Reading Lists · Reviews

Summer Reading List, 2003

Jenny abuses her illusions.In the midst of putting together a Summer Reading List, I decided to ask several of my friends for their recommendations. The responses were varied, and they’re all listed below for your Summer Reading pleasure. Many thanks to all those who participated.

note: All links on this page (and there are a lot of them) will take you to the selected title in Powells Bookstore (except where noted otherwise).

Ashley Crawford, Writer, Editor, Transit Lounge

Cosmopolis: A Novel by Don Delillo (Scribner)

Despite savaging by the critics this a cool, ironic read that slices into the cold psychology of contemporary Western society with wry amusement. Those expecting another Underworld were disappointed, but considering the range that Delillo has tackled over the years one should be prepared for shifts in gear such as this one.

Pattern RecognitionPattern Recognition: A Novel by William Gibson (Putnam)

After floundering a bit in his last few books, Gibson has found his pace again with this one. His female protagonist is on the chase for elusive footage on the web. It’s a story that replicates elements of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Mark Z. Danielwski’s House of Leaves. What’s especially interesting about it is Gibson’s exploration of a world that in some ways he helped create.

Personally I have just finished Infinite Jest (Little, Brown) after avoiding on the bookshelf for years due to its astonishing heft. But, as the hype that surrounded it when it appeared years ago, it is nothing short of a contemporary masterpiece. Similarly The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Picador) is a must have.

Also, I can heartily recommend ANYTHING by Jack O’Connell — one of the most underrated authors around. James Ellroy blurb goes: “Word Made Flesh is a tour de force! it’s a chase story, an allegory, and a brilliant riff on language. Jack O’Connel is the future of the dark, literary suspense novel.” Try Word Made Flesh (Perennial), Box Nine (Trafalgar Square), Wireless (Trafalgar Square), and The Skin Palace (Oldcastle Books). All great.

Tom Georgoulias, Technology Editor,

The BugThe Bug by Ellen Ullman (Doubleday)

In Ullman’s first novel since Close to the Machine, we learn the story of how Ethan Levin, a programmer obsessed with squashing a show-stopper bug in his code, is ultimately brought down by dormant bugs present in his own life. Ullman more than proved herself to be one of the best writers using high tech settings, and The Bug does not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rebel Code by Glyn Moody (Perseus Publishing)

No longer fringe players in the software world, the open source and free software movements have drastically altered the landscape of the digital era, taking up disk blocks in the bin directories of programmers and on server RAID arrays all over the world. But there was a time when said software was only filling the hard drives of a few radicals — those who either wrote the code or recognized the power it harnessed. Glyn Moody was one of them, and Rebel Code is his documentary of the rise of the open source and free software movements.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (Tor Books)

“This cool stunt Cory pulled with his so-called ‘book’ is an act of blatant countercultural aring that is revitalizing our scene… SF is genuinely politically relevant again. It is in a position to say things that genuinely hurt people’s feelings by spelling out the unspeakable in terms that cannot be denied.” — Bruce Sterling

Cory Doctorow’s whuffie is getting up there. His name is dropped at witty spots all over the net and his fiction is showing up not just in the SF rags, but on the front page of Salon and throughout P2P nets. Appropriate indeed, since the open source principles are core to Jules and his gang of merry hackers who work in Disneyland and tweak the attractions for maximum guest entertainment. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is Doctorow’s very relevant tale of ad hocs battling for mind share in a post scarcity society where sheep shit grass (not figuratively), and reputation (a.k.a whuffie) is what matters most. But endorsed digital duplication doesn’t just exist in the Bitchun Society — DAOITMK was released under a Creative Commons license that so that Cory’s entire book is free to anyone who wants a copy or wants to make one. Science Fiction just got a much needed flight path correction.

Tomorrow NowTomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling (Random House)

Bruce Sterling takes on the next five decades in his latest book, steering clear of specs for unreleased hardware, software, and wetware, and instead contemplating topics like genetic engineering, industrial product design, and world politics. Bruce Sterling’s strongest points have always been his social and political commentary and Tomorrow Now is a shinning star. [full review]

The Hacker and The Ants, v2.0 by Rudy Rucker (Four Walls Eight Windows)

Rudy Rucker didn’t just republish his original manuscript of his classic novel The Hacker and the Ants, he tweaked some of the details just enough so that the story is just as entertaining as it was the first time, but also more relevant (and accurate). The original THATA was released during the hey days of VR, cellular automata, and artificial evolution, which makes the 2.0 version even more fun since it feels like flipping through an old issue of Wired that’s more PlayStation 2 than 3DO. Old hippies, a trip into a 4D polygon ant hill, and a walk through a virtual debugger — another mind-tweaking, hilarious romp through transreality by the lead hacker himself.

Richard Metzger: Creative Director, The Disinformation Company; Author, Disinformation: The Interviews

Mister Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers by Ed Sikov (Hyperion)

A decidedly unauthorized biography of the comic genius. What a fucking freak!

Witchin’Witchin’: A Handbook for Teen Witches by Fiona Horne (Thorsons Publishing)

Must be the most subversive book ever written for teenage girls (and that’s really saying something). All the secrets of magick, veiled for centuries, are spilled here for Buffy and Charmed fans in a slick purple and pink package. Give it to your niece for her next birthday. She’ll think you’re the coolest, her parents will hate you. Isn’t it time that someone started smuggling subversion back into the mainstream again?

The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough (Chicago Review Press)

There might be one person reading this who will react as I did when I saw this sucker: “WHAT?!?! An Andy Milligan bio!?!? This I gotta read!” — Well trust me, you won’t be disappointed! It’s amazing that someone put up the money to publish this for all 12 Milligan fans in the world… Mind-rot at its finest!

Dig Infinity: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley by Oliver Trager (Welcome Rain)

At long last someone has decided to give this most immaculately hip aristocrat his due. Must’ve been difficult to research as so much of his Lordship’s life was obscured due to the apocryphal nature of the anecdotes to begin with and owing to the fact that most of his contemporaries are long dead. Still Trager deserves the gratitude of Buckley enthusiasts everywhere. Also comes with a CD of Buckley’s best routines and a Studs Terkel radio interview.

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman (Applause)

Exhaustively researched and sharply observed portrait of America’s drag Moliere. This is a major biography of a major (and heretofore unsung) giant of American theater. The late Ludlam, tragically lost to AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44, was truly one of those “larger than life” characters and Kaufman ably captures the soul of the man. A great book and a fun read.

Turn Off Your MindTurn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius by Gary Lachman (Disinformation)

Ex-Blondie member turned occult scholar Lachman’s revisionist history of the hippie era. Where Tolkien, Crowley, Casteneda, Blavatsky and the Manson Family meet the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin with Kenneth Anger acting as a Zelig-like lynchpin throughout.

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light by Karen O’Brien (Virgin Publishing)

The definitive Mitchell bio. Even if smoky Joni didn’t really take part, she certainly didn’t hinder access to her family and closest friends. Full of amazing insights into La Mitchell’s turbulent life and uncompromising art. Isn’t it about time this woman got her due? She’s only the best post-Lennon and McCartney songwriter alive.

Mark Dery, Author, Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, Escape Velocity, Flame Wars

Car Crash Culture edited by Mikita Brottman (Palgrave Macmillan).

Experience the blunt trauma of a head-on collision with the future in this penetrating, mordantly funny anthology of essays on our out-of-control obsession with the automobile, and where it’s taking us.

Shapinsky’s Karma, Bogg’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales by Lawrence Weschler (Penguin)

My current pillow book. A droll little cabinet of curiosities, featuring finely drawn portraits of legendary eccentrics, everyday Dadaists, and wild-eyed true believers.

Brandon Pierce, Editor at Large,

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart (North Point Press)

C2C is about transforming industrial design. McDonough and Braungart envision human industries that that mimic natural systems. They preach ecological, economical, and social consciousness in the realms of architecture, chemical engineering, and all the design spaces in between.

Small Pieces Loosely JoinedSmall Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger (Perseus Publishing)

The web is changing Everything! and this is one of the first books that breaks down the hows and whys. Weinberger boldly divides the book into chapters with titles like ‘space,’ ‘time,’ ‘matter,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘hope,’ etc., and cleverly rebuilds each concept in the terms of our web-enhanced world. His optimism lies in the fact that the web is our creation, and this reflects certain human virutes, adding value to our physical experience.

Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (Touchstone Books)

James Howard Kunstler is forever exploring the wasteland that is the American metropolis. This is the second of three books on urban design authored by this self-trained expert. He wants to provide the unsatisfied urban or suburbanite with the lexicon they need to understand and mitigate their frustration with their ever-expanding, congested, ugly depressing, polluted, or poorly designed environments.

Linked: The New Science of Networks by Albert-László Barabási (Perseus Publishing)

Network models can be used to interpret and explore many types of phenomena: internet connectivity, cellular biology, the economy, society, etc. But are these metaphors meaningful? Do common laws govern all these systems? Linked makes a strong case for the utility of network science. Bridging many disciplines with an over-arching theory brings to mind other trendy sciences such as catastrophe theory, complexity theory, and the like, but net theory seems to have a greater immediate utility that any of these disciplines. With strong publications in journals like Science and Nature, Network science seems to have a secure future.

No More PrisonsNo More Prisons by William Upski Wimsatt (Soft Skull)

This is a book that really opened by eyes to a new world of social issues, some largely unexplored by academia. I was about 20 when I read it, Upski was about 20 when he wrote it, so I was eye to eye with his tone and the feelings he was expressing. When you write, research, self promote, and distribute your first book (Bomb the Suburbs) at age 18, you grow up fast. He brings the underrepresented viewpoint of a young, poor Hip-hop activist to a wide literary audience with wit, energy, and compassion.

Investigations by Stewart Kaufmann (Oxford University Press)

This man is way ahead of the game. His ideas about concern self-organizing systems and complexity are truly understood by few. Wrapping your mind around this one is hecka challenging, so keep some Advil nearby. Some background in biochemistry, thermodynamics, and mathematics will definitely aid your understanding of this book. I admit, I should probably read it again. This man is wicked smart. [full review]

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton & Company)

This synthesis of evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology produces a remarkably readable and comprehensive work that investigates the big questions behind the rise of civilization. Diamond is a biologist who does not marginalize the importance of culture; this is true integrative thinking. This book earned Dr. Diamond a Pulitzer Prize.

Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff (Riverhead Books)

This one won the 2002 Marshall McLuhan Award for best media book. Rushkoff breaks down tactics of coercion in the corporate realm, tackling person-to-person strategies, organizational structures, atmospheres, and quickly evolving fields of advertising and marketing. Coercion is simply fascinating at times, but somewhat predictable at others. A great book for people who want to understand their place in the marketplace.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

In his most celebrated work, Kuhn maps of the path by which science progresses, and picks apart and examines the many forces that can produce profound shifts in scientific thought. From the role and nature of paradigms, to the meaning of the word progress, Kuhn pours light on issues that still pertinent to this day today. 40 years later, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still an enlightening read.

The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore (Gingko Press Inc.)

McLuhan is a must. His disjointed prophecies are fertile ground critical thought about the interaction of media, politics and culture. His angle, delivery, and tone are completely his own, and have inspired countless numbers of today’s visionaries. This seminal work was way ahead of its time. No one understood him in the sixties, but today people are hearing him loud and clear.

David Weinberger: Author, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web; Co-Author, The Cluetrain Manifesto

Hmm. This is what I’m reading now:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (Penguin)

A murder mystery set in 1643, as told through manuscripts of several of those involved. Some interesting reflections on science in its youth, but possibly tedious overall.

I’m making my way through Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (Harvest Books), an astoundingly learned book.

I’m also reading Wolfram’s book (A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, Inc.), but I don’t think it can count as summer reading. For one thing, it’s heavier than my beach chair. For another, it’ll be a multi-seasonal book for me. [full review]

Roy Christopher, Editor,

Disinformation: The Interviews
Disinformation: The Interviews by Richard Metzger (Disinformation) and Uncanny Networks by Geert Lovink (MIT Press)

Apparently, interview compilations don’t appeal to the book-buying public. Call me biased (after all, I do run an interview-based website), but I love them. Put these two with the 21C compilation, Transit Lounge, Peter Lunenfeld’s The Digital Dialectic and maybe one of John Brockman’s many collections (The Third Culture or even Digerati) and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn solid, brief history of turn-of-the-millennium, cutting-edge scientific thought and social theory — in progress.

Interface Culture by Steven Johnson (Basic Books)

Unlike Don Norman, who’s much better at polemic than he is conjecture, Steven Johnson excels at both. Having been published some six years ago and given the nature of its rapidly-evolving subject matter, Interface Culture is surprisingly prescient. Johnson builds up various theories about computing technology then deconstructs them one by one, finally making a few predictions/recommendations as to where the then future of interface design would/should follow. The best part of the book (to me) is its stable grounding in literature and pop culture. Johnson’s examples (regularly running the gamut from Charles Dickens to Sonic Youth) give his arguments a verisimilitude often missing in these kinds of books. Another major point is the fact that his language resists hyperbole and retains a sober tone in its stead — even going so far as to critique those who speak of technology as if it were magic. Oh, and don’t miss Steven’s newest book Emergence (Scribner/Touchstone), it’s an engaging look at emergent phenomena in ant colonies, human brains, urban environments, software, etc. Excellent.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown/Back Bay Books)

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has put together what is easily one of the most readable books about social phenomena out right now. Borrowing by analogy from epidemiology, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a clear, concise analysis of social epidemics and why they “tip” (“The Tipping Point” is the name given to the moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass). After studying tipping points in epidemics, Gladwell decided to look for them in other places. He found them in Wolverine’s Hush Puppy shoe sales, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the child-captivating shows of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues and the most relevant analysis of teen smoking I’ve yet to read, among other things. Gladwell also covers case studies of people who have successfully manipulated tipping points by launching their own epidemic campaigns.

The Ride of my LifeThe Ride of My Life by Mat Hoffman with Mark Lewman (HarperCollins)

To re-use a well-worn metaphor, Mat Hoffman is the Michael Jordon of Freestyle BMX. An autobiography may seem a bit premature given that he’s only in his early 30s, but The Ride of My Life proves that Mat’s lived the last few decades to the fullest. Inside you’ll find an appropriate ‘zine-style layout, the undeniable wit of co-writer Mark Lewman, all the insanity of Mat’s life-long, limit-shattering, BMX obsession, and more broken bones than an archeology text book. The perfect Summer read.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon)

The haunted text of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves pushes the boudaries of the book that binds it. Often called “post-print,” his novel stretches the medium and is definitely “post-” something (the lay-out alone, which Danielewski did himself, is decidedly nonlinear). The layers of narrative in this story weave a web engrossing to unweave, but impossible to map. In short (maybe), the main storyline is about a tattoo artist who finds the remnants of a book about a film about a house that’s bigger on the inside that it is on the outside. Apparently, neither the film nor the house (nor the billions of references in the footnotes) can be proven to actually exist. The reader follows the tales of the tattoo artist, the writer of the book, and the makers of the film (and inhabitants of the house as they explore its depths), as well as the final editors of the book (told via footnotes). As convoluted as this all sounds, House of Leaves is an elegant, engaging, and ultimately enthralling read.

Writing MachinesWriting Machines by N. Katherine Hayles (MIT Press MediaWork Pamphlet Series)

Speaking of House of Leaves, N. Katherine Hayles ventures inside its cavernous corridors of text in her Writing Machines. Mixing literary genres and writing styles, Hayles explores between the lines of literature and hypertext in search of a materiality proper. With superb design by Anne Burdick, Writing Machines is a fun, enlightening look at the printed word.

Incidentally, enough good can’t be said about the MediaWork Pamphlet Series [website]. These small, but heady books (in which Peter Lunenfeld plays Jerome Agel to the Marshall McLuhans and Quentin Fiores of today) are well-designed, well-written, and well-planned. The first was Brenda Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur, and forthcoming is Paul D. Miller’s Rhythm Science. Big issues cower in the face of these small texts.

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick (Penguin Putnam)

I couldn’t very well make this list without including this one. I read this for the first time in late 1997 (ten years after its release) and it changed my view of the world. Not just because of its revealing, in-depth look at chaos and complexity and its adept synthesis of disparate areas of research, but also because Jim’s writing set my head aflame. I ditched the path I was following and took up a new one (one of the results of my reading this book is the website you’re reading now). I reread this book every year and it never fails to re-align my mind. A true classic.

Steal This Book
And, as Stewart Brand says, “When in doubt, read a classic. Better still, reread a classic.” These are a few other classics that I reread on a regular: Escape Velocity by Mark Dery (Grove Press), Writing Space by Jay David Bolter (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.), The Media Lab by Stewart Brand (Viking), Snap to Grid by Peter Lunenfeld (MIT Press), War in the Age of Intelligent Machines by Manuel De Landa (Zone), Out of Control by Kevin Kelly (Perseus Publishing), Media Virus! by Douglas Rushkoff (Ballantine Books), Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn (Quill), and Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman (Four Walls Eight Windows).

A few from the ‘to be read’ stack that I’m planning on tackling next:

Connected by Steven Shaviro (University of Minnesota Press)

Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You’re Dead. by Adam Voith (TNI Books)

Media Spectacle by Douglas Kellner (Routledge)

When Poetry Ruled the Streets by Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman (SUNY Press)

Isaac Newton by James Gleick (Pantheon)

Folk Devils and Moral Panics by Stanley Cohen (Routledge)

Gary Baddeley, Publisher, The Disinformation Company

Abuse Your Illusions and Turn Off Your Mind!!!

Nothing SacredDouglas Rushkoff, Author, Nothing Sacred, Exit Strategy, Coercion, etc.

I haven’t been reading. I guess I’d suggest my own Nothing Sacred (Crown Publishing),
Pinchbeck’s book (Breaking Open the Head, Broadway Books) is a fun ride. And I think Michael Chabon has a new one out (Summerland, Miramax).

Cynthia Connolly, Photographer and Artist.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Penguin)

The Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann (Vintage Books)

“Back to the Land” issue of Cometbus zine

OK… That’s it for now.

Andrew Feenberg, Author, Questioning Technology, Alternative Modernity, Technology and the Politics of Knowledge, etc.

Here’s an egotistical suggestion:

When Poetry Ruled the StreetsWhen Poetry Ruled the Streets by Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman, Foreward by Douglas Kellner (SUNY Press)

“More than a history, this book is a passionate reliving of the French May Events of 1968. The authors, ardent participants in the movement in Paris, documented the unfolding events as they pelted the police and ran from the tear gas grenades. Their account is imbued with the impassioned efforts of the students to ignite political awareness throughout society. Feenberg and Freedman select documents, graffiti, brochures, and posters from the movement and use them as testaments to a very different and exciting time. Their commentary, informed by the subsequent development of French culture and politics, offers useful background information and historical context for what may be the last great revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system.”

Sander Hicks, Author, The Breaking Manager

The 12 Caesars by Suetonius (Viking Press)

A frank history of the first 12 Caesars by a leading contemporaneous scholar of Rome. This reminds us that political corruption, hubris and ego are not unique to the current administration.

Steven Shaviro, Author, Connected, Doom Patrols, The Cinematic Body, etc.

You asked about Summer reading. Here are some of the books in my pile, things I hope to get to in the next several months:

Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck (Broadway Books)

Everything But the Burden Edited by Greg Tate (Broadway Books)

Metamorphoses by Rosi Braidotti (Polity Press)

Consciousness: A User’s Guide by Adam Zeman (Yale University Press)

Skin Prayer by Doug Rice (Eraserhead Press)

Isaac NewtonJames Gleick, Author, Isaac Newton, What Just Happened, Faster, Genius, and Chaos.

As it happens, my new book, Isaac Newton (Pantheon), is just being published.

[Above, Jenny abuses her illusions. Photo by Roy Christopher.]