Isolation Reading

I spent a few days last week isolating after attending a larger social event in a friends apartment in a (mostly) unfamiliar neighborhood and I got to spend a few days enjoying (a dear friend's) book collection.

I don't have many paper books left: enough moves and small new York city apartments, combined with vague personal preference for e-ink have left me with only about 100 books, but I do sometimes enjoy reading paper books when I'm visiting someone else. My perfect vacation has always been some combination of "drinking too much coffee and reading books," and given that I'm kind of in an in-between moment job-wise right now, this was actually pretty much perfect.

I started out the week reading Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Joan Diddion) and finished it reading the first half of The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy). It was pretty much everything.

I've always been an admirer of Diddon, but I've never read Bethlehem and I've meant to sort of spend a few years trawlling luxuriously through her backlist, but hadn't gotten around to it. The writing is perfect in exactly the sort of austere but precise way that I've come to expect. I'm doubly impressed also that she was so young when these essays were published.

I had in my mind that this was a book that was an account of the state of counter-culture in the 60s, and the title essay definitely is that, but having read the entire book over the course of a few days, I'm left with the impression that this book is really a big "why I left New York City in my late 20s" combined with a love letter to California from a returning native child, who remembers "the (really) old California" and what is by now "the (simply) old California".

The "why I left New York City in my late 20s" story is pretty familiar, and it's actually nice to see, now 60 years on, that people coming to New York in their 20s and then burning out or not figuring out how to be in New York sustainably is a very old story indeed. I'm also of course, heartened that she returned to the city for the last 25 years of her life. I hope that this also proves to be an enduring pattern for my generation.

I was also struck by the way that the reflection (and really, critique) of the counter culture managed to be very early but also consistent with what a lot of people were saying earlier. To my eyes, it's not particularly surprising but the date is a bit.

The God of Small Things is, of course, lush in all the ways that Slouching is austere. Almost provoking whiplash.

I typically find these sort of lush non-linear books to be a bit Extra. Lovely, to be sure, but the lushness and non-linearity can so distract from the plot or the characters or the impact. Lush and non-linear prose has also started to feel faddish and at least for me, a signifies of a certain kind of academic/"art school" approach to prose. This is not true at all of Small Things: the story directly and explicitly explores childhood memories and trauma in ways that are reflected both in the characters and the story telling. It extremely works.

As is, I suppose, the intent, the book and writing has me thinking a lot about imperialism [1] and the history therein, and I think there's a way that the non-linearity of the story telling manages to engage this fundamental question [2] "why do people fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation," and watching this

I'm not done yet with the book, but I'm excited to dig in more.

The next book on my friend's bookshelf that I'm excited by was a collection of Grace Paley stories and essays. I haven't really started it, yet, but I think I will soon.

[1]I wrote this sentence as "post/colonialism" but I think there are so many layers and intersections that expand have echos and impacts that are much larger than the history of the British in India, which isn't (and shouldn't!) be the at the center of the story, despite it's outsized and unrefutable impact.
[2]In a bit of my own non-linearity, I've been working on an essay that plays with this famous quote/question from Deleuze (derived from Riech, derived from Spinoza). The full (ish) quote is, "the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: ‘Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?’ How can people possibly reach the point of shouting: ‘More taxes! Less bread!’? As Reich remarks, the astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike."

Deleuze and Grove

I've been reading, two books non-fiction intermittently in the last little bit: Andy Grove's High Output Management and Deleuze and Guatteri's What is Philosophy?. Not only is reading non-fiction somewhat novel for me, but I'm sorting delighting in the juxtaposition. And I'm finding both books pretty compelling.

These are fundamentally materialist works. Grove's writing from his experience as a manager, but it's a book about organizing that focuses on personal and organizational effectiveness, with a lot of corporate high-tech company examples. But the fact that it's a high-tech company that works on actually producing things, means that he's thinking a lot about production and material constraints. It's particularly interesting because the discussion technology and management often lead to popular writing that's handwavey and abstract: this is not what Grove's book is in the slightest.

Deleuze is more complex, and Guatteri definitely tempers the materialism, though less in the case of What is Philosophy than the earlier books. Having said that, I think What is Philosophy is really an attempt to both justify philosophy in and for itself, but also to discuss the project of knowledge (concept) creation in material, mechanistic terms.

To be honest this is the thing that I find the most compelling about Deleuze in general: he's undeniably materialist in his outlook and approach, but but his work often--thanks to Guatteri, I think--focuses on issues central to non-materialist thought: interiority, subjectivity, experience, and identity. Without loosing the need to explore systems, mechanisms, and interfaces between and among related components and concepts.

I talked with a coworker about the fact that I've been reading both of these pieces together, and he said something to the effect of "yeah, Grove rambles a bunch but has a lot of good points, which is basically the same as Deleuze." Fair. I'd even go a bit further and say that these are both books, that are despite their specialized topics and focus, are really deep down books for everyone, and guides for being in the world.

Read them both.

Reading Habits

I bought a Kindle. I am weak.

(Note: I drafted this post early last week, and it arrived last Wednesday, and I started using it in earnest over the weekend. Nevertheless, this post is written from the perspective of my past self.)

In any case, there are a number of questions that you may be asking yourself at this juncture.

ZOMG That's a lot of DRM that you've signed up for. How does that make you feel?

I'm not wild about it. I mostly view the DRMed kindle stuff as: not as a collection, but rather as a convince for reading specific texts on demand and as needed. And on those terms, I can live with it. There's all sorts of things wrong with what I'm about to say but: DRM is most onerous if you think that the files you download are "your possessions." Because they aren't. When it's just a dinky file that you have the ability to read in a highly convenient way, that's easier to swallow. Having said that, if you're not buying something that you get to keep the books as they are now are too expensive.

I'm about 100 pages into the book I'm currently reading (it rocks, more on this later) and I picked it up the other day to discover that the cats had helpfully chewed the back corner. This isn't the first time this has happened. While I don't really care, I can still read it, part of reason I don't seem to care is that the quality of books as objects these days doesn't particularly impress me. So I don't feel like I'm loosing anything. And if I want a real book-object, such a thing can be had.

I have a suspicion that you have more than a few paper books that you haven't read. What are you going to do with them now?

Read them. I don't think that I'll stop reading paper books, though I think a great deal depends on context. I suspect that I might not take paper-books out of the house very much. I don't have a lot of books, but I certainly have a few, and I know that I mostly have them with me for nostalgia, and not because I actually intend to read them any time soon.

Paper books, on my shelf, represent possibilities, in a way that the object of the Kindle is a possibility. I think even considering the limitations of the Kindle, these two truisms balance each-other out.

How do you think you'll use the kindle?

I think once the initial buzz of the Kindle wears off, I'll probably settle into a rhythm whereby I'll read periodicals, fiction, and documents that I generate (along the lines of slush) on the Kindle along with anything I read out of the house, and then read reference material off of paper. I'm mostly worried about how the kindle might screw with my--often quite good--spatial memory for texts. We'll have to see how this develops.

I'm strongly considering joining a gym in the next few weeks and I hope/expect to read whilst doing the aerobic thing. The kindle seems ideal for this.

I hear your a slow reader, is this really worthwhile?

Perhaps, and I think that my main issue is that I'm really bad at setting aside time to read when I'm awake enough to actually read. This is separate issue from the Kindle, and one I suspect I'll address in future posts. Having said that, I'm attempting to carve out a bit more time for reading in my day--as reading more is a personal goal--so I'd say that yes: Despite my apparent slow pace, a Kindle is worthwhile.

Do you have any Kindle related questions for me?

reading trust

As I was reviewing the note I posted on my reading progress, realized that there was yet another piece of my effort to read more/better that I failed to cover there, but it's substantive enough to merit it's own post. The issue? Trust.

I was having a conversation with H. the other day, about reading and how we often find texts difficult to read when it seems like other people have a much easier time reading. Which is kind of funny because we both derive a large part of our self-identity (if not income) from our writing and we both read a lot.

One thing I suggested in the course of that conversation which I had theretofore not properly articulate was that I found writing difficult because I've read a lot of difficult stuff around the edges of philosophy and theory that are pretty complex where every word is (seemingly) meaningful. In the process of learning how to read this I've learned to not trust myself to understand the words and sentences, to be wary of authorial intentions, and to be afraid of missing important details.

Which is, as you might imagine, not that easy. And it requires slow reflexive reading. So it sort of feels like you're not reading something as much as you are watching yourself read something.

So my new goal, is not to read faster, I guess, but rather to read less reflexively. To trust that texts have some sort of intentional order that I can understand, and then trust myself to be able to grasp the gestalt of a text (and to read it a second time if I need to,) without supervision or self-monitoring.

At least some of the time.

reading progress

I finished reading Jonathan Strahan's The Starry Rift Anthology the other day. This was the first anthology that I read from cover to cover (I'm trying to get more into short stories). I've read other anthologies in bits and pieces, and the odd short here and there, but with this book, I thought, that I needed to add a bit of breadth, and I respect Strahan's work a lot, so I gave it a go. And I quite enjoyed it.

I think that I'll read more anthologies in this fashion in the future. The momentum and immersion of reading a novel is something that I enjoy a lot, and have had a hard time replicating when I'm reading short stories, but I figure this can be learned. I feel like I learned a bunch from the stories, both about the discourse and craft of short story writing.

I've also picked up Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. While I guess I read Red Mars years ago for school, I never really got into it. Or so I thought. As I've read these books again, I'm surprised and fascinated to learn how much they've influenced my writing and the way I think about science fiction world building and dealing with future possibilities.

And the books are really well done. In the last few days, I've read about a third of the last book (which is big in comparison to the other two,) and I'll likely have read even more by the time I get around to posting this. After that, on to more Delany or another anthology.

My goal, I guess, insofar as I have one, is to get to a point where I can read a book a week, give or take. I'm not a particularly fast reader by default but I think as I read less than I'd like (perhaps) I've slowed down. Gotta change that.

After the Siege

I listened to the podcast of "After The Siege," a novella by Cory Doctorow, the other week (I've been driving cross country and walking a lot, I'm going through a lot of audio.) It was really cool and I thought it would be good to post a few notes. (For those of you who want to skip right to the podcast, here's the link, but I'd get the files straight from cory's podcast).

The reading was done by Mary Robinette Kowal, and it was amazing. I very much enjoyed the story, but it was a bit rough for me, at least politically. The story science-fictionalizes stories from the author's grandmother's experiences during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, to tell a story about contemporary American Imperialism. Politically, something about this comparison, seems a bit fraught; both in its scope, and in the way it understands American Imperialism.

I think it's probably a sign that my politics come very close to intersecting with Cory's that I get so riled up in response to some of his fiction. When there's no chance that I'm going to agree with someone, the fact that I don't agree doesn't worry me. When I'm pretty close, it's a more troubling concern. The story is, however, quite good, so go listen.

the debate over eBooks

I read something a few weeks ago (the problem with being slow to process things from blogs that post regularly), about digital ebook readers and the future of digital books.

I guess my thoughts are best summed up in a couple of points, basically that electronic texts will succeed as they: develop unique and presentation methods (hardware and software), and as the commerce/distribution models become more transparent.

1. Words on screens don't work like words on paper. They just don't, and we need to develop new ways of reading/writing that engage the medium better. We got prose out of the transition to bound-books, novels out of printing press (loosely;) the success of ebooks, I think will require some sort of new way of writing/reading/interacting with text, and no ebook implementation has gone there.

2. The potential for profit of digital goods is immense: distribution/production costs are much lower than their material counterparts, because printing, delivery, etc. aren't factors for digital things. There is, however, value and work that goes into publishing texts, and we need some way of supporting creators. I'm not sure that the existing publishing/content industry's models make a good example to follow, and "micropayments" (the stock alternate response) don't seem to really work. I tend to think that fellowships funded by a subscription model/tax on connectivity is more the way to go. But that's me.