December 11th, 2010 § § permalink
“Science fiction is the first human literature”
That’s Ken MacLeod attempting the most extreme claim possible in defence of SF. I don’t buy his rosy view of SF as humanist, or that “mainstream [literature] is mostly about things we share with other animals – love and hate, war and peace, dominance hierarchies, sex and violence“. But I don’t have to: he’s just turning the contrast right up to clarify the picture.
Also makes me realise how twisted it is that my ideas of ‘being human’ are all in opposition to being cold-hearted, calculating, machine-like, etc. i.e. to me, ‘being human’ generally means ‘being animal’.
I’ve never read Heinrich Böll, but this interview makes me want to for the first time.
I also guiltily enjoy the grumbling about mainstream American literature. It’s an easy bogeyman, and hardly a new one: male, middle-class, academic, urban, dull. The most common hate figure is Jonathan Franzen, or at least his critical canonization. It’s striking how many writers whose (online) work I enjoy come out with similar criticism. But I don’t read enough novels to judge if it’s accurate, and I don’t have enough historical perspective to know if it is more than the perpetual siege of the centre by the periphery.
Much the same with indie music. Take Sasha Frere-Jones:
“I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness….Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can’t imagine [James Brown or the Meters] retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.
That isn’t the most interesting version of this critique, just the one I have to hand. IMO the race angle is more a symptom than a cause — the fundamental problem involves social and economic power, geographical centralization of the chattering classes, critics facing practical incentives to discuss the cultures they know and understand. In short, it’s The System. Or it’s The Kyriarchy, to use this decade’s terminology — the idea is the same.
ETA: less convinced by both these arguments the more I think about them.
August 5th, 2009 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink
October 26th, 2008 § § permalink
Not done one of these for a while…
Books: Taylor, Eggers, O’Hara
August 10th, 2008 § § permalink
I know, I seem only to post about books here now. Sorry, but real life is fairly dull.
The Book Thief; Shampoo Planet
August 2nd, 2008 § § permalink
After a mostly excellent week, I’ve spent Friday and today being both unproductive and extraordinarily tetchy. Result: I’m pissed at the world, and I’ll be spending tomorrow back behind a computer – possibly just as fruitlessly.
On the plus side, good books make things better…
Reviews (Imagined Communities and Techgnosis)
July 27th, 2008 § § permalink
I had high hopes for this (you can tell; it’s the first hardback I’ve bought in years). Maybe my hopes were unrealistic. Rashid is aiming squarely at the Western bestseller lists – which means he needs to cover a lot of background, and avoi frightening his readers with tightly-packed detail. I remember (misremember?) his previous books Taliban and Jihad as breaking new ground and pulling together otherwise-obscure facts. This is more a general history of what is already known – good for what it is, just not the tour de force I’d hoped for.
The focus is very much on high politics and personalities. As Rashid repeatedly points out, he is a personal friend of many key figures in Afghan politics, and his analysis of their foibles is interesting. But by concentrating on people, he downplays how much their actions have been constrained by institutions, economics, and culture. Doubtless this is better than the reverse – personalities do matter in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and many institutions exist only on paper. But in this book, events in Afghanistan seem determined almost entirely by powerful people doing stupid things – we don’t get to grips with why they do stupid things.
ETA: I was probably too harsh here. Some of Rashid’s themes – how deeply the ISI has continued to support the Taliban, how uncontrolled Helmand was before the British arrived – are, if not unknown, at least rarely given this much emphasis
July 22nd, 2008 § § permalink
Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Microhistory by this year’s Reith lecturer, the life of a sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary in China. Recommended to me because of my interest in memory palaces, although mnemonics aren’t much more than a framing device here. About European almost as much as Chinese history, which makes sense for a biography, but wasn’t really what I wanted to read.
Andrew Marr, A history of modern Britain. ‘Modern’ here means ‘since 1945′. It’s what you’d expect from somebody in Marr’s position: clear, uncontroversial, making half-hearted attempts to awaken personal memories in his readers. The political history is excellent, especially as the narrative moves into periods where Marr has personal knowledge of what’s going on. But he seems a little lost once he moves into the cultural history: no obvious bloopers, just a sense that he’s reciting the accepted version without passion or deep knowledge.
Anthony Sampson, The arms bazaar: from Lebanon to Lockheed. This is over 30 years old, and was written as a rush-job to catch interest in the arms scandals of the late 70s. But I’ll happily choose quality over being up-to-date, and Sampson’s ability to construct a narrative out of mountains of facts is first-rate. The chapters on the long history of the arms trade are particularly interesting; the detail on the (then) most recent developments less so, except as a reminder of what has and hasn’t changed.
Steven Ozment, A new history of the German people. May objectively be a good book, but it rubbed me up the wrong way. The writing is oddly clumsy – not through density of facts or argument (far from it), just something about the way he structures his sentences.
Fortunately this is the end of the reviews, for now.
July 18th, 2008 § § permalink
Have some more book reviews, since I’m putting off what I should be doing today
Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945. Deserves its near-universally favourable reviews. Yes, it’s big – but honestly, this is the minimum size that could get beyond reciting common knowledge. Not that Judt has particularly unorthodox views; his analysis seems mostly what you’d expect from a centre-left American Europhile. So he becomes most passionate attacking the acceptable targets of French critical theory, although he mixes snark with accounts of how history, economics and politics combined to make it that way. Also – something that matters greatly in this kind of ‘encyclopaedic’ history – the index is excellent.
Douglas Adams, The salmon of doubt Posthumously-published collection of bits and pieces, packed out with a prologue, forword and epilogue. The rest of the text is a jumble of interviews, newspaper articles, and fragments, often repeating the same jokes and ideas in different contexts. Adams is still funny and insightful in places, but the book is mostly tedious.
Jon Ronson, Them: adventures with extremists. Ronson mingles with Klansmen, conspiracy theorists, and extremists, and lets their warped logic speak for itself. Hilarious – but there’s also a lot of excellent reporting here. His portraits of the extremists are amused and often horrified, but also sympathetic and aware that sometimes their most ridiculous ideas turn out to have some basis in fact. Ronsons later book, The men who stare at goats, on occultists in the US military, is even better.
July 15th, 2008 § § permalink
jholloway, Cosma and others write monthly roundups of what they’ve been reading. I’m too disorganized for that, and read too little for it to work. But in a similar spirit – and to stop me entirely forgetting about them – here are a few books I’ve recently enjoyed.
Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world. A history of Islam both as a religion and as a political force. This was written 20 years ago by a journalist with a knack for picking out telling details, for tracing currents of thought through centuries, and for telegraphing detail into a paragraph without drying it out. It clarifies many of those names and terms that keep popping up, but tend to be explained only in terms of day-to-day politics.
He’s particularly successful explaining the Islamic world through the eyes of Muslim thinkers. So, for instance, much of the military history is described in terms of 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun, and his ideas of repeated conquest by close-knit tribal groups (Once in power, these groups become entangled in bureaucracy and urban life, zhence lose their sense of community and so fall victim to the next invaders). Ruthven falls flat only when he turns to modern Western intellectuals for ideas: Marx, Freud and Jung all look ridiculous here.
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. Feminist tract from 1990. Powerful as a polemic, fairly convincing as an account of how ideals of beauty are used against women, but almost silent as to why. The ‘beauty myth’ becomes a free-floating malignant entity, causing oppression but itself without a cause.
More economics might have helped Wolf here, especially in the chapter on employment. Are women discriminated against at work because they are female, or because those who are already weak are easiest to exploit? I half-suspect she left out this kind of analysis deliberately, as it would have put off chunks of her audience.
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Market reforms are like torture, says Klein: they’re most effective when the victims are too bewildered to resist. It’s not so convincing as an argument, but serviceable as an excuse to string together analysis of political repression and market liberalisation.
Most persuasive is her account of Chicago School economists as an organised, influential force that took advange of – or created – economic and political catastrohes to advance a neoliberal agenda. Except – she somehow thinks right-wing economists are the only group with long-standing agendas, who wait for crises in which to advance them. What about Marxists with their vanguards, with their dialectic of spontaneity and organisation, their plans to lead the people when they rise? For that matter, in any revolution you’ll find discontent being used to serve ulterior aims. The free-marketeers have won in recent decades because their ideas were in the ascendant, not because they were the first to take advantage of crises.