Friday, December 31, 2010

Books Read - 2010

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2010, in chronological order of completion (with one exception); links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts; following the list are comments and observations, including remarks on my favorite books of the year, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. Short Letter, Long Farewell, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
2. Once Again For Thucydides, Peter Handke (Tess Lewis, trans.)
3. Our Horses In Egypt, Rosalind Belben
4. One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power
5. Repetition, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
6. Summertime, J.M. Coetzee
7. Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher
8. After & Making Mistakes, Gabriel Josipovici
9. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, David Graeber (also, also)
10. Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, Maria Mies
11. 2666, Roberto Bolaño (Natasha Wimmer, trans.)
12. A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, Peter Handke (Scott Abbott, trans.)
13. The Afternoon of a Writer, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
14. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Žižek
15. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
16. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
17. A Moment of True Feeling, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
18. Say Uncle, Kay Ryan
19. The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi (Raymond Rosenthal, trans.)
20. Beckett's Dying Words, Christopher Ricks
21. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 (Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck, eds.) (also, also, also, also, also)
22. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson
23. Anarchism and its Aspirations, Cindy Milstein
24. Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us, Mike Rose
25. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times, Giovanni Arrighi
26. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards", Alfie Kohn
27. Runaway, Alice Munro
28. Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
29. Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing, Graham Harman
30. The Exquisite, Laird Hunt
31. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
32. Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean, George Thomson
33. Island People, Coleman Dowell
34. What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici
35. Only Joking, Gabriel Josipovici
36. Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue, Michael D. Yates
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (John E. Woods, trans.)
39. Corruption, Tahar Ben Jelloun (Carol Volk, trans.)
40. Capital, Volume 1, Karl Marx (Ben Fowkes, trans.)
41. Spiderland, Scott Tennent
42. Portrait of a Romantic, Steven Millhauser
43. Three Novellas, Thomas Bernhard (Peter Jansen & Kenneth J. Northcott, trans.)
44. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi
45. The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson
46. Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow
47. If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, Mike Marqusee

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 40
Number of books written by women: 7 (!!)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 3 (both Dowells, Mosley)
Number of other Dalkey books: 0
Number of books in translation: 14
Number of books by writers known primarily to me through their blogs: 4 (Power, Fisher, Harman, Tennent)

Fiction or Poetry (or sufficiently literary memoir):
Number of books: 25
Number that are poetry: 1
Number that are memoirs: 2 (two of the Handke books are memoirs of sorts)
Number that are re-reads: 0
Number of authors represented: 16
Number of books by female authors: 4
Number of female authors: 3
Number of books by American authors: 6
Number of American authors: 5
Number of books by African-American authors: 0
Number of African-American authors: 0
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 8
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 6 (Coetzee, Josipovici, Belben, Munro, Bennett, Mosley)
Number of books in translation: 11
Number of authors of books in translation: 5
Number of translated books by female authors: 0
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 3 (German, French, Spanish)
Most represented foreign languages: German (9: 7 Handke books, 1 Bernhard, 1 Mann)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 4 (Beckett—for his Letters, counted as non-fiction, below—Bellow, Coetzee, Mann)

Number of books from before 1800: 0
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 0
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915-1944: 0
Number of books from 1945 to 1970: 3 (Bellow, Bernhard, Mann)
Number of books from 1971-1989: 8 (Millhauser, 5 of the Handkes, both Dowells)
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2009: 9
Number of books from 2010: 0

Number of non-fiction books: 22
Number of books by female authors: 3 (Power, Mies, Milstein)
Number of books in translation: 2 (Levi, Marx)
Number that are biographies or letters: 2 (Knowlson's bio of Beckett; Beckett's Letters)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 2
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 2 (Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Ricks)
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 11
Number about pop music: 1
Number about science: 0
Number about parenting or education: 2

Comments & Observations:
Overall, I completed just over half as many books this year as I did last year. There are a few reasons for this. First, I spent a lot of time reading volume 1 of Capital and watching David Harvey's lecture series on it. Second, a few of the novels I read were long, or took long to read. Doctor Faustus, for example, or 2666. Third, I read a lot of partial books. Fourth, I do almost no reading at home anymore, because of my commute and the need to spend time with my family and my re-obsession this year with baseball and my inability to put my computer away. Fifth, and most important by far, in the middle of the year, I suffered from extreme sleep deprivation. All too often, I was simply too tired to read.

The concentration of links in the reading list is just another indicator of how quiet this blog has been for the last six months. I hope to be a little more active in 2011, though obviously I can make no guarantees.

Other general notes on the numbers: the ratio of men to women is higher than ever; uncharacteristically, I read no fiction published prior to 1948; non-fiction was dominated by economic history; fiction was dominated by Peter Handke, with Alice Munro and Coleman Dowell and Gabriel Josipovici the only other authors represented by more than one book; my intention to read a lot of feminism this year did not come to pass, though Mies' book is an important feminist perspective on capitalism (see below). . .

Which brings me to my main reading goal for 2010, to finally read Capital, volume 1, which I did in fact read. Marx's book is not exactly a walk in the park but far easier to read than I'd once feared (as is so often the case). My view of the history of capitalism was further deepened and complicated by Mies' Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale, Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century, and Polanyi's classic The Great Transformation. I rate all of these very highly, and I hope to synthesize in writing what I've taken from their arguments, though I have, admittedly, been very slow to get moving on such a project.

I had difficulty with fiction this year, which isn't too unusual when I'm having trouble sleeping. The early part of the year was dominated by Peter Handke, and I'd expected to follow my meta-Beckett hat trick with some of Beckett's shorter fiction. Unfortunately, that was the exact moment my troubles began, and I have no intention of doing half-assed readings of Beckett. I never did get back to him once my sleep returned. Anyway, fiction highlights for the year included Handke's beautiful novel Repetition (my third attempt finally proving successful), Coetzee's Summertime, Bolaño's much-hyped 2666, and Bellow's apparently notorious Mr. Sammler's Planet. I also enjoyed, as I always do, the Josipovici fiction I read this year. And allow me to mention with some affection Alice Munro. Her stories are more conventional than I normally read, but they are enjoyable and did ease me back into the reading of fiction this summer when nothing else seemed to do the trick, for which I offer thanks.

Once again poetry was hit-or-miss for me. Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud were all, again, the most common poets I read throughout the year. I read for the first time the American Kay Ryan, and I was delighted. I read her short volume Say Uncle several times with considerable pleasure. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future (and, hey!, I received her shiny new selected poems for Christmas; excellent). (I am grateful to Patrick Kurp for his several posts in praise of Ryan, who I may not otherwise have read.)

Brief interlude to include list of books I read substantial portions of without yet completing:

Blanchot, The Book to Come and The Infinite Conversation
Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time
Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Thoreau, The Journal
Philip Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety
Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
Jenny Davidson, Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century
Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (I may not yet have finished reading this book, but I did write two posts on Scott's Seeing Like a State, which I read last year: one, two)

I finished just two books of literary criticism, but both were marvelous: Christopher Ricks' Beckett's Dying Words and Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? Of course, my love of Josipovici is no secret around here (and, yes, I do still have something in the works in response to his book, including, for once, some criticisms; what ever those end up being, it remains an essential volume), but Ricks' book was the first I'd read from that great critic. I doubt it will be the last. On a related note, the first volume of Beckett's Letters was a wonderful reading experience; I found Knowlson's bio Damned to Fame by turns fascinating and tedious (and certainly overlong: hate to say it, but I don't really care all that much about the many different productions of Beckett's various plays, just as in the editorial apparatus to his Letters, I could have quite done without the excessive minutiae about the works of art he viewed while visiting Germany in the 1930s). These were the first such books I'd ever read (that is, published letters or literary biography); I'm not rushing out to immediately add more to my reading list, but I welcome a good recommendation, and I'm happy to have read these.

You'll have noticed that my list of unfinished books is top-heavy with philosophy (including the inimitable Blanchot's philosophical literary criticism). I hope to get further along with philosophy this coming year; in aid of that, I read another "guide" to Heidegger, Graham Harman's very helpful Heidegger Explained. Coupled with Timothy Clark's excellent, though more literary-focused, Martin Heidegger, read last year, I feel I have a decent idea of how to best approach, for my purposes, that philosopher's often difficult writings. (I also, for months, have had in mind a post about an epiphany I had while reading one of the later sections in Harman's book, which I hope to publish early in the year.)

Finally, of the rest of the non-fiction that I read, Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved is a fascinating and moving meditation on the meaning of the Holocaust; Cindy Milstein's Anarchism and its Aspirations is the best book on the topic I've yet read; David Graeber's Possibilities is a stimulating collection of essays on anarchism and anthropology; Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve is an excellent book on education (though Mike Rose's Why School? is, alas, of very little value); and blog-friend Scott Tennent's Spiderland, his entry in the 33 1/3 series of books about classic albums, is an engaging narrative effectively contextualizing the mysterious Slint and their great album.

Ok, that wraps up another year of reading. Thank you.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On top of the shitheap

The other day, BDR riffed on the obviousness of the various Wikileaks revelations and how "Corporate" is bound to make us pay for it somehow, as it always does, because that's what it does. Then a commenter chimed in to the effect that Julian Assange is an enemy of the state and should be dealt with accordingly, etc, causing much jaw-dropping and Ellsberg-referencing in the comment boxes and so forth. Then he says: "I sincerely believe that some data needs to be protected if we want our country to remain on top of the shitheap."

In a very early entry here at the blog, I closed out a political rant by saying that people who displayed those "War Is Not the Answer" signs or bumper stickers "didn't understand what the fucking question was". "War is not the answer" implies that there is some ideal being violated, some "problem" that could be "solved" by some peaceful measure if only we tried harder (you know, "diplomacy" or whatever). Implying, also, that in the case of this kind of presumed problem, it went without saying that "we", the United States of America, aka the civilized world, necessarily belong in the discussion of how to solve the problem. That it's a problem likely caused by American acts in the first place, or is a problem perhaps fabricated for the purposes of the senseless debate about solutions, is routinely and easily overlooked.

But: If we want our country to remain on top of the shitheap. That's the fucking question, isn't it?

Is that what we really want? I say it's not. Am I in the minority? Are we satisfied with what that implies? What does it mean to be on top? How is that position maintained?

At the end of World War II, U.S. planners recognized the uniquely dominant position of the United States relative to the rest of the world and explicitly set policy to protect and maintain that dominance. The Soviet Union more or less served as a brake. Thus the Cold War, which entrenched the war economy, in a break with the past and contrary to popular expectations. Aaron Bady summarizes this point nicely:
The cold war changed how the country is supposed to work, not because we were “at war” but because it came to be normal, banal, and unquestionable that we would be permanently in a state of military preparedness, that “security” came to be synonymous with a standing army. And when that process goes on long enough, it acquires a momentum of its own: when the Soviet Union ended, we lost the existential enemy that we needed to justify the existence of a permanent security state, but it was barely a decade before we found another one.
Whatever you want to say about the deficiencies of the United States before WWII, and there's plenty worth saying, the point is that things did indeed change. Aaron goes on to discuss briefly how alien this move really was, but I want to emphasize how much it's warped our thinking. Not just because we are constantly bombarded with propaganda about the need for this state of military preparedness but because so many of our livelihoods depend, in one way or another, on the maintenance of that state. Maybe you're in the military itself, or work for one of its branches, or at a McDonald's on a base; maybe you're a defense contractor, or maybe a lowly programmer on a government site; maybe you work at a VA hospital, or at a research university—the possibilities are endless. The fact is, we depend on war. Add that to the bullshit we've been breathing our entire lives about Hobbesian states of nature and competition and contracts and free markets and the telos of technological progress, not to mention American exceptionalism. By now, not enough of us question the logic of the system, even if plenty of us vehemently oppose this or that administration's application or management of that system. We don't question the system, as such, in fact we protect our role in it (our complicity, as BDR has it), but we can see the writing on the wall, though we can't read it. America power has been declining for decades; American prestige is at an all-time low (with perhaps a slight blip upward with the election of Obama, for whatever reason). Our position on top of the shitheap is imperiled. Many of us are naturally fearful of what the future holds. What will happen next? How will it affect us and the ones we love?

I don't think staying at or near the top of the shitheap is either desirable or maintainable. I don't accept the framework. I don't believe in our complicity. I believe we've been swindled and that sooner or later we or our children are going to be put in the position of being forced to quickly unlearn decades or more of unhelpful practices. If we don't do something about it before then. But what does it take? How to break out of the pattern? How to act?