Spatial Effects: Cars, Cities, and Social Movements

In his essay, “Garcetti’s Bridge to Bicycle Nowhere,” LA writer Joseph Mailander (2014) describes the harrowing bike ride across the half-mile Hyperion-Glendale Bridge between “the lands the freeways forgot,” Los Feliz and Silver Lake. The traffic signals there currently afford a brief, semi-safe interval between the roaring cars and trucks on the road. “And how are they making this bridge safer?” asks Mailander. “By making the traffic even faster and daring the cyclists to mix with the motorists even more.”

Happy CityJust about everything I’ve read about urban development has faulted the car for the ills of the city. “A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” says Bogatá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa while riding a bike through his city in 2007 (quoted in Montgomery, 2013, p. 7). “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities,” he says. “I’m talking about the US, of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars” (p. 9). Bogatá and Peñalosa are the first case study in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013). Montgomery writes that as systems, cities are susceptible to self-replicating. That is, a design is established, becomes codified in the plans, and spreads itself to other cities. For example, the car-based dispersion that characterizes our American cities is encoded in their DNA. “The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways,” he writes, “but also in the habits of the professionals who make our cities” (p. 75).

War of Streets and HousesA disturbing amount of these habits come from military practices. Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) briefly and beautifully tells a story of struggling with space, place, and the design of both through subtle comic panels and sparse text. Of this struggle, she tells Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, “I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain ‘know-how’ when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.” In War of Streets and Houses, she cites Foucault’s “disciplinary space” to describe the ways urban space is designed to control its inhabitants. Echoing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Yanow continues, “…I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don’t just see each other passing by in cars.” Urban space is such a different experience when you’re actually in it, on foot or on a bicycle and not in a car or a building. As Rebecca Solnit tells Jarrett Earnest at The Brooklyn Rail, “With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves.”

Having grown up in rural Northern California, Yanow first finds downtown Montreal an anonymous space, “Empty. Calm. As if it hid nothing and had nothing to hide” (p. 23). She quickly compares it to places along the coast or in the suburbs where “human scale things are quaint or unimaginable” (p. 20, 21). Democracy happens at human scale. That is why we occupy the streets and not the fields.

Rebel CitiesIn Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012), David Harvey traces the pedigree of urban-based class struggles back to the late eighteenth century. From Paris in 1789 through Paris in 1968, through Seattle in 1999, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City, Harvey situates the city as the center of capitalist and class struggle. Where others have criticized OWS is unorganized and ineffectual, Harvey praises the movement, writing, “It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (p. 161-162). There is less and less public space to fill with bodies as such. From Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris to Robert Moses in New York, changes in architecture and urban planning might be the most tangible and tenacious result of political unrest.

Our cities were redesigned to prevent political action and simultaneously they’ve been reconfigured to accommodate automobiles. Looking ahead we see more lanes of gridlocked traffic. Mailander (2014) adds, “Imagining the future as a cool and pristine place is code for saying things aren’t right right now. Some may like to try to fix things by inviting dreamers to dream bigger dreams. But we had better apply some math to these dreams too.” Cars drive capital. If we want them out of the city, it’s time to learn the algebra of alternatives.

References:

Earnest, Jarrett. (2014, March 4). The Poetic Politics of Space: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Jarrett Earnest. The Brooklyn Rail.

Goodyear, Sarah. (2014, April 14). An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us: An Interview with Sophie Yanow. The Atlantic Cities.

Harvey, David. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.

Mailander, Joseph F. (2014). LA at Intermission: A City Mingling Towards Identity. Los Angeles: Nellcôte Press.

Montgomery, Charles. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Yanow, Sophie. (2014). War of Streets and Houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books.

Swarm Cities: The Future of Human Hives

The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.

"Ephemicropolis" by Peter Root
“Ephemicropolis” by Peter Root

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Great American CityAccording to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.

Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.

There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls

Out of the MountainsLynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces

These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.

References:

Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.

Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.

Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.

Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.

Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.

Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.

Building Stories: The Edifice Complex

The house I live in is warped. Its floors undulate as if built on unstable earth or designed by drunken architects. Pipes protrude at odd angles, capped at even odder points. Dutifully obeying gravity and the laws of physics, kitchen drawers and medicine-cabinet doors chronically hang open. I often wonder if the house slouched into this shape or if it was just built this way.

Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit, “In Your Eyes,” was originally a song about buildings. It was called “Sagrada Familia,” and the idea stemmed from two people who were driven to build for very different reasons. “One of them was Antoni Gaudi building his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone Magazine. The construction of the cathedral took ages and was left unfinished when Gaudi was tragically killed in front of it: “He stepped out into the road so he would have a better view of the massive spires on top of the giant building and was hit by a tram.”

Citizens of No Place
(the abstraction of the outside shape is an impression / the fluidity of the inside episodes are stories) — Jimenez Lai

Like the house of breath, the house of wind and voice is a value that hovers on the frontier between reality and unreality.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Citizens of No Place“Cartoon is an enticing way to convey complexity,” opens Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an architectural graphic novel, which “offers narratives about character development, through which the reader can explore relationships, curiosities, and attitudes, as well as absurd stories about fake realities that invite new futures to become possibilities” (p. 7). Using manga to map future forms and dropping references to everyone from Chuck Palahniuk to Robert Venturi, the book is only one facet of Lai and his firm‘s critical design program (see his Briefcase House and White Elephant for two more examples, both of which guest star in the book as well).

The stories of Citizens of No Place are poignant, funny, and based on Lai’s own architectural ideas and life experiences. Lai is a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, my current home institution, and I hope to take my copy of his book to him and have him fix the cover in person.

All buildings are predictions.
All predictions are wrong.
— Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

The other subject of Peter Gabriel’s song about buildings was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester. Gabriel continues. “After the death of her daughter, she became incredibly depressed and, after seeing a medium, became convinced she was being haunted by all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. She started adding rooms to her mansion to house these ghosts, a task which went on nonstop for 38 years until her death.” She held her own house of leaves inside her head.

Chris Ware‘s latest comic seems haunted in the same manner. It’s not actually a single comic book, but a box of them–broadsheets, single strips that unfold four times, a Little Golden book, a hardback, several almost standard comic books–a nonlinear yet interconnected collection of strange stories about the inhabitants of an apartment building. Ware, who has already proven he can design in and draw on any style he pleases, told Comic Book Resources,

There’s no mystery to be unravelled or any hidden secret that will explain everything; the book is simply an attempt to recreate, however awkwardly, the three-dimensionality of our memories and to try to make a story than has no apparent beginning or end, much like our memories, which we can enter from any direction and at any point, which is also the way we get to know people, i.e., a little bit at a time. And yes, the title points both towards the way we put together and take apart memories to make stories about ourselves and others, as well as to the structure of a building itself.

Like a velvet glove cast in concrete, its pieces blown apart and strewn about, Building Stories leaves us to (re)construct the story like so many memories past. It’s not exactly a choose-your-own-adventure book, but, like our own patterned pasts, some assembly is required. Fortunately the parts were designed by one of the best artists working today.

“Every building is potentially immortal,” writes Brand (1994), “but few last half the life of a human” (p. 111). The same can be said of our stories. Whether forced or built this way, the house I live in struggles to tell its tale. Straining against Euclidian geometry, its odd rooms and angles are haunted only by the expectations of its inhabitants. Bachelard (1964) writes, “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (p. 47). This jumbled house is certainly not inert, the current, humble site of my own building stories.

References:

Bachelard, Gaston. (1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon, p. 60.

Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Viking, p. 178.

Danielewski, Mark Z. (2000). House of Leaves: A Novel. New York: Pantheon.

Lai, Jimenez. (2012). Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ware, Chris. (2012). Building Stories. New York: Pantheon.

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Special thanks to Jeisler Salunga and Belem Medina for the tip on Lai’s book and to all of my other architecture students for reminding me how cool this stuff is.

Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

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Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.

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Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:

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References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.

Summer Reading List, 2011

As usual, the Summer Reading List is the time of year when I ask a bunch of my bookish friends what they’re reading. It’s always a good time, and this year we have newcomers and old friends Howard Rheingold, Michelle Rae Anderson, and Zizi Papacharissi, as well as Summer Reading List vets like Alex Burns, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, Peter Lunenfeld, Erik Davis, Michael Schandorf, Patrick Barber, and Brian Tunney.

As always, the book links on this page will lead you to Powell’s Books, the best bookstore on the planet, except where noted otherwise. Read on.

Howard Rheingold

I’m re-reading J. Stephen Lansing’s Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali (Princeton University Press, 2006) as part of my continuing research into cooperation studies. The water temple system in Bali is a complex, beautiful, and remarkably effective social and ecological management system that is coordinated through rituals that neatly solve water-sharing social dilemmas that vex much of the planet.

Also, Robert K. Logan’s The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2007) as part of my research into the possibility that [using] the Web [mindfully] might actually [help] make people smarter.

Alex Burns

Jeanne De Salzmann The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff (Shambhala, 2010): De Salzmann (1889-1990) preserved the writings and movements of the Graeco-Armenian teacherGeorge Gurdjieff, and founded groups in New York, London, Paris, and Caracas. The Reality of Being articulates her unique, ’embodied’ perspective on the Fourth Way, drawing on forty years of reflective notebooks. De Salzmann wrote: “Man remains a mystery to himself. He has a nostalgia for Being, a longing for duration, for permanence, for absoluteness–a longing to be.”

Ronald A. Havens The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson: The Complete Volume (Crown House Publishing, 2009): Erickson (1901-1980) developed clinical hypnotherapy, and influenced neuro-linguistic programming (the Milton model). Through topical study of his writings, Wisdom covers Erickson’s insights about the unconscious mind, therapeutic change, utilisation, and trance induction techniques. A useful overview to the philosophy and methodology of Ericksonian hypnosis.

Charles Hill Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (Yale University Press, 2010): Hill is a diplomat who contends that engagement with literature is a way to understand statecraft. Ranging from Homer, Thucydides, and Machiavelli to Milton, Thoreau, Mann, and Rushdie, Hill explores how literature illuminates themes of order, war, the Enlightenment, and the contemporary nation-state. Literature provides a wisdom tradition to reflect on and engage with the international order.

Richard Ned Lebow Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2010): Counterfactuals are ‘what if?’ thought experiments that can probe causation and contingency. Lebow considers World War I, the Cold War, Mozart, and fictional alternative histories. He develops sophisticated protocols for evidence, theory-building, and theory-testing that will enrich social science, from archives and variables, to minimal rewrites and statistical inference.

Donella H. Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green, 2008): Meadows (1941-2001) was an influential environmental scientist and lead author on the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972). Thinking in Systems is Meadows’ introduction to systems thinking, non-linearities, feedback, and leverage points. A way to build individual and societal resilience to complexity and global challenges.

Michael Scheuer Osama Bin Laden (Oxford University Press, 2011): Scheuer was head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s unit on Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) and provides a corrective to earlier books. Scheuer depicts Bin Laden as a dynamic strategist with a deep knowledge of Muslim religious traditions, military logistics, and a long-term, dynamic vision for victory. Although Scheuer’s estimative assessments and specific conclusions will be debated, he also provides extensive end-notes, and a helpful guide to primary and secondary sources for further research.
Douglas Walton, Chris Reed, and Fabrizio Macagno Argumentation Schemes (Cambridge University Press, 2008): Argumentation schemes are processes of argument and inference which underlie human communication. Walton, Reed and Macagno provide an overview of how argumentation schemes inform fields from artificial intelligence to legal expert opinion. They classify and explain 96 different argumentation schemes and show how software tools like Rationale can be used to map out different inference structures.

Cynthia Connolly

Anything by MFK Fisher.

That’s my reading list!

Michelle Rae Anderson

I’m writing a semi-autobiography called The Miracle in July, and this finds me preoccupied with the elements of truth in fiction. I enjoy the intersection of truth and fantasy in following books:

Lidia Yuknavitch The Chronology of Water (2011): Lidia is a swimmer and a storyteller with a wild, self-serving past fueled by anger at helplessness. Beyond the usual “unbelievably shitty childhood” narrative found in most modern memoirs, in the Chronology of Water you’ll find a refreshing lack of apologies for the betrayal of secrets and an unusual writing style that mimics (to me) the little waves of breath in speech, as if the author is sitting there in the room reading the words to you.
Water-y loves, a dead baby, and a search for what “home” means are all critical parts to this story. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that is Lidia’s boob you see on the cover of the Chronology of Water. Pretty impressive for a middle-aged tit, I’d say.

Eric Kraft Herb N’ Lorna (AmazonEncore, 2010): I’ve been in love with this book since I discovered the first edition in my deeply religious grandmother’s car on the way to her memorial service back in the late 1980s. The story begins with a young man who, just as he is about to say a few loving words about his grandmother at her funeral, discovers that she and her husband spear-headed the discrete erotic, kinetic keepsake sculpture movement in the early 20th century.

Maybe it’s the coincidence in which I found the book and how the book begins, maybe it’s Kraft’s mesmerizing command of the well-played sentence, or maybe it’s that I’m just a sucker for a truly wonderful, touching love story…but this is the book that made me really believe in the power of writing a story that resonates, and inspired me to try my hand at it.

Robert Hough The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Grove Press, 2004): This is the fictionalized, bittersweet memoir of the ferociously determined and beautiful Mabel Stark, a real lion tamer from the early days of Americana traveling circus performers. Working with huge, wild cats with the strength to maul tiny Mabel was nothing compared to the discrimination she faced from the Big Tent owners, and her five husbands could never take the place of her one true love: a white Bengal tiger named Rajah, a 500 lb. cat who considered her his mate.

Graphic bestiality scenes, shocking turns of plot and opportunity, and the ultimate price paid for love makes the Final Confession of Mabel Stark a riveting page turner. I mean, if you’re into that.

Steven Shaviro

Minister Faust The Alchemists of Kush (Kindle Edition; Narmer’s Palette, 2011) and Nnedi Okorafor Who Fears Death (DAW Trade, 2011): These two books are quite different from one another. But they are both brilliant works of Afrofuturist speculative fiction, linking past, present, and future, and moving between myth, magic, and grim social reality. Both novels confront visions of self-empowerment and self-healing with the horrors of genocide in South Sudan. The Alchemists of Kush is like a prose equivalent of some fusion between the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra and the gritty urban hiphop of the Wu-Tang Clan. Who Fears Death is a magic realist parable of future Africa, like a prose equivalent of Jill Scott channeling M’bilia Bell.

Ivor Southwood Non-Stop Inertia (Zer0 Books, 2011): This is a book about what it feels like to be a “precarious” worker, or a permanent temp worker, in the New Economy. Mixing cool analysis with telling anecodotal detail, Southwood dissects the ways that unemployment and even everyday life have been transformed into new forms of soul-shattering, mind-numbing labor, and how sheer economic constraint polices and disciplines us more effectively than oppressive social institutions were ever able to manage.

Evan Calder Williams Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Salvagepunk, or Living Among the Ruins (Zer0 Books, 2011): Zombie attacks, or the stirrings of new collective urges. The Sex Pistols told us that we had No Future. Public Enemy told us that the apocalypse already happened. Several decades down the road, Williams describes how this catastrophic no-future is unevenly distributed. This book has striking insights, on nearly every page, about how the future has been systematically stolen from us. The sheer ferocity of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse matches that of the undead social and economic order we live in today.

China Mieville Embassytown (Del Rey, 2011): Last year, on my Summer Reading List, I recommended China Mieville’s then-new book Kraken. This year, Mieville makes the list again. He’s one of the finest writers of speculative fiction (or “weird fiction,” as he prefers to call it) alive today. But in Embassytown, Mieville surpasses himself — it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. In terms of genre, the book is a space opera. But it’s really about language, desire, and the nature of self-deception. Human beings share a planet with an alien race that only speaks the truth; but salvation for both species depends upon “our” ability to teach “them” how to lie.

K.W. Jeter The Kingdom of Shadows (Kindle Edition; Editions Herodiade, 2011): Jeter is one of our finest, and most underrated, writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This is his first new book since his post-cyberpunk masterpiece Noir, published over a decade ago. I’ve just started reading The Kingdom of Shadows, so I’m not entirely sure yet what it is about. But it seems to involve Nazis, classical Hollywood, the uncanny reality of cinematic projections and other images, and strange metamorphoses of the skin.

Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Sean Watson, Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (McGill Queens University Press, 2011): An introduction for a broad readership (but without sacrificing rigor and dense thought) to one of the most important, but also most reviled, trends in the history of Western philosophy. V. I. Lenin said it best: “Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than is stupid materialism.”

Zizi Papacharissi

Richard Schechner Performance Theory (Routledge, 2003): Self-explanatorily, it is about performance theory — contains a favorite quote: “Performing is a public dreaming.” This is about drama and performativity in, and the drama and performativity of everyday life. Not specific to the internet, but I like to read this and imagine how it applies to play and performance online, and artificial agents and intelligence, including of course, robots.

Adrienne Russell Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition (Polity, 2011): I am a fan of slapping the word network in front of theories and concepts in order to remediate them (network society, networked publics, networked sociality, erm, networked self). It actually works 🙂 Networked is a great way to summarize a lot of things that have been going on in the field of journalism, including what Hermida (2010) refers to as ambient journalism. Really look forward to reading this.

David Gauntlett Making is Connecting (Polity, 2011): Pushing beyond ideas of convergence culture and cognitive surplus, and offering an informed and fresh explanation of how these processes come to be, and what they mean to people.

Joss Hands @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture (Pluto Press, 2011): Been thinking lately that, depending on context, sometimes online activism is more meaningful that offline mobilization. And sometimes not. Hoping that this book will help me think through this a bit more.

John Urry Cimate Change and Society (Polity, 2011): Intriguing, and a new way of thinking about things.

Also looking forward to Daniel Miller’s Tales from Facebook and Charlie Beckett’s book on Wikileaks and the threat of new news, both out from Polity later this Fall.

Erik Davis

For the last year, I have been part of the editorial team preparing a rather mammoth edited selection of Philip K. Dick’s largely unpublished Exegesis that should come out in late Fall from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So most of my summer reading is a marathon swim through Dick’s dense, wonderful, insightful, disturbing, boring, and deeply bizarre explorations of metaphysics, cybernetics, madness, mysticism, and God. It is an exhilarating and exhausting project to work on, but the material, for all its eccentricities, seems strangely timely, and I expect it may have the resonance of the Red Book when it appears (it even has lots of great diagrams and metaphysical doodles.) That said, the tome will only represent something like a tenth of the whole document, so this grail for the PKD nuts out there will remain half empty—which is probably just as well, since the desire for revelation is as revelatory as revelation itself, maybe more so.

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics (W. W. Norton & Co., 2011) is a fabulous social and science history about the relationship between consciousness culture, philosophy and physics in the 1970s. He shows how the “big picture” questions initially stirred up by the confounding weirdness of quantum physics were lost in the pragmatic postwar world until a countercultural crew of freak physicists, quantum philosophers, meditators, paranormal aficionados, and speculative no-longer-materialists delved into the weirdest of the weird. Without a hint of snark, Kaiser tells the counter-cultural tales of figures like Jack Sarfatti, Fred Alan Wolf, and Nick Herbert, and books like Capra’s Tao of Physics (Shambhala, 1975). Science-wise, the heart of his story is Bell’s Theorem, whose deeply mindfucking argument for quantum nonlocality—that particles separated at birth can somehow “know” the state of their superposition twins through what is essentially some “faster than light” process or medium linking discrete spacetime reference points—became, for the hippies, a ground for a scientific understanding of all sorts of psi phenomena and hardcore mystical states. Along the way, though, they revived the philosophical issues surrounding quantum reality, which paradoxically are starting to bear practical fruit today, when Bell’s Theorem is a mainstay of quantum information science and esoteric cryptography.

Kaiser is a great science writer, not so much because he is good at describing quantum weirdness (he is, but so are other popular writers, including some of the folks—like Fred Alan Wolf—that he is writing about here). Kaiser is a great science writer because without sounding like the academic he is, his approach is deeply and successfully informed by historical and sociological methods of understanding how science happens: how ideas grow, propagate, and twist their way through changing historical scenes, especially scenes related to institutions, publications, networks of colleagues, and funding sources. And in the 1970s Bay Area, this productive social matrix got seriously strange, with alternative institutions, tech millionaires, and a visionary culture of interdisciplinary research infused with psychedelics, mysticism, and paranormal explorations. The quantum (meta)physical engagement with the nature of “consciousness” leads to some silly New Age science for sure (some of which we can blame on these folks) but it also asks us to really follow through the implications of quantum physics and to recognize how little we understand consciousness—and particularly the possibilities of “expanded consciousness.”

Along the lines of the technology of expanded consciousness, I have often gotten a lot out of Ivo Quartiroli’s posts on his indranet blog – intelligent, critical, but calmly expressed concerns about online culture and consciousness from the perspective of a programmer nerd who is also a hardcore meditator and intelligent spiritual seeker. His new book The Digitally Divided Self (Silens, 2011) is a kind of tech-nerd mystic’s version of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), where some of the familiar (and not so familiar) concerns about the effect of the Internet on our brains, minds, bodies, and selves (including lots of research) are shot through with a bracing spiritual critique grounded in what one might call “post-rational” states of consciousness and experience. The philosophical language (around “reality” let’s say) is sometimes too simple, and he slips into some rote neo-Luddism at times, but this is very solid technology critique that takes the possibilities of spiritual practice very seriously—including the possibility that the training of attention through meditation may provide exactly what we need to dodge the dubious fate of becoming servo-mechanisms of the hive mind and manipulative networks of influence and distraction. Though it could have gone through another few rounds of editing, Ivo’s voice—concerned, compassionate, incisive, non-judgmental—is a unique and powerful one. Not a jeremiad, but a dharma combat.

Speaking of post-rational states of consciousness, I am incredibly happy to finally be reading Phil Baker’s Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2010), the first book-length biography about the legendary occultist and fine artist, who was born in 1886 and died in the 50s. Spare is a fascinating fellow. As an artist, he transformed the aesthetic vibe of Beardsley-esque decadence into a unique and under-appreciated body of work (paintings, drawings, and amazing portraiture) that manages to be at once elegant, haunting, and deranged—the latter element at times reminiscent of Bacon. Moreover, Spare is arguably the most important—and almost certainly the most storied—British occultist after Crowley. His ideas and practices, highly idiosyncratic and deeply interfused with his remarkable artistic productions (especially his sigil magic), built a modernist bridge between the Edwardian culture of pseudo-traditionalist occult lore and a more Freudian, avant-garde, and psychologically radical embrace of the abject, the erotic, the unconscious—a bridge that makes him the godfather of chaos magic. Baker is a wonderful writer, careful, intelligent and tart. He also knows his London, and the Spare that emerges in his portrayal is very much an avatar of that unique and ancient town: humble Cockney beginnings, the bright years as a smoldering wunderkind, and then a long plunge into poverty, obscurity, and a deep weirdness that brought him in touch with Kenneth Grant, to whom we owe some of Spare’s legend. Spare emerges as an almost Blakean character, a visionary Londoner whose poverty could not keep the visions at bay.

Ashley Crawford

Joshua Cohen Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010): Damn you Joshua Cohen. You’ve cost me dearly. Not only in time I couldn’t really afford (work suffered horrendously), but in the way you’ve twisted the world around me. Expending the energy to tackle an 827 page book takes a leap of faith to be sure. It also takes a few strong nudges. When those nudges come in a trinity one has to take a deep breath and dive in. The triumvirate, all discovered in a morning, started with an excerpt on Ben Marcus’ website, rapidly followed by noticing a rapturous blurb by Steve Erickson and then an intriguing interview by Blake Butler on 21cmagazine.com. Marcus, Erickson, and Butler are all heroes. They all wallow in language like words are the salt in the Dead Sea. But then a further google uncovered numerous comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. Ahem. And indeed, after several exhausting weeks, I can say that Joshua Cohen joins their ranks with enviable chutzpah. I am not one of the Affiliated, but trust me, you don’t need to be. Cohen essentially paints with words, creating vast canvases that embrace everything from surrealism to science fiction, from heart-wrenching heartbreak to heart-warming hilarity. Despite the sheer weirdness of structure, there is a clear-cut narrative here, albeit with a moment of cunnilingus that would make David Cronenberg blanch. Cohen has created an alternate universe richer than any in contemporary literature. Steve Erickson, in his blurb for the book, states that “the only question is whether Joshua Cohen’s novel is the Ark or the Flood.” My question back is, is it feasible that it is both?

Blake Butler There Is No Year: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2011): It was perhaps inevitable that Blake Butler would do this. The seeds were already planted in his haunting novella Ever (Calamari Press, 2009) and his blistering, apocalyptic Scorch Atlas (Featherproof, 2009). There was already no doubt that he could write like an angel on bad hallucinogens. But there was no way one could have predicted the horrific tsunami that is There Is No Year – an experimental tour de force essentially unlike anything I have encountered in waking hours. Indeed I read it in a grueling two-day marathon that was not unlike those nightmares one has where one’s limbs are frozen and something unseen is pursuing you. Sleep paralysis is not unusual, but it is in broad daylight. In a blurb for Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Thomas Pynchon stated that Erickson “has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality…” – it is an accolade that would have worked perfectly for Butler and There Is No Year. Indeed, reading this book is like being trapped in another person’s (deranged) psyche. It is, in essence, the story of a family; a father, a mother and a son who live in a melting world that has been assailed by a mysterious ‘light’. They remain unnamed, generic, which only adds to the sense of inevitability the book seems to exude. Upon finding a new home they also find a ‘copy family’. But that, it turns out, is the least of their problems. Indeed the copy family is the least original notion in a book of utter originality (Philip K. Dick utilised the same notion of simulacra or doppelganger in his 1954 story “The Father Thing” and it has appeared elsewhere), but Butler uses this trope to chilling affect. The ever trustworthy Ben Marcus claims that Butler has “sneaked up and drugged the American novel. What stumbles awake in the aftermath is feral and awesome in its power.” Feral is a good description here; Butler has gone off the leash, ignoring the rules of both grammar and sanity. Indeed, there is no year here, no month, no day, no hour. There is no distance, at least in the normal sense. But there is a narrative, in a feverish, nightmarish way. A number of comparisons have already been made to David Lynch (Butler admits to Lynch’s dense and macabre Inland Empire being something of an influence) and, inevitably, with both its “haunted house” theme and typographical mayhem, Mark Z. Danielewski’s brilliant House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000). Both Lynch and Danielewski certainly hover somewhere in this Stygian night-scape, but There Is No Year stands on its own. Terrifying, ferocious, claustrophobic, a maelstrom of beautifully mangled words, a prose poem of paranoia. Butler has often complained of insomnia, but if these are his nightmares he may well be better off awake. I received my copy of There Is No Year a day after finishing Joshua Cohen’s equally brilliant epic Witz. My love-life, my social life, and my day job are in tatters, but Cohen and Butler (alongside such other Millennialists as Ben Marcus, Grace Krilanovich, Brian Evenson, Steve Erickson, Brian Conn, and others) more than prove that the Great American Novel is well and truly alive, albeit in wonderfully mutating forms.

David Foster Wallace The Pale King (Little, Brown, 2011): The publication of The Pale King has reignited the fascination that David Foster Wallace seems to inevitably ignite. His books, especially Infinite Jest, have inspired books in themselves and his suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, garnered not dissimilar coverage to that of Kurt Cobain. Indeed, DFW became the literary equivalent of a rock star. There was good reason for this. As anyone who has delved into Wallace’s disparate world(s) will attest, he had a voice like no other, regardless of whether he was working in obsessive reportage style or moments that border on pure surrealism. At times Wallace’s conceits border on the science-fictional – his first novel, Broom of the System (Penguin, 1986), is set in and alternate Ohio, where the primary landmark is a 100-square mile artificial desert of black sand, complete with imported scorpions and known as the Great Ohio Desert, or G.O.D., constructed to give its denizens a reminder of their pioneering roots. Similarly a Cleveland suburb has been re-built to emulate the outline of Jayne Mansfield’s body. In Infinite Jest (Little, Broan, 1990) he transforms the entire northeastern United States into an uninhabitable feral zone – an almost Ballardian virtual tropical jungle generated by dumping toxic waste in the area. In this instance, the U.S. has graciously given this land to Canada after ruining it for future civilizations. It is dubbed the Great Concavity to Americans and the Great Convexity to Canadians In this world North America envelops the United States, Canada and Mexico and is known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporate entities secure naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations, thus Jest is undertaken during The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U). And then there is one of the central tenets of Jest – the mysterious video-entertainment that is literally deadly. The Pale King eschews much of this other-worldly wizardry, but, Wallace being Wallace it’s not quite the real world either; IRS agents are issued new Social Security numbers, all beginning with the number 9, [a fiction] the IRS building facade is a gigantic 1040 form, picked out in terra-cotta tiling, and one of the agents has the ability to levitate when truly engrossed in his work. It’s not the masterpiece that was IJ, but to fans it is a sad and tantalizing read.

Grace Krilanovich The Orange Eats Creeps (Two Dollar Radio, 2010) Appearing almost simultaneously with Justin Cronin’s best-selling The Passage (Ballantine, 2010) comes yet another vampire book. Both feature blood-sucking ghouls and both feature young girls, and both have more than a hint of the end of the world. And yet, they have absolutely nothing in common. One will entertain, the other will come close to performing a lobotomy on the reader. Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps is a hyper-adrenalized journey through nocturnal spaces that reek with the stench of decay and mold. The journey screams with a post-punk adrenaline, like Nightwood on really bad acid. The hinted and occasionally overt sense of transgression blisters the page. The book features a perhaps overly orgasmic introduction by Steve Erickson who claims that The Orange Eats Creeps may well represent a “new literature”, a statement that cannot help but make one squirm. Rather than “new” per se, Krilanovitch has inherited streams of surrealist and grotesque elements that coil through the likes of Djuna Barnes, Comte de Lautréamont, George Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Kathy Acker, and William Burroughs. To Erickson’s credit however, direct comparisons to such authors, beyond their clearly visceral use of language, would be meaningless. But Erickson does get it right when he describes Orange as “a vampire novel then as Celine would have written, with dashes of Burroughs and Tom Verlaine playing guitar in the background: hallucinatory, passionate, hardcore… a fiction of open wounds, like this savage rorshach of a book etched in scars of braille.” Krilanovich must have been forced to hold her ego in check given further comments from the likes of Shelly Jackson: “Like something you read on the underside of a freeway overpass in a fever dream,” she writes. “The Orange Eats Creeps is visionary, pervy, unhinged. It will mess you up.” And then the renowned Brian Evenson wades in with: “Reads like the foster child of Charles Burns’ Black Hole and William Burroughs’ Soft Machine (Grove Press, 1992). A deeply strange and deeply successful debut.” Burns’ Black Hole (Pantheon, 2008) is indeed an apt contemporary comparison. Set in a similarly bleak American outpost of ravaged suburbia, Black Hole is a searing portrait of adolescent alienation. Krilanovich goes one step further by inserting us firmly and uncomfortably inside her narrators often deranged skull, riding her seismic fluctuations of body temperature which seem to swirl dangerously from sexual overdrive to permafrost. Whether Krilanovich’s characters are literally vampires remains beside the point. Describing the ancestors of our protagonist, Krilanovich evokes figures that could be supernatural, but could as easily be simple environmental vandals: “Their contribution to the world lies in pockets of poisonous gas underground, that white swath beating at the door with the swollen fists of the unhappy dead; it wisps under the cabin window sash, animating that season’s psychos in a spark of electrified crackling fat that’s so irresistible they must drag their bones out the door…”

Patrick Barber

James McCommons Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service—A Year Spent Riding across America (Chelsea Green, 2009): Necessary if you’re planning a train trip this summer. A good capsule history of trains in the US either way.

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 2011): A thorny collection of interwoven stories that is well worth the trip.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Shadow of the Wind (Penguin, 2005).

Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists (Dial Press, 2011).

China Miéville The City and the City (Del Rey, 2010): Perfect for transit commutes, this book made my train ride to a faraway teaching job a really good time this spring.

Brian Tunney

For the past few years, I have been on an extensive Paul Theroux kick. And that continues, this summer, with The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific (Hamish Hamilton, 1992), a travelogue written by Theroux throughout an 18-month journey that covered Meganesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and ends ultimately, in Hawaii.

The account was published in 1992, when I had just graduated high school and considered a trip to New York City from my suburban home in New Jersey a trek. But I’m not here to discuss relativism. I just thought New York was a faraway place (30 miles) and that my awesome bedroom in my parent’s suburban home was safer and all that I had ever known.

I guess my distant interest with the author started early in college, when I was forced to read his first travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar. At the time, book reading wasn’t really what I wanted to do, nor was travel by train through Europe, into Asia, and back again over a four-month journey, as Theroux does in the book. But I forced myself through the book, correctly identified the points my professor wanted me to and didn’t look back.

A decade later, I re-discovered the same book in a box stowed away since college, and decided to reread it. Instantly, after gaining a somewhat nominal level of experience with travel through distant and unknown (to me) parts of the world, namely Connecticut and Thailand, Theroux’s writing grew on me. He had a knack for entering into a new part of the world and not passing a subjective judgment after two hours in the new location. Instead, Theroux entered, observed, questioned and conjectured until he simply decided to move onto the next place. His approach was anthropological without adhering to structure, engaging, and altogether the next best thing to actually running around the world by train for a year at a time.

In 2008, Theroux returned to The Great Railway Bazaar with Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a re-tracing of his journey some twenty years later. And although he had gained some years, he goes out of his way to traverse the same path, exploring the changes in government, culture and the land’s greater history along the way. (Not surprisingly, much had changed, including the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the post 9/11 treatment of Arab countries and a worldwide energy and economic crisis.) He also goes out of his way to integrate regional literature and past interpretations of the lands he visits (Rimbaud is a frequent reference, but so is Arthur C. Clarke and a host of other influential writers along the way) into the lands he visits.

After Ghost Train, I craved more, and I turned to Theroux to teach me about the world’s greater workings, including Africa (Dark Star Safari) and China (Riding the Iron Rooster). And now I find myself 90-pages into his paddle boat explorations of New Zealand, Australia, and lands I haven’t yet reached in the book. So far, he’s attempted to tackle racism, alcoholism on a societal scale, the killing of animals, and wind in a small paddle boat along the Australian coast. He also just bought a gun in case he’s overrun by wild pigs in the outback.

I read, most days, on a train to and from work, knowing the exact outcome of my day sometimes before it begins. Paul Theroux’s writing is my daily escape from the norm, a window into an once unknown world, and an attempt to reconcile all of the problems of the world by talking to each person he meets one on one and having a beer with them at the end of the day.

I only hope that one day, Paul Theroux stands next to me on the train underneath the Hudson River and wants to talk.

Michael Schandorf

This summer I’m reading about how we enact and comprehend space and time, how our spaces affect our thinking and interaction, and how time relates to cognition. And I’m starting with Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment (Harvard University Press, 2009). Noland is a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, with a background in dance. The combination has led her to the study of body movement and the enactment of culture in a broad sense. In Agency and Embodiment, she explores a range of theoretical positions, including Marcel Mauss’s early sociological and anthropological theories, the phenomenology of digital art, and post-modern/post-colonial performative agency. The breadth of this contextualization of embodiment promises a rich perspective.

Next up, Erin Manning’s Relationscapes (MIT Press, 2009) covers loosely similar territory. Manning is the Director of Concordia University’s Sense Lab in Montreal, the scope of which is reflected in her book’s subtitle: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Manning offers a theory of movement that connects incipient emotion to the production of language in a theory of “prearticulation” that suggests David McNeill’s studies of gesture in linguistics and cognitive psychology, but with a wider scope that encompasses aesthetic production.

From “prearticulation” to Premediation (Palgrave, 2010)… A decade ago, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation (MIT Press, 2000) brought a crucially important rigor to the theorization of media studies. Grusin’s latest, Premediation, is an update and expansion of the theory of remediation that examines the changes in media communication and cultural tenor following the September 11th attacks. In essence, Grusin argues that the blinding pace of information transmission, combined with a general cultural mood of trauma and fear, has shifted our relationship to time from the present focus of mass media communications in the late 20th century to anticipation of the immediate future that dominate much of today’s mass media, especially on cable news. The processes of premediation, Grusin argues, are an attempt to protect the social and cultural psyche from the terror of unforeseen shocks like those of 9/11.

Moving on from largely visual and mediated interactions, Brandon LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories (Continuum, 2010) explores the nature of space, particularly contemporary urban spaces, in terms of sound cultures and the audial embodiment of our lived spaces. LaBelle is an artist and writer teaching at the National Academy of Arts in Bergen, Norway, and Acoustic Territories appears to be an expansion of the themes in his previous book, Background Noise (Continuum, 2006), which focused more exclusively on consciously aesthetic production. Sound is a crucial sense for most of us for purposes of social identification, but the role hearing places in our conceptualization and enactment of space and time is largely taken for granted. I’m looking forward to digging into LaBelle’s treatment.

Finally, a book whose connection to these themes is a bit more tenuous – but one I’m really excited about – is R. Douglas Fields’ The Other Brain (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Neurons and their physiology have been the focus of brain research and the basis of cognitive theories since their discovery and early description. But neurons only make up about 15% of the brain. Most of the rest of that mass is glial cells, which have historically been brushed aside as ‘helper cells’. Fields reviews important recent research on glial cells showing that they do far more than “help”: glial cells organize and structure neurons and modulate both neuronal transmission and synaptic activity. They communicate both with neurotransmitters and globally with broader chemical and bioelectrical signals, making them far more important to the processes of cognition than has been previously acknowledged. Thinking is more than synapses as mind is more than thinking.

Peter Lunenfeld

Summer is when I catch up with fiction and read a few things that might touch on work when it kicks back into gear in the fall. There’s an old joke that professors will never admit to reading something, they are always “rereading.” But I’m fully willing to admit that this is the summer I’ve decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for the first time. I’ve never carved the time and attention out for his 1K+ page masterpiece. Now I am.

I’ve been writing for The Believer and decided to work my way through the novels of its three co-editors. A few years back I read Heidi Julavits’ third book, Uses of Enchantment (Anchor, 2008), a fantastic novel about young women and the myth and mystery of memory, and I now plan to read in reverse, tackling her second book, The Effect of Living Backwards (Berkley Trade, 2004). I recently went to the Hammer Museum in LA where Heidi and Vendela Vida both read. Vendela’s was from The Lovers (Ecco, 2010), and the excerpt she chose was so poignant and evocative of place and time (Florence, a quarter of a century ago) that her novel, along with its predecessor, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Harper Perennial, 2008), are on my list. To round off my Believer kick, I’m also planning to read third co-editor Ed Park’s Personal Days (Random House, 2008), a novel of contemporary office life.

I consumed the uneven Steig Larsson trilogy, and continue to explore Scandinavian crime fiction. So this summer, I’ll probably read some or all of Jo Nesbø’s Oslo-based noir mysteries, including the neo-Nazi themed The Redbreast (Harper, 2008), the heist story Nemesis (Harper, 2009), and the serial killer-driven The Devil’s Star (Harper, 2011 ; though sexual-serial killings was the lamest part of the Girl With that Tattoo who Lit Stuff on Fire and Kicked Nests). On the other hand, I’ve never read mysteries by anybody with an ø in their name, so perhaps that will make up for it.

In the fall, I’ll continue working on a series of essays about Los Angeles and its history, and one of the books I’m looking forward to reading for this project is Spencer Kansa‘s Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake, 2011). Cameron was a fascinating figure, the lead actress in Kenneth Anger’s film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and the consort of the endlessly fascinating Jack Parsons, rocket pioneer, co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab, nemesis of L. Ron Hubbard, and Satanist. Parsons and Cameron tried to give birth to a Moon Child, but that’s a long story…

Finally, through the summer I’ll be playing around with an app that Chandler McWilliams developed for my new book, The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading (MIT Press, 2011). The app is called GenText, takes the last chapter of the book – a stand-alone history of the computer as culture machines titled “Generations” – and renders it accessible at three levels — abstract, page, and full section — with a dynamic interaction between the levels that literalizes the metaphor of “zooming” into a text. The book’s companion website, points you to it as well as other e-pub goodies.

Roy Christopher

I’m currently working on my book, The Medium Picture (for Zer0 Books), so most of my reading lately has been related to the writing. That means essential texts from Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, Howard Rheingold, Doug Rushkoff, Paul Levinson, Steven Johnson, Ted Nelson, Lev Manovich, Kate HaylesPeter Lunenfeld, David Weinberger, Stewart Brand, Jay David Bolter, Janet Murray, McKenzie Wark, and others — all of which lead me to newer stuff like…

James Gleick The Information (Pantheon, 2011): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the book of the year.

Peter Lunenfeld The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading (MIT Press, 2011): The subtitle of Peter Lunenfeld’s newest book is “Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine.” Lunenfeld employs downloading and uploading for cultural consumption and production respectively. His metaphors are apt, and astutely frame the computer’s role in our current culture. This is an important little book that should not be ignored.

Adam Bly Science is Culture (Harper Perennial, 2010): I love magazines, and one of my favorites was Seed. Adam Bly is/was their editor (they’re online-only now), and one of my favorite parts of Seed was the Seed Salon, in which two scientific or literary luminaries — whose interests are often unexpectedly juxtaposed — discuss a pressing science issue. Well, Bly’s new book compiles all of the Seed Salon sessions in one place. It includes such pairings as David Byrne and Daniel Levitin, Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler, Jonathon Lethem and Janna Levin, Benoit Mandlebrot and Paola Antonelli, Will Self and Spencer Wells, Jill Tarter and Will Wright, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, and Robert Stickgold and Michel Gondry, among many others. Unexpected things emerge when pairs of minds like these come together.

Elizabeth Parthenia Shea How the Gene Got Its Groove (SUNY Press, 2008): In How the gene Got Its Groove, Shea argues that the gene is no more than a figure of speech, a trope, a metonymy for a unit of life-stuff that may or may not exist. It’s an intriguing romp through lingustic strategy, the tenuousness of language, and indeed the rhetorical nature of science itself.

McKenzie Wark The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (Verso, 2011): Ken Wark‘s been writing around and adjacent to the Situationists for years. It’s awesome to see him finally dive into their strange land in earnest. There are many texts on Guy Debord and the Situationists, but few dig as deep or get their work the way Ken Wark does. As a rare bonus, the hardback comes with a fold-out dust cover with a graphic essay composed and drawn by Kevin C. Pyle based on selections from Wark’s text.

Steven Shaviro Post-Cinematic Affect (Zer0 Books, 2010): I’ve been meaning to write about Steven Shaviro‘s new book since I got it last year. It’s a fascinating exploration of four cinematic artifacts: Grace Jones’ “Corporate Cannibal” video, and the films Boarding Gate (2007), Gamer (2009), and Southland Tales (2006), the latter of which is one of my recent favorites. The book’s title comes from Shaviro’s central claim: that so-called “new media” hasn’t killed but transformed filmmaking, and since media artifacts as such are “machines for generating affect,” these four works represent perfect occasions to discuss our current state of post-cinematic affect.

————

Well, that’s what we’re reading this summer. Time to get to it.

[Pictured above: Lily checking out The Hitch. photo by royc.]

Summer Reading List, 2010

It’s that time again… For those who don’t know, every year around this time,  I ask a bunch of my friends and colleagues what they’re reading and then I compile it and post it here. This year, new participants Nancy Baym, Ian Bogost, Andy Jenkins, Kenyatta Cheese, and Michael Schandorf, and join regular contributors Steven Shaviro, DJ Spooky, David Silver, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, Ashley Crawford, Howard Bloom, Alex Burns, Peter Lunenfeld, Cynthia Connolly, and Erik Davis. Thanks to everyone who contributed and to those who didn’t but considered doing so.

As always the book links on this page will take you to the selected title in Powell’s Bookstore. Enjoy, and leave your own reading recommendations in the comments below.

Andy Jenkins

Jason Turbow with Michael Duca The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime (Pantheon, 2010): Summertime is baseball time. Over the last decade I’ve become a real baseball nerd and any book that delves into the intricate folds of this game will usually get  my attention — The Baseball Codes being no exception. It’s an in-depth look into the unwritten rules of the game (even though that’s exactly what Turbow and Duca have done here — written them down), the stories usually told by the players themselves. The abundance of names and places and times can become a little overwhelming, but if you sit and read one or two anecdotes at a time, this is a good read for any baseball fan.

Steven Johnson The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changes Science, Cities and the Modern World (Riverhead Books, 2006): You’d think a book about the London cholera epidemic in the summer of 1854 would be a pretty depressing read, but The Ghost Map is quite the contrary. Johnson interweaves the battle to control the microbial war with the minds of the men doing most of the thinking and the future repercussions of their ideas. Take a look around you, breathe deeply, be thankful for running water and give your garbage man a high five… if you don’t really feel like doing that right now, after you read this book you will.

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010): Goon Squad caught me right in the first couple of pages as the main character, Sasha, is conferring with her therapist — something I  just recently started doing myself. Sasha is a compulsive thief, I’m a depressed self-inflicted recluse. The honesty she shares with her therapist is something I’m striving for. Guess I’ll keep reading…

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (Ballantine Books, 1964): I recently caught a TV show called Iconoclasts with Maya Angelou and Dave Chappelle. Strange match-up on some levels, but the thing I was most impressed with was Angelou’s past and the people in it. She was a personal friend to Malcolm X. Hearing that and seeing Malcolm’s iconic portrait on a wall in her house made me pull this book out again. I’d recommend this for anyone’s summer reading list. The path this man’s life took is an interesting and inspiring one.

Jordan Crane The Clouds Above (Extra Fancy Edition) (Fantagraphics Books, 2005) and How to Speak Zombie: A Guide for the Living by Steve Mockus, illustrated by Travis Millard (Chronicle Books, 2010): Both of these are picture books. And both of these are illustrated by two of my favorite line artists, Jordan Crane and Travis Millard. Crane’s book is a beautifully illustrated and made, hard-bound piece of art with very little dialog — it’s almost exclusively a visual narrative that recount the “Terribly Terrific and Tremendously True Travels of Simon Jack.” Jack, a cat, talks, of course, as do the zombies in Millard’s drawings — literally: Press the buttons on the lower right and you’ll here them “speak.” Handy translations are given by Steve Mockus. Both hilarious and possibly helpful depending on what you view of our future looks like.

Kenyatta Cheese

I have but two books that I’m reading this summer.

The first one is a collection of essays called Deleuze and New Technology edited by David Savat and Mark Poster (Edinburgh University Press, 2009). While Gilles Deleuze didn’t live long enough to see the particular web of digital and biotech that we live among today, his theory and writing clearly anticipates it. Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) concept of the rhizome as an organizational theory has a surface analogue in our Internet, and the Society of Control can be seen as Web 2.0 with a dark cape. Deleuze was critical of the “machines” that he thought about but he never bothered thinking of them as evil. He seemed to be much more interested in the forms that emerged out of our machine-assisted living. These essays are an attempt to extrapolate what some of those thoughts might have been. While Poster is the headliner in this collection, I’m looking forward to the essays by William Bogard, Verena Conley, and Eugene Thacker, whom I consider fantastic theorists in their own right.

The other book that I’m reading is Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (Ballantine/ESPN Books, 2009), 700-page sandbag of a book that includes his history of the National Basketball Association, his take on race in the league, and an endless supply of digg-bait style listicles of the Best Players, Best Teams, and other barely quantifiable attributes. I love basketball but I cringe when reading Simmons’ column for ESPN. His pop culture references read like SportsCenter channeled through an episode of Family Guy. His tangents are legendary for their pointlessness. A friend described this book to me as an overlong blog post written by a juvenile frat boy who watches too much porn. I expect that I’ll enjoy this book immensely.

Nancy Baym

My summer reading is all about music!

Scott Kirsner Fans, Friends and Followers (CreateSpace, 2009): Building an audience and a creative career in the digital age. This is a how-to book aimed at musicians and artists looking to build an online following. It’s got excerpts from about thirty interviews and is a pretty interesting read.

Greg Kot Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (Scribner, 2009): This one’s also about music and the internet and has gotten great reviews. Kot’s a music writer for The Chicago Tribune and a smart guy, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he frames the issues around music and the net.

Daniel Levitin This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Plume, 2007): I’ve taken this book with me on several vacations. Every time I hear him interviewed I’m mesmerized by his insights into why music affects us, and I’m eager to finally read it.

David Suisman Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard University Press, 2009): This is an historic academic tome about how music came to be a big business. I’m always eager to situate current trends in their historical context so I’m hoping this one helps with that.

Aram Sinnreich: Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010): Sinnreich is one of the smartest people thinking about contemporary digital music practices, and this book, due out in August, is likely to have a big influence on how people understand what Lessig called “remix culture.”

Philip Auslander Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge, 2008): Okay, this one isn’t just about music. It’s a fairly short inquiry into the boundaries between recording and live performance and the differential status and meanings of the (increasingly blurred) two.

Two books that are not about music, but which I’ve read recently and plan to reread soon are Matt Beaumont’s e (Plume 2000) and e Squared (Plume, 2010). They’re hilarious, ribald novels set in a London ad agency. The first is written entirely in emails, the second is written in emails, blog posts, and text messages. Excellent summer reading if you don’t mind bad words and want to laugh hard.

Alex Burns

Jaron Lanier You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010): Remember the internet’s promise in the pre-dotcom era? Lanier brilliantly derails four shibboleths—‘cybernetic totalism’, ‘digital maoism’, and populist views of the Cloud, and the Singularity—that shape the ‘ecologies of mind’ in Open Source and Web 2.0 communities. Rather than big-n crowds, You Are Not A Gadget is a spirited defense of individual creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, and ‘moral rights’: the necessary ingredients for deeper meaning-making. It also conveys Lanier’s strategies for the ‘ideation’ and ‘fast prototyping’ phases of the innovation cycle.

David H. Ucko The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009): U.S. General David Petraeus and Australian strategist David Kilcullen are often credited with shaping the renewed interest in counterinsurgency (COIN) and the 2007 ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq. Ucko’s doctoral dissertation focuses instead on the U.S. military as a ‘learning organization’ and how it has facilitated and adapted to COIN. Ucko conveys the dynamic inter-relationship between how many different processes—doctrine formulation, leadership development, defense budget, technology acquisition, and stability operations—have reshaped the U.S. military as an institution for ‘military operations other than war’ like counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and stability operations.

Sarah Ellison War at the Wall Street Journal: How Rupert Murdoch Bought an American Icon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010): During a 2002 interview, the award-winning Australian investigative journalist Neil Chenoweth gave me a jaw-dropping insight into Murdoch: He uses game theory in mergers and acquisitions, and has at least three levels of games during a bid. Ellison’s fly-on-the-wall case study shows how, and is thus less like the fawning biographies of William Shawcross (Murdoch) and Michael Wolff (The Man Who Owns The News) and closer to the 1976-1983 period of authors like Michael Leapman (Barefaced Cheek). Authors in this earlier period contended Murdoch’s ‘apotheosis’ was due to his acquisitions of News of the World, The Sun, and The Times, and Ellison shows how he has not lost his touch. Whilst you were busy updating your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts, Murdoch bought and revamped a financial news empire.

William D. Cohan House of Cards: How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism (Doubleday, 2009): There’s now easily an entire bookshelf on the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Cohan’s House of Cards on Bear Stearns’ collapse stands out as a model of investigative journalism, and a worthy successor to the 1988-92 period: Michael Lewis (Liars’ Poker), James B. Martin (Den of Thieves), Connie Bruck (The Predator’s Ball) and Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (Barbarians at the Gate). Two reasons why: Cohan is a former investment banker, and he got access to ‘insiders’. House of Cards may still be read in 10-to-15 years for its lessons on dysfunction culture, power politics and status hierarchies.

Charles D. Ellis The Partnership: A History of Goldman Sachs (Penguin, 2008): For decades Goldman Sachs has been the pre-eminent ‘bulge bracket’ investment bank. On April 16th, 2010, the U.S. Securities and Investments Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud over the structuring of a collateralized debt obligation deal for hedge fund maven Henry Paulson. To understand Paulson’s strategy read Gregory Zuckerman (The Greatest Trade Ever) and Michael Lewis (The Big Short). To understand Goldman Sachs read this detailed institutional history on how its processes for culture, leadership development, and financial services innovation mean the holding company will continue to attract the ‘best and brightest’, despite the SEC case and other GFC-related lawsuits from international regulatory and supervisory agencies. If Cohan’s House of Cards conveys why institutions fail, Ellis shows how despite crises they can adapt and cultivate resilience.

Jeremy Bernstein Physicists on Wall Street and Other Essays on Science and Society (Springer, 2008): ‘Quants’ — or mathematicians and physicists who designed complex financial products such as derivatives, swaps and option pricing models — are widely blamed for the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Bernstein’s academic monograph is an anecdote and detailed rich study of how and why ‘quants’ became popular on Wall Street in the 1980s and 1990s, and the parallels of developing a knowledge base in other fields and disciplines. In doing so, Bernstein builds on Emmanuel Derman’s biography (My Life As A Quant), which captured the transition from Bell Laboratories’ isolative research culture to Goldman Sachs’ team-based, deal-flow approach. Amongst the many details and side-glances here are the Cold War’s geopolitical influence on immigrant ‘quants’, A.Q. Khan’s covert nuclear network, the linguist Michael Ventris who deciphered Etruscan B; the emergence of author Michel Houellebecq and his interest in the gothic horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft; and the role of Poisson mathematics in Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket program. My personal ‘aha!’ moment was Bernstein’s final essay, ‘Beating the System’, a guide to academic survival in Los Alamos, Livermore, and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Bernstein’s book has an intriguing synchrony to the other books on my 2010 list: how individual and collaborative research, innovation, and creativity may thrive in a well-designed and facilitative institutional context.

David Silver

For as long as I can remember, Nixon-related books have occupied the highest shelf on my parents’ book collection — book’s like John Dean’s Blind Ambition and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and The Final Days. A few weeks ago, while visiting my mom, I reached up to the top shelf and plucked down The Final Days (Simon & Schuster, 1976). It’s the story of a criminal, crooked, crazed, paranoid, and totally incompetent president and the final months, weeks, and days of his reign. Great summer reading!

A few months ago, at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, I traded three brand new academic books about digital media for one used copy of Edward Espe Brown’s The Complete Tassajara Cookbook: Recipes, Techniques, and Reflections from the Famed Zen Kitchen (Shambhala, 2009). What a great deal! I started reading and cooking from this book in late spring and will continue through summer and beyond.

As its title suggests, Pam Peirce’s Golden Gate Gardening: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California (Sasquatch Books, 2010) tells Northern Californians what to plant, why, how, and when. It’s my bible — especially in summer. I’m also reading Gayla Trail’s Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces (Clarkson Potter, 2010) for some wonderful and creative tricks and techniques.

This summer, I’m working on a new freshmen seminar called “Golden Gate Park” which, if approved, will run next spring. To generate ideas and stimulate the old noggin, I’m reading, skimming, and scanning all kinds of wonderful books like Raymond H. Clary’s Making of Golden Gate Park: The Early Years: 1865-1906 (Don’t Call It Frisco Press, 1984); Chris Pollock and Erica Katz’s San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories (Westwinds Press, 2001); Sally B. Woodbridge, John M. Woodbridge, and Chuck Byrne’s San Francisco Architecture: An Illustrated Guide to the Outstanding Buildings, Public Art Works, and Parks in the Bay Area of California (Ten Speed Press, 2005); Christopher Pollock’s Golden Gate Park: San Francisco’s Urban Oasis in Vintage Postcards (Arcadia Publishing, 2003); and Hosea and Nellie A. Blair’s Monuments and Memories of San Francisco: Golden Gate Park (Calmar Printing Company, 1955).

Most of my summer reading, I suspect, will be read out loud, to Siena, our eleven-month old daughter, and revolve around stories about clever animals, being kind and curious, and going to sleep.

Ashley Crawford

Eugene Marten Firework (Tyrant Books): I was sent this reader’s copy of Firework by Eugene Marten by the publisher of Tyrant Books, Giancarlo DiTrapano. DiTrapano had, not so long ago, published a limited edition of Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg, so there was good reason to pause. Baby Leg is a masterpiece and Tyrant’s edition a work of art. And Evenson had blurbed Marten’s previous book, Waste, with something bordering on awe. I trust Evenson’s blurbs.

But then I opened to DiTrapano’s brief introduction in which he describes being told by Gordon Lish that Eugene Martin was one of three great living American male authors alongside Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. Right, I thought. There’s hype and then there’s real hype, the kind that makes you raise eyebrows, reconsider Lish’s standing in the literary community, and think that this Giancarlo DiTrapano was simply full of it.

DiTrapano starts his publisher letter by stating that he smoked ten cigarettes during the last sixty pages of Firework. Well, sorry to tell you Mr DiTrapano, and my doctor, I smoked ten clove cigarettes in the first twenty pages and was up to almost one a page by the time this book incinerated in my hands.

And sorry Mr. Lish, he’s no McCarthy or DeLillo, as flattering as those comparisons are. He’s Marten through and through. To be sure there are hints of the harsh language and linguistics of those more senior figures, but Marten’s narrative takes us down another road altogether. This is bleak, bleak material and captivating beyond belief.

It’s a road trip of sorts through an America blasted by economic Armageddon and racial slurs. The main character, one Jelonnek, seems to fight inertia to the end. We never seem to get inside him. We are hapless witnesses to sometimes inexplicable acts, moments of kindness and violence that erupt from the page like smoldering matches.

Given this is a reader’s copy I shan’t quote directly from the text, but apart from the occasional line-break I swear if DiTrapano touches a word I’ll strangle him. A masterwork? I’m very tempted to say so.

Michael Schandorf

First of all, I don’t have a “summer reading list.” I have precarious stacks, overflowing shelves, reading material on every flat surface, and some flat surfaces comprised entirely of reading material. Books as furniture. This doesn’t count all that stuff in my Kindle I’ll never get to. But I’ll do my best to contribute here by grabbing things within arm’s reach of my recliner without toppling any essential supports.

First up, to my left, is John Durham Peters’ Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press). (Thanks to Roy C. for pointing me to this one.) Peters is a professor of communication at the University of Iowa, and this, his first book, published in 1999, lays out the theoretical grounds of the study of communication going from Socrates and the roots of rhetoric to information theory, passing through theology, philosophy and psychology along the way. Peters sets up the book with a contrast between Socrates view of dialectic based in eros and the early Christian rhetoric of dissemination. Don’t tell me how it ends!

Underneath Speaking into the Air are Régis Debray’s Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (Verso, 1996) and Transmitting Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997). Debray coined the term “mediology” for his combination of semiotics and medium theory, which develops a theory of cultural “transmission” that seems to cover ground similar to James Carey’s “ritual” view of communication (which Carey lifted from Kenneth Burke) – but reversing the terms (I guess because he’s French and likes to make things difficult) and being less pessimistic (apparently rebelling against his French-academic-ness). Debray covers all the media theory with its critical theory bases that we get here in US graduate communication school, but I’ve never heard him mentioned. Hope to soon find out why that it is.

I came across Debray in Michael Cronin’s Translation and Globalization (Routledge, 2003). Cronin is the Director of the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland. Translation and Globalization and the more recent Translation and Identity (Routledge, 2006) examine the role of translation in the contemporary world, drawing on communication and medium theory as well as critical theory and cultural studies. Translators and the act of the translation (in business, politics and culture) serve as a medium of interconnection in a globalized world, occupying a liminal position between cultures and the worldviews generated by the fluid structures of language. Haunting these discussions (at least in my head) is Paul Ricouer’s On Translation (Routledge, 2006), which argues that all communication – even intrapersonal communication involves the act of translation: the meeting and negotiation of different webs of knowledge and conflicting motivations.

The first of the two closest books on my right is Siegfried Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media (The MIT Press, 2006). Zielinski is the Founding Director of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, and this book covers more media theory, but with a decidedly different take using decidedly different sources and examples: “a theater of mirrors in sixteenth-century Naples, an automaton for musical composition created by the seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, and the eighteenth-century electrical tale-writing machine of Joseph Mazzolari, among others.” Zielinski examines the “historical-media archeological record” and “illuminates turning points of media history—fractures in the predictable—that help us see the new in the old,” and presumably vice versa. Next to Zielinski is Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009): spoiler alert – it was Karl in the study with a kitchen knife.

Cynthia Connolly

M. F. K. Fisher The Gastronomical Me (North Point Press, 1989).
John McPhee Giving Good Weight (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).
Ruth Reichl Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin, 2006).

Patrick Barber

Things I’m reading:

Eula Biss Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Greywolf, 2009): I’m about halfway through this book of essays. Biss is a young (white) woman who writes about her experiences wtih race in America, using a blunt instrument for a pen. A brilliant, infuriating book. Probably not the best for the beach — you’ll get all worked up, and someone will ask you what you’re reading, and you’ll get into a conversation that might not end so well. But read it.

Kyle Gann No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s “4’33″” (Yale University Press, 2010): A fun, easygoing bio of Cage that pretends to be an indepth analysis of his most notorious piece. Possibly the only book about John Cage that could really qualify as “light reading.” If you’re curious about Cage, this is an ideal book to start with; then again, I’ve read almost all the Cage literature out there and I’m enjoying it too.

Terry Teachout Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): A thoroughly enjoyable biography of Louis Armstrong. One of those bios that is as much about the time and place as it is about the person. Teachout’s an excellent writer; he keeps the story moving along at a pleasant clip, and he’s talented at describing music as well.

In the pile to read this summer:

Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original (Free Press, 2009).

Wendell Berry Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food (Counterpoint Press, 2009).

Stieg Larsson The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, 2010).

Things not to read this summer:

Michael Davis Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (Penguin, 2009): How could a book about Sesame Street be dead boring? I guess in that way it’s something of an accomplishment. I gave up at about page 50, exasperated by yet another immigration tale of another Sesame Street founder’s great-great-grandfather. Seriously.

Juliana Hatfield When I Grow Up: A Memoir (Wiley, 2008): Ms. Hatfield provided some ’90s nostalgia and some inner-sanctum insight into the indie-rock world of that time, but mostly this book is like listening to your self-deprecating roommate talk shit on herself ad nauseam.

Jon McGregor Even the Dogs (Bloomsbury USA): An experimental novel, with the results of the experiment being not very good. One of those books that makes you wonder what was so wrong with the story that the author couldn’t just fucking tell it. Because it seemed like a good story; at least, what I could see of it.

Dave Allen

Paul Auster Invisible (Picador, 2010).
David Lipsky Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway, 2010).
Roberto Bolaño Antwerp (New Directions, 2010).

Howard Bloom

No light reading this summer. I’m following up the current Bloom book, The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (Prometheus, 2009), with a book that asks a simple question: How does the cosmos create?

So, in addition to reading books with too many incomprehensible words and too few worthwhile insights (books that purport to pursue big thoughts, but do it in the standard manner of academic self-deception), I’m resorting to another way of reading.  I’m plundering the original works of people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Dreisch, von Baer, Herbert Spencer, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Chomsky, and a mess of others.  Doing it using Google book search to see what these guys have said about roughly three dozen core problems in cosmic creativity.

The delight of this hunt has turned out to be Paul Davies, the only one who actually poses the problem of how an inanimate cosmos pulls off what we used to think only gods could do–inventing everything from time and space to pornography and cigarettes. Try Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004) and The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? (Mariner Books, 2008).

And try a book that both Paul and I are in, along with Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Seth Shostak, and James Gardner, NASA’s Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context (NASA, 2010; also available as a free download) Hey, for reading that goes fast, is sweet and tasty, but delivers a big wallop, a creamola of insights, try my Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, and let me know what you think of it.

However if you prefer playing video games to plowing through a thousand pages of Joyce’s Odesseus and falling out of your beach chair with periodic bouts of sleep, I highly recommend the Google Book Search e-approach, deep dives into the minds of philosophers you would normally never think of sampling between games of badminton.

Paul D. Miller a.k.a DJ Spooky

John Brunner Stand on Zanzibar (Centipede Press, 2010).

Philip K. Dick (Author), Tony Parker (Illustrator), and Bill Sienkiewicz (Illustrator) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Comic) (Boom! Studios, 2009).

Cory Doctorow For The Win (Tor Teen, 2010).

Bruce Mau and David Rockwell Spectacle (Phaidon, 2006).

Jeff Chang Total Chaos (Basic Civitas, 2007).

Ian Bogost

Claude S. Fischer Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (University of Chicago Press, 2010): I’ve already finished this one by UC Berkeley sociologist Fischer, whose earlier book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (University of California Press, 1994), I very much enjoyed. Fischer mounts a simple argument with broad consequences: the fundamental character of America, he argues, is not individualism but voluntarism. A good read, and don’t be scared off by its size: literally half of its 560 pages are notes and references.

David Okuefuna The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet (Princeton University Press, 2008): I suppose this isn’t a book one reads, but so be it. Albert Kahn was a 19th century business magnate who became a fan of autochrome, an early method of color plate photography invented before 1910. Kahn traveled the world taking color photographs of scenes that appear deeply unfamiliar when rendered in color.

Alastair Gordon Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure (University of Chicago Press, 2008): As someone who travels a lot, I’ve become obsessed with air travel, and I enjoy the occasional book on the subject. This one isn’t new, but it’s new to me. In a see of architectural picture books, Gordon’s promises a real history, not just a set of nostalgic images.

Isabelle Stengers Cosmopolitics I (University of Minnesota Press, 2010): Stengers’s Cosmopolitiques is finally appearing in English this summer. It’s an expansion of her argument in The Invention of Modern Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), in which she continues to develop a de-objectivization of science while still treating it with a respect that many cultural theorists haven’t done. This is one of those situations in which I shouldn’t admit not having read it yet in French, but indeed I haven’t. Anyway, the “I” refers to the fact that the 650-page French edition was published in two volumes, and apparently the English will be too.

Roberto Bolaño The Return (Harper, 2010): Another summer release, this is Chris Andrews’s translation of the short stories that didn’t appear in his rendition of Last Evenings on Earth (New Directions, 2007). While I’ve read The Savage Detectives (Picador, 2008), I’ll admit that I still haven’t tackled 2666, and this summer won’t be the season for it, once again.

Iain Thomson Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge University Press, 2005): Partway through, I can say with some certainty that this is a book anyone reading Heidegger’s famous essay on “The Question Concerning Technology” for the first time or the fiftieth should also read.

Timothy Morton The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010): I’m looking forward to Morton’s short book on the interconnectedness of life. Here’s the key sentence from the blurb: “This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement.” I suspect I’ll be annoyed that only “life” gets interconnection.

Peter Lunenfeld

For me, summer always means the chance to read fiction, and I’ve got a few in hand that I’m really looking forward to.

The first is Dan Clowes’ graphic novel, Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). Clowes is one of the great storytellers of our age, in any medium. Ghost World (Fantagraphics, 2001) and David Boring (Pantheon, 2002) were serialized in his comic Eightball, but Wilson is his first to be published in book form first. The main character — Wilson, natch — is one of the most repellent figures to emerge from Clowes’ misanthropic imagination in years, but the intricacy of the story’s construction, and the deft intertwining of its visual styles, is such that the book becomes a meditation on aging, and the unworthiness of keeping self apart from others.

Another episodic read comes from first time novelist Tom Rachman. Drawing on his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Italy for the Associated Press, and editor at the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, Rachman has written The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press, 2010) about an English-language newspaper based in Rome, and the decidedly motley collection of expat writers, editors, freelancers investors, and even readers it attracts over a half century’s run.

Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) also investigates what happens to the imagination when it becomes expatriated, but from the vantage point of leaving the Philippines for New York City. A saga covering family and dynastic aspirations over four generations and nearly a century and a half of Philippine history, Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary prize before it was even published. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype.

As ever, I pick one big book for the summer. It’s usually non-fiction, but this year it will be Europe Central by William T. Vollman (Penguin, 2005). I suppose I am like every other writer in America, and perhaps the whole world, in my mix of stunned envy and blank incomprehension at how Vollman manages to publish so much and across such a range of genres. Illustrated travelogues like Imperial (Viking Adult, 2009), a seven volume history of violence, essays on femininity and Noh theater in Japan, a series of interviews with poor people about “poor people,” a memoir about hopping trains, the list just goes on and on and on. To be honest I’ve dipped in and out of his books overt the years and never really caught the bug. I’m hoping Europe Central, his twelfth novel – twelfth novel for god’s sake – will be the one to do it for me, with its weaving of personages real and imaginary splaying out from a literary exegesis of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s ill-fated and fantastically cruel invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Switching over to non-fiction, I’ll be finishing Optical Media (Polity, 2010) by Friedrich Kittler. I started it early this Spring when it came out from Polity, but then teaching and editing and everything else hit, keeping me from finishing this flawed but interesting record of Kittler’s thoughts about media captured a decade ago in his public lectures at Humboldt University in Berlin. Kittler is brilliant as ever about the technical aspects of media, but his fixation on the materialities of production and consumption, and diminutions of the “so-called humans” who actually make and consume photography, film, television, and digital media makes this a theory that’s too much apparatus and not enough dispositif.

No worries about that in Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010), because people are at the heart of this book. Robb, a renowned biographer of figures like Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud, has written a series of intersecting portraits of the famous, infamous, and forgotten residents of a great city over the past two centuries. I’m embarking on an alternative, connectionist history of Los Angeles’s art and cultural life, and so I’m hoping that Robb’s book can offer some hints about how to bring the urban scene to life in all its idiosyncrasies.

Erik Davis

Robert Love The Great Oom: the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (Viking, 2010): Today I just dipped my toes into this recent biography of one of our greatest unsung American flim-flam saints: Pierre Bernard, a Midwest-by-San Fran-by-New York yoga entrepreneur whose dalliances and popularity made him a familiar figure on the scandal pages of the 1920s. Though a lover of the benjamins, Bernard also knew his mystical shit, and did more than anyone at the time to found an American ethos of hatha yoga as well as a kind of pragmatic and glamorous western “Tantra.” I can’t wait to dive into the deep end of this juicy and meticulously researched record of hedonic trickster spirituality, Yankee-style.

Steve Goodman Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (The MIT Press, 2010): My favorite book of Deleuzian technocultural criticism since Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone Books, 1991), Goodman’s dense, imaginative, and incredibly carefully written book presents a kind of psycho-geography of sound in our era of claustrophobic militaristic chaos and affect control. Without ever straying into theory bullshit, Goodman thinks hard and—thankfully for the reader—pares his posthuman forays into Whitehead, Kittler, and Spinoza with concrete details about specific sonic arts and technologies—dub, Muzak, noise weapons, the “planet of drums” that accompanies Mike Davis’s “planet of slums.” By approaching music in terms of actual vibration, Goodman leapfrogs beyond cultural criticism and enters a disturbing but deeply illuminating space of posthuman psycho-physiological dynamics.

Jeffrey Kripal Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press, 2010): Though one of America’s best scholars of contemporary religion, Kripal writes from his own passion and experience as well as his considerable knowledge. In this very readable and—especially for an academic—daring book, he looks at four writers who demonstrate how the modern experience of the paranormal—from prophetic dreams to UFOs—overlap the more traditional domains of the sacred. Reading this I discovered a great deal about the undersung Frederic Myers, a fascinating Brit who cofounded the Society for Psychical Research; Charles Fort and Jacques Vallee were well-known to me, and delightful to read about in a serious (but playful) scholarly context. But Bertrand Méheust, an outsider intellect whose many works of Ufology and related studies remain largely untranslated, was a revelation.

Dale Pendell The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse (North Atlantic Books, 2010): I wasn’t sure Pendell could take his considerable skills as a poet and entheogenic scholar-shaman in the direction of fiction, but The Great Bay is a wonderful addition to the subgenre of post-apocalyptic novels set in California. Covering thousands of years with excerpts from diaries, letters, and encyclopedic overviews, Pendell manages to communicate a wry earth wisdom and pragmatic DIY optimism about the big bummer that may very well lie ahead. Moreover, by covering millennia rather than follow the same characters from start to finish, he reframes the novel as a “long now” experiment that widens our perspective beyond the confines of contemporary human identity and reminds us that whatever happens, the earth and its creatures will keep spinning along.

Steven Shaviro

Bret Easton Ellis Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, 2010): Ellis is one of the most talked-about of all contemporary American novelists, yet also paradoxically one of the most underrated. He’s notorious (for the violence in his books, and for his apparent partying lifestyle) rather than respected as a writer. Nonetheless, I think that Ellis is a master: a brilliantly literary novelist, and a dark visionary of the American nightmare. All of his books are amazingly strange concoctions of elements that shouldn’t be able to mesh together, and yet somehow do: minimalism, horror, deadpan humor, social satire, and anomie. His new book — just published — takes a look at the characters of his very first book, Less Than Zero. twenty-five years later. What will become of these vapid, cynical, spoiled, and obscenely rich drifters, now that they are approaching middle age?

China Miéville Kraken (Del Rey, 2010): With his brilliantly inventive, richly packed novels, China Miéville is our foremost practitioner of “dark urban fantasy,” or of what has come to be called the New Weird. His books deliciously indulge in the fantastic, while at the same time criticizing the cliches and rightwing ideologies that are all-too-frequently endemic to the genre. Think of Miéville as the anti-Toliken, or as H. P. Lovecraft updated for the new century. His new novel (to be published at the end of June) is apparently set in contemporary London, rather than in the entirely fantastic landscapes of much of his earlier work; but it promises urban underworlds, dueling magical factions, and tentacle horror.

Matt Fraction Casanova (Image Comics, 2010): Matt Fraction is one of the most interesting and inventive comics writers working today. He’s best known for his work for Marvel Comics (Iron Man, X-Men, and soon Thor as well); but his best work comes in Casanova, a creator-owned title. This is a reboot for the series, combining previously-published material (but now in full color instead of monochrome) with entirely new stories. Imagine a 1960s spy-movie hero (James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint) as reimagined by some crazed combination of Jorge Luis Borges, Groucho Marx, and Quentin Tarantino. Great illustrations, too, by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.

Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter (Duke University Press, 2010): Political theorist Bennett asks us to reject our standard oppositions between human and nonhuman, culture and nature, subjects and objects, people and things. For even worms, plastic bottles, and scraps of metal are “strangely vital,” active and assertive, possessing their own degrees of agency and force. Rejecting the idea that mere matter is passive and inert, Bennett calls instead for a “vital materialism,” an outlook that recognizes how human beings are not separate from nature, but intertwined with nonhuman beings and with “vibrant materials of all sorts.” Bennett’s book is at once philosophically profound, and written in an open, engaging, and highly accessible style. This is new thought for the new millennium.

Deborah M. Gordon Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Princeton University Press, 2010): This short book, by a leading entomologist, summarizes much of what we know about ants, and how they live and work. The ants and other social insects are among the most successful organisms in the world today. Ant colonies do not have hierarchies or chains of command, and yet they engage in extremely sophisticated emergent behavior. Gordon’s beautiful presentation is fascinating on its own account, as a description the sheer weirdness and beauty of ant life and behavior. But it is also exemplary, and of broader interest, for anybody who wants to know more about emergence and self-organizing systems.

Roy Christopher

The three most subtle and interesting books I’ve read lately are Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1994), Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 2002), and John Durham Peters’ Speaking into the Air. These, which continue to give me hours of inspiration, comprise my trio of strong recommendations for the summer.

Like Nancy above, I’m also eager to read Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, as well as some recent releases like Richard Florida’s The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity (Harper, 2010), and Daniel Pink‘s Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Riverhead, 2010). I’m also eager to get into the current debate on neuroplasticity and the web. To that end, I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010) and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010), the latter of which I hope is more insightful than everything I’ve read about it so far.

Then there are these ones:

Hillel Schwartz The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (Zone Books, 1996): In light of our culture’s shift from bits to atoms, the concept of a “copy” is shifting as well. The 600+ pages of Schwartz’s book explore the history of the idea from every angle imaginable.

Linda Hutcheon A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006): Adaptation is not only the name of the trainwreck Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film, but also the process problematized by that film. Hutcheon illustrates its uniqueness from and its place among other constructs of intertextuality (e.g., allusion, paraphrase, parody, etc.), as well as how pervasive it is in our current culture.

Régis Debray Media Manifestos (Verso, 1996): Michael Schandorf, whose own list is above, sent me the tip on this one. I’ve only perused it so far, but I can tell that Debray’s “mediology” will worm its way into my own writing in the area. The same goes for Herman Rapaport’s Between the Sign and the Gaze (Cornell University Press, 1994), especially his last chapter on Laurie Anderson’s United States.

N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman (University of Chicago Press, 1999): I’ve been rereading all of Kate Hayles’ books (e.g., My Mother Was a Computer, Writing Machines, Chaos and Order, Chaos Bound, etc.), and this one is well worth revisiting if you haven’t in a while or reading if you haven’t. The title is a bit misleading: Hayles uses the word “posthuman” to refer to what I’ve called the externalization of human knowledge. Her book follows this externalization from early computer history through cybernetics and autopoiesis to literature. It’s a ride as enlightening as it is wild.

Summer Reading List, 2009

At long last, 2009’s Summer Reading List is collected, compiled, and complete. Inside you will find book recommendations from friends and usual suspects such as Richard Metzger, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Gareth Branwyn, Peter Lunenfeld, Gary Baddeley, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, and myself, as well as newcomers David Silver and Josh Gunn. If you’re like me, you still haven’t read everything that looked good from last year’s list, but once again, against all odds, this exercise proves that there are plenty of interesting books being published (on paper!). So, read on and read on…

Gary Baddeley

On the top of my summer reading list is the galley for Disinformation‘s first-ever novel, The Sisterhood of the Rose, by Jim Marrs. Jim’s the top- selling conspiracy author ever with titles like Rule By Secrecy and Alien Agenda, but this is his first novel. It draws heavily on his obsession with World War II, the Nazis, and the occult (reflected in his last New York Times non-fiction bestseller, The Rise of the Fourth Reich). He’s actually calling Sisterhood… a work of “faction,” as he’s woven so many real people, facts, and conspiracy theories into the plot. A great beach read for me, but for everyone else I’m afraid it’s intended for the holidays, releasing in November.

Life, Inc.Aside from that I’m dying to read Doug Rushkoff‘s new book, Life, Incorporated. I’m sure you know all about it as Doug is a friend and contributor. I saw the book under construction when we interviewed him for the film 2012: Science or Superstition, in the form of cards with notes pinned everywhere on the walls of his office (try to spot them in our film!).

Speaking of 2012: Science or Superstition, we’re publishing a book version, written by Alexandra Bruce, who previously wrote the books Beyond the Bleep and Beyond the Secret for us (about the New Age movies What The Bleep Do We Know!?! and The Secret, respectively). I’m editing it right now and it will be out in September, in advance of Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie 2012, that Sony Pictures will release on Friday, November 13th. It’s the first book that really covers the whole spectrum of speculation, opinion and even some facts (!) about the 2012 mania that is ramping up as we approach the end of the famous Long Count Calendar of the ancient Maya. (Believe me, I’ve read dozens and there are some great ones, but none that really give a proper overview.)

On a more summery (and less current) note, I did pick up a pulp mass market novel from Borders for a fast airplane ride recently, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. It wasn’t that fast a read at 900 pages, but it was good mindless travel fiction about the pop culture creature du jour (still), the vampire, getting us (my wife and myself) ready for the new season of HBO’s “True Blood” (a sort of guilty summer Sunday night pleasure).

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Dave Allen

The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been in print since the late 70’s and remains a fascinating read — as the late David Foster Wallace said “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

Consider the LobsterThat statement could almost be true of D F Wallace himself. After the shock of his death I returned to his books of essays — Consider the Lobster (Back Bay, 2007) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay, 1998). If you can read the first essay in …Lobster, “Big Red Son: a discourse on Las Vegas and the porn industry” without laughing until you cry, then you are not human…! And  the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” from A Supposedly Fun Thing... is so terribly prescient [written in 1990] that I don’t know where to begin to praise it.

Other books waiting to be read this summer are Richard Yates Revolutionary Road — the Everyman’s Library edition that also includes The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. And The Super Organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and E.O.Wilson. I always return to anthropology…

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Cynthia Connolly

Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox.
The Girl with the Gallery by Lindsay Pollack.
Walker Evans: A Biography by Belinda Rathbone.

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Patrick Barber

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin, 2009): I haven’t read this yet so it really will be summer reading. I knew Novella when I lived in Oakland and watched as she turned a vacant lot next to her duplex into a full-blown urban farm. This is the story of how she did it. She’s a good writer and this is a great story.

MilkMilk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf, 2008): This amazing volume is half social history, half cookbook. I started teaching home-dairying classes this year and this book was cheering me on the whole way. Mendelson is full of information and is rather opinionated as well, which makes this book about a seemingly inconsequential subject a particularly energetic read.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt (Vintage, 2009): If you have a passing interest in urban planning, transportation, or systems, you’ve probably already read this; if you haven’t, you should. Sharp analysis and approachable writing about humans and how we act together when traveling down the road in our soundproofed metal boxes known as cars, this is more psychological study than anything else. Tom’s got a good blog, too, where he gets a little more personal and opinionated about things.

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (Scribner, 2004): This has been the popular-food-science bible since its first printing in 1984. I’ve been reading it in sections in no particular order, and it’s thoroughly fascinating, entertaining, and easy to read despite my complete lack of training or interest in chemistry (and the plenitude of words like “lipid” and “gelate”). Makes me feel like I felt when I finally heard Imperial Bedroom in 2002: What the heck took me so long?

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David Silver

Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grove Press, 1991): I dig Michael Pollan. Reading Pollan gives me ideas for both my garden and my classroom. This book comes highly recommended by USF colleague, friend, and homesteader Melinda Stone.

Erik Davis‘ (Chronicle Books, 2006): with stunning photographs by Michael Rauner: The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape: This book is about California, sacred and profane buildings, shamans, pranksters, psychedelic visionaries, the prayer wheel in Berkeley, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and the Alan Watts Library in Druid Heights, something I first learned about in Arthur Magazine.

Worms Eat My GarbageMary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System (Flower Press, 1982): I want to be able to gather our food wastes, walk them outside, and feed them to worms. In return, I want and expect, with time, rich compost for our garden. This book will help.

Karl Linn’s Building Commons and Community (New Village Press, 2007): I’m tired of reading books about building community online. I want to read a book about building community offline — with help from community gardens, public exhibits, and neighborhood commons.

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Steven Shaviro

David Skrbina Panpsychism in the West (Bradford, 2007): Panpsychism — the idea that everything in the universe, every last bit of matter, is in some sense sentient — has experiences of some sort, and an at least incipient mentality — sounds bizarre and crackpot when you first hear of it, but makes more sense the more you think about it. Skrbina’s book not only argues that panpsychism is plausible, but shows how deeply rooted it is in the last 2500 years of Western thought.

Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009): Graham Harman, with his “object-oriented philosophy,” is one of the most interesting and provocative thinkers working today. Not only are his ideas deeply original, he is also a great writer in terms of style, verve, and the overall liveliness, persuasiveness, and accessibility of his prose. Harman’s latest book takes a look at Bruno Latour, best known for his sociological studies of science, but whom Harman argues is also a major metaphysical thinker.

Bruce Sterling, The Carytids (Del Rey, 2009): In the mid-21st-century world of this near-future science fiction novel, ecological catastrophe has already happened. Billions have died or become homeless refugees. But this book is not another horror story set in post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, it is a book about creating a livable future. The survivors are involved in the search for plausible new directions, for the creation of some sort of civil society around which humanity can rebuild. The novel’s protagonists are four cloned identical-twin sisters, each of whom has embraced a different alternative for the future of humanity: Green communitarianism, capitalist entrepreneurship-cum-philanthropy, State paternalism, and nihilistic terrorism.

Hacking the EarthJamais Cascio, Hacking the Earth (2009): This book provides a sobering look at the promises and perils of geoengineering. Even if we were to reduce carbon emissions to tolerable levels today, we might already be too late. What we’ve already done is enough to drive global warming for decades to come. If worst comes to worst, we might have to take more drastic measures to alter the climate globally: changing the reflectivity of the earth’s cloud cover, for instance, by launching giant mirrors into orbit, or injecting large quantities of sulfates into the stratosphere. Cascio looks into both the plausibility and the extreme risks of such interventions, and proposes ethical principles to guide us in making the difficult decisions that continued global warming might force upon us.

Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009): There was more to modernist architecture than the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In this book, Hatherley brings to light an alternative, politically radical modernism that I scarcely knew existed. Ranging from Soviet Constructivism of the 1920s, through Brutalist-style working class housing in the UK in the 1950s, and on to related developments in film and popular music, Hatherley uncovers a counter-history of the twentieth century, one that just might provide us with a remedy, or an antidote, for the cynicism and demoralization of today’s advertising-driven culture and politics.

Scott Bakker, Neuropath (Tor Books, 2009): One of the most disturbing science fiction novels I have read in a long time. By only slightly extrapolating from actual, cutting-edge neurobiological research, Bakker conjures up a frightening future in which our strongest emotions, our most profound convictions, and even our deepest sense of who we are can all be altered at whim by technological manipulation.

China Mieville, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009): China Mieville, the master of “New Weird” fiction (Perdido Street Station; Un Lun Dun; etc.). writes what can only be described as a dark urban fantasy police procedural. It’s a brilliant genre hybrid; and it is itself a book about hybridity, since it is set in two cities which… — I’d rather not give a spoiler here, if you read the book you will find out soon enough. Could this be the beginning of a new type of fiction? Noir + Weird = Noird.

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Peter Lunenfeld

Every summer I like to have a project, and this year I’m tackling W.G. Sebald’s quartet of quasi-autobiographical, semi-documentary, illustrated, hybridized fictions: The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz. Sebald, a German writer who died in 2001, mixes fact and fiction, engages with loss and memory, and focuses on the personal details where historical narrative and personal tragedy intersect. He drops photographic images into his text less as illustrations than as signposts to post-linguistic communications to come. Sebald strikes me as a great model for anyone doing multi-, trans-, hyper- or any other kind of hyphenated 21st century fiction.

Sudden Noises from Inanimate ObjectsStaying with fiction, but in a decidedly more summery tone, I’ll be reading two sophomore efforts by authors whose freshman exploits were fantastic. Christopher Miller is following up on his award-winning Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes (Mariner Books, 2004) with The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a wildly funny mock encyclopedia, Vladimir Nabokov meets Philip K. Dick, and appeals to meta-fiction and science-fiction fans alike. Glen David Gold had a huge hit with his historical novel about the world of turn of the (last) century magicians, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, 2002). Sunnyside (Knopf, 2009) is his follow-up, a ripping yarn about Charlie Chaplin, the insanities of the First World War, the bastard son of a wild west showman, and the birth of the modern star system.

Shifting over to non-fiction, I’m working with some colleagues on a new book about the digital humanities, so I’m catching up on some key monographs. These include Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave, 2004), Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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Roy Christopher

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty (Continuum, 2008): In his book Sound Ideas (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Aden Evens contends that hearing is hearing difference. That is, hearing is hearing and discerning vibrations among other vibrations. In Noise/Music Hegarty argues similarly that noise is not noise except in relation to other sound. That is, noise is never just noise in and of itself. It differs from music in this way. Where music can stand alone on its own in time, noise cannot. This book is an interesting historical look at the interplay of the two, from the avant-garde compositions of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros to the ear-scraping experiments of Merzbow and the Boredoms, and the technology that empowers and hinders music making. Speaking of the latter, I’ve been reading chunks of The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, 2003) in tandem with Hegarty’s book.

Guy-Debord: CorrespondenceCorrespondence (June 1957-August 1960) by Guy Debord (Semiotext(e), 2008): Guy Debord, celebrated leader of the Situationist International (née Lettrist International), was a man of letters. This volume, subtitled “The Foundation of the Situationist International,” introduced by friend and colleague McKenzie Wark, and heavily annotated, provides a rare introduction to the inception of this movement — a movement that is credited, at least in part, with sparking the May 1968 uprising in Paris, a movement that continues to inspire theorists, artists, and writers half a century later.

Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry (Exact Change, 1996): Alfred Jarry, playwright, novelist, poet, cyclist, and father of Pataphysics, was first and foremost – I believe — a jokester. He’s been described as a “clown,” a “nihilist,” a “practical joker,” a “literary trickster,” and has been credited with influencing the work of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco, among many others. His writing operates outside the bounds of reality. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison prefers the designation “speculative fiction,” and I’d say that fits here. Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician tells the various and sundry stories of Dr. Faustroll. Pataphysics is the next step beyond our normal level of figurative or abstract thinking. If metaphysics is the layer above physics, then pataphysics is the layer above metaphysics. This is the realm in which Dr. Faustroll operates. That’s about all I’ve got, but as Roger Shattuck writes in his introduction, “Any summary of Jarry’s novel must remain highly hypothetical” (p. xii).

Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy by Mark Davidson (Tarcher, 1983): Davidson’s intellectual biography provides an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Father of General Systems Theory. Endorsed by the biggies of his time (the book sports a foreword by Buckminster Fuller and an introduction by Kenneth Boulding) but largely unsung since, Bertalanffy deserves to be much more famous [Special thanks to Dr. Katie Arens for introducing me to this stuff].

ChaosophyChaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 by Félix Guattari (Semiotext(e), 2008): Best known as the longtime writing partner of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari has a substantial body of work of his own. Chaosophy collects over 300 pages of his post-May 1968 writings and interviews. Most interesting here are the outtake from Anti-Oedipus (“Balance-Sheet for ‘Desiring Machines’”) and the four essays on “cinemachines.” His sustained and piercing analysis is proof that Guattari deserves to be considered in his own right, and Chaosophy is a welcome addition to his and the collective Deleuze and Guattari canon.

I recently read a few from last year’s list (e.g., Straw Dogs by John Gray thanks to Dave Allen, The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell thanks to Ashley Crawford) as well as Life, Inc. by Doug Rushkoff (this year’s list favorite), and Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, which is sort of a companion piece to the former Knowlson’s book on Beckett, Damned to Fame (mentioned below).

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Richard Metzger

Capital by Kark Marx: I was a fool to unload my Marx and Marx-related books when we moved a few years ago. Now I am re-buying them all. I suppose that’s good for the economy.

Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Untold Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment by Timothy Wylie; Adam Parfrey, editor (Feral House, 2009): What really went on behind the scenes of this legendary Satanic apocalypse cult. The truth might surprise you.

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff (Random House, 2009): Ever get the feeling that you’re trapped on a hamster wheel of predatory “Corporatism”? An unwitting participant in a system that you didn’t sign up for in the first place? What happens when the operating system of the corporate Moloch runs amok.

Never Trust a RabbitNever Trust a Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson (Duck Editions, UK, 2001): Great macabre short story collection from the silent member of The League of Gentlemen. “Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy, but they will eat your crops.” Hungarian proverb.

Sunshine on Putty by Ben Thompson (Harper Perennial, UK, 2004) Essential guide to the golden age of British comedy, from Vic Reeves to “The Office” and beyond. It’s difficult to write about “funny” and this is one of the best written books on comedy I’ve ever read. The chapters on personal favorites like “The League of Gentlemen,” the great Johnny Vegas and “The Mighty Boosh” are particularly well-crafted and insightful.

Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (Simon & Schuster): Superb Beckett bio from one of the world’s leading experts (and who was hand-picked by Beckett to be his biographer). Loads of stuff here I didn’t know about the writer.

————

Joshua Gunn

I apologize for the academic-ness of my summer reading list, but I have to let you non-academics in on a secret: professors do not get summer’s “off”. Universities expect professors, instead, to publish their asses “off.” We don’t have much time to write during the semester since, you know, there’s this pesky thing called “teaching” and, um, “students” too. Summers and winter holidays become, then, the time to research and write (unless, of course, you’re teaching during the summer to make ends meet). So, the books on my “to read” shelf are consequently not read (or half-read), and almost all of them are related to projects I’m working on. In some cases, the only review I can offer is why I’m reading it. Mea culpa.

Where Dead Voices GatherNick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather (2002): I’ve always been a sucker for Tosches’ writing style—so meandering, so laden with affect . . . and syllables. This one is about the musician Emmett Miller, a fellow Georgia boy blackface minstrel whose voice and musical mishmash of jazz/blues/pop defies categorization and, apparently, haunted Tosches since he research and wrote his book on country music. I picked this up for “fun,” but I’m hoping I might find something that will help me in a project I’m working on about how we hear “race” in the recorded human voice (Miller was white, but many listeners think he is black).

Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis’ The Monstrosity of Christ (2009): I picked this up because I’m currently working on an essay that explains why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is effectively pornography. I also just like reading Zizek, and in this instance, he dialogues with a respected theologian in the sort of dialectic-debate that searches for a kind meeting place for the deist and atheist. I’ve been really interested in the turn toward the theological in the theoretical humanities in the 1990s; this seems like a good summation. Jesus was a monster, truly.

Laurence Rickels’ The Devil Notebooks (2005): I’m actually halfway into this with a reading group, but we have a good way to go. This is a difficult book, but oddly very enjoyable at the same time. In it, Rickel’s attempts to discern the psychical function of the devil as a figure in popular culture. Apparently to write this thing he locked himself in a room and read every literary piece from the nineteenth century onward on the devil. Then, with a box of Twinkies and popping handfuls of Xanax, he watched every bad b-movie about the devil he could get his hands on (Satan’s School for Girls, Race with the Devil, etc.). The result? Satan represents the imaginary father and doubles as the maternal body, always making pacts before the Oedipal daddy can step in. Don’t know what that means? Me either! But with lines like, “The Devil father excludes no outlet from his multipronged dong of penetration” at least every paragraph, it’s hard to put this book down!

Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive: Yeah, yeah, this doesn’t sound like airplane reading, I know. Johnston is the new high theory darling in the humanities, and this is his dissertation. The dude graduated when I did—my age and everything—but he’s already pumped out three books and a zillion articles! I figure I better get caught-up, because he’s being cited everywhere (don’t get me started on the politics of citation in academics). I’m not far in, but I gather what Johnston is up to is furthering our understanding of drive theory by arguing the drives harbor an inner temporal conflict. What’s a drive? Well, think about it as “human instinct.” Human instinct is different from animal instinct because it is mutable and subject to symbolic transformation. I won’t go into this further except to say yes, I’m reading it for a writing project with a buddy on the drives and the InterTubes.

DisgustWinfried Menninghaus’ Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003); Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (2004); and William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (1997): So, I’m reading (or better put, grazing) three books on the affect of disgust. Apparently disgust is a human response seemingly “hardwired” to smell and taste. Babies exhibit disgust when (so my mother tells me) you feed them green pea baby food. Adults exhibit disgust when they watch “Two Girls One Cup.” You know that buddy with whom I’m writing a paper on the drives? Well, we’re actually writing about the disgust drive via-a-vis the InterTube phenom of “Two Girls, One Cup.” I haven’t seen it, but he has. He assures me it is disgusting. From what I’m reading in these books, I probably don’t need to see two women eating poop and vomiting on each other.

Brian Rotman’s Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (2008): I’m not a real fan of Dolce and Gabbana—er, I mean Deleuze and Guattari (props to Gretch!)—but I have grooved on others who groove on them, like Brian Massumi. Rotman doesn’t draw on them, but he does think about bodies in ways similar to Deleuze–in ways that smell very Gilles. In this book, he’s arguing that subjectivity has been structured by the alphabet for thousands of years, which absents the body. Newer modes of mediation (InterTubes, etc.) is reconfiguring human subjectivity, returning it to face-to-face norms like gesture. The consequence is that or “selves” are becoming distributed. It’s really a mindfuck kind of book. I’m reading it, of course, because this relates to my own book in progress, which is about recorded speech.

Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem and Sophie Schmit’s The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005): This is actually a coffee table art book of the largest exhibit on ghost and spirit photography, with some fairy shots thrown in for good measure. There are actually a number of very good, well researched essays. While it’s obvious to contemporary eyes these photos are fakes, the writers bend over backwards not to say so (it’s actually comical). This shit is just fascinating, most especially the ectoplasm shots: body from afar! The spirit world through your nose! So gross! So . . . exciting! It looks like gauze and cotton, but whatever. I’ve just been reading it and looking at the peektures because it’s fun.

Jacques Lacan, My Teaching (2008): These are new translations of talks Lacan apparently gave to general audiences and are, supposedly, free of jargon and quite accessible. I read the first one and whoever wrote the copy to sell this chapbook needs to have his “free of jargons” and “accessibles” cut out and put in a jar of vinegar.

Robert G. Davis and Rex R. Hutchens, Editors, Heredom: The Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Vol. 16 (2008): This is actually an edited collection of essays about the history and meaning of Freemasonry. I’m a Mason and a member of the SRRS, so I get one of these about this time every year and always have fun reading it over the summer. I’ve already read the first article, “Riding the Goat,” by historian William D. Moore. The essay is about the prank, “mechanical goats” that secret societies would make new initiates ride in ceremonies in the early twentieth century (e.g., Old Fellows). Companies made these mechanical goats, which would buck and wobble—heck, there was a whole industry! Apparently the “fraternal goat” died out when hazing got increasingly frowned upon. We don’t do this sort of thing in the Masons today, although I’m told fraternities and sororities still do . . . (spank me daddy).

———–

Ashley Crawford

The Age of Wire and StringThe Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1998) and Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002) by Ben Marcus: If, in the “postmodern” canon David Foster Wallace made claim to the footnote and Mark Z. Danielewski to crazed typography, then in The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus has pretty much secured The Glossary as his initial trademark feature.

The Glossary has, of course, been used in fiction before — most recently by Neal Stephenson in his massive Anathem — but never before, as far as I know, has it made up the entirety of a work of fiction. In structure it somewhat resembles J.G. Ballard’s 1969 The Atrocity Exhibition and is reminiscent of Ballard’s book in sheer weirdness. Both authors effectively re-invent the American cultural landscape. But where Ballard used the glossary approach to simply break “normal” narrative flow, Marcus gives us a Users Guide to a parallel universe.

The Age of Wire and String is subtitled “stories” by Ben Marcus and the book could be read as a string of bizarre vignettes, but it can also be read as a strange narrative of a unique world, one that is essentially fleshed out in Marcus’ second book, Notable American Women.

We know there’s trouble afoot when one of the blurbs from the back cover reads: “How can one word from Ben Marcus’ rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” Especially when said blurb is attributed to Michael Marcus, Ben’s father.

Thus begins a truly bizarre, but strangely moving, story of young Ben Marcus’ upbringing. Notable American Women makes Stephen Wright’s seriously dysfunctional family in M31: a family romance, look commonplace. Hunkered down on a remote farm in an alternate Ohio the clearly delusional Jane Dark leads a group of American women to practice “behaviour modification” to attain complete stillness and silence (which, not surprisingly, often leads to death). Marcus’ father is buried alive in the back yard and assailed with “language” attacks. His mother happily encourages the use of young Ben for rigorous breeding purposes for the cults’ younger female followers.

There are moments when one begins to think that Marcus clearly loathes his parents, then others when one wonders what kind of wonderful upbringing could inspire such a fevered and vivid imagination. Working out Marcus’ own position in this chaotic rendering is like juggling mercury or herding feral cats. Does he despise women or love them? Does he despise himself or simply relish the tearing apart of his own physical demeanour to further his story?

The one thing we can be sure of is his true love of language and the power of naming. This becomes decidedly visceral: “Each time we changed my sister’s name, she shed a brittle layer of skin. The skins accrued at first in the firewood bin and were meant to indicate something final of the name that had been shed – a print, an echo, a husk, although we knew not what.” And things get decidedly odd when young Ben starts wearing his sister’s discarded skins or opts to bath with them.

Language here is a virus. Ben’s father, buried beneath ground, is assailed by Larry the Punisher, whose task it is to blast Michael Marcus with words. Sex is reduced to a “parts consultation.” To avoid language the women practice a grotesque version of pantomine, the complexity of which requires the crushing and removal of certain bones resulting in a “near-boneless approach, when the flesh can `rubber-dog’ various facial and postural styles.”

Thematically there are moments reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s writing in such books as The Skin Palace and Word Made Flesh — the obsession with language as a visceral, physical weapon. In its apocalyptic yet poetic tone it has much in common with Steve Erickson’s work. But at the end of the day Marcus’ voice, in both The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women, Marcus’ voice is very much his own.

————

Gareth Branwyn

Last year, I wrote about a bunch of occult-related book. Since I’m still laboring away on the same book that this is all research for, my obsessions continue to run in that vein.

The Schrodinger's Cat TrilogyGetting even RAWer. Last year, I started off talking about Robert Anton Wilson and his (and Bob Shea’s) Illuminatus! trilogy. Bob Wilson had just died and he was on my mind (and on heavy rotation in my iPod with the 5-CD collection Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything (or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance) (Sounds True). He’s still on my mind (and my iPod). I’ve now started collecting everything he wrote; reading it all. Besides the trilogy (and the trilogies that followed: Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy, the Historical Illuminatus series, and Cosmic Trigger I, II, III), I’ve recently discovered (and recommend) Chaos and Beyond (Permanent Press) and An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson (New Falcon). The former is the “best of” RAW’s zine from the early ’90s, and it reads like a zine: er… raw, shot from the hip, a notepad from which his ideas emerged that went into his books or were expounded upon from his books. The latter is a detailed look at his novels, especially Illuminatus! and Masks of the Illuminati. I also got a used copy of Everything is Under Control (Quill) for a few pennies on Bookfinder. It’s the perfect toilet tank book, a thick alphabetical guide to “conspiracies, cults & cover-ups.” A “fun” book to pick up and peruse at random.

The best book I read last year was a limited edition small press title called The Red Goddess (Scarlet Imprint). It’s written by Peter Grey, the guy behind this new “Talismanic Publishing” venture. The book is stunning, both as a piece of book art and what it has to say about the goddess Babalon and her roots before Crowley and before John of Patmos had his way with the goddesses of Babylon and Sumer. This is a truly unique book, a down-on-your-knees love letter to a goddess from a devotee. But it’s as rigorous as it is passionate, looking at the history of holy whores and love goddesses, from Ishtar, Inanna, and Astarte, to the Babalon of Crowley and the O.T.O., to Jack Parsons and the Babalon Working in the ’40s, on up through to the worship of Babalon today. There’s definitely something afoot in the spiritual counterculture, with a significant interest in what’s called “the Babalon current” and this book is something of a manifesto, a tech manual for working that current. By the end, maybe taking its own page from the Book of Revelation, The Red Goddess gets rather apocalyptic, darker, more blood-drenched, which does make sense in that she’s the “red goddess” in more ways than one and the goddesses in this lineage are usually goddesses of both love and war, but I found less resonance for me in the “conclusions” than in the lucid tripping towards them. But this is ultimately an extremely personal relationship with the divine feminine, so parts of the book might not resonate for you like they did with me. I now keep this book by my bed and read from it in my own devotional practice. I find parts of it, many parts of it, inspired. I highly recommend the other Scarlet titles as well and can’t wait to see what Peter Grey does next.

William Blake's Sexual Path...In my many years of devotion to the work of William Blake, I’ve read dozens (and dozens) of books about him. Most of them are academic tomes, as dry as desert sand. And most of them tend to cover the same territory, or academically polish some new facet (Blake and Freud, Blake and the politics of his age, Blake and mental illness), etc. Why Mrs. Blake Cried (sold in the US under the racier William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, Inner Traditions) by Marsha Keith Schuchard is NOT one of these books. In fact, I can imagine it was not well-received in the traditional Blake studies community. It is almost gossipy in terms of the scandals and sketchy characters that parade through it. And its central thesis, that (basically) sex magick was an underpinning of Blake’s work, has very little hard evidence to support it. Basically what the author does is to look at the circumstantial evidence — at the groups and individuals Blake was known to be associated with, what books they were reading, what they were writing about in print and in their journals, etc., and then it looks at Blake’s art and poetry of the time for clues to possible influences and basically asks the question: Could Blake have been hanging out with these people and not hear about the books on Kabbalah and Tantra they were reading, the meetings of magical fraternities (and sex clubs) they were frequenting, the trips to the orient that friends and colleagues were taking (and learning about the gods and goddesses of the East, yogic practices, etc).

The first half of the book explores the idea that Blake’s parents may not have been Dissenters, as is commonly believed, but members of the early Moravian Church (based on recently-found documents with his parents’ (all too common) names on church rosters). Again, no hard evidence, but a fascinating idea, given that Moravianism sort of segues into Swedenborgianism, and Blake was definitely a follower of Swedenborg for a time. The Moravians were one kinky sect o’ Christians, practicing what has been dubbed “wound mysticism,” basically sexualizing the wounds of Christ, seeing them as vagina-like openings to the divine. They sang very eroticized hymns to these wounds, had ecstatic “love fests,” which were basically non-penetrative (as far as we know) orgies. More and more, Schuchard contends, Moravianism embraced a kind of Westernized Tantra and incorporated aspects of the Kabbalah into its Christianity. And Swedenborg picked up and ran with similar ideas.

The second half of the book looks at Blake’s work in light of these ideas and tries to paint a picture of him as a sort of tantric/sex magick practitioner who uses these sexual energies to get the inspiration for his work and that a lot of his verse is veiledly sexual in nature. The examples given are certainly eye-opening and have changed the way I read a lot of Blake.

So, why did Mrs. Blake cry? As the Blakes got older, and Catherine perhaps lost some of her sex drive, Bill’s poetry got more morose and desperate and he said rather awful things about her (or it at least appears that the passages were about her). Schuchard finds evidence that Bill was cajoling her, pressuring her, panicked that he would lose the divine inspiration he got from their sexuality. They seem to have come to some resolution and found peace in their relationship after this period of midlife crisis.

The coolest thing about this book, besides affirming what I already suspected (the central role of sex/erotica in Blake’s visionary universe) is the decadent world it paints the Blakes living in. They hung out with all sorts of radicals, mystics, electromagnetic experimenters, devotees of various magical lodges and sex clubs, even an ambiguously-gendered neighbor, the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived the first half of his life as a man, the second half as a women. She lived down the street from the Blakes and frequently entertained them. She was also a member of the infamous Hellfire Club. Then there were the friends who believed that Africa was a more sexually-charged landmass and that they were going to start a sort of utopian sex commune there and that they were going to travel there from London in hot air balloons. And then there was the electromagnetic Temple of Hymen. As I said: decadent! Think: Hollywood Babylon, only in London, in the late 17/early 1800s.

A trend I’m noticing in books recently is that there are an increasing number that trade in danger – anti-Nanny State books. No, not those Dangerous Book for Boys and Girls. Those are rubbish. I’m talking about books like Theo Gray’s tremendously awesome Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog & Leventhal) and Bill Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers (Chicago Review Press). Gray’s book has a bunch of enticing experiments that are so well-documented and gorgeously photographed, you don’t have to do them yourself, but if you decide you want to, Gray tells you the real dangers involved and what you have to find out on your own to do them safely and successfully. Treating us like adults. What a concept.

My friend Bill Gurstelle’s book first looks at reasons for living dangerously, mapping what he calls the Golden Third, those people who take risks, who aren’t afraid to live a certain degree of risk,… but not too much risk. Be too risk-taking and you might not survive, not reproduce, don’t take any risks, and you won’t move the culture, innovation, etc. forward. All the action is in that Golden Third. After these ruminations on the why of living dangerously, he gets into some projects and activities, the “art” of living dangerously, from “thrill eating” (stuff like fugu that can theoretically kill you) to Bill’s main bailiwick, teaching you how to spectacularly blow shit up (hence “flamethrower” in the title).

Other books that have recently crossed my nightstand:

Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly) Another breathtaking piece of graphical fiction by Mr. Ware. The first story, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is one of the most amazing pieces of literature I have ever read. Truly haunting, creepy, and sad.

Shortcomings

Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly) This exploration of racism, sexuality, relationships, and twenty-something angst is, as another reviewer put it, “pitch-perfect.” Tomine gets at graphical narrative like nobody else. There’s something desperately tragic beating at the heart of it, but there’s great lyricism and humor here as well, that makes it all too universally human.

The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Alex Rose (Hotel St. George Press) This collection, in the vein of Borges and Calvino, is a fun trip through a “Library of Tangents,” little surrealist, whimsical worlds that play on science, language, music, and perception. Would make a perfect, brainy beach book.

Three Essays on Freedom, John Whiteside Parsons (Teitan Press) A collection of “libertarian” essays by Jack Parsons, the main one being his most famous “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” (included in a different collection of that same name), along with two previously unpublished essays, “Freedom is a Lonely Star” and “Doing Your Will.” I wanted to have this book, being a Parsons completest, but it doesn’t really add much to the Parsonian corpus. If you don’t already have “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” this is a nice hardback volume to find it in. The other two essays are interesting, but probably deserved to stay on the cutting room floor.

The Visionary State by Erik Davis, Hollow Earth by David Standish, and Igniting a Revolution by Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II

California just might have more religious diversity than any other California-sized region on earth. Interestingly enough, it’s also quite the visible diversity. From the Vendetta Society Old Temple in San Francisco to the San Diego Temple (the latter of which’s proximity to I-5 causes locals to jokingly refer to the “separation of church and interstate”), The Visionary State (Chronicle Books) seeks them out and exposes them.

The Visionary StateErik Davis, who’s been studying mysticism and religion all of his life and who was born and raised in California, treats each faith with balanced keel and elegant prose. Meanwhile, Michael Rauner proves that Davis isn’t making this stuff up (as Rebecca Solnit points out on the back cover) with stunning full-color photos — 164 of them — of all of California’s unique locales of worship. The Visionary State (website) is a big, beautiful book for anyone interested in the Left Coast’s varieties of religious experience, the architecture thereof, or just California itself.

Hollow EarthFiguratively digging deeper, David Standish has unearthed the oddest belief systems on — or in, rather — our planet. Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface (Da Capo) is a weird journey underground. Sir Edmond Halley (yep, the same one the comet’s named after) first said that the earth might be hollow and host to life below it’s surface, but the idea has spread and evolved ever since. Standish documents the history of these often-hilarious ideas with both ample wit and abundant detail.

Igniting a RevolutionNot living inside the earth, but defending it at any cost, that’s what Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press) is all about. Steven Best (who some may be familiar with from his books on postmodernism with Doug Kellner) and Anthony J. Nocella, II edited this massive volume of essays regarding the inability — or refusal — of environmental policy to keep up with the depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Perhaps more importantly, Igniting a Revolution is about how many pissed-off activists, scholars, and intellectuals are taking the earth’s defense into their own hands. As sassy as it is smart, and as exciting as it is extensive, this collection is enough to turn any hater into a Hayduke.