We’re late again with the summer list, but here it is. Thanks to all who participated, including newcomers Dave Allen, Howard Bloom, Alex Burns, and Calvin Johnson, as well as veteran contributors Mark Pesce, Patrick Barber, Steven Shaviro, and Gary Baddeley. As this list proves year after year, there’s a lot of good stuff out there to read. Enjoy.
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Arthur A. Levine Books): I must be the only one reading that.
Philip K. Dick The Zap Gun (Gollancz)
John Robb Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (Wiley): Highly recommended!
David Weinberger Everything is Miscellaneous (Times Books)
Richard Vinen A History in Fragments (Da Capo)
John Henry Clippinger A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (PublicAffairs)
You know I often ramble on about the collapse of music sales as people stop buying CDs, and of course the first to suffer there are the music retailers — farewell Tower Records for instance — but it’s amazing to me that bookstores still abound given the fact that I never set foot in them any longer — all my purchases are through Amazon. Anyway, I discovered this weekend as I worked on restoring my motorhome (another story, to be continued) that the mailman/woman/person has been dropping books off at an alarming rate. Here’s the list of my unread pile that accumulated during May, without review, of course:
Jon Savage Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture (Viking)
Don DeLillo Falling Man (Scribner)
David Weinberger Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books)
Martin Amis House of Meetings (Vintage)
Simon Schama Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Harper Perennial)
Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (Mariner Books)
Philip Roth The Plot Against America (Vintage)
John Gray Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (New Press)
Gary Baddeley, Publisher, The Disinformation Company Ltd.
Roy, as usual my summer is largely taken up with our own books, especially the new edition of Graham Hancock’s Supernatural: Meetings With The Ancient Teachers of Mankind. Also in my pile are Mick Farren’s Who’s Watching You? and Thom Burnett’s Who Really Rules The World?
The best fiction I’ve read recently was Vikram Chandra’s long but always engaging Sacred Games (not one of ours — I get to read fiction just for pleasure!).
Next month we’re publishing Russ Kick’s new book Everything You Know About God Is Wrong, with contributors like Neil Gaiman, Richard Dawkins, Doug Rushkoff and Erik Davis, and I think it’s really going to cause a stir. I can’t wait!
Lewis Thomas The Lives of A Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (Penguin): This book is 20 years old, but is still one of the most provocative reperceptions of science I’ve ever read.
Gregg Easterbrook The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House): A book that cuts down every preconception you’ve been fed about the economic progress of the West and replaces today’s dour notions of scarcity with a hearty report on how, in fact, humanity has enriched itself vastly during the last 150 years — and may well continue to do so.
Barack Obama Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Three Rivers Press): One of the first books on the experience of a new breed of Westerners — the meta-racial cosmopolites — a generation of mixed-race and mixed-culture kids who are the gifts of the last 50 years of globalism.
Thomas L .Friedman The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Picador): The most encyclopedic vision of the new globalism I’ve seen.
Steven Johnson Everything Bad is Good For You (Riverhead): Another book that turns commonplaces on their heads. Johnson hypothesizes that pop culture is a “collective-perception and processing-power” expander. He goes on to posit that the “garbage” of pop culture is responsible for “The Flynn Effect” — a measured growth in individual IQs during the past 90 years, a rise of brain power whose origin has baffled the scientific community.
Stephen Wolfram A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media): This book is tough-sledding, but presents an old idea from the 1980s in a brand new way. The idea? That the cosmos’ mysteries can be cracked not with Newtonian and Einsteinian math, but with a cellular automata model. In other words, the cosmos may have started with three or four simple rules, than have gone through so many iterations of those rules that the results defy belief. Wolfram presents unequivocal evidence that repetition of simple rules can even produce what looks like utter chaos.
Alex Burns, Editor, Disinformation
C. Otto Scharmer Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges (MIT Society for Organizatzional Learning): My fellow alumni in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight program have been raving for the past 2 years about Scharmer’s Theory U as the cornerstone for blind-spot analysis and self-reflective practices. In essence Scharmer has developed a framework that might explain initiatory knowledge – to directly re-experience being and essence – for a contemporary business audience. It’s a call to self-reflection that cannot specify the reader’s aims: Scharmer’s readers might create the next Castalia, Second Foundation, Players of the Godgame… or Aum Shinrikyo.
William C. Martel Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (Cambridge University Press): Martel’s academic level text explores a Theory U blind-spot that is missing from debates about the Iraq War and the War on Terror’s grand strategy: What does victory mean, exactly? His survey of strategists such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Bernard Brodie, and Martin Van Creveld is a succinct journey through the jungles of military strategic thinking and forceful change writ large. Case studies include the major wars, humanitarian interventions, and stability operations of the past two decades. A good structural model for a PhD and an excellent primer to debate with military strategists and policymakers on their own turf, rather than as activists who can be marginalized in street protests [Excerpt here].
Tim Weiner Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday). The perfect book to read alongside the CIA’s “Family Jewels” and before seeing Robert De Niro’s film The Good Shepherd (2006). Weiner shows how intelligence’s analytical process — like the initiatory orders in the Western magical tradition — can potentially be corrupted by structural secrecy, information silos, organizational politics, and subgroup coalitions. The anecdotes range from operations failures to how old boys’ networks become an in-group elite that is shut off from change. Thus, whilst the intelligence community will debate the validity of Weiner’s research until 2012, this is also a good book for would-be change agents and project managers on what can go wrong without self-reflective practices such as Scharmer’s Presencing and Theory U.
Don Webb When They Came (Henry Wessells). When I first came across him in the mid-1990s, Webb was one of the guiding forces behind Austin’s FringeWare Review and shortly afterwards became High Priest in the Temple of Set. On the surface Webb’s collection is a variation on the mythos of Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and others gathered from the press, zines, and eldtrich Internet sites. Webb’s deeper purpose is to offer teaching stories — like the path notes of martial artists or Idries Shah’s Nassrudin anthologies — about the psycho-cosmological insights of spiritual dissent. Webb’s essay “Fictive Arcanum” explains how he uses the form of Lovecraftian fiction to communicate initiatory knowledge.
Michael Rosenbaum Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge: In Traditional Martial Arts (YMAA Publication Center): Rosenbaum addresses how martial arts practitioners use patterns to capture ‘tacit’ insights and for ‘tacit’-to-‘explicit’ knowledge transfer. Martial arts “kata” provides the form and self-reflective methodology that then becomes the basis for a sustainable tradition — usually only revealed as fragments in path notes. This is one of the hermetic secrets of George Gurdjieff’s ‘legominism’ for inter-generational and transcultural transmission in his Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950) — although Gurdjieff cited and used practices from dance, carpet-weaving and mythological symbolism. It underpins why ‘agile’ evangelists including Kent Beck and Alistair Cockburn use martial arts frameworks for software engineers to develop self-mastery.
Simon Reynolds Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin) and Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip-Rock and Hip-Hop (Penguin): Reynolds fills an important gap between the Sex Pistols’ demise, the rise-and-fall of Public Image Ltd, and the explosion of hip-hop and new wave in the early 1980s. One of the “strange loop” lessons in Reynolds’ stylised prose is of how innovators pick up on the signals, patterns and sub-currents to create new subcultures — Lovecraftian fiction begets Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P. Orridge. Rip It Up sent me scurrying back to Gang of Four and Pere Ubu whilst Bring the Noise revives the precise style of NME album reviews. Reynolds succeeds in the benchmark of good music journalism: to inspire you to discover or revisit the artists he profiles, and appreciate the cultural impact of their music.
Garry Mulholland Fear of Music: The Greatest 261 Albums Since Punk and Disco (Orion): Mulholland sets out to challenge the classic rock canon with his reviews of Joy Division, New Order, Husker Du, Public Enemy, Portishead and others. Mulholland — like Reynolds — is heavily influenced by the post-punk and new wave genres. For Reynolds and Mulholland, it’s a form of Lorenz imprinting or Anton LaVey’s erotic crystallization inertia. There’s a micro-trend in music journalism here that would be even more interesting if other authors did a similar book on the ’00s and digital natives. Anyone wanna help me convince Disinformation’s Gary Baddeley on the publishing “business case” for this?
Calvin Johnson, K Records
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding The Blank Wall (Quality): Even the most conventional life can take on a frightening edge.
We just moved across town so it’s been all I can do to keep up with the weekly New Yorker. I dug the recent fiction issue, particularly the Junot Diaz story. Also, a recent Mother Jones issue has a good, long article on species extinction.
Last month (before the move!) I read Michael Chabon’s new one, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins), and enjoyed it a lot. It’s a fertile blend of prefigurative dystopia, noiresque detective pulp, and homey Jewish culture study.
Next on the list is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins). I have a pretty good idea how that one turns out, but it’s important to keep up with my fellow locavores.
Speaking of which, if you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin), well, you’re late, but not too late. This was the book of the year last year and it might just be the book of the decade, all in the As Far As I’m Concerned department. Read it!
I’m also reading The Design of Everyday Objects by Donald Norman (Basic Books). You’ve probably read that one already, but it’s the first time for me. I am enjoying it not least because it was written in 1988 and most of his improvements to things like phones and personal organizers have come true. Yet his advice and analysis are still salient. We may now have phones with digital readouts and synchronized calendars, but a lot hasn’t changed: you can go anywhere and watch your average wired citizen struggle with an
ambiguously designed door handle.
Warren Ellis Crooked Little Vein (William Morrow). The first prose fiction by comics writer Ellis is a hoot. Sort of like noir detective fiction meets a Hunter-Thompsonesque journey into the heart of American weirdness and depravity. Everything from Godzilla bukkake to saline testicular injections to the creepy, sexually exploitative practices of the very rich. Yet the novel ends up being an inspirational fable about speaking truth to power and about the Net as a potential tool for freedom.
William Gibson Spook Country (Putnam): Science fiction about the recent past (2006). Varieties of stealth and disembodiment, from locative art to cryptography to drug hallucinations to GPS tracking, and the materiality (CIA black technologies, and shipping cargo containers) that underlies it all. Narrated in Gibson’s spare, minimal, yet telling prose: every metaphor is a precise observation.
M. John Harrison Nova Swing (Bantam): Science fiction about the nostalgia for the recent past. It’s the 24th century, and people are still fascinated by the stylings of the 1940s and 1950s. The novel is a spooky, and somewhat morbid, meditation about the mystery of otherness, the allure of self-destruction, the packaging of nostalgia as an illusor comfort, and the ways in which commodification has left us with just the empty shells of experiences we imagine other people to have had.
Douglas Hofstadter I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books): Explicitly returning to the themes he originally tackled in Gödel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic, 1979), Hofstadter seems happy to be back, like a child returning to a playground after a lengthy hiatus. Not that he hasn’t been flogging these concepts in the meantime in such books as Le Ton Beau de Marot (Basic, 1997), Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (Basic, 1995), and Metamagical Themas (Basic, 1985), but he hasn’t approached them this directly since GEB. I Am a Strange Loop is not nearly as splayed or as sprawling as GEB. It’s more springing and spiraling, written with more levity and lilt, more depth than breadth.
James Inman The Greyhound Diary (Lulu): Thank all that is evil that James Inman got on the wrong bus. If he hadn’t, then we wouldn’t have this book. The Greyhound Diary is On the Road for the homeless, Oh, The Places You’ll Go for the chronically mentally ill, and The Grapes of Wrath for people who would never read that book in the first place. It’s a sweet, sloppy slice of America’s yawning underbelly.
David Weinberger Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books): David’s new book became part of my terministic screen when Ryan Lane and I interviewed Peter Morville a few months ago. Since then, it’s been popping up everywhere, so I copped a copy. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s near the top of the pile.
Cormac McCarthy The Road (Vintage): The Road had been on my list since Steven Shaviro wrote about it late last year. Then Brendon Walsh told me he was reading it, then it won the Pulitzer and Oprah endorsed it, so I finally snagged a copy. It’s a bleak and harrowing tale so far, written with a claustrophobic economy. I’m already tempted to say it deserves the attention.
Richard E. Nisbett The Geography of Thought (Free Press): I’ve often wondered what it is about Japanese culture that spawns musical acts like The Boredoms, Melt Banana, Space Streakings, Merzbow, and K.K. Null. I’m not sure if The Geography of Thought is going to solve the mystery, but so far it’s helping. I’m only halfway through it, but Nisbett’s book is an interesting analysis of the fundamental and historical differences between Eastern and Western thought.
A few others in the to-be-read pile:
Amy Cohen The Late Bloomer’s Revolution (Hyperion)
Adisa Banjoko Lyrical Swords: Hip-hop and Politics in the Mix, Vol 1 and 2 (YinSumi Press)
Paul Virilio Speed and Politics (Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents) (with a new introduction by our friend Benjamin Bratton)
Tibor Fischer Voyage to the End of the Room (Random House)
David Markson Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive)
[Above, Jessy browses the stock at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama. Photo by Roy Christopher.]