20 April, 2015

The List: Reading January Through March 2015

Edward Gorey, Real Men Read

What began as a perfectly cheery reading selection this quarter took an unexpected dour turn, sometime back in February, with a book on the philosophy of pessimism, from which I didn’t bother to steer away. As always, though, it’s interesting to see how trends and patterns in reading material develop without conscious intent.

I have, as usual, several people to thank for gifting me much of the printed matter that I list below (plus some that I don’t): my dearest Mum, John A., Meg F., the Freethought Books Project at Amherst’s Center for Inquiry, Lady Val, the ever-generous Mr. Wayne at Prospero’s, and William Y. Without their kindness and consideration my hours locked in this cell would be largely idle ones, rather than the enriching investments in productivity that they are. (Because, really, everything I read feeds my writing, which most readers of this blog know is what sustains me in the intellectual desert that is prison.)

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Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking
The carpet in my parents’ living room, in the house where I grew up, was soft and beige and deeper than you’d get away with having in any twenty-first-century home. You could lose things in that carpet — cookie crumbs, beads, those smallest of Lego pieces, and all sorts of other minute doodads. This stuff could get lost for good, provided the exact combination of time and foot traffic, angle of descent, and other factors conducive to knotting little sharp things into the high pile, beyond the capability of our 1970s-orange Hoover upright to extract. I know about the retentive qualities of the carpet because I was on it one day, drawing, and somehow managed to slice open the the top of my right foot on an unseen object in its depths. I hardly felt the cut. When I spied the glaring red stream flowing between my toes, though, I recognized the urgency of getting up and doing something about it. I was, I’m guessing, seven. Instead of running into my parents’ bedroom and shrieking, “I’m bleeding!”, I heel-stepped across the linoleum floor of our dining room, to the bathroom where we kept the cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide, and Band-Aids. I cleaned and dressed the cut myself, propped on the rim of the claw-foot bathtub, then retraced my spattered path through the house with a few wads of moist toilet paper. My parents never knew, until I told them that we should all be careful around that particular spot in the living room, unless we had shoes on. No one ever found the sharp thing that cut me, but I still have an obvious keloid scar there, about three fourths of an inch long.

This is the sort of kid I was, not going into hysterics over a minor wound, taking care of myself, and almost never even considering that someone else might be able to help — not even when I’d tried everything I knew to try. I wasn’t stubborn, per se, just oblivious to the fact that others might have different strengths. And this, to a large degree, carried over to my adult life. It isn’t that I don’t want anyone else’s assistance but that I don’t think to ask for it. Periodic reminders that others can do stuff I can’t, either because of talent or resources, are good for me.

Amanda Palmer, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, gave a TED talk about her own historic inability to ask others for… you name it: favors, money, love. She evidently struck a nerve with a lot of people, because the video was viewed more than 100,000 times within twenty-four hours of being posted, and over eight million times within a year. Her conclusion? “Everybody struggles with asking.” And so, this book. It’s her candid, romantic, vulgar, fascinating, self-indulgent, universal tale of (as the cover’s subtitle declares) how Amanda Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. Well done, Amanda, and thank you for the much-needed reminder.

David Markson, Vanishing Point
It opens with a heavier dose of practical exposition than can be found anywhere else in the book: the words Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form. What follow are exactly that — notes on creativity and artistic futility, collated in a way that comprises an abstract story, with dialog provided by copious literary quotations. Markson called Vanishing Point a novel, but the impression I have is of collage. It’s conceptually clever but never attains more impact than, say, reading an encyclopedia, even as the metacharacter “Author” makes more and more appearances, lamenting his aging state and immanent decrepitude.

Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
I have a theory. Robin Sloan, a few years ago, kidnapped Neal Stephenson, author of the high-tech adventures Anathem and Cryptonomicon, and locked him in a room in his basement. Sloan provided Stephenson a typewriter and several reams of paper, some Ensure, and a plastic bucket, telling him that he could earn his freedom by writing an entertaining present-day novel about the idological war between old-school bibliophiles and bleeding-edge technorati, without making it too, y’know, thinky.

Stephenson did a bang-up job, and Sloan, as per his promise, released him from bondage. Stephenson has thus far remained silent on the matter only because he wants his forthcoming novel about a fiction writer’s harrowing year as a basement prisoner to seem like an original idea. You’re of course welcome to argue against this theory, but until Stephenson’s whereabouts throughout 2011 can be verified as not being under Sloan’s house, I’m sticking with it.

Greg M. Epstein, Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
Between his roles as Harvard University’s humanist chaplain and columnist for the Washington Post’s regular “On Faith” column, Epstein is used to being a compassionate voice for reason, and Good without God does a fine job of both defining and defending secular humanism in the context of the (troublingly still common) misapprehension that disbelief in a supernatural higher power somehow equates to moral bankruptcy. He engages readers with his warm, often funny conversational tone, covering humanism’s ancient history and evolution, calling not for religious tolerance — just a nice way of saying “putting up with” those whose beliefs differ — but for religious literacy and religious pluralism. The takeaway here is enormously positive, a far cry from the next book to hold my attention….

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
“To salve the pains of consciousness, some people anesthetize themselves with sunny thoughts,’’ writes Ligotti.
But not everyone can follow their lead, above all not those who sneer at the sun and everything upon which it beats down. Their only respite is in the balm of bleakness. Disdainful of the solicitations of hope, they look for sanctuary in desolate places — a scattering of ruins in a barren locale or a rubble of words in a book where someone whispers in a dry voice, “I, too, am here.” However, downcast readers must be on their guard. Phony retreats have lured many who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. Too often they have settled into a book that begins as an oration on bleak experience but wraps up with the author slipping out the back door and making his way down a shining path, leaving downcast readers more rankled than they were before entering what turned out to be only a façade of ruins, a trompe l’oeil of bleakness.
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is by no means such a book. Leaning on the philosophical writings of names as recognizable as Friederich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, and as unfamiliar as Philipp Mainländer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti makes a case for philosophical pessimism, the stance that consciousness is a curse, that free will is an illusion, and that existence is malignantly useless.

Dour stuff. So why read it? The fact is, I’m terribly entertained by the bleakest outlooks. Recall for a moment A.A. Milne’s stuffed donkey, the Hundred Acre Wood’s resident nihilist, Eeyore, who provided so much of the comic relief among Pooh and friends, and you’ll start to understand how Ligotti’s hyperbolic phrasings — such as, “We are […] horrors that poison the world by sowing our madness everywhere we go, glutting daylight and darkness with incorporeal obscenities’’ — can bring a smile, a chuckle, even a delighted snort, to a reader who holds, as I do, that worse is always possible.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Man’s inhumanity to man. The madness lying in wait beneath the surface of the self. The surreal nature of reality. This dreamlike novel’s infamous Mr. Kurtz sums it up best in his dying words, “The horror! The horror!”

Robert Burton, Some Anatomies of Melancholy
Originally published in 1621, The Anatomy of Melancholy (or at least this short selection therefrom) offers little value to contemporary readers. Unless you want to snicker at the naiveté of humanity 400 years ago — believing that cabbage “sends up black vapours to the brain”; that God reliably strikes all wicked men with blindness, leprosy, and dysentery; or that a woman possessed by evil once “purged a live eel[,] vomited some twenty-four pounds of fulsome stuff of all colors, twice a day for fourteen days, and after that she voided great balls of hair, pieces of wood, pigeon’s dung, parchment, goose dung, coals; and after them two pounds of pure blood, and then again coals and stones, of which some had inscriptions, bigger than a walnut, some of them pieces of glass, brass, etc.” — I personally see no point.

H.P. Lovecraft (Leslie S. Klinger, editor), The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft
Familiarity with Lovecraft within popular culture, where there is any, is focused more on the ideas that are part of the writer’s invented mythology than with the tales of cosmic horror that framed them. What’s now recognized as his Cthulu Mythos — short fictions sharing the backdrop of a chaotic universe whose monstrous elder races, worshipped today by underground pagan cults, induce madness and mortal fear in those unfortunate enough to uncover their existence — overshadows Lovecraft’s not-very-good writing. His exposition is clunky. His sentences are pendulous with adjectives. His tales hew to formulaic plots of mind transfer, unearthed relics of “blasphemous” antiquity, and men obsessed with forbidden eldrich texts like “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” Still, the man has fans and they are legion. What’s interesting is that the last twenty-five years have seen a marked increase in scholarly interest in Lovecraft’s fiction. I’ve personally seen the term Lovecraftian used in contemporary journalistic work — once to describe the form of a very large, ugly sculpture, and once to describe a giant squid. Why all this attention for a long-dead pulp writer?

Forty bucks buys an answer, in the form of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. This handsome, heavy, hard cover collection of twenty-two tales from what Lovecraft called his Arkham cycle (fictions set in, around, or with some relationship to the fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham) is richly annotated in red and illustrated in full color. With movie posters, magazine covers, space photography, pictures of New England buildings referenced in the stories, maps, and so many other visual intrigues, Les Klinger’s notes do a fantastic job of bringing to light the concepts within Lovecraft’s prose. They give first-time readers, like me, a leg up. And let me just say that my reading was by no means torturous. Lovecraft’s earlier stories, especially “The Nameless City” and “Nyarlathotep,” are often dramatic and entertaining. But what does it say that Klinger’s seven appendices prove more consistently interesting than the text to which they refer?

Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning
Like a digestif to help the rich, gravy-drenched bizarrerie of my recent reading go down, Gaiman’s newest collection of “short fictions and disturbances” was just what my palate needed. There’s a little of everything on offer here, from a Doctor Who story to an especially good Sherlock Holmes tale (Gaiman’s a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, so his skill with a Holmes story should come as no surprise), to another of his reliably fulfilling American Gods quasi-epilogues. Gaiman does so many flavors of fantasy that his collections can go kind of uneven in places, but I think it’s their unexpected, wonky patchwork feel that makes them so winning.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Constance Garnett, translator), The Brothers Karamazov
There’s really nothing I can add to the 135 yeas of criticism and analysis that this novel, widely regarded as Dostoyevsky’s greatest, has undergone — no perspective that hasn’t already been provided, no observation that hasn’t already been stated and debated — except to say that the year and a half it loomed, heavy on my shelf, untouched, before I finally picked it up, was far too long. In the end it was by no means an onerous chore to read; if anything, it heightened my adamance that literature has the capacity to pierce to the heart of the human condition, flaying it for all to see its secretest parts, as life rarely does. The cast of characters here is so vividly rendered, right down to the last tic and bawdy foible, that you can’t shake the impression of familiarity and stop yourself thinking, I know this person! And this makes for an astounding reading experience. The cover copy from the Signet Classics edition I read is spot-on: The Brothers Karamazov is one of literature’s finest works.