In the midst of putting together a Summer Reading List for 2004, I took a lengthy Summer trip, delaying the release of this list until long after summer was officially over. Here, now, is the list of recommended I accumulated and sat on for far too long. Additions and corrections were made in the meantime. Many apologies for the delay, and many thanks to all those who participated.
note: All of the book title links on this page (and there are a lot of them) will take you to the selected title in Powell’s Bookstore (except where noted otherwise).
Gary Baddeley, Publisher, The Disinformation Company
This is an easy one, Roy, I’m reading proofs of our new books: The Yes Men, which is about those ®TMark guys (remember) who created a fake gatt.org website and ended up being invited all over the world to speak as representatives of the WTO. United Artists released the movie late in the Summer, and we have created the book, which is very funny, but with a serious anti-globalization message.
As for right now, I’m re-reading our book Da Vinci Code Decoded by Martin Lunn because it’s doing so well that we’ve decided to produce a DVD based on it. It’s really deep into stuff like the bloodline of Christ.
I could go on about our own books, but for light beach reading it’s The Rule of Four by Ian Cladwell and Dustin Thomason because I’m interested in the Renaissance text the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that provides the central theme.
Cynthia Connolly, Photographer and Artist.
Hey, I only have a couple things:
Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott (Little, Brown)
Where I was From by Joan Didion (Knopf)
You mean other than How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office?
This summer, I did the sociocultural spadework for a book-in-progress — an anti-memoir about my San Diego adolescence, equal parts social history of ’70s SoCal and drive-by cultural critique of border consciousness. I began my excavations of Southern California history, cultural and otherwise, with Southern California: An Island on the Land, by the dean of left-wing California historians, Carey McWilliams (the progenitor of Mike Davis’s archaeological analysis of power, race and real estate in L.A.). Garrulous, generous of spirit, and dryly funny, yet possessed of a backroom dealmaker’s knowledge of how power really works in the Land of the Golden Dream, Williams is the perfect Audio-Animatronic tour guide to Southern California’s Amok Disneyland. His account of the Free Speech Rights in San Diego, in the ’30s, is unforgettable: Emma Goldman came to rouse the rabble and was ushered, by the local constabulary, onto a train to L.A., with a one-way ticket and the friendly admonition never to return. The socialist wobblies (IWW members) who came from all over the U.S. to join the protests suffered a less genteel fate: Cops and hired goons dragged them out to canyon country, forced them to kiss the flag, then beat them, some to death, with truncheons. This is rough justice, in the town where the social order and property values trump civil liberties every time. Mike Davis and his collaborators Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew take up Williams’s song in Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, a fastidiously researched collection of essays on San Diego’s powerbrokers and the dissident voices — underground journalists in the ’60s, migrant workers and illegal aliens more recently — raised against them.
Finally, before bed, on the beach, and at poolside, there’s The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959 (ed. Hiney, MacShane), much of which is gleaned from Chandler’s La Jolla years, when he would dictate his correspondence late into the night. Written with a pitch-perfect ear for the American vernacular and the grammatical fastidiousness of a man born, bred, and classically educated in England, Selected Letters is an omnium gatherum of blunt, bleakly funny bon mots. On California: “There is a touch of the desert about everything in California, and about the minds of the people who live here.” “We are so rootless here. I’ve lived half my life in California and made what use of it I could, but I could leave it forever without a pang.” On his fan mail: “…[A]nother letter I had once from a girl in Seattle who said that she was interested in music and sex, and gave me the impression that, if I was pressed for time, I need not even bother to bring my own pyjamas.” On himself: “All my best friends I have never seen. To know me in the flesh is to pass on to better things.” Written in the dead of night with a Dictaphone and a bottle of gin, Chandler’s letters are an inexhaustible fund of insights into the noir aesthetic, the sublime agonies of the writer’s life, the American Language (as Mencken called it), and, forever and always, the sunbelt existentialism that shadows the California Dream.
Tom Georgoulias, Contributing Editor, frontwheeldrive.com
Candy by Mian Mian (Back Bay)
Candy is a semi-autobiographical novel about a Chinese girl who ran away to Shenzhen, a city free of state economic control, to escape from the confines of the government job system. She bounces around the underground club/music culture, which is filled with a lot of other wandering Chinese 20/30 somethings who are into music, fashion, and finding their way out of the world their parents created.
Small Town Punk by John L. Sheppard (Writers Club Press)
Lost punk teenagers stuck in a nothing small town, drinking between shifts at dead end fast food jobs, and struggling through their teen years. If you grew up like this, you’ll recognize the authenticity almost immediately. The characters and dialogue are just that good.
All Hands On: THE2NDHAND reader Edited by Todd Dills (TNI/Elephant Rock)
Best of collection from the free literary broadsheet THE2NDHAND.
Vinyl Junkies by Brett Milano (St. Matrin’s)
Profiles of record collectors and their favorite haunts, hidden and famous. A fairly insightful and tender look at record colleting and obsessive hobbyists in general.
Working Stiffs Manifesto by Iain Levison (Random House)
The funniest book I’ve read in a long time. Read it all in one sitting. A documentary of Levison’s string of dead end jobs, one right after another, and all the hilarious and worthless crap he’s seen during and in between. Perfect.
Shepard Fairey, Artist, Obey Giant
I have not read a good book in a while. The last book I read was this big compilation of interviews from people who shaped the first 2 years of punk called Punk. My schedule has not been leaving time for more than magazine and newspaper articles.
Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead (Free Press)
Whitehead, a hidden influence on such recent thinkers as Deleuze and Bruno Latour, is the most underrated philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century. Surprisingly timely.
Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (Knopf)
The latest popularization of contemporary physics, going beyond the bounds of science into full-fledged metaphysical speculation.
The Filth by Grant Morrison and Chris Weston (DC Comics)
This mind-bending comic is now available as a single-volume trade paperback novel. Everything you wanted to know (and a lot you didn’t) about the ultimate nature of reality; together with a hero who is forced to battle everything from viral nanobots that take over human bodies, to pornographers who generate bioengineered predatory megasperm, to memetic cloning programs that turn human crowds into orgiastic Stepford Wives who provide the building blocks for an “emergent superorganism” — when all he really wants to do is stay home and care for his cat.
The Iron Council by China Mieville (Del Rey)
The third volume of Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy (after Perdido Street Station and The Scar). Mieville writes brilliant, dense meta-fantasy, utterly gripping yet at the same time deconstructing the tropes of the Tolkien tradition. Sort of Lovecraft-meets-Dickens-meets- Marxist theory. To be published in July.
Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri (Penguin Press)
The much-awaited sequel to Empire.
Marc Pesce, Author, The Playful World
The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr (Random House)
The amazing account of the probable discovery of the unlikely mechanism of smell, by renegade scientist Luca Turin. In a classic case of an outsider solving a previously intractable problem, Turin sweeps away a hundred years of accepted-if-hodgepodge theories about the “shape” theory of scent, and discovers something far more interesting: there’s a spectrograph in your nose — or rather, thousands of them. An incredible must-read for anyone who has ever gotten a whiff of the stench of scientific politics, or the scent of victory.
Phil Agre, Associate Professor of Information Studies, UCLA
Here are four very different history books that I recommend.
Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Thomas Ertman (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This is an excellent example of a particular kind of history that compares and contrasts different nations in a systematic way based on a simple theoretical model. The topic is state-building: why did some European countries construct efficient, professionally rationalized bureaucracies where others spent centuries stuck in absolutism or corruption? Ertman argues that the difference has to do with two factors. One was the “starting conditions” left over from the dark ages. In some areas, such as England, the legacy of Roman administration left behind a tradition of strong local governments whose workings were homogeneous. This made it easy to start a parliament and hard not to, and parliaments are a counterbalance to bureaucracies. In other areas, such as Germany, local government was heterogeneous. The other factor was timing. State-building was driven largely by military competition, and countries for which such competition arrived early were less bureaucratic. It’s a theory, and Ertman uses it to analyze aspects of the various countries’ histories that might otherwise have gone unanalyzed. Does the theory explain Afghanistan? Even if it doesn’t, at least it makes clear just how contingent European institutions really are.
The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto by Mary Elizabeth Berry (University of California Press, 1994)
The major difficulty with the humanities is interpretations of things that go beyond the evidence. Despite all the yammer about postmodernism, this really begins with I. A. Richards, whose arbitrary interpretations of literature have been oppressing students for generations. Mary Elizabeth Berry’s book about everyday life in Japan during the century-long civil war that began around 1450 is an impressive lesson in how to interpret history when the evidence is slight. Because Japan lacks a tradition of bureaucrat-monks, and because its cities keep getting burned to the ground in wars, Japanese history is not as well documented as European history. Berry reads the available documents patiently and with admirable sympathy for the people who wrote them — people who in many ways didn’t understand their society any better than we do. It was as if the whole society had melted, so that every detail of their lives could change tomorrow and often did.
The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change by Art Kleiner (Currency Doubleday, 1996)
This is a journalistic history of an important chapter of the 20th century that could easily have gone unwritten: a generation of attempts, more or less countercultural, to reform and reinvent the corporation. It’s all here: unpredictable experiments in social engineering, weird tales of engineers dropping acid, computer programs predicting the future of the whole world, and the truly odd omnipresence of an Armenian mystic named G. I. Gurdjieff. We’re nowhere near putting these innovations in context. Some of them led to genuine reforms and others did not. Some of them transcended the limitations of 20th century rationalism while others were just irrational. In any event, Kleiner promises a sequel in which he brings the story up to the present day, and I bet it’s going to be great.
Cosmopoiesis: The Renaissance Experiment by Giuseppe Mazzotta (University of Toronto Press, 2001)
Giuseppe Mazzotta is Italian through and through. He is also very smart. The result is a sort of alternative intellectual reality that takes some getting used to. For a short book it is hard to summarize, and not least because the traditions of allegorical writing that Mazzotta reads in such detail are lost to us. So, for example, one poet writes a vast epic to argue with Machiavelli’s psychology, and Lorenzo de Medici and his contemporaries argue about his despotism by, of all weird things, writing Neoplatonic poetry whose numerous layers of meanings Mazzotta revivifies in phrase after unexpected phrase. Maybe it’s just the foreignness of it, but I’m not sure I’ve read a book that was so densely intelligent.
roy christopher, Editor, frontwheeldrive.com
The History of Forgetting by Norman Klein (Verso)
After seeing Norman Klein speak at UC Irvine last March, my girlfriend and I began a frantic search for all of his books. This one is about L.A. and proves a nice companion to Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. Part memoir, part critique, and part fiction, The History of Forgetting is an amazing glimpse at the city — and its past eras — looming at the edge of civilization.
Wounds of Passion by bell hooks (Owl Books)
Subtitled “A Writing Life,” Wounds of Passion chronicles bell hooks’ path to the role of Black public intellectual. It’s a deeply personal account of her struggles at home in Kentucky, leaving there for school at Stanford, her most important relationship during college and after, and all of the other trials that lead to her writing her first book (Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism), and indeed her writing life. hooks has always reveled in poetry, lived through words, and escaped in books. Wounds of Passion is a painful, yet liberating glance into one writer’s journey with the word.
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould by Kevin Bazzana (Oxford University Press)
I wish I’d gotten this book a long time ago. I have several books about Glenn Gould and this one is by far the most complete look at his life, his music, his eccentricities, hislove of solitude and of Canada, and his passion for composing. Admittedly, my knowledge of classical music is limited, but Kevin Bazzana writes in such a way that one needn’t know the minutia of counterpoint, colour, and timbre. If you’re curious about Glenn Gould, this is the place to start.
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press)
This brilliant little book explores and explains metaphor not as a form of language, but as the central structure of language. Written in clear, easy-to-understand language and rife with excellent examples and extensively explained linguistic concepts, Metaphors We Live By is a book everyone should — and can — read.
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel De Landa (Zone Books)
Meaning to have read this long ago, I grabbed it off the shelf just before leaving on my summer trip, and I’m glad I finally sat down with it. Using applied chaos theory, De Landa rewrites history as a dynamical system. It’s an amazing perspective on what is normally left to the dreaded “grand narrative.”
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner)
Leave it to Chuck Klosterman to write the best pop culture book of the year. His previous work, Fargo Rock City, was an excellent piece of commentary on 80s Hair Metal, but Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs proves that its subject matter obviously limited his abilities. This book finds him pontificating on everything from Saved By The Bell and Vanilla Sky to the 80s Celtics-Lakers rivalry as a political metaphor and why Soccer sucks. No one is safe from Klosterman’s keen sense of humor and uncanny knack for what’s going on behind the most seemingly mundane pop culture trends.
[Above, Sidney browses the books at Jackson Street Bookstore in Athens, Georgia. Photo by Roy Christopher]