market’s death is nothing new, it’s been going on since the 1980s. This was when the chain stores pushed out many independents with their discounts on hard cover titles—people no longer felt the need to wait for the cheaper edition.
Today, the same thing is happening with e-books. The affordable pricing of the electronic version, available for sale the first day of publication, makes it more appealing to readers who otherwise would’ve waited for the paperback to come out a year later.
And therein lies the double-whammy: although the price of e-books is right, the distribution is not. At the moment, they lack a physical presence in the stores listed above, regardless of how many distributors there might be. While I don’t believe e-books are a threat to publishing, their possible triumph over the cheap mass-market just might mean fewer non-readers finding their passion for the written word.
What do you think? Are non-readers exposed to books in more unconventional ways now than in the days of dime stores? Comments are open.
This week’s selection owes many thanks to the great podcast Books on the Nightstand and their uncanny ability to talk up a book.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This book is getting a ton of attention in the media but as Ann Kingman of Books On the Nightstand says in the latest episode, it’s buzz not hype and there certainly is a difference. Here’s a bit about the book from IndieBound:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos (Illustrator), and Annie Di (Illustrator)
Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand mentioned this one in the episode on graphic novels. He warned that it was a bit of a difficult read but if you’re into Betrand Russell and all those other logicians, you’ll want to grab this one.
Here’s a bit about it, also from IndiBound:
This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal—to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics—continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories edited by John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is a busy man. When he’s not getting married at Worldcon he’s working hard earning award nominations for his science fiction and fantasy anthologies. Not only does he edit short story collections, he’s also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine and co-hosts the podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Brave New Worlds, as the subtitle suggests, is a roundup of dystopian fiction written over the past 30 years. Contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, M. Rickert, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury.
“A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world. They are all constructed according to a common logical plan.”
In Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, renown British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a strong case for summarizing the late-philosopher’s views. Critics of the idea argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work, often stated in aphorisms, is compressed enough already and that any further breakdown would misrepresent both the content and intention.
For those first coming to Wittgenstein it’s helpful to know beforehand that his later writing is largely a takedown of his earlier work with his middle writing acting as a transition. Another problem posed to newcomers is where to start. His first book, the one that garners most of Wittgenstein’s criticism, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was the only book published in his lifetime. All others emerged posthumously and are often featured in many different collections, making difficult to know which one to buy.
A Very Short Introduction, aptly named, moves swiftly through Wittgenstein’s personal details—born in Vienna in 1889 to a wealthy family, taught at the University of Cambridge before serving in the First World War, after returning he took a 10-year hiatus from teaching, at the age of 40 he went back to Cambridge, World War II broke out, he felt compelled to help and left teaching for the last time, and finally, at the age of 62, he died of prostate cancer. Instead, Grayling spends most of the 134 pages charting the ins-and-outs of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and explaining the trajectory of his evolving theories.
Categorizing Wittgenstein is not easy. In another book on this towering figure, a collection of analytical essays, The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, the editor, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hans Sluga, says that what makes it difficult to peg the twentieth century philosopher is “first of all the unconventional cast of his mind, the radical nature of his philosophical proposals, and the experimental form he gave to their expression.”
What does help provide context is his main influence, and possibly biggest supporter, the prolific philosopher Betrand Russell. It was Russell’s 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, where the author argues that mathematics and logic are identical, that put Wittgenstein on the path to a career in philosophy. With Russell, Wittgenstein, at the time of their writings, took part in what Sluga calls a “sense of a new beginning in philosophy”. Together they broke from the traditional and national constraints that prevailed.
Russell was instrumental in getting the Tractatus published and had written an introduction to the edition in 1921. Known to be irascible, Wittgenstein had a bad reaction to what Russell’s interpretation and in an angry letter claimed his friend had not understood a word of his work. However, as Wittgenstein’s theories progressed he realized that he had not reached his objective: “to solve the problems of philosophy . . . by showing how language works”.
Wittgenstein’s focus on language makes him something of a writer’s philosopher. With saying such as, “Language must speak for itself” and “Language is like a collection of very various tools,” his books are brain candy for those who love words.
Throughout Wittgenstein’s work there are brilliant sayings that make him sound like a spiritual leader: “A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion,” “Philosophy is not a body doctrine by an activity,” and famously, the last line of the Tractatus, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But as with those gurus from the 60s, it’s tempting to hang onto Wittgenstein’s theories as if they were absolute truths; they’re concise, poetic, and have a koan-like quality to them. Unfortunately, history shows them to be misguided, refuted by the very same man who had once believed in them wholeheartedly.
It’s refreshing, however, that Wittgenstein was not afraid to disagree with himself and that over the years he continued to flesh out his ideas. Sluga believes that “Wittgenstein’s development from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations parallels that of the culture at large” and goes on to explain that the analytic tradition as a whole “progressed from the single-minded pursuit of an ideal of formal unity to the acceptance of informality, pluralism, and proliferation of forms.”
Grayling summed up the shift saying that the Wittgenstein made the “rejection of [the Tractatus’] central doctrines the very cornerstone of his later philosophy”. What Wittgenstein had originally asked readers to believe he later felt was oversimplification and instead began to argue the opposite, “that language is a vast collection of different activities each with its own logic.”
Abandoning his earlier assumptions, Wittgenstein focused on language as a medium of communication that doesn’t follow strictly prescribed rules and became interested how language is learned. In short, he went from asking “What is the meaning of a word?” to “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. He even went so far in the Philosophical Investigations to make the critical view of the function of rules his central theme.
One is left to wonder, does Wittgenstein’s sharp divergence from his early work mean that the Tractatus should be thrown out the window? The answer, if we are to listen to the man himself, is no. Wittgenstein felt that the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations belonged side-by-side, understanding that the latter is largely a reaction to the former.
A.C. Grayling prepares the casual philosopher and autodidact for the content and context of Wittgenstein’s theories while The Cambridge Companion’s essays, spanning a diverse range of views regarding the philosophers work, expands the reader’s scope of analysis. Both introductions will create a more confident reader and spark an interest for further investigation.
Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein edited by Hans Sluga and David Stern
The Puzzlement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
The Unhappy Family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
Anniversaries are great. I’m not talking about personal anniversaries like your wedding or the day you brought your dog home. I’m talking about public anniversaries like bicentennials, the Civil War, or the invention of peanut butter. A more cynical person would call them a marketing gimmick and honestly, sometimes they are, but they’re also a time to focus on an otherwise forgotten occasion. Oftentimes they introduce people to someone or something previously unknown.
Recently, the 100 year anniversary of Marshall Mcluhan’s birth brought this fascinating media-philosopher to my attention. Wikipedia bills Mcluhan’s work as “one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory”. The Marshall Mcluhan website describes his first book, Understanding Media (1964), as focusing on “the media effects that permeate society and culture.” The entry explains that “McLuhan’s starting point is always the individual, because he defines media as technological extensions of the body” — a forward notion at that time and one that is much-echoed today by our own forward-thinkers.
What struck me about Marshall Mcluhan was his poignancy delivered brilliantly in sharp aphorisms—his most famous being “the medium is the message” followed up by his coining of “the global village”. Being a sucker for aphorisms—and who isn’t?—I was sucked into the celebration. It’s a good thing public broadcasting shares my enthusiasm because over the past week or so there’s been an outpouring of favorable remembrances of the man. You can listen to a great To The Best of Our Knowledge episode devoted to him alone. Australian radio’s Big Ideas had a roundtable discussion with media-thinker Douglas Rushkoff and electronic musician DJ Spooky (the first 20 minutes or so is an intro by the mediator).
If you’re wondering why DJ Spooky was invited to speak about Mcluhan, you can check out his essay on his work and download a track he created using Marshall’s words.
What do you think of our mediums today? What do they say about the messages we receive?
What’s on the Shelf?
The Medium is the Message by Marshall Mcluhan
I always endorse reading primary sources—as opposed to books about a particular book—if the author is accessible. The publisher says The Medium is the Message remains Mcluhan’s most popular work and that it “is still one of the most insightful and provocative works ever to have been published on our modern culture.”
Marshall Mcluhan, You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland
Coupland’s biography of Mcluhan has seen some mixed reviews but appears to be a worthy place to start if you’re looking for some background. Here he is discussing the book with The Paris Review. While we’re talking about Douglas Coupland I’d like to endorse his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a book whose originality changed the way I viewed reading. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I owe my current voraciousness to Coupland and this book. While the book Generation X did not coin the term it did make it popular.
Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff
The publisher says this of the book: “In this spirited, accessible poetics of new media, Rushkoff picks up where Marshall McLuhan left off, helping readers come to recognize programming as the new literacy of the digital age––and as a template through which to see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries. This is a friendly little book with a big and actionable message.”
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly is a founding editor of WIRED magazine and is currently on staff as their Senior Maverick. Last year he published a sweeping history and forward thinking book on technology called What Technology Wants. Cory Doctorow on his site boingboing summed up the thesis as: “technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.”
I truly enjoy listening to Kevin discuss technology and suggest you check out a few of his talks available online. Here he is on the future of the digital media landscape (opens with sound). For more you can check out Kevin’s page on the TED Talks site where they have a few short videos and you can find a great interview with Kevin on To The Best of Our Knowledge. If you’re craving more here’s his talk at the New York Public Library last fall with fellow big thinker Steven Johnson. The discussion was moderated by Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich.
What’s on your shelf this week?
The summer issue of Bookforum features a collection of critical essays about bestselling books. Ruth Franklin, literary critic and senior editor at The New Republic, discusses the history of the infamous list and book critic for the Washington Post Michael Dirda talks about how bestselling aspirations of publishers and authors affect the literary scene.Ruth Franklin begins her piece with a dose of humor and poignancy, “The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”
She looks into where the lists get their numbers from: the New York Times bases its numbers on approximately four thousand unnamed booksellers, the Wall Street Journal uses the respected industry source Nielsen BookScan, which grabs its numbers from three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, and IndieBound goes by what the independent bookstores are selling. Amazon.com, somewhat misleading, is based on orders not actual sales and is updated hourly. After this bit of technical background, Ruth dives right into the cultural history:
“If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.”
“The book business began to change in the ’70s. Literary novels were still a regular feature during this era, with Ragtime, Sophie’s Choice, and Humboldt’s Gift all appearing on the list. . . . But if the list was not yet as mass-market-heavy as it would become in the ’80s and ’90s, there was nonetheless a marked decline in the literary level that reflects the changing marketplace.”
“A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. First, consumers’ shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the ‘superstores’ pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream.”
You can listen to her discuss her research on ABC Radio National’s Book Show.
Michael Dirda pulls no punches, opening with “However you refer to it, list is a disaster for literary and general culture.” He goes on to explain, “I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist.” He feels that if both bestseller lists and tables were to disappear “People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock . . . they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture” and that readers “might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles.”
Echoing sentiments that can be heard from a few authors these days, he continues “In the past, a decent author photo, the solicitation of a few blurbs, and an occasional bookstore reading were all that a writer was expected to do to promote his or her work. No longer. You need an author website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and blog to which you contribute posts every day.” In the end he offers some sage advice: “Think outside the list.”
Where do you find your next book? Who do you trust for suggestions? If you’re lucky enough to have independent bookstores in your town or city do you notice a difference between the books they carry and what the box stores display on their tables?
I’m fortunate to have great independent stores in my area—and to be honest, my local Barnes & Noble is large enough to carry more than the average fair compared to their less-trafficked counterparts. I’m also lucky to have access to, what I’ll call, professional readers who are up on what’s new and what’s great—inside and outside of the bestseller lists. One such person who I spent a Friday evening with at my local indie, WORD, for their Literary Karaoke night was Ed Champion, host of The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast, and editor of Ed Rants, a literary website. I’d mentioned that I was on a science fiction kick—no surprise to those who follow my blog—and he picked out two of his favorites. They are, in no particular order:
Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
The publisher describes it as “a literary retro-pulp science-fiction-mystery-superhero novel, the debut of a true voice of the future, and a cult classic in the making.” If it’s as fun as the cover, it should be a great read.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This biopunk novel is set in a future Thailand where the entire global economy is built on calories; where the heroine, Emiko, is a “windup girl,” a genetically modified being created by the Japanese as a toy. Lev Grossman of TIME magazine, in his roundup of top ten fiction for 2009, called Bacigalupi “a worthy successor to William Gibson” and described the novel as “cyberpunk without computers.” Boing Boing called it “an exciting story about industrial espionage, civil war, and political struggle, filled with heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels.” The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2010.
Ed also interviewed Paolo. You can listen to it here.
Another book that caught my attention this week, which is not science fiction, was:
Ladies and Gentlemen: Stories by Adam Ross
Acclaimed author of Mr. Peanut is back with a book of short fiction billed as a “darkly compelling collection of stories about brothers, loners, lovers, and lives full of good intentions, misunderstandings, and obscured motives.” One of Adam’s biggest supporters, Rebecca of the wildly popular Book Lady’s Blog, says: “this collection establishes Ross as a writer unconstrained by format, one who doesn’t need the bells and whistles, twists and turns, regardless of how skillfully he deploys them.”
You can listen to Adam discuss his collection on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.
There’s something very human about making lists. We’re always looking forward; we always have something on our minds. For me, along with all my fellow compulsive readers, it’s books. It takes all my willpower to leave a bookstore without buying something—and every so often I succeed; but it’s not without taking a picture of a cover or making a mental note of one more book I’d like to read. Here are a few that have been on my mind, or on my shelf, for some time now that are at the forefront of my reading list. Feel free to add them to your own.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth
I’ve seen Deb read twice for her book and both times she was downright funny and adorable. Revolution has gotten an incredible amount of praise in all the right places. Revolution is a memoir of the year Unferth took off to join the revolution in Central America. It was 1987; she was 18 and in love with a George, the philosophy major and reason for her newfound solidarity with the southern hemisphere.
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
I still haven’t read DFW and am somewhat ashamed to admit this, although not as ashamed as those who say they loved (loved!) Infinite Jest should feel. I’m convinced those people are either pretentious or lying, or both. Ok, I kid, don’t flame me. But seriously, I still haven’t read him and I feel like I’m missing out on an important piece of the literary universe. Consider the Lobster, I’ve been told, is his best nonfiction work so it seems like a good place to start.
Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The way I’ve heard this described it sounds like it has some worthwhile philosophical element to it, like Milan Kundera’s works, which I loved in my 20s. It makes sense since it’s a French novel and those people sure do love their philosophy. From what I understand it’s a novel about a cleaning lady who pretends to be ignorant meanwhile she’s a brilliant autodidact. I’ve picked it up off the Europa display about three times now. Next time I just might walk out the door with it—after paying, of course.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Speaking of French philosophers. I hear this is Barthes’ most accessible book. Born in 1915, Barthes was part of the Structuralist school founded in France in the 1950s and 60s that believed human culture could be studied through its use of signs. Mythologies, as the title would lead one to believe, is a look at modern (in Barthes’ time) myths.
Embassytown by China Mieville
This guy is huge in my area. China is a British fantasy writer (and a very attractive one at that). Embassytown is his latest and it sounds very scifi, dystopian. Everyone who I respect is raving about him so I think it’s high time I picked him up.
Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
With the HBO series going on, this one is on my radar. My friend Stephanie, who’s a big fantasy fan, says that this is trashy genre at its best.
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Um, Neil Gaiman. Need I say more?
an essay on China and his work (2009) at TheMillions
a review of Embassytown at TheMillions (staff pick)
a review of Revolution at TheMillions
Deb Olin Unferth on The Bat Segundo Show
Neil Gaiman’s website