Summer Reading List, 2011

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

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

Howard Rheingold

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

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

Alex Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Connolly

Anything by MFK Fisher.

That’s my reading list!

Michelle Rae Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Shaviro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zizi Papacharissi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik Davis

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

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

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

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

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

Ashley Crawford

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

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

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

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

Patrick Barber

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

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

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

Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists (Dial Press, 2011).

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

Brian Tunney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Schandorf

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Lunenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

Roy Christopher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think Inside This Box: The Bēhance Action Method

Ever since Matt Schulte mentioned Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) on his site, I’ve been test driving Belsky’s and his company Bēhance’s “Action Method,” which is outlined in his book. Being the notebook nerd that I am, I had to get some of those Action Books to, you know, follow the method properly. So, if your new year’s resolutions are already slipping, think inside this box:

The Action Method consists of Action Steps, References, Backburners, Discussions, and Events, and the Action Book is designed to employ these categories to help to achieve your goals. Donald Norman once claimed that “attractive things work better” (one could picture that credo posted on a wall in Cupertino). That is, if something is aesthetically pleasing, we are more likely to use it. Howard Rheingold is fond of saying “Don’t skimp on tools.” I used these insights to justify my purchase of yet another notebook.

In her book Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), Natalie Goldman suggests using whatever notebook you can find. She finds fetishizing the tool an inhibition to getting things done. While Action Books are pretty and made with fine materials, they’re also rugged and ready to put in work.

The Action Books come with durable rubbery covers and muted but colorful to-do lists. The back of every page is ruled with dots, which are subtly guiding without being as intrusive as lines or as restrictive as grids. They’re perfect for notes, sketches, diagrams, flowcharts, mindmaps, or any combination thereof. My favorite notebooks thus far have pages ruled in a similar versatile manner (lines on one half of the page, none on the other). At the very least, I find these arrangements helpful in that they aren’t the traditional notebook pages or blank pages we’ve all been staring at all of our lives. The tools we use affect the thoughts we have (cf. McLuhan, Nietzsche, et al.) — even at the most basic level.

So, don’t skimp on tools. In addition to nice software, see what nice pens and paper do for you. As the Action Book itself says, “Show your ideas some respect.” I’m still working through The Action Method, but if nothing else, I dig the notebooks.

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You can check out the full line of Bēhance tools in the Bēhance Outfitter store.

The Mesh We’re In: The Ecological Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

Summer Reading List, 2009

At long last, 2009’s Summer Reading List is collected, compiled, and complete. Inside you will find book recommendations from friends and usual suspects such as Richard Metzger, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Gareth Branwyn, Peter Lunenfeld, Gary Baddeley, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, and myself, as well as newcomers David Silver and Josh Gunn. If you’re like me, you still haven’t read everything that looked good from last year’s list, but once again, against all odds, this exercise proves that there are plenty of interesting books being published (on paper!). So, read on and read on…

Gary Baddeley

On the top of my summer reading list is the galley for Disinformation‘s first-ever novel, The Sisterhood of the Rose, by Jim Marrs. Jim’s the top- selling conspiracy author ever with titles like Rule By Secrecy and Alien Agenda, but this is his first novel. It draws heavily on his obsession with World War II, the Nazis, and the occult (reflected in his last New York Times non-fiction bestseller, The Rise of the Fourth Reich). He’s actually calling Sisterhood… a work of “faction,” as he’s woven so many real people, facts, and conspiracy theories into the plot. A great beach read for me, but for everyone else I’m afraid it’s intended for the holidays, releasing in November.

Life, Inc.Aside from that I’m dying to read Doug Rushkoff‘s new book, Life, Incorporated. I’m sure you know all about it as Doug is a friend and contributor. I saw the book under construction when we interviewed him for the film 2012: Science or Superstition, in the form of cards with notes pinned everywhere on the walls of his office (try to spot them in our film!).

Speaking of 2012: Science or Superstition, we’re publishing a book version, written by Alexandra Bruce, who previously wrote the books Beyond the Bleep and Beyond the Secret for us (about the New Age movies What The Bleep Do We Know!?! and The Secret, respectively). I’m editing it right now and it will be out in September, in advance of Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie 2012, that Sony Pictures will release on Friday, November 13th. It’s the first book that really covers the whole spectrum of speculation, opinion and even some facts (!) about the 2012 mania that is ramping up as we approach the end of the famous Long Count Calendar of the ancient Maya. (Believe me, I’ve read dozens and there are some great ones, but none that really give a proper overview.)

On a more summery (and less current) note, I did pick up a pulp mass market novel from Borders for a fast airplane ride recently, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. It wasn’t that fast a read at 900 pages, but it was good mindless travel fiction about the pop culture creature du jour (still), the vampire, getting us (my wife and myself) ready for the new season of HBO’s “True Blood” (a sort of guilty summer Sunday night pleasure).

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Dave Allen

The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been in print since the late 70’s and remains a fascinating read — as the late David Foster Wallace said “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

Consider the LobsterThat statement could almost be true of D F Wallace himself. After the shock of his death I returned to his books of essays — Consider the Lobster (Back Bay, 2007) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay, 1998). If you can read the first essay in …Lobster, “Big Red Son: a discourse on Las Vegas and the porn industry” without laughing until you cry, then you are not human…! And  the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” from A Supposedly Fun Thing... is so terribly prescient [written in 1990] that I don’t know where to begin to praise it.

Other books waiting to be read this summer are Richard Yates Revolutionary Road — the Everyman’s Library edition that also includes The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. And The Super Organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and E.O.Wilson. I always return to anthropology…

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Cynthia Connolly

Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox.
The Girl with the Gallery by Lindsay Pollack.
Walker Evans: A Biography by Belinda Rathbone.

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Patrick Barber

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin, 2009): I haven’t read this yet so it really will be summer reading. I knew Novella when I lived in Oakland and watched as she turned a vacant lot next to her duplex into a full-blown urban farm. This is the story of how she did it. She’s a good writer and this is a great story.

MilkMilk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf, 2008): This amazing volume is half social history, half cookbook. I started teaching home-dairying classes this year and this book was cheering me on the whole way. Mendelson is full of information and is rather opinionated as well, which makes this book about a seemingly inconsequential subject a particularly energetic read.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt (Vintage, 2009): If you have a passing interest in urban planning, transportation, or systems, you’ve probably already read this; if you haven’t, you should. Sharp analysis and approachable writing about humans and how we act together when traveling down the road in our soundproofed metal boxes known as cars, this is more psychological study than anything else. Tom’s got a good blog, too, where he gets a little more personal and opinionated about things.

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (Scribner, 2004): This has been the popular-food-science bible since its first printing in 1984. I’ve been reading it in sections in no particular order, and it’s thoroughly fascinating, entertaining, and easy to read despite my complete lack of training or interest in chemistry (and the plenitude of words like “lipid” and “gelate”). Makes me feel like I felt when I finally heard Imperial Bedroom in 2002: What the heck took me so long?

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David Silver

Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grove Press, 1991): I dig Michael Pollan. Reading Pollan gives me ideas for both my garden and my classroom. This book comes highly recommended by USF colleague, friend, and homesteader Melinda Stone.

Erik Davis‘ (Chronicle Books, 2006): with stunning photographs by Michael Rauner: The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape: This book is about California, sacred and profane buildings, shamans, pranksters, psychedelic visionaries, the prayer wheel in Berkeley, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and the Alan Watts Library in Druid Heights, something I first learned about in Arthur Magazine.

Worms Eat My GarbageMary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System (Flower Press, 1982): I want to be able to gather our food wastes, walk them outside, and feed them to worms. In return, I want and expect, with time, rich compost for our garden. This book will help.

Karl Linn’s Building Commons and Community (New Village Press, 2007): I’m tired of reading books about building community online. I want to read a book about building community offline — with help from community gardens, public exhibits, and neighborhood commons.

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Steven Shaviro

David Skrbina Panpsychism in the West (Bradford, 2007): Panpsychism — the idea that everything in the universe, every last bit of matter, is in some sense sentient — has experiences of some sort, and an at least incipient mentality — sounds bizarre and crackpot when you first hear of it, but makes more sense the more you think about it. Skrbina’s book not only argues that panpsychism is plausible, but shows how deeply rooted it is in the last 2500 years of Western thought.

Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009): Graham Harman, with his “object-oriented philosophy,” is one of the most interesting and provocative thinkers working today. Not only are his ideas deeply original, he is also a great writer in terms of style, verve, and the overall liveliness, persuasiveness, and accessibility of his prose. Harman’s latest book takes a look at Bruno Latour, best known for his sociological studies of science, but whom Harman argues is also a major metaphysical thinker.

Bruce Sterling, The Carytids (Del Rey, 2009): In the mid-21st-century world of this near-future science fiction novel, ecological catastrophe has already happened. Billions have died or become homeless refugees. But this book is not another horror story set in post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, it is a book about creating a livable future. The survivors are involved in the search for plausible new directions, for the creation of some sort of civil society around which humanity can rebuild. The novel’s protagonists are four cloned identical-twin sisters, each of whom has embraced a different alternative for the future of humanity: Green communitarianism, capitalist entrepreneurship-cum-philanthropy, State paternalism, and nihilistic terrorism.

Hacking the EarthJamais Cascio, Hacking the Earth (2009): This book provides a sobering look at the promises and perils of geoengineering. Even if we were to reduce carbon emissions to tolerable levels today, we might already be too late. What we’ve already done is enough to drive global warming for decades to come. If worst comes to worst, we might have to take more drastic measures to alter the climate globally: changing the reflectivity of the earth’s cloud cover, for instance, by launching giant mirrors into orbit, or injecting large quantities of sulfates into the stratosphere. Cascio looks into both the plausibility and the extreme risks of such interventions, and proposes ethical principles to guide us in making the difficult decisions that continued global warming might force upon us.

Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009): There was more to modernist architecture than the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In this book, Hatherley brings to light an alternative, politically radical modernism that I scarcely knew existed. Ranging from Soviet Constructivism of the 1920s, through Brutalist-style working class housing in the UK in the 1950s, and on to related developments in film and popular music, Hatherley uncovers a counter-history of the twentieth century, one that just might provide us with a remedy, or an antidote, for the cynicism and demoralization of today’s advertising-driven culture and politics.

Scott Bakker, Neuropath (Tor Books, 2009): One of the most disturbing science fiction novels I have read in a long time. By only slightly extrapolating from actual, cutting-edge neurobiological research, Bakker conjures up a frightening future in which our strongest emotions, our most profound convictions, and even our deepest sense of who we are can all be altered at whim by technological manipulation.

China Mieville, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009): China Mieville, the master of “New Weird” fiction (Perdido Street Station; Un Lun Dun; etc.). writes what can only be described as a dark urban fantasy police procedural. It’s a brilliant genre hybrid; and it is itself a book about hybridity, since it is set in two cities which… — I’d rather not give a spoiler here, if you read the book you will find out soon enough. Could this be the beginning of a new type of fiction? Noir + Weird = Noird.

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Peter Lunenfeld

Every summer I like to have a project, and this year I’m tackling W.G. Sebald’s quartet of quasi-autobiographical, semi-documentary, illustrated, hybridized fictions: The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz. Sebald, a German writer who died in 2001, mixes fact and fiction, engages with loss and memory, and focuses on the personal details where historical narrative and personal tragedy intersect. He drops photographic images into his text less as illustrations than as signposts to post-linguistic communications to come. Sebald strikes me as a great model for anyone doing multi-, trans-, hyper- or any other kind of hyphenated 21st century fiction.

Sudden Noises from Inanimate ObjectsStaying with fiction, but in a decidedly more summery tone, I’ll be reading two sophomore efforts by authors whose freshman exploits were fantastic. Christopher Miller is following up on his award-winning Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes (Mariner Books, 2004) with The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a wildly funny mock encyclopedia, Vladimir Nabokov meets Philip K. Dick, and appeals to meta-fiction and science-fiction fans alike. Glen David Gold had a huge hit with his historical novel about the world of turn of the (last) century magicians, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, 2002). Sunnyside (Knopf, 2009) is his follow-up, a ripping yarn about Charlie Chaplin, the insanities of the First World War, the bastard son of a wild west showman, and the birth of the modern star system.

Shifting over to non-fiction, I’m working with some colleagues on a new book about the digital humanities, so I’m catching up on some key monographs. These include Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave, 2004), Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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Roy Christopher

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty (Continuum, 2008): In his book Sound Ideas (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Aden Evens contends that hearing is hearing difference. That is, hearing is hearing and discerning vibrations among other vibrations. In Noise/Music Hegarty argues similarly that noise is not noise except in relation to other sound. That is, noise is never just noise in and of itself. It differs from music in this way. Where music can stand alone on its own in time, noise cannot. This book is an interesting historical look at the interplay of the two, from the avant-garde compositions of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros to the ear-scraping experiments of Merzbow and the Boredoms, and the technology that empowers and hinders music making. Speaking of the latter, I’ve been reading chunks of The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, 2003) in tandem with Hegarty’s book.

Guy-Debord: CorrespondenceCorrespondence (June 1957-August 1960) by Guy Debord (Semiotext(e), 2008): Guy Debord, celebrated leader of the Situationist International (née Lettrist International), was a man of letters. This volume, subtitled “The Foundation of the Situationist International,” introduced by friend and colleague McKenzie Wark, and heavily annotated, provides a rare introduction to the inception of this movement — a movement that is credited, at least in part, with sparking the May 1968 uprising in Paris, a movement that continues to inspire theorists, artists, and writers half a century later.

Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry (Exact Change, 1996): Alfred Jarry, playwright, novelist, poet, cyclist, and father of Pataphysics, was first and foremost – I believe — a jokester. He’s been described as a “clown,” a “nihilist,” a “practical joker,” a “literary trickster,” and has been credited with influencing the work of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco, among many others. His writing operates outside the bounds of reality. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison prefers the designation “speculative fiction,” and I’d say that fits here. Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician tells the various and sundry stories of Dr. Faustroll. Pataphysics is the next step beyond our normal level of figurative or abstract thinking. If metaphysics is the layer above physics, then pataphysics is the layer above metaphysics. This is the realm in which Dr. Faustroll operates. That’s about all I’ve got, but as Roger Shattuck writes in his introduction, “Any summary of Jarry’s novel must remain highly hypothetical” (p. xii).

Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy by Mark Davidson (Tarcher, 1983): Davidson’s intellectual biography provides an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Father of General Systems Theory. Endorsed by the biggies of his time (the book sports a foreword by Buckminster Fuller and an introduction by Kenneth Boulding) but largely unsung since, Bertalanffy deserves to be much more famous [Special thanks to Dr. Katie Arens for introducing me to this stuff].

ChaosophyChaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 by Félix Guattari (Semiotext(e), 2008): Best known as the longtime writing partner of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari has a substantial body of work of his own. Chaosophy collects over 300 pages of his post-May 1968 writings and interviews. Most interesting here are the outtake from Anti-Oedipus (“Balance-Sheet for ‘Desiring Machines’”) and the four essays on “cinemachines.” His sustained and piercing analysis is proof that Guattari deserves to be considered in his own right, and Chaosophy is a welcome addition to his and the collective Deleuze and Guattari canon.

I recently read a few from last year’s list (e.g., Straw Dogs by John Gray thanks to Dave Allen, The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell thanks to Ashley Crawford) as well as Life, Inc. by Doug Rushkoff (this year’s list favorite), and Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, which is sort of a companion piece to the former Knowlson’s book on Beckett, Damned to Fame (mentioned below).

———–

Richard Metzger

Capital by Kark Marx: I was a fool to unload my Marx and Marx-related books when we moved a few years ago. Now I am re-buying them all. I suppose that’s good for the economy.

Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Untold Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment by Timothy Wylie; Adam Parfrey, editor (Feral House, 2009): What really went on behind the scenes of this legendary Satanic apocalypse cult. The truth might surprise you.

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff (Random House, 2009): Ever get the feeling that you’re trapped on a hamster wheel of predatory “Corporatism”? An unwitting participant in a system that you didn’t sign up for in the first place? What happens when the operating system of the corporate Moloch runs amok.

Never Trust a RabbitNever Trust a Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson (Duck Editions, UK, 2001): Great macabre short story collection from the silent member of The League of Gentlemen. “Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy, but they will eat your crops.” Hungarian proverb.

Sunshine on Putty by Ben Thompson (Harper Perennial, UK, 2004) Essential guide to the golden age of British comedy, from Vic Reeves to “The Office” and beyond. It’s difficult to write about “funny” and this is one of the best written books on comedy I’ve ever read. The chapters on personal favorites like “The League of Gentlemen,” the great Johnny Vegas and “The Mighty Boosh” are particularly well-crafted and insightful.

Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (Simon & Schuster): Superb Beckett bio from one of the world’s leading experts (and who was hand-picked by Beckett to be his biographer). Loads of stuff here I didn’t know about the writer.

————

Joshua Gunn

I apologize for the academic-ness of my summer reading list, but I have to let you non-academics in on a secret: professors do not get summer’s “off”. Universities expect professors, instead, to publish their asses “off.” We don’t have much time to write during the semester since, you know, there’s this pesky thing called “teaching” and, um, “students” too. Summers and winter holidays become, then, the time to research and write (unless, of course, you’re teaching during the summer to make ends meet). So, the books on my “to read” shelf are consequently not read (or half-read), and almost all of them are related to projects I’m working on. In some cases, the only review I can offer is why I’m reading it. Mea culpa.

Where Dead Voices GatherNick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather (2002): I’ve always been a sucker for Tosches’ writing style—so meandering, so laden with affect . . . and syllables. This one is about the musician Emmett Miller, a fellow Georgia boy blackface minstrel whose voice and musical mishmash of jazz/blues/pop defies categorization and, apparently, haunted Tosches since he research and wrote his book on country music. I picked this up for “fun,” but I’m hoping I might find something that will help me in a project I’m working on about how we hear “race” in the recorded human voice (Miller was white, but many listeners think he is black).

Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis’ The Monstrosity of Christ (2009): I picked this up because I’m currently working on an essay that explains why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is effectively pornography. I also just like reading Zizek, and in this instance, he dialogues with a respected theologian in the sort of dialectic-debate that searches for a kind meeting place for the deist and atheist. I’ve been really interested in the turn toward the theological in the theoretical humanities in the 1990s; this seems like a good summation. Jesus was a monster, truly.

Laurence Rickels’ The Devil Notebooks (2005): I’m actually halfway into this with a reading group, but we have a good way to go. This is a difficult book, but oddly very enjoyable at the same time. In it, Rickel’s attempts to discern the psychical function of the devil as a figure in popular culture. Apparently to write this thing he locked himself in a room and read every literary piece from the nineteenth century onward on the devil. Then, with a box of Twinkies and popping handfuls of Xanax, he watched every bad b-movie about the devil he could get his hands on (Satan’s School for Girls, Race with the Devil, etc.). The result? Satan represents the imaginary father and doubles as the maternal body, always making pacts before the Oedipal daddy can step in. Don’t know what that means? Me either! But with lines like, “The Devil father excludes no outlet from his multipronged dong of penetration” at least every paragraph, it’s hard to put this book down!

Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive: Yeah, yeah, this doesn’t sound like airplane reading, I know. Johnston is the new high theory darling in the humanities, and this is his dissertation. The dude graduated when I did—my age and everything—but he’s already pumped out three books and a zillion articles! I figure I better get caught-up, because he’s being cited everywhere (don’t get me started on the politics of citation in academics). I’m not far in, but I gather what Johnston is up to is furthering our understanding of drive theory by arguing the drives harbor an inner temporal conflict. What’s a drive? Well, think about it as “human instinct.” Human instinct is different from animal instinct because it is mutable and subject to symbolic transformation. I won’t go into this further except to say yes, I’m reading it for a writing project with a buddy on the drives and the InterTubes.

DisgustWinfried Menninghaus’ Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003); Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (2004); and William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (1997): So, I’m reading (or better put, grazing) three books on the affect of disgust. Apparently disgust is a human response seemingly “hardwired” to smell and taste. Babies exhibit disgust when (so my mother tells me) you feed them green pea baby food. Adults exhibit disgust when they watch “Two Girls One Cup.” You know that buddy with whom I’m writing a paper on the drives? Well, we’re actually writing about the disgust drive via-a-vis the InterTube phenom of “Two Girls, One Cup.” I haven’t seen it, but he has. He assures me it is disgusting. From what I’m reading in these books, I probably don’t need to see two women eating poop and vomiting on each other.

Brian Rotman’s Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (2008): I’m not a real fan of Dolce and Gabbana—er, I mean Deleuze and Guattari (props to Gretch!)—but I have grooved on others who groove on them, like Brian Massumi. Rotman doesn’t draw on them, but he does think about bodies in ways similar to Deleuze–in ways that smell very Gilles. In this book, he’s arguing that subjectivity has been structured by the alphabet for thousands of years, which absents the body. Newer modes of mediation (InterTubes, etc.) is reconfiguring human subjectivity, returning it to face-to-face norms like gesture. The consequence is that or “selves” are becoming distributed. It’s really a mindfuck kind of book. I’m reading it, of course, because this relates to my own book in progress, which is about recorded speech.

Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem and Sophie Schmit’s The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005): This is actually a coffee table art book of the largest exhibit on ghost and spirit photography, with some fairy shots thrown in for good measure. There are actually a number of very good, well researched essays. While it’s obvious to contemporary eyes these photos are fakes, the writers bend over backwards not to say so (it’s actually comical). This shit is just fascinating, most especially the ectoplasm shots: body from afar! The spirit world through your nose! So gross! So . . . exciting! It looks like gauze and cotton, but whatever. I’ve just been reading it and looking at the peektures because it’s fun.

Jacques Lacan, My Teaching (2008): These are new translations of talks Lacan apparently gave to general audiences and are, supposedly, free of jargon and quite accessible. I read the first one and whoever wrote the copy to sell this chapbook needs to have his “free of jargons” and “accessibles” cut out and put in a jar of vinegar.

Robert G. Davis and Rex R. Hutchens, Editors, Heredom: The Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Vol. 16 (2008): This is actually an edited collection of essays about the history and meaning of Freemasonry. I’m a Mason and a member of the SRRS, so I get one of these about this time every year and always have fun reading it over the summer. I’ve already read the first article, “Riding the Goat,” by historian William D. Moore. The essay is about the prank, “mechanical goats” that secret societies would make new initiates ride in ceremonies in the early twentieth century (e.g., Old Fellows). Companies made these mechanical goats, which would buck and wobble—heck, there was a whole industry! Apparently the “fraternal goat” died out when hazing got increasingly frowned upon. We don’t do this sort of thing in the Masons today, although I’m told fraternities and sororities still do . . . (spank me daddy).

———–

Ashley Crawford

The Age of Wire and StringThe Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1998) and Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002) by Ben Marcus: If, in the “postmodern” canon David Foster Wallace made claim to the footnote and Mark Z. Danielewski to crazed typography, then in The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus has pretty much secured The Glossary as his initial trademark feature.

The Glossary has, of course, been used in fiction before — most recently by Neal Stephenson in his massive Anathem — but never before, as far as I know, has it made up the entirety of a work of fiction. In structure it somewhat resembles J.G. Ballard’s 1969 The Atrocity Exhibition and is reminiscent of Ballard’s book in sheer weirdness. Both authors effectively re-invent the American cultural landscape. But where Ballard used the glossary approach to simply break “normal” narrative flow, Marcus gives us a Users Guide to a parallel universe.

The Age of Wire and String is subtitled “stories” by Ben Marcus and the book could be read as a string of bizarre vignettes, but it can also be read as a strange narrative of a unique world, one that is essentially fleshed out in Marcus’ second book, Notable American Women.

We know there’s trouble afoot when one of the blurbs from the back cover reads: “How can one word from Ben Marcus’ rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” Especially when said blurb is attributed to Michael Marcus, Ben’s father.

Thus begins a truly bizarre, but strangely moving, story of young Ben Marcus’ upbringing. Notable American Women makes Stephen Wright’s seriously dysfunctional family in M31: a family romance, look commonplace. Hunkered down on a remote farm in an alternate Ohio the clearly delusional Jane Dark leads a group of American women to practice “behaviour modification” to attain complete stillness and silence (which, not surprisingly, often leads to death). Marcus’ father is buried alive in the back yard and assailed with “language” attacks. His mother happily encourages the use of young Ben for rigorous breeding purposes for the cults’ younger female followers.

There are moments when one begins to think that Marcus clearly loathes his parents, then others when one wonders what kind of wonderful upbringing could inspire such a fevered and vivid imagination. Working out Marcus’ own position in this chaotic rendering is like juggling mercury or herding feral cats. Does he despise women or love them? Does he despise himself or simply relish the tearing apart of his own physical demeanour to further his story?

The one thing we can be sure of is his true love of language and the power of naming. This becomes decidedly visceral: “Each time we changed my sister’s name, she shed a brittle layer of skin. The skins accrued at first in the firewood bin and were meant to indicate something final of the name that had been shed – a print, an echo, a husk, although we knew not what.” And things get decidedly odd when young Ben starts wearing his sister’s discarded skins or opts to bath with them.

Language here is a virus. Ben’s father, buried beneath ground, is assailed by Larry the Punisher, whose task it is to blast Michael Marcus with words. Sex is reduced to a “parts consultation.” To avoid language the women practice a grotesque version of pantomine, the complexity of which requires the crushing and removal of certain bones resulting in a “near-boneless approach, when the flesh can `rubber-dog’ various facial and postural styles.”

Thematically there are moments reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s writing in such books as The Skin Palace and Word Made Flesh — the obsession with language as a visceral, physical weapon. In its apocalyptic yet poetic tone it has much in common with Steve Erickson’s work. But at the end of the day Marcus’ voice, in both The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women, Marcus’ voice is very much his own.

————

Gareth Branwyn

Last year, I wrote about a bunch of occult-related book. Since I’m still laboring away on the same book that this is all research for, my obsessions continue to run in that vein.

The Schrodinger's Cat TrilogyGetting even RAWer. Last year, I started off talking about Robert Anton Wilson and his (and Bob Shea’s) Illuminatus! trilogy. Bob Wilson had just died and he was on my mind (and on heavy rotation in my iPod with the 5-CD collection Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything (or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance) (Sounds True). He’s still on my mind (and my iPod). I’ve now started collecting everything he wrote; reading it all. Besides the trilogy (and the trilogies that followed: Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy, the Historical Illuminatus series, and Cosmic Trigger I, II, III), I’ve recently discovered (and recommend) Chaos and Beyond (Permanent Press) and An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson (New Falcon). The former is the “best of” RAW’s zine from the early ’90s, and it reads like a zine: er… raw, shot from the hip, a notepad from which his ideas emerged that went into his books or were expounded upon from his books. The latter is a detailed look at his novels, especially Illuminatus! and Masks of the Illuminati. I also got a used copy of Everything is Under Control (Quill) for a few pennies on Bookfinder. It’s the perfect toilet tank book, a thick alphabetical guide to “conspiracies, cults & cover-ups.” A “fun” book to pick up and peruse at random.

The best book I read last year was a limited edition small press title called The Red Goddess (Scarlet Imprint). It’s written by Peter Grey, the guy behind this new “Talismanic Publishing” venture. The book is stunning, both as a piece of book art and what it has to say about the goddess Babalon and her roots before Crowley and before John of Patmos had his way with the goddesses of Babylon and Sumer. This is a truly unique book, a down-on-your-knees love letter to a goddess from a devotee. But it’s as rigorous as it is passionate, looking at the history of holy whores and love goddesses, from Ishtar, Inanna, and Astarte, to the Babalon of Crowley and the O.T.O., to Jack Parsons and the Babalon Working in the ’40s, on up through to the worship of Babalon today. There’s definitely something afoot in the spiritual counterculture, with a significant interest in what’s called “the Babalon current” and this book is something of a manifesto, a tech manual for working that current. By the end, maybe taking its own page from the Book of Revelation, The Red Goddess gets rather apocalyptic, darker, more blood-drenched, which does make sense in that she’s the “red goddess” in more ways than one and the goddesses in this lineage are usually goddesses of both love and war, but I found less resonance for me in the “conclusions” than in the lucid tripping towards them. But this is ultimately an extremely personal relationship with the divine feminine, so parts of the book might not resonate for you like they did with me. I now keep this book by my bed and read from it in my own devotional practice. I find parts of it, many parts of it, inspired. I highly recommend the other Scarlet titles as well and can’t wait to see what Peter Grey does next.

William Blake's Sexual Path...In my many years of devotion to the work of William Blake, I’ve read dozens (and dozens) of books about him. Most of them are academic tomes, as dry as desert sand. And most of them tend to cover the same territory, or academically polish some new facet (Blake and Freud, Blake and the politics of his age, Blake and mental illness), etc. Why Mrs. Blake Cried (sold in the US under the racier William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, Inner Traditions) by Marsha Keith Schuchard is NOT one of these books. In fact, I can imagine it was not well-received in the traditional Blake studies community. It is almost gossipy in terms of the scandals and sketchy characters that parade through it. And its central thesis, that (basically) sex magick was an underpinning of Blake’s work, has very little hard evidence to support it. Basically what the author does is to look at the circumstantial evidence — at the groups and individuals Blake was known to be associated with, what books they were reading, what they were writing about in print and in their journals, etc., and then it looks at Blake’s art and poetry of the time for clues to possible influences and basically asks the question: Could Blake have been hanging out with these people and not hear about the books on Kabbalah and Tantra they were reading, the meetings of magical fraternities (and sex clubs) they were frequenting, the trips to the orient that friends and colleagues were taking (and learning about the gods and goddesses of the East, yogic practices, etc).

The first half of the book explores the idea that Blake’s parents may not have been Dissenters, as is commonly believed, but members of the early Moravian Church (based on recently-found documents with his parents’ (all too common) names on church rosters). Again, no hard evidence, but a fascinating idea, given that Moravianism sort of segues into Swedenborgianism, and Blake was definitely a follower of Swedenborg for a time. The Moravians were one kinky sect o’ Christians, practicing what has been dubbed “wound mysticism,” basically sexualizing the wounds of Christ, seeing them as vagina-like openings to the divine. They sang very eroticized hymns to these wounds, had ecstatic “love fests,” which were basically non-penetrative (as far as we know) orgies. More and more, Schuchard contends, Moravianism embraced a kind of Westernized Tantra and incorporated aspects of the Kabbalah into its Christianity. And Swedenborg picked up and ran with similar ideas.

The second half of the book looks at Blake’s work in light of these ideas and tries to paint a picture of him as a sort of tantric/sex magick practitioner who uses these sexual energies to get the inspiration for his work and that a lot of his verse is veiledly sexual in nature. The examples given are certainly eye-opening and have changed the way I read a lot of Blake.

So, why did Mrs. Blake cry? As the Blakes got older, and Catherine perhaps lost some of her sex drive, Bill’s poetry got more morose and desperate and he said rather awful things about her (or it at least appears that the passages were about her). Schuchard finds evidence that Bill was cajoling her, pressuring her, panicked that he would lose the divine inspiration he got from their sexuality. They seem to have come to some resolution and found peace in their relationship after this period of midlife crisis.

The coolest thing about this book, besides affirming what I already suspected (the central role of sex/erotica in Blake’s visionary universe) is the decadent world it paints the Blakes living in. They hung out with all sorts of radicals, mystics, electromagnetic experimenters, devotees of various magical lodges and sex clubs, even an ambiguously-gendered neighbor, the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived the first half of his life as a man, the second half as a women. She lived down the street from the Blakes and frequently entertained them. She was also a member of the infamous Hellfire Club. Then there were the friends who believed that Africa was a more sexually-charged landmass and that they were going to start a sort of utopian sex commune there and that they were going to travel there from London in hot air balloons. And then there was the electromagnetic Temple of Hymen. As I said: decadent! Think: Hollywood Babylon, only in London, in the late 17/early 1800s.

A trend I’m noticing in books recently is that there are an increasing number that trade in danger – anti-Nanny State books. No, not those Dangerous Book for Boys and Girls. Those are rubbish. I’m talking about books like Theo Gray’s tremendously awesome Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog & Leventhal) and Bill Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers (Chicago Review Press). Gray’s book has a bunch of enticing experiments that are so well-documented and gorgeously photographed, you don’t have to do them yourself, but if you decide you want to, Gray tells you the real dangers involved and what you have to find out on your own to do them safely and successfully. Treating us like adults. What a concept.

My friend Bill Gurstelle’s book first looks at reasons for living dangerously, mapping what he calls the Golden Third, those people who take risks, who aren’t afraid to live a certain degree of risk,… but not too much risk. Be too risk-taking and you might not survive, not reproduce, don’t take any risks, and you won’t move the culture, innovation, etc. forward. All the action is in that Golden Third. After these ruminations on the why of living dangerously, he gets into some projects and activities, the “art” of living dangerously, from “thrill eating” (stuff like fugu that can theoretically kill you) to Bill’s main bailiwick, teaching you how to spectacularly blow shit up (hence “flamethrower” in the title).

Other books that have recently crossed my nightstand:

Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly) Another breathtaking piece of graphical fiction by Mr. Ware. The first story, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is one of the most amazing pieces of literature I have ever read. Truly haunting, creepy, and sad.

Shortcomings

Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly) This exploration of racism, sexuality, relationships, and twenty-something angst is, as another reviewer put it, “pitch-perfect.” Tomine gets at graphical narrative like nobody else. There’s something desperately tragic beating at the heart of it, but there’s great lyricism and humor here as well, that makes it all too universally human.

The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Alex Rose (Hotel St. George Press) This collection, in the vein of Borges and Calvino, is a fun trip through a “Library of Tangents,” little surrealist, whimsical worlds that play on science, language, music, and perception. Would make a perfect, brainy beach book.

Three Essays on Freedom, John Whiteside Parsons (Teitan Press) A collection of “libertarian” essays by Jack Parsons, the main one being his most famous “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” (included in a different collection of that same name), along with two previously unpublished essays, “Freedom is a Lonely Star” and “Doing Your Will.” I wanted to have this book, being a Parsons completest, but it doesn’t really add much to the Parsonian corpus. If you don’t already have “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” this is a nice hardback volume to find it in. The other two essays are interesting, but probably deserved to stay on the cutting room floor.

Summer Reading List, 2008

It’s that time again, time for the Summer Reading List, and this year’s is the biggest yet. As always, I asked several of my friends and colleagues for their recommendations. Many thanks to all who participated, including newcomers Daniel Pinchbeck, Steve Aylett, Ian MacKaye, Mike Daily, Paul Saffo, Gareth Branwyn, Rodger Bridges, and Peter Lunenfeld, as well as return contributors Erik Davis, Richard Metzger, Dave Allen, Mark Pesce, Alex Burns, Paul Miller, Brian Tunney, Patrick Barber, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, Cynthia Connolly, and Gary Baddeley. Continue reading “Summer Reading List, 2008”