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Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

26 August 2007

Five Shittiest Books I Read This Year

Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris

Awful, stupid book. Bad history.

Things Merely Are, by Simon Critchley

Managing to be both facile and academic, both shallow and overwrought, Critchley reads some poems and watches a movie and has deep thoughts about them that are properly speaking neither deep, nor thoughts.

The Ruins, by Scott Smith

The only joy this book offered was the sick thrill of watching the characters get killed off, knowing that each death brought me closer to the end.

The City, Joel Kotkin (Which I realize now I never posted having finished, though I read it twice. Awesome.)

It’s not that this book is particularly bad, because it is straightforward in its prose and approach, but it’s just so slim and simple. Basically compressing the entire history of civilization into about 200 pages, Kotkin offers a work that seems well-suited to junior-high Social Cultures classes. His basic thesis, that cities need a balance of commerce, security and spirituality to succeed, is blatant and crude to the point of being an offense against thought, and the generalizations he makes as he goes are so conventional and banal that I would have done better to read Wikipedia.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

I have some sympathy for Rowling, as a storyteller, whose simple but readable series of kids books got hijacked into becoming a Media Phenomenon, but I don’t know that this process excuses or explains the progressive train wreck of the series. I actually tend to think it’s the fact that she’s not that great of a writer, and while when she worked within the limits of her formula, everything was fine, when she tried to expand the range of her storytelling, especially in the last two books, her skills failed her. The last book especially was a disappointment, veering from plodding inanity to forced drama, flattening out characters who had been developing over the previous thousands of pages and cutting countless corners. Bye, Harry Potter. Your story was one of wasted potential.

Five Awesomest Books I Read This Year

It was actually difficult, once I went back and considered what I read this year, to narrow it down to five awesomest books. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to read so much and so much interesting work. It’s discomfiting to be going through at 31 a sort of intellectual revolution, being in university and challenging my many hard-won assumptions. The process isn’t so simple as it is when one is younger, when a thinker, a book, a writer or a perspective can throw everything giddily topsy-turvy with the spirit of a carnivale, when ideas seemed fresh and powerful. Now it feels more like the kind of revolution that used to happen in decrepit South American countries, or in Rome, with juntas struggling against each other in the dark, new powers teaming up with old money, etc. and so on. That is, at this point, my field of ideas is as shaped by my experience as it is by my reading, and the sweeping topographical renewal that occurred, for example, the first time I read Nietzsche, Chomsky, or TS Eliot, has been replaced by a process of minor adjustments, conflicting concerns, and the juxtaposition of strange and sometimes incompatible lines of thought, all lit only dimly, all seeming somewhat absurd and not a little vain, yet at the same time desperate in the hope of redeeming something against the absurdity.

So here’s some books that redeemed:

The End, by Hans Erik Nossack

A staggeringly brute and lyrical eyewitness account of the firebombing of Hamburg. I’m too awed by the power of the work to want to try to summarize it.

The Ethics, Baruch Spinoza

I think it was Deleuze who called it a “wind,” and in a way it is, yes. It seems to glow in my memory, this strange and fabulous book, written in this difficult, labyrinthine style, that seeks not only to explain but also to demonstrate that the infinity of the universe and the infinity of God are the same and that freedom consists in understanding. I can’t wait to reread this book, and retrace Spinoza’s wild humanism.

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad

This is a sweeping but subtle novel of politics, war, adventure, love and greed. I would like to say it is the Middlemarch of petty colonialism—I don’t know if that means anything, I don’t know if it strictly applies, but it indicates the psychological acuity, breadth of scope, compassion, storytelling skill and intellectual power that Conrad brings to the wretched tale of the Sulaco mine.

Illuminations, Walter Benjamin

Nostalgic, morbid and pessimistic, but also tender, beautiful and visionary. Benjamin’s essays are somehow decadent and futuristic, colored by a Romantic Marxist despair. He writes essays like they were impressionist paintings, yet always thoughtful, provocative, rigorous. Especial favorites being “The Storyteller,” “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and the classic “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Pardon my quoting the bit about the angel of history:

A Klee paining named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto

This isn’t a world-shattering book, but the prose is lucid, personal and exceptionally fine, and it covers its subject with clarity and power. If I could write nonfiction prose like this book, I would be happy. It also makes a strong case for the power and worth of the study of the classics, which is salutary in any case.

a fugitive from the gods and a wanderer, I trusted in mad Strife

Daunted by the raving nonsense and finding my time unexpectedly at a premium this week, I’ve made little headway in the Phenomenology and, given that classes begin soon and the Phenomenology is involved with none of them, I’ve put it aside. I’ll be back for you, Hegel, you crazed mystic fuck. Mark my words.

I did read Peter Singer’s brief and blessedly clear introductory book, Hegel, which although giving no more than a sketch of Hegel’s main ideas of History, Spirit, the Absolute and Dialectic Logic, was enough to convince me that while it may be productive to engage with said thinker, it would also be a dance with madness.

It seems remarkable that so soon after Kant’s painstaking delimitation of reason, some big brain would come along and completely deny the limits by, in effect, denying reality (the thing-in-itself). Being a knee-jerk materialist (and the use of the body metaphor to indicate imperative constraints on my rational processes suggests why I think so), Idealism is always somewhat baffling to me. It also makes me want to hit people.

Thus I refute him.

I also finished the Penguin anthology Early Greek Philosophy, which collects fragments and doxographical texts on the philosophers from Thales to Diogenes of Apollonia. Heraclitus and Empedocles were my favorites, all that strife and fire, but I also found myself responding to the folk wisdom of Democritus. I also learned that Pythagoras had a golden thigh (?!), and Empedocles is a strict dietician: “Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans.”

15 August 2007

Kid lit, cyberpunk, Greek

Chipping away at the preface to Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit... I was on vacation. What do you want from me?

I did read the final Harry Potter, the new William Gibson novel, Spook Country, and Plato's Gorgias. The last Harry Potter novel was mostly awful, from its slack beginning, through its arbitary middle, to its dumb, dumb end. I'll stand by some of the series as pop fiction, most especially 3-5, but these last two were, sadly, stinkers. Especially the last. Oof.

The new Gibson novel was pretty good, tho. Also pop fiction, if that term means anything in post-literate America, but at least Gibson is playing with technology, culture and politics. I miss the grunginess and weirdness of his earliest works, especially Neuromancer, but this new stuff is slick and solid and manages to push just far enough out of mindless fun to be provocative. Gibson always makes me feel like I should be reading Wired, like I'm not seeing the world if I'm not seeing its tech.

And Plato's Gorgias was awesome. Plato's Socrates is in this dialogue funny and marvelous, not quite the master sage we see in the Republic, more troublesome and cranky. Plato's Socrates is always a challenge and always a pleasure.

01 August 2007

Death, Depression and Desolation

Three books finished lately, and I’m off to Ireland on vacation, where I hope to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Plato’s Gorgias, and the new Harry Potter. I’m also hoping that the new William Gibson novel will be in the airport bookshop. I’m not quite sure what to think about any of these three books I finished, but I’ll try to say something.

I found Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow, to be thought-provoking, funny and interesting, in the Bellow way, that rich method he has of moving swiftly from low puns to deep thoughts, while sketching character so to make me feel like I don’t see enough in the life around me—how people drink their coffee, how they wear their socks—at once utterly “lifelike” and larger-than-life, yet the book in the end seemed quite slight. Perhaps I am a glutton for rich text, but while the “character” of Ravelstein comes through, the man doesn’t. I wanted more, and more, and found that the last section, taking us through “Chick’s” fish poisoning, to be a dubious method of approach. I get the mortality/mortality movement, but—and maybe I’m still too young—I’m less interested in how somebody dies than in how they live. The book is good, though, emotionally affecting and especially interesting in light of the stunning success in Iraq that “Ravelstein’s” students have been at least in part responsible for. The Strauss-Bloom-Neocon genealogy in American thought offers much food for thought, and not the least virtue of Ravelstein is the odd light it casts on this topic.

Eeeee Eee Eeee, by Tao Lin, aside from occasional moments of blasted hilarity and a momentary trace of sublimity, was largely stupid, boring and lame. This, of course, is its point, which highlights perhaps the dangers of taking suburban self-pitying depression as your theme and form. It’s hard to write about self-pitying, bored, depressed, self-absorbed young people without having the text itself come off as self-pitying, boring, depressing and self-absorbed. Like I said, there were a couple moments that almost made it worth reading, but overall I actually wish I hadn’t read it.

Which is disappointing. I was attracted to the book (by its awesome title, but also) because Tao Lin seemed to offer, in his deadpan, relentlessly negative whimsy, a writing that would be acute, piercing, sad and hilarious. Like Confederacy of Dunces. And while the promise of such an achievement lies within the work, Eeeee Eee Eeee is too slack, lazy and repetitive to make it work. I understand that Lin is trying to be slack, lazy and repetitive. I can see that the bears, aliens, moose and dolphins are supposed to be stupid and boring. Unfortunately, although Lin has succeeded in being pathetic, that is all he has succeeded in.

How It Is, by Samuel Beckett, offers an interesting and challenging juxtaposition to Eeeee Eee Eeee. How It Is (or Comment C’est) offers itself a picture of the world just as awful and pathetic as Lin’s book, within an even more circumscribed realm. In three parts, How It Is tells the story of how the Narrator is crawling through the mud toward Pim, then how he meets Pim and tortures him, then how Pim crawls away. The high point is when our Narrator rips Pim’s bag away (which bag Pim had been dragging along in his teeth), digs through it in order to find the can opener at the bottom (presumably one of the old-style pointy can-openers), then stabs Pim in the ass with the can opener. I don’t know if How It Is is any good. It is darkly, darkly funny at moments, and offers as well a virtuosic performance of Beckett’s verbal minimalism, and presents a marvel of structure, and these are, if nothing else, what it has over Eeeee Eee Eeee.

That’s all I have for now.