Sunshine Recorder

"Civilization and its Discontent" by Sigmund Freud

Written in the decade before Freud’s death, Civilization and Its Discontents may be his most famous and most brilliant work. It has been praised, dissected, lambasted, interpreted, and reinterpreted. Originally published in 1930, it seeks to answer several questions fundamental to human society and its organization: What influences led to the creation of civilization? Why and how did it come to be? What determines civilization’s trajectory? Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind’s primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

"Civilization and its Discontent" by Sigmund Freud

Written in the decade before Freud’s death, Civilization and Its Discontents may be his most famous and most brilliant work. It has been praised, dissected, lambasted, interpreted, and reinterpreted. Originally published in 1930, it seeks to answer several questions fundamental to human society and its organization: What influences led to the creation of civilization? Why and how did it come to be? What determines civilization’s trajectory? Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind’s primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

What I’ve read this year

Bold = books I enjoyed the most

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rüdiger Safranski
Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution by Roy Bainton
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay) by Emil Cioran
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Québert by Joël Dicker
The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee 
In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Key Kesey
Homosexuality & Civilization by Louis Crompton
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
À la recherche du temps perdu: Du coté de chez Swann (In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way) by Marcel Proust
The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
Consuming Life by Zygmund Bauman
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
Tu montreras ma tête au peuple by Francois-Henri Désérable
The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee
Everything was Forever, Until it was No More by Alexei Yurchak
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
How Shall I Live my Life? by Derrick Jensen
Madness: a Very Short Introduction by Andrew T. Scull
Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery
Marx for Beginners by Rius
Ecology & Socialism by Chris Williams
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno
Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr

Sanctuaire 1/2/3 by Xavier Dorison
Tintin 1/2/3/4/5 by Hergé
The Walking Dead Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman

"Madness: A Very Short Introduction" by Andrew Scull

Madness is something that frightens and fascinates us all. It is a word with which we are universally familiar, and a condition that haunts the human imagination. Through the centuries, in poetry and in prose, in drama and in the visual arts, its depredations are on display for all to see. A whole industry has grown up, devoted to its management and suppression. Madness profoundly disturbs our common sense assumptions; threatens the social order, both symbolically and practically; creates almost unbearable disruptions in the texture of daily living; and turns our experience and our expectations upside down. Lunacy, insanity, psychosis, mental illness - whatever term we prefer, its referents are disturbances of reason, the passions, and human action that frighten, create chaos, and yet sometimes amuse; that mark a gulf between the common sense reality most of us embrace, and the discordant version some humans appear to experience. Social responses to madness, our interpretations of what madness is, and our notions of what is to be done about it have varied remarkably over the centuries. In this Very Short Introduction, Andrew Scull provides a provocative and entertaining examination of the social, cultural, medical, and artistic responses to mental disturbance across more than two millennia, concluding with some observations on the contemporary accounts of mental illness. 

"Madness: A Very Short Introduction" by Andrew Scull

Madness is something that frightens and fascinates us all. It is a word with which we are universally familiar, and a condition that haunts the human imagination. Through the centuries, in poetry and in prose, in drama and in the visual arts, its depredations are on display for all to see. A whole industry has grown up, devoted to its management and suppression. Madness profoundly disturbs our common sense assumptions; threatens the social order, both symbolically and practically; creates almost unbearable disruptions in the texture of daily living; and turns our experience and our expectations upside down. Lunacy, insanity, psychosis, mental illness - whatever term we prefer, its referents are disturbances of reason, the passions, and human action that frighten, create chaos, and yet sometimes amuse; that mark a gulf between the common sense reality most of us embrace, and the discordant version some humans appear to experience. Social responses to madness, our interpretations of what madness is, and our notions of what is to be done about it have varied remarkably over the centuries. In this Very Short Introduction, Andrew Scull provides a provocative and entertaining examination of the social, cultural, medical, and artistic responses to mental disturbance across more than two millennia, concluding with some observations on the contemporary accounts of mental illness. 

Currently Reading:

Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca

Comforting terms such as “sustainable development” and “green production” frame environmental debate by stressing technology (not green enough), economic growth (not enough in the right places), and population (too large). Concern about consumption emerges, if at all, in benign ways—as calls for green purchasing or more recycling, or for small changes in production processes. Many academics, policymakers, and journalists, in fact, accept the economists’ view of consumption as nothing less than the purpose of the economy. Yet many people have a troubled, intuitive understanding that tinkering at the margins of production and purchasing will not put society on an ecologically and socially sustainable path.

Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing “the consumption problem” and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In Part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy, emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, “ad-busting,” and product certification. Together, the chapters propose “cautious consuming” and “better producing” as an activist and policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving focus of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Whether she is contemplating the history of walking as a cultural and political experience over the past two hundred years (Wanderlust), or using the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a lens to discuss the transformations of space and time in late nineteenth-century America (River of Shadows), Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune; but we learn of it only from reading or by imagination; for in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.
— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Link: The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

… If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel,” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Memory, however, is capricious and deeply unfair. It is why I can recall nothing about how a cell divides, or very little about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but can sing any number of television theme songs in the shower. (“Touch has a memory,” Keats wrote—but I can’t find my copy of his complete poems to test the theory, and, anyway, I found that quote on Goodreads.) The words that researchers use about forgetting are all psychically hurtful for the lay person: interference, confusion, decay—they seem sinister and remind us of all the sad limitations of the human brain, and of an inevitable march toward another kind of forgetting, which comes with age, and what may be final forgetting, which is death. Yet those same researchers are also quick to reassure us. Everybody forgets. And forgetting may even be a key to memory itself—a psychobiological necessity rather than a character flaw. That could be, but I still wish I could remember who did what to whom in D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love”—and the actual, rather than pompous and pretend, reasons why I’ve told people that I preferred “Sons and Lovers.” Or is it the other way around?

This may be a minor existential drama—and it might simply be resolved with practical application and a renewed sense of studiousness. There is ongoing dispute as to the ways in which memory might, in a general sense, be improvable. But certainly there are things that we can do to better remember the books we read—especially the ones that we want to remember (some novels, like some moments in life, are best forgotten).

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once. A professor I had in college would often, to the point of irony, cite Nabokov’s statement that there is no reading, only rereading. Yet he was teaching a class in modern fiction, and assigned books that are generally known as “slim” contemporary classics. They were short, and we were being tested on them—we’d be foolish to read them only once. I read them at least twice, and now remember them. But what about in real life, set loose from comprehension examinations and left mostly to our own devices and standards? Should we reread when there is a nearly endless shelf of books out there to read and a certainly not-endless amount of time in which to do it? Should I pull out my copy of Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” to relearn its charms—or more truthfully, learn them for the first time—or should I accept the loss, and move on?

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee
"Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment, and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy…. We have to see that the economy is itself the crisis. It’s not that there’s not enough work, it’s that there is too much of it."
The Coming Insurrection is an eloquent call to arms arising from the recent waves of social contestation in France and Europe. Written by the anonymous Invisible Committee in the vein of Guy Debord—and with comparable elegance—it has been proclaimed a manual for terrorism by the French government (who recently arrested its alleged authors). One of its members more adequately described the group as “the name given to a collective voice bent on denouncing contemporary cynicism and reality.” The Coming Insurrection is a strategic prescription for an emergent war-machine capable of “spreading anarchy and live communism.”Written in the wake of the riots that erupted throughout the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005 and presaging more recent riots and general strikes in France and Greece, The Coming Insurrection articulates a rejection of the official Left and its reformist agenda, aligning itself instead with the younger, wilder forms of resistance that have emerged in Europe around recent struggles against immigration control and the “war on terror.”Hot-wired to the movement of ‘77 in Italy, its preferred historical reference point, The Coming Insurrection formulates an ethics that takes as its starting point theft, sabotage, the refusal to work, and the elaboration of collective, self-organized life forms. It is a philosophical statement that addresses the growing number of those—in France, in the United States, and elsewhere—who refuse the idea that theory, politics, and life are separate realms.

The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee

"Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment, and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy…. We have to see that the economy is itself the crisis. It’s not that there’s not enough work, it’s that there is too much of it."

The Coming Insurrection is an eloquent call to arms arising from the recent waves of social contestation in France and Europe. Written by the anonymous Invisible Committee in the vein of Guy Debord—and with comparable elegance—it has been proclaimed a manual for terrorism by the French government (who recently arrested its alleged authors). One of its members more adequately described the group as “the name given to a collective voice bent on denouncing contemporary cynicism and reality.” The Coming Insurrection is a strategic prescription for an emergent war-machine capable of “spreading anarchy and live communism.”Written in the wake of the riots that erupted throughout the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005 and presaging more recent riots and general strikes in France and Greece, The Coming Insurrection articulates a rejection of the official Left and its reformist agenda, aligning itself instead with the younger, wilder forms of resistance that have emerged in Europe around recent struggles against immigration control and the “war on terror.”Hot-wired to the movement of ‘77 in Italy, its preferred historical reference point, The Coming Insurrection formulates an ethics that takes as its starting point theft, sabotage, the refusal to work, and the elaboration of collective, self-organized life forms. It is a philosophical statement that addresses the growing number of those—in France, in the United States, and elsewhere—who refuse the idea that theory, politics, and life are separate realms.


Orientalism by Edward W. Said
In this highly acclaimed work, Edward Said surveys the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, considering Orientalism as a powerful European ideological creation – a way for writers, philosophers and colonial administrators to deal with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, customs and beliefs. He traces this view through the writings of Homer, Nerval and Flaubert, Disraeli and Kipling, whose imaginative depictions have greatly contributed to the West’s romantic and exotic picture of the Orient. In his new preface, Said examines the effect of continuing Western imperialism after recent events in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Orientalism by Edward Said is a cononical text of cultural studies in which he has challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser developed countries of the east. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of orientalism, which was the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.
Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was totally an artificial boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us or theirs and ours. The Europeans used orientalism to define themselves. Some particular attributes were associated with the orientals, and whatever the orientals weren’t the occidents were. The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. The main problem, however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with orientals, and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with orientals in their western world through their scientific reports, literary work, and other media sources. What happened was that it created a certain image about the orientals in the European mind and in doing that infused a bias in the European attitude towards the orientals. This prejudice was also found in the orientalists (scientist studying the orientals); and all their scientific research and reports were under the influence of this. The generalized attributes associated with the orientals can be seen even today, for example, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people; and Islam is seen as religion of the terrorist.
"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." —Edward W. Said

Orientalism by Edward W. Said

In this highly acclaimed work, Edward Said surveys the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, considering Orientalism as a powerful European ideological creation – a way for writers, philosophers and colonial administrators to deal with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, customs and beliefs. He traces this view through the writings of Homer, Nerval and Flaubert, Disraeli and Kipling, whose imaginative depictions have greatly contributed to the West’s romantic and exotic picture of the Orient. In his new preface, Said examines the effect of continuing Western imperialism after recent events in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Orientalism by Edward Said is a cononical text of cultural studies in which he has challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser developed countries of the east. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of orientalism, which was the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.

Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was totally an artificial boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us or theirs and ours. The Europeans used orientalism to define themselves. Some particular attributes were associated with the orientals, and whatever the orientals weren’t the occidents were. The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. The main problem, however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with orientals, and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with orientals in their western world through their scientific reports, literary work, and other media sources. What happened was that it created a certain image about the orientals in the European mind and in doing that infused a bias in the European attitude towards the orientals. This prejudice was also found in the orientalists (scientist studying the orientals); and all their scientific research and reports were under the influence of this. The generalized attributes associated with the orientals can be seen even today, for example, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people; and Islam is seen as religion of the terrorist.

"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." —Edward W. Said

Link: John Jeremiah Sullivan on Reading

“I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read,” asks an anonymous reader in the Ask The Paris Review section. The letter and the response from the Paris Review to this cry for help are bellow:

Dear Paris Review,

I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.

Still with me?

Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.

I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how “Ms.” is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that “Mrs.” is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.


Dear DODS,

What kind of soulless freak could fail to answer your call? Your intelligence glows through your professed ignorance (as does the authenticity of “a very specific religious cult”). That sounds like an educationally less-than-ideal but, in other ways, fascinating childhood. My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read.

A place to start is with Guy Davenport’s nonfiction collections, Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus (with more pieces in The Death of Picasso). You’ll learn an enormous amount from these essays and sketches, but almost without realizing, because they give off the pleasure of great stories. Read the title essay in The Hunter Gracchus (about Kafka and the way symbols can take on a life of their own), and see if it isn’t as stimulating and creepy as the last good movie you saw.

Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)

Read My Ántonia, and then read everything else by Willa Cather. Inside her novels you’ll find it impossible to doubt that high enjoyment and extreme depth can go together. The most difficult art.

Read Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. I’m saying that randomly, because it seems right, and to approve the spirit of randomness.

If you get into a writer, go all the way and check out everything he/she has written. This summer I fell into a Defoe hole. Started with the major stuff, the best novels and the good journalism, and then read everything down to the poems and the tedious political pamphlets, since by that point I was equally interested in him as a human being and wanted to have as accurate a map of the inside of his brain as possible. His is one of the minds that helped shape the modern world—we’re literally still telling his stories—so there’s a vital interest. I read Maximilian Novak’s super-solid biography of him, Master of Fictions. That sort of questy reading ends up enriching your experience of each individual book and piece, and it lends a sense of adventure to the whole business, which after all involves a lot of lying down or sitting on your ass.

Borges and Denis Johnson—anything by either. Edith Wharton’s story “The Young Gentlemen.” (Random, random.) Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and then his poems if you’re feeling spry. Find on the Web and buy an old paperback copy of the Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine–edited anthology Six Centuries of Great Poetry (a book for life). Read the next two things I’m going to read and then see how you like them: Grant’s Memoirs and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Books that got me kick-started were the great modernist biographies, especially Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. Read those two books and you’ll have a decent-size grid on which to plot the rest of your reading. I’m somehow moved to spurt out, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. People have been writing about Shakespeare for half a millennium, and the very best of it just happened.

Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop. I was reading Phoenix Force novels until I was like thirteen. These days a lot of people I know are into Murakami. I should have said more novels. If it’s by a Russian, read it.

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Link: Excerpt from They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45” by Milton Mayer

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it. This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. […] To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

(Source: sunrec, via sunrec)

Link: A Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment.

In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he described it in his unfinished story Notes of a Madman (so titled because Tolstoy was convinced his readers would find the tale implausible), a few hours after midnight he awakened “seized by despair, fear and terror such as [he had] never before experienced.” After asking himself what there was to be afraid of, none other than Death himself answered, “I am here.” Tolstoy, confronting the inescapability of his own death, panicked and raged against its power.

That evening stayed with Tolstoy for the rest of his life; he became permanently preoccupied with mortality. Writing his Confessions a decade later, Tolstoy would ask: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” “He engaged in long and laborious meditations”, wrote Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, Sonya. “Often he said his brain hurt him, some painful process was going on inside it, everything was over for him, it was time for him to die.”

Tolstoy’s “Arzamas Horror”, as the Russian dramatist Maxim Gorky called it, also served as the basis for his masterful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this slim book, a 45-year-old Russian judge realizes he is dying and acknowledges that he has wasted his life attaining comfort and status. While outwardly appearing successful, Ilych suffers from an unhappy marriage, a meaningless career and a selfish existence. “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”, reads one typically devastating Tolstoyan line.

Melancholy as this is, the most harrowing parts of the story lie in Ilych’s terror at confronting his own mortality, much as Tolstoy had years earlier in the dark morning hours in Arzamas. Perhaps nowhere else in all of world literature is the sheer horror of the fact of death laid so bare: “He would go to his study, lie down, and again remain alone with it. Face to face with it, and there was nothing to be done with it. Only look at it and go cold.”

(Source: sunrec)






"The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed." If what we call "horror" can be seen as including any literature that has dark, horrific subject matter, then Blood Meridian is the best horror novel ever written. An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “wild west.” Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving. 

"The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed." If what we call "horror" can be seen as including any literature that has dark, horrific subject matter, then Blood Meridian is the best horror novel ever written. An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “wild west.” Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving. 

Link: Bibliopocalypse Bullshit

If you’re a literature lover, you’ve probably grown weary of false prophets proclaiming The End of the Book. It’s easy to shake your head and smirk at the world’s December 21st doomsday preoccupations, but rumors of the publishing apocalypse have bombarded the literary world for a long time now, and such discussions still make us tense with worry.

The Four Horsemen of the Bibliopocalypse came galloping down years ago. They rode their brimstone-snorting steeds with a blazing fury, each one more frightening then the last. First there was Radio, and then came Film, TV, and finally—that fearful, ever-morphing chimera, Internet.

Suddenly the nightmarish paranoia of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451 became depressingly naive: who would burn books if no one even bothered to read them?

As an undergraduate searching for a job in publishing, believe me—I’m nervous. In the months before Y2K, wild-eyed neurotics (including my fairly rational parents) stockpiled jugs of water, lined their pantry shelves with SPAM, and stacked sardine tins into squat, shiny pyramids. Our family probably had enough dried bean varieties to create a full-scale modge-podge of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Who can blame them? Don’t we book lovers suffer similar hysterics when we hear prophecies of the literary end-times?

If you’re panicky, like me, you just might be another juvenile, aspiring writer, terrified that you’ve missed out on the literary lifestyle you’ve idealized for the past two decades, ever since you mouthed your first intelligible word, “book.” You’re on the edge of tossing out your literary delusions and your late-night, idealism-soaked desires to write The Great American Novel. This very afternoon you’ll get serious! You’ll start submitting your sparse resumes and bland cover letters to the kind of respectable jobs your parents always wanted you to have. The kind of job that promises a stable family life and dental insurance. Imagine it, writer. You might be a lawyer. Or a banker. Or a consultant. You might be about to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life—but don’t do it. Not yet.

Then again, maybe you’re not a writer at all. Maybe you’re a reader. You won’t panic, but you’ll begin to feel nostalgia creeping over your skin, like lichen over an old gravestone. In a moment of introspection, you’ll consider how it must have felt to watch the first automobiles roll down a city street, how soon they would replace the carriages. Out of everyone, you would have been the one to miss the horses. You use to take a giddy pleasure in stroking their velvet noses, in the hot flush of their breath against your palm. One day you’ll wander into a used bookstore, if that still exists where you live, and you’ll drift through the dusty quiet. The place has the hospice-ward hush of a nursing home. You’ll say hello to the books, touch your fingertips to the papery skin of their pages, and whisper kind, soft things into their yellowed spines. The books are frail strangers, but you think you might be able to save one, take one home and treat it gently. After all, it doesn’t have long for this world.