This month was particularly disjointed for me, divided between Toronto, Boston, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, and riven by two unusually long periods of migraine headache. As always during such times, books — and especially long, involving books — were a solid ground to stand on, an invariable pleasure in disorienting circumstances. This is what I read.
Witcraft, by Jonathan Rée
This volume belongs on the small shelf of genuinely readable histories of philosophy which are also not over-simplified into intellectual caricature. It traces the development of “English Philosophy” — i.e., philosophy as practiced and written in English — by offering a series of consecutive snapshots of what philosophy meant and who was doing it at 50 year intervals from 1601 to 1951. Each chapter follows the life of one or more persons — not always philosophers themselves — who touched the many milieus and controversies which make up the complexion of a given period’s philosophical activity.
For instance, in the chapter on 1801, we find ourselves in the company of a young William Hazlitt. Through the details of his reading and acquaintanceship, Hazlitt leads us from Adam Smith to David Hartley to Richard Price to Joseph Priestley to Edmund Burke to Jeremy Bentham to William Godwin to Samuel Coleridge to John Stuart Mill to… you get the picture. Encountering this list of thinkers through the lens of what they meant to Hazlitt delightfully contextualizes them and, better yet, opens an unfamiliar angle on what their work amounts to by offering a glimpse of what it meant to an intelligent contemporary.
The central problem of writing the history of philosophy is to make abstract ideas and arguments dramatically interesting. Rée’s solution is to use biographical anecdote as a scaffold for exposition. He keeps before the reader the historical accidents which inform the development of philosophical thinking: in fact, the history of philosophy is the history of thoughtful humans bumbling after wisdom, not the history of reason fatefully working itself out in an inevitable progression.
This is a great book, and it deserves infinitely more clamorous applause than it has yet received.
Screen Tests, by Kate Zambreno
This book is composed of fragments and monologues, descriptions of moments in film and of photographs, anecdotes from the lives of actresses, and sudden dips into serious theorizing punctuated by mordant and self-deprecating memoir. The title alludes to Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” a series of video portraits in which Warhol would simply film a famous person sitting still. It’s an apt title, because Zambreno’s rapt, even obsessive focus on odd details and mundane experiences, so that they begin to loom with existential significance, has the same combo of revelation and embarrassment as a film of someone sitting still.
I’ve read everything by Zambreno — all her books and, more importantly, her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister. (The blog is no longer extant, though you can find bits of it on the Internet Archive such as this magnificent manifesto of a first post.) I find her work very interesting, even if I don’t always fully understand what it’s about or what she’s up to; but nothing she’s published in book form has ever appealed to me the way her blog did. (In the margins of The Book of Mutter, I see that I wrote, “Zambreno’s books always feel to me both too tossed off to take entirely seriously and too artfully arranged to comprehend fully. Almost they create the conditions for a superficial reading, the inadequacy of which they also make clear.”) The blog felt substantial and compendious and overt whereas most of her published writings feel — to me — like allusions to thinking and writing done off-page somewhere, in notebooks (an archive ubiquitously and tantalizingly referenced in her published work) or even just in imagination. I am happy to report that Screen Tests, however, is basically a blog in book form. It has that energy. It is my favorite of Zambreno’s books.
How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell
This book grows out of a lecture Odell gave shortly after the 2016 American presidential election. She was depressed yet slated to give a talk. Vandalistically, she scribbled “how to do nothing” when asked for a title. Then she had to come up with content to go with that title. She came up with an amalgam of tired cliches about the attention economy as well as some more interesting material about contemporary art, her own experience getting into bird watching, and the tyrannizing ideology of productivity. People liked it. She got a book contract and spent a year augmenting the hodgepodge of things she had accreted under her title, and ended up with this book.
It contains the seeds of several interesting books: a book about bird-watching and aesthetic education and bio-regionalism; a book about actually doing nothing as an act of protest against a society which trains us to subject every deed to a valuation of productivity; a book about how various contemporary visual and musical artists work upon the material of our attention itself; and a boring, hackneyed book about how social media is destroying our ability to concentrate. (Is it? Yes, it probably is. Odell’s solution: don’t stop using it; use it differently. She fails to specify how to use it differently, and a glance at her own twitter feed doesn’t offer much in the way of distinctive difference either.) Unfortunately, the actual book is wholeheartedly none of these books, but rather an unsatisfying series of almost-books woven together. I have seen this failure of construction described as an attempt to write a book that “resists appropriation.” If by that we mean, resists fully becoming any of the better things it might have been, then sure. Several of the almost-books would have been really interesting. What we have instead is a bloated TED-talk wistfully sneaking glances in the direction of the superior alternatives haunting it.
Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson
I’ve been making my way through Erikson’s mighty The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I have to pause for weeks, sometimes months, between each volume. It is, I think, ten volumes long, each one approaching a thousand pages. This is the third volume. Each book has dozens of characters. The timespan of the overall story is hundreds of thousands of years long. The geography embraces multiple continents (and, indeed, a plethora of pocket universes). It is an unprecedented feat of worldbuilding that makes J.R.R. Tolkien look like an amateur, Brandon Sanderson look like a child, and George R.R. Martin look like a purveyor of lighthearted past-times. The author is a former archeologist and it shows: nothing I’ve read has ever so effectively evoked deep time and the churn of civilizations. It features a mind-bendingly complicated magic system involving a tarot-like deck of cards tied to various immortals and pantheons. It’s everything unique and interesting about epic fantasy taken to the nth degree.
It’s also written in a trying style. The author went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and turned to epic fantasy from more conventionally literary forms, and clearly he made some choices about how he intended to stand out from the crowd at the level of the sentence. These are choices to which he is admirably faithful, but let’s just say I wouldn’t have made the same choices. They require of the reader a lot of chewing, a slow pace that stands in odd tension with the intensity of the narrative. You want to press forward, but if you press too hard you can’t follow what’s happening. Imagine you’re very thirsty but all you have to drink has the viscosity of cough syrup. You have to swallow it in a measured way or you’ll choke. That’s what it’s like reading Steven Erickson. It can be annoying, but if you submit to the tension, wallow in the experience, the results are remarkably affecting.
Notes from an Even Smaller Island, by Neil Humphreys
A jokey, buffoonish series of essays about Singapore. A bestseller on the island, apparently, it has even been assigned in Singaporean schools. Written by a British ex-pat who spends much of the book talking about how awful Singapore is, and then saying, but it’s okay because the awful part of London where I grew up — Dagenham — is even worse! I wasn’t a fan of the flippant-without-quite-reaching-funny tone of it, and yet for some reason I finished it anyway. Possibly because I was on a plane to Singapore at the time and had fully exhausted my tolerance for in-flight movies.
O Singapore! Stories in Celebration, by Catherine Lim
Lim is maybe the best-known Singaporean author, primarily a composer of tales. Her tales don’t twist or turn or develop, which is why I’m calling them tales and not short stories. They take an idea and work it out. They can have the effect of anecdotes. Extended anecdotes. But I really like them. In addition to this book — which is outright satire — I read dozens of her stories from four or five other collections, many of which were straight-faced, even tragic. If you really wanted to get a grasp of Singapore through narrative, I think a comprehensive reading of Lim would take you a long way.
I Will Never See the World Again, by Ahmet Altan
This very short collection of essays was written in a Turkish prison. The author has been incarcerated ever since the orgy of betrayal and false accusation that followed Erdogan’s paranoid crackdown after the 2016 coup attempt against him. The book details what it is like to be arrested, tried, and imprisoned for life. It contemplates (and in some ways constitutes) the inner resources that Altan summoned to survive. He was — is — a novelist. I had the strange, tingling feeling that I was reading something destined to become very famous indeed — it seems consciously to take its place alongside classics of dissident and prison literature, and I think it’s right to do so. The writing is stark and vivid, and the context gives each terse essay a weight of reality largely absent in our verbally diarrhetic era.
Malina, by Ingeborg Bachmann
This book is the monologue of “an unknown woman.” She lives in Vienna. (I lived there for a month last year and was vividly reminded of my nightly wanders round the Ringstrasse. This is a book full of Viennese streets and parks, and the Danube flows through it.) The narrative, as far as one can piece it together, concerns the unknown woman’s relationships with her roommate Malina, her lover Ivan, and her father. It is non-linear, composed of a jumble of fragments which suggest a host of different textual forms — opera librettos, letters, dialogue from plays, stream of consciousness narration, fairy tales, even PTSD flashbacks to the war Bachmann lived through. It engaged me with the energy of its prose and the ambiguous intensity of its emotions even as it repelled me through the indeterminacy of its subject-matter and its repeated self-interruption. It’s the sort of book to read twice in a row, then go read about, looking for a place to (under)stand (it from). It’s the sort of book about which one must be very careful saying, “it means X…”
Nevertheless, it seemed to me that the narrator’s status as an “unknown woman” has reference to her triangulation of patriarchy. Her three antagonists are lover, partner, and father. The lover, Ivan, receives the full measure of her adoration, but refuses even to try to understand her. She seems to like that, but remains unknown to him as a result, and ultimately he drops her from his life, because even though his attentions are respectful in their refusal to dominate, they are also superficial and egotistical. Her husband-like partner, Malina, knows everything about her, sees through all her ruses and deceptions, knows her measurements without checking, anticipates her needs without nudging, and yet from the very totalitarian intensity of his knowledge and suffocating care, has also failed to know her. He can’t see the forest for the trees. He has, instead of understanding, created her, a ruthless impingement upon her autonomy which also creates in her a kind of dependency. Her father only comes up in the second of the book’s three sections, a painful series of nightmares, where he features as an incestuous rapist and murder. This father uses and abuses and refuses to listen to the unknown woman, and certainly also fails to know or respect her. She is an unknown woman because men, in their various ways, have failed to recognize and interact with her as an autonomous and singular human person. In the end her presence is physically erased, as she fades into a crack in the wall and Malina denies that she ever existed.
So maybe it’s about that — at any rate that’s what it made me think about as I read it. As an aesthetic experience, it is difficult and estranging and confusing, yet deeply engaging.
A Malaysian Journey, by Rehman Rashid
I purchased this mixture of memoir, travelogue, and history from the big Kinokuniya bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, since I couldn’t find it for my Kindle. It wasn’t in the sections for history, or memoir, or travel, and I had just about given up when I found it in a “for tourists” section. But despite this unappetizing categorization, I bought it, read it — and it’s very good. A combination of memoir about the author’s youth and early career, history of Malaysia from its independence, and vignettes about various people Rashid met when returning to his country after an absence of several years, it is an easy initiation into the self-image and problems of a society. It also made me feel an immediate need to supplement Rashid’s account with other sources, because he seems rather cozy with and a bit of an apologist for the political party UMNO (United Malays National Organization) and its dominating personality Mahathir Mohamad (who, at 94 years old, is once again prime minister of Malaysia today), in ways that made me uncomfortable. This may be part of the book’s popularity: it has the veneer of a hard-hitting, truth-to-power speaking book, but also leaves you with a sense that the various inequities and outrages of Malaysia’s history were regrettable necessities. I supplemented it by reading a bunch of essays and editorials about Malaysian politics and history.
But what makes this a good book and probably accounts for its being marketed as “for tourists” is that the context and narrative of Rashid’s book gave me such an immediate grasp of the major points and contentions of modern Malaysian history that all those countervailing sources I consulted made sense to me. A book that drives me to correct its view of history by reading a bunch of other things has given me what I want from that kind of book.
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
The first volume of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdoms series. Recently, I have determined that I am going to spend a good chunk of my early thirties writing a series of epic fantasy novels, and I’ve made myself a syllabus of epic fantasy classics to study, to steal their techniques and internalize their structures. (What I like about epic fantasy at its best is that it’s about not just the lives of its characters but the history of an entire world. Like sociology, per C. Wright Mills, it connects biography to history. And so you could read a theory of history out of virtually every epic fantasy. Many fantasists have truly bad theories of history, because on average, I think, people tell themselves false stories about how biography connects to history. This is something I’ll write about someday.)
Like many epic fantasies, Nix’s series is built around a world divided by an important border. South of the wall, we have a place that resembles a British pastoral version of the early 20th century, technology beginning to pick up, politics bubbling along its gentle mortal course. North of the wall, however, the veil between life and death is thin, necromancy is possible, magic reigns, and technology doesn’t work. The hero of the series is the Abhorsen — a title, rather than a person — a necromancer whose job is to keep the dead dead, and who passes back and forth across the border.
Like any epic fantasy, this first volume is about a crisis in the history of that world, not just in the character’s life — the stable system that divides the Old Kingdom from Ancelstierre is under threat. The best and most interesting thing about the book — in my opinion — was its elaboration of death as the passage through a series of nine gates between life and oblivion, and its depiction of the unwilling dead who cling to the gates and try to creep back into life. That had an original atmosphere, deliciously creepy and cosmically intriguing.
Reading it analytically, as I will do each of the items on my syllabus, Sabriel caused it to dawn on me that “world-building,” as it’s called by SFF writers, is really just the unfolding of characterization. Just as a typical narrative writer unfolds the depth of their characters by gradually filling in their backstory and relationships, a writer of secondary world unfolds their world by gradually filling in its history and politics. Worldbuilding is just characterization.
Becoming Beauvoir, by Kate Kirkpatrick
In a year where my reading of biographies has been beset by tedious, tendentious books, this biography was an oasis. Readable, thorough, clear in its focus, and genuinely warranted as a re-examination, it gives Simone de Beauvoir’s life a lively narrative shape and argues that she has been systematically under-estimated as a philosopher, in part because of her own self-erasure in her memoirs. It also puts paid to the idea that Beauvoir and Sartre constitute the great romance of the 20th century. Beauvoir had deeper romantic relationships with other men — and women — and her relationship with Sartre was much more an intellectual collaboration than a love story.
Kirkpatrick persuasively suggests that Beauvoir is the original source of numerous key concepts of existentialism — such as bad faith, and the double perspective of human consciousness (per Beauvoir, the view from within and the view from without, and, per Sartre, being-in-itself and being-for-itself) — that she was not a slavish follower of Sartre — disagreeing with him at key points, for instance about the definition of freedom — and that her novels have been underestimated because they have been misperceived as auto-fiction when they are in fact Kierkegaardian experiments in indirect communication and the dramatization of philosophical perspectives.
The book makes all these pro-Beauvoir points without shying away from direct confrontation with the distasteful way that Sartre and Beauvoir, early in their careers, sexually and emotionally exploited a number of their students. Indeed, Kirkpatrick argues that this moral outrage and the guilt it caused Beauvoir shaped many of her commitments and intellectual problems.
Judicious, original, pleasant to read — this is an excellent biography.
Kampung Boy, by Lat
I had a migraine for most of the last week of the month, bad enough that it was hard to read, but I managed to grope my way through this children’s book. Kampung Boy is considered a classic. It’s been made into a TV series, I think. It tells about the daily life and childhood of the author, who grew up in one of the rural villages — Kampungs — in northern Malaysia. It’s charming, with funny, comically grotesque drawings.
Addendum: Reflections on Writing About Every Book I Read
This is the second month I’ve tried to write something about every book I finished. If you followed along from last month, you’ll notice I did it differently this time. Last month my own comments amounted to very brusque not-quite-summaries — they were more like blurbs — and I included a blockquote from each book. This month I tried to give more explicit summaries and offer a little bit of reflection.
The change arises from my thinking about the act of summarizing. I’ve decided it’s a basic devotion of the passionate reader. Summarizing a book cements the shape of it in your head. It’s too easy to drift along not summarizing what you read, letting words and pages and volumes wash over you like ocean waves that break and disappear on the sand.
Summary is not reduction. It’s not a way of saying: I got through all those words, and they amount to X. Instead it’s a mnemonic act. Summary is the picture you make for yourself that helps you remember the underlying complexity.
We resist summary. We complain when a review was “just summary.” Often the hastiest, most typo-ridden and cavalier portion of a book review is the summary section at the beginning — a sign the reviewer was rushing to get through it. (I know this for a fact, having worked as a book review editor for several years and experiencing the phenomenon up-close in lots of different writers.) I think our distaste for summary arises from its role in primary education. Summary is, to us, the stuff of homework. But it’s so important. Summary is not enough; but good summary is essential. Summary is the act that disciplines the virtue of attention: summary is just noticing, put into words.
My experience trying to write about each book I read last month made me realize that in my private life as a reader I was letting myself down by not making clearer summaries of what I was reading. I’m grateful to this blog for making me aware of that.