Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: Three Great Reads

Read any good books lately? is usually not the kind of question you want to ask an English prof. The answers will probably run a narrow gamut from obtuse ("Hells yeah, man, I just finished Zizek's The Parallax View! Thrilling!) to obscure ("Yes, I was up all night last night finishing Charles Stewart's A Treatise on the Law of Scotland Related to Rights of Fishing. Quite a page turner!).

As it happens, Moose did a fair amount of reading over the course of the year just (and mercifully) ended that was a little more current and a lot more cool than standard English prof fare, so we've decided to focus our out-with-the-old-year-in-with-the-new post on the Three Best Books Moose Read Last Year. Why? Because we are lazy and kinda busy. With the shift of the MLA convention from December to January Moose still has to write up her remarks for her hip and groovy roundtable (session #150) on how blogging and Twitter are going to save rather than destroy higher education. Also, you don't need us to tell you that the great Democratic shellacking was the biggest political news of the year, and you already know that as far as this blog is concerned the great moment in sport for the year was the final minute of the NCAA men's basketball final, as we watched little Butler miss a Hail Mary shot at the buzzer that would have beaten the Evil Empire of Duke. Oh, and you know we weren't wild about The Kids Are All Right, even if it might help Annette Bening snag the Oscar she has deserved for so long.

Anyway and ergo: books.

Tech guru Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto is not a perfect book by any means. Its technique of argument by aphorism (e.g., "Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.") can come across as both overwrought and not wholly convincing. Its critique of the culture of mashups and other second-order modes of expression can sound elitist and grouchy, even if we agree that a lot of pop culture feels pretty stale and somnolent right now. Damn those kids and their crappy, boring, loud music! His fears of "cybernetic totalism" and the hive mind don't quite make you want to reach for your tin-foil hat, but they might make you feel slightly sheepish about all the techno-toys that now clutter up your space and time. (Rest assured no anti-tech backlash has taken hold in Roxie's World, kids. Moose got her first Kindle for Christmas and has undertaken a bold new experiment in 21st-century reading in bed. The early results? Her envy of Goose's iPad has already disappeared. Beam me up, Scotty! I'm ready to join the hive!)

The previous paragraph might have you scratching your head wondering what You Are Not a Gadget is doing on our list of Best Books of 2010. Well, in our neck of the woods "best" can mean annoying yet provocative, important, worth thinking about and tussling with, and that's how we ended up feeling about Lanier's book. Moose taught it in her blogging class last semester and liked the kinds of conversations it opened up about our relationships to technology and the culture of Web 2.0. Lanier is excellent at helping non-geeks become more self-conscious about our tools and toys. He does so by pointing out the assumptions about humans and machines that are built into the designs of computer programs and the Web itself.

Lanier writes from within the world he criticizes. He has been around Silicon Valley since the early 1980s and is often described as the father of virtual reality technology. His stance now is that of a contrarian and a disappointed idealist. He's particularly critical of the open source movement and the devaluation of content in the environment built out of the assertion that "information wants to be free." We share some of Lanier's concerns and skepticism, but he is also overly invested in notions of originality and individuality that are probably less threatened by technology than by other broader, deeper transformations in Western culture. Indeed, one might wish that the book had a richer and more nuanced historical sense, but it could be someone else will have to write that particular analysis of the brave, less new than we seem to imagine world in which we now find ourselves. We'll still give You Are Not a Gadget a PAWS UP for asking questions we enjoyed thinking about and helping us to see that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the designs of the tools we now use in every moment of our working, thinking lives.

The other two books on Moose's Best of 2010 list are not manifestos but memoirs, Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids and Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home. Both are poignant, beautifully written narratives of friendship and loss that manage to avoid sentimentality and the appalling cliches that tend to pop up in ready-for-Oprah tales of grief.

Just Kids has received a lot of much deserved attention and praise. (Go listen to a captivating 7-minute excerpt of Smith reading from the book here.) We don't have much new to say about her portrait of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met in the summer of 1967 and to whom she was closely connected -- first as lover and later as muse and friend -- until his death from AIDS in 1989. As a story of two young artists struggling to give shape to their ambitions, it is both inspiring and endearing. Smith subscribes to a mystical model of the artist she found in a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations she tells us she pocketed in Philadelphia at the age of 16, but the wry tone and laconic style of her narrative keep it from sounding ridiculous or self-aggrandizing. She also does an admirable job of staking her claim to Mapplethorpe, whose controversial homoerotic photographs would make him a queer hero in the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, without seeming to try to claim him for heterosexuality. The book is perhaps most fascinating as an eyewitness account of a particular moment in the complex cultural history of New York City, the pre-AIDS period of the late 1960s and 70s when queers and punks rubbed shoulders in places like the Chelsea Hotel, Max's Kansas City, and the Factory and built a counterculture that was subsequently blown away by death, gentrification, and the panic surrounding HIV-AIDS. Smith writes tenderly but not nostalgically of that time, as when she recalls an early exploration of St. Mark's Place:
I can't say I fit in, but I felt safe. No one noticed me. I could move freely. There was a roving community of young people, sleeping in the parks, in makeshift tents, the new immigrants invading the East Village. I wasn't kin to these people, but because of the free-floating atmosphere, I could roam within it. I had faith. I sensed no danger in the city, and I never encountered any.
The world of Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home is remote from the Boho coolness of Smith's New York, but it, too, is a story of friendship rooted in shared passions and finely meshed sensibilities. Sadly, it, too, is a story of friendship cut short by early death. Caldwell and her friend Caroline Knapp were both writers. Caldwell was a book critic for the Boston Globe when she and Knapp became friends in the mid-1990s. Knapp was a columnist for the alternative Boston Phoenix whose account of her struggle with alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, was published in 1996. Caldwell won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2002 and died from the disease in June at the age of 42.

Caldwell's book feels remarkable because, more than 80 years after Virginia Woolf marveled at the possibility that Chloe might like Olivia in A Room of One's Own, it is still unusual to encounter a story centrally focused on love and loyalty between women. Caldwell and Knapp shared more than the solitary discipline of the writer's life. Caldwell is also an alcoholic who struggled for years to keep working and keep drinking before making the commitment to getting sober. Both were also fiercely committed athletes who loved the water (Caldwelll was a swimmer, Knapp a rower). Both were also dog lovers who forged their friendship over the course of miles and miles of walking with their animal companions on the paths around a Cambridge reservoir. The book unfolds with the quiet serenity of a long, satisfying walk. Caldwell, too, is a laconic narrator who eschews melodrama and avoids self-pity in telling the story of having and losing a beloved friend, of having to figure out "how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight."

Exactly so. None of the profound pleasures of Let's Take the Long Way Home will be spoiled by letting you know that the book ends in the deeply affirming gesture of Caldwell bringing a new dog into her life. Read this book. Take a walk in the thin light of a winter afternoon. Remind yourself that unbearable loss eventually resolves into acceptance and finally opens the door to new attachments. That's not a bad thought to have in the beginning of a fresh new year -- and that's why Let's Take the Long Way Home is the best of the best books Moose read in the old year.

Peace out, darlings. Happy new year -- and happy reading.


  1. GlassPen8:48 AM EST

    Good read: "The Dream Life of Sukhanov" by Olga Grushin. Liked it so much, have already started Grushin's second novel, "The Line."

    One to avoid: "Last Night in Twisted River" by John Irving. Among other faults, he's trying really hard to be a "modern novelist" instead of a "storyteller"...the experiment is not a success. I know, I know: what I get for bothering with Irving.

    On my desk for regular reference: "It's a Book" by Lane Smith. Whatever the medium, happy reading!

  2. Books I have used the most in my thinking this year, taking me to new places I had not anticipated:

    • Keeling's The Witch's Flight opened my eyes to materialities I had not considered....

    • Povinelli's The Empire of Love added a layer of colonial and historical conceptual infrastructures....

    • Tsing's Friction is utterly inspiring!

    Of course, When Species Meet is also a fav, and did take me to new places but I had read it earlier!

  3. Thanks Rox & Moose for sharing Moose's reflections on her reading (much enjoyed, by the way). I'll add a thumbs up to Patti Smith's JUST KIDS--'tis an invaluable account of an important time, and good-humored in all its poignancy. And thanks to Roxie's readers for these other suggestions.

    Here's to a 2011 filled with restorative, inspiring reading. . .and writing, such as this blog.

  4. Thanks, Roxie. I liked Caldwell's book too, and I've got Smith's book on my library request queue, so I hope to catch up to you by the end of 2011!

    Have you taken a look at Keith Richards's bio? I'm considering it for my upcoming conference travels. . . it sounds like a fun romp with a guy who must be smart if he's survived and thrived this long.

  5. Patti Smith sang a song at the funeral of a friend of mine about five years ago, and it was the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing I ever heard in my life.

  6. Marsha in TN3:27 PM EST

    An impressive book I read recently, "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Written after 15-16 years of research, it's the "epic story of America's great migration" of blacks from the south to NY, Chicago and LA. It read like a novel and focuses on three people from three different decades, the 30's, 40's and 50's. I couldn't put it down, it's a fascinating read.


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