22/07/2014

english

wandering in extremis of your
rambling curtilage, I stumble over
miles, miles of dull ramparts. Not yours;
this is your siege, an élite ignored
critique, a cottage industry of line-toers
dressing a dead man down. Or,
no not dead but petrefacted: a door
closed but leaking light & snores
enough for one interpretation more.

17/07/2014

Been reading, Q2 2014



We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now.
- Lydia Davis,
jks

I lay under the mosquito net and thought white people were boobs. Africa has nothing to do with us and never will have… We are fools; we believe in words, not the reality which the words are supposed to describe. What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?
- Martha Gellhorn (1949)

When people say ‘dark’, they mean honest.
- Zach Weinersmith


Why write down what you've been reading?

Well, there's the happy, crass braggadocio of it (look upon my intake and despair); in addition I imagine it improves my reading (since when you know you’ll talk about something, you're forced to be critical); by scoring the greats I vent my vast stocks of ressentiment; it scratches a scrapbooking itch; a reading list is some defence against the disease cryptomnesia; when I mark something '4.5' it’s a reminder to return, since I suspect it’s greater than one reading. My past becomes less spectral, my interpretations less unbridledly vapid, the whole practice less vain. In the Biblical sense of vain, obviously.

A less self-obsessed reason to is that we are more or less accidentally biased against various sorts of people, and it's only with a method like this can one know oneself relevantly and do right by it. My claim is: measuring reading is necessary for intellectual justice.

1/5: No.                  4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Vitiated.           4.5/5: Amazed.
3/5: Skimmed.       4.5*/5: I’ll be back
3.5/5: A blast.         5/5: Encore.


APR

  • Ban this Filth!: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive (2012) ed. Ben Thomson. Rather than dismissing her as just the archetypal religious-conservative idiot, how about treating her as a scared and thus angry lady who prefigured modern ambivalence about the extremes of our culture? OK, so it turns out paying attention doesn’t make her less ridiculous, but she’s certainly no longer alone: moral criticism of pop is an enormous cottage internet industry by now. Her small-mindedness put her, somehow, on the same lines as compassionate ideology does some of our contemporaries. (The ends meet in the middle ?) Ahem: the actual book. Whitehouse’s letters are just boring, monotonous and prim – the patronising or bureaucratic replies from the BBC or Granada are much more interesting (in which the Establishment stands up for smut). Thomson’s a thorough but overheated curator – for instance when he likens Whitehouse to Lenin because they were each dead good at getting loads of people involved in things. (Call his enthusiasm Golden Hammer Marxism.) Thomson: "From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, the Taliban, and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse's monuments are all around us.” Hrm: is she the reason people use complaint as a political tool? No! (Particularly not if you view protest as organised complaint. There is a distinction between complaint and protest - one is the expression of distaste, the other the ascription of injustice - but it's tricky for beasts like us to tell them strictly apart.) Was she the prototype? Yeah, OK. 2/5.

  • Saturn’s Children (2008) by Charles Stross. Morbid, playful. Robots emancipated by our death fall into slaving each other. Stross’ science makes it: he defamiliarises ordinary human conditions (e.g. water is just another arbitrary compound to them, and the emphasis on, well, time that fiction about humans finds it hard to do without is off), he focusses on the many many vagaries of spaceflight (“The dirty truth is that space travel is shit…”), and offers a harsh, clean sociology (“Architecture and economics are the unacknowledged products of planetography.”)... Prose is hard to describe: there’s definitely an Adams twinkle in there, but it’s buried beneath hard science, sexual complexity and glib lifts (“that corner of me which is forever Juliette”). His society’s accidental oligarchy is dissatisfying; the plot’s repetitive and disintegrates towards the end. Still cool, obtrusive. 3.5/5. [Library]

  • New Yorker April 7th (2014). I expect to be equipped by this magazine, prepared for present trends and shibboleths and jargon, and this week certainly did. Some vital vocabulary for negotiating modern culture: Emily Nussbaum’s term ‘bad fans’ (people who identify with the nihilist protagonists of complex dramas, e.g. Tony Soprano, Walter White, sort-of Don Draper); the ‘creative bumbling’ of a veteran journalist (i.e. using stupidity as an elicitation technique). Then there's Jonathan Lethem’s touching piece about a man guilty about his meat-eating; it includes a daydream that I myself dreamed on long childhood car journeys (you imagine that your eyes are a huge great knife cutting away everything taller than you as you pass by, in the back seat. I wonder if it’s in the DSM? 'Juvenile Vehicular Megalopsychosis'). 4/5.

  • Reread aloud: The Fifth Elephant (1999) by Terry Pratchett. About oil, conservatism, the Inscrutable Balkans. The most literary of his excellent police books: telecomms as model and amplifier of emotional and cultural ties; contact with otherness as cause and defining feature of modernity. Less grandiosely, he trots out his satisfying werewolf point again: in actual fact, the creature that lies halfway between human and wolf is not a terrifying lunatic chimera but a dog. 4/5.

  • Travels with Myself and Another (1978) by Martha Gellhorn. Hilarious, patrician, blunt account of the worst of her many journeys, to: Guomindang China 1941, the U-boated Carribean 1942, East through West Africa 1949, liberal Russia 1966, hippie Israel 1971. Her uncompromising generalisations about the people she meets skirt racialism, particularly in the long Africa chapter (e.g. she categorises each new tribe by average attractiveness and prevailing smell; she calls ‘racial’ what we’d deem cultural traits; like many vets, she insists on using the word ‘Jap’). But her discrimination is as in ‘discriminating’: making just distinctions. She’s fair, keen to empathise (“I said it stood to reason that we must smell in some disgusting way to them. Yes, said Aya, they say we have the ‘stale odour of corpses’; they find it sickening. This cheers me; fair’s fair; I don’t feel so mean-minded” – a point you can find in p’Bitek, among others) and holds colonialists and bigots in far higher contempt (“it seems conceited to foist off our notions of religion, which we have never truly practised, onto people whose savagery is much more disorganised, personal and small-scale than ours”). My mate Paul – a noted cynic – believes, along with most of our generation, that travel is ennobling, inherently. It surely is not, but it certainly does put an edge on some folks’ writing. (Not their souls: “One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt”...) Generous, stylish, and a fine if not superior substitute for going these places. 4.5*/5.

  • A Paradox of Ethical Vegetarianism (2000) by Kathryn Paxton George. Original, empirical, principled, and wrong. Appreciative dismissal forthcoming. 3.5/5.

  • Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) by Melissa Mohr. Cool blast through three-and-a-bit millennia of talking Christ’s bowels and fucking shit. She distinguishes between ‘obscenities’ and ‘oaths’ (the first takes profane subjects, the second, sacred) and then between the proper and the vain oath (e.g. “Bejasus! Godammit! Hell’s teeth!”). Adding the generalisation that ‘we swear about what we care about’, she can use known changes in the expressive power of swearwords to cleverly trace the movement of taboos across cultures and over time. (Very broadly: power went from Shit’s precedence to Holy and now back and with more political terms.) Rome’s nasty little sexuality is seen to be the model of a lot of our crap associations; in the Middle Ages vain oaths were criminal while scholars and physicians used ‘cunt’ in textbooks without heat. In our time, racial slurs (very young as slurs – only WWII for real malevolence) have taken the biscuit from sex, excrement and God - which you can see as encouraging (if that means we now care about the targets of racial language) - or depressing (if that means we now care more about Race, dividing lines for their own sake). Mohr is full of fact without being trivial; and she lets graffiti, court records, and primary quotation damn the damnable – e.g. DH Lawrence’s holy cock-mysticism, the spume of Twitter bigots. 4/5. [Library]

  • Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) by Lydia Davis. Went on guard when I heard that the title story’s one sentence long – speaking, as such conceits do, of the holy-urinal sort of superstitious art – but this is standout, a series of droll, exacting capsules and nutshells. A typical piece is one page long and part gag, part compulsive meditation, part confession of petty vice. Once you get over her diffident, terse non-being, it is fun stuff. The long piece on jury duty is best, its length and repetitious babble a symmetry of the trial. 4.5/5.

  • Read aloud: Night Watch (2004) by Terry Pratchett. Perhaps his darkest book (though he never was just about puns and japes – consider the extent of extinction and futility in Strata). All about the Night, as in inherent human brutality and in being metaphysically lost. Remarkable for being about being the police in a police state. Cried my eyes out at the climax the first time, a decade ago. 3.5/5.



"Der Gruss (1990) by Quint Buchholtz

MAY

  • Between Faith and Doubt: Dialogues on Religion and Reason (2010) by John Hick. Why would anyone want to take away someone else’s sense of the ultimate goodness and unity of things – want, that is, to be a New sort of atheist? Well, you might have misread history so that religious identity looms as the main cause of violence. Or you might note their continuing key role in keeping heinous patriarchal shit on the go (but this reasoning misses the long tradition of smuggling real progress in through churches). Better, you might view the act of worship as in fact degrading to the worshipper, or see the epistemology implicit in religious practice as an unhealthy stance to take to the world. (Preventing as it does healing doubt and honest, energetic inquiry; outmoded as it is given better methods at hand.) Anyway: Hick of the rearguard talks fairly and at length with a fictional scientistic interlocutor, demonstrating how, if the theist is willing to retreat ad hoc about ten times, scientism actually cannot touch them. Amusing example: Hick responds to the solid neurological explanation of religious experience by saying that this is all perfectly consistent with electrical induction in the right angular gyrus just enabling us to perceive the spiritual world. I adore bullet-biting of this magnitude. Hick ends this mostly fair tourney still “as certain as it is possible to be” about God, despite only having parried the critical arguments at great metaphysical cost. At least his atheist doesn’t convert at the end. 3/5. [Library]

  • Black Man (2012) by Richard Morgan. Another geno-soldiers-get-invented-banned-and-what-then chin-scratcher. Nearer us in time and space than his Kovacs novels (this isn’t interstellar) – but they’ve still all forgotten us, bar the historians. Morgan lets genetic determinism run away with the plot: everyone’s always explaining themselves with reference to their or others’ “wiring”. At one point the protagonist hears a similarity in two people’s diction and “wondered idly what genes the two men might share”. Also his theme, ‘GM humans as future Other’ gets ponderous inbetween the ultraviolence. But Morgan is always worthwhile: his books suspend the ideological alongside the unhappily sexual alongside big strange guns (e.g. This one has an AIDS pistol, loaded with a GM virus named ‘Falwell’). More mature in some ways – there’s a feminist imam, and a religious character he doesn’t have violent contempt for – but also a bit busy and contralto. 3.5/5. [Library]

  • Stross and Morgan refer to ‘black labs’ a lot – that is, dastardly underground geneticists. Every single time they did, I wondered what the authors had against Labradors. Sort it out.

  • The Adoption Papers (1991) by Jackie Kay. Strong, po-faced verse portrait of her own birth and adoption, in three voices. Really lovely details throughout – her mother hiding all her Communist décor for first meeting the birth mother; Kay kissing her poster of Angela Davis goodnight, a traumatic, funny dismissal of the idea that your real mother has to be your birth mother (“After mammy telt me she wisna my real mammy/ I wis scared to death she wis gonna melt…”). Meeting her bio-mum much later, Kay’s disillusionment is subtly and truly done: “the blood does not bind confusion” (mop it up, like carbon dioxide). It becomes apparent that Kay has just created the birth mother character – her mouth filled with vivid Plathian violence and articulate confusion not born out by the real woman. If so, more the better. See also ‘I try my absolute best’, a perfect snapshot of C20th hippy despair at agrichemicals. 4/5. [Library]

  • The Great Infidel: The Life of David Hume (2004) by Roderick Graham. Gossipy. Says at the start that he isn’t aiming at Hume’s thought or worldview – just his personality, context, happenstance – but since Hume spent a big chunk of his adult life alone thinking, this is quixotic, and Graham predictably does have to go into the Treatise and Essays and Dialogues (and to be frank he does so badly, uncritically). This is filled instead with all the bad reviews Hume got, and the clubs he got into, and the middlebrows that quarrelled with him rather than his eternal legacies, i.e. judgment under uncertainty, reason’s motivational inertia, cognitive naturalism, the frailty of natural theology, the kernel of all these ideas. The bit on Rousseau as incredible drama queen is good – here is R’s reaction to Hume looking at him: “where, great God! did this good man borrow those eyes he fixes so sternly and unaccountably on his friends! My trouble increased even to a degree of fainting; and had I not been relieved by an effusion of tears, I’d been suffocated… in a transport, which I still remember with delight, I sprang on his neck, embraced him eagerly while almost choked with sobbing…”. Graham is super-fond of the C18th’s loud intellectual tribalism, but it’s not enough. 2/5. [Library]

  • Anselm (2009) by Visser and Williams. An Analyst metaphysician and a Catholic Medievalist walk into a bar… V&W manage to make light of a thousand years’ semantic drift and logical innovations; so their Anselm turns out to be an ingenious and honest rationalist wrestling with the many millstones of Christian lore. (e.g. Making original sin’s indiscriminate infinite hellfire seem just, making the Trinity seem unavoidable rather than a fundamental logical error enforced by terror.) Anselm’s work is a testament to the cornucopaic potential of motivated reasoning – a.k.a philosophy, in its middle millennium. A testament to something. 3/5.

  • Read aloud: Pyramids (1991), The Truth (2005), Unseen Academicals (2009), Thud! (2008), and Snuff (2012) by Terry Pratchett. The Disc grows modern, here gaining a media, sanitation, a soft-power politics, and institutionalised sport, to add to its latter-day civilian police, telecoms, and steam power. The key, most literary thing about the Discworld books is this modernisation, from magic to steampunk. (This happens comically rapidly – Colour of Magic, the first book, is standard non-chronistic High Fantasy, so, set circa circa 1200CE. Snuff takes place not twenty discursive years later – yet the central city is clearly Victorian. And that’s not including the burgeoning intercontinental fax network.) Technology is given its due, but the institutional side isn’t neglected. Modernity began with the despot Vetinari’s marketisation of crime, moves through ethnic diversity reforms and open-door immigration, and marches on and on. UA, the sport one, is solid, poignant. He doesn’t often let his wizards get earnest and truly develop – by this stage, magic is comic relief, no longer the determining power or symbol of the Disc. It just remains to be seen if democracy and international organisation settle in. Snuff is dark and politically worthy, but not his best. He’s been reusing jokes in recent books, and I refuse to speculate on the cause. The series is 4/5. [Library]

  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) by Iain M Banks. His last utopian statement. Tame by the histrionic standards of space opera and his own usual plot webs – though there are the usual infuriating Machiavellis and convincing dilemmas. Grim implications about immortality, decadence, international relations. Worth reading all of the Culture books for the discussions between AIs. 3/5. [Library]

  • Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by Frank Dikötter. Deadpan documentation of the most awe-inspiring and culpable misrule ever. (I don’t mean to weigh Mao’s 40 million counts of negligent manslaughter and 5m conspiracies-to-murder against e.g. the 12 millions of more intentional monsters; the exercise seems childish, past some asymptote of human suffering.) The Party took their land and animals, melted their pans and hoes, killed billions of birds and 40% of the trees in China, starved them until they sold their children, and them starved them some more. At the same time they exported 30 million tons of grain, mostly for guns. Historians are impressive for their readiness to sift through so much irrelevant tonnage – and so much that is boring even when relevant – just so as to be careful and good. Mao comes across as a self-deceiving sociopath; Zhou as a decent man nevertheless allowing atrocities. Heavier than The Black Book, than Primo Levi. 4/5. [Library]

  • Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture (2009) by CK. Extraordinary raid on modern tyrannies. Of: contemporary sexuality, cereal adverts, the implications of the 00s pirate craze, questions in general, the Unabomber’s good point. Klosterman’s not going to get away without comparison to DFW – but he’s really good in his own way too. He’s a more relaxed, atheoretical Wallace, with pop music (rather than Art writing) at his core, and technology (rather than general Irony) as the source of his worries about us all. This slices through the reflexivity that causes modern confusions, while being mischievously reflexive himself (at one point he tells us that he once lied to an interviewer who had correctly identified Klosterman’s mouthpiece in one of his novels; Klosterman denied that he shared the character’s view in order to preserve a cheap narrative uncertainty for readers of the interview – but, of course, admitting that here undoes that cheap save for we third-order readers).

    An applied instance: “We assume that commercials are not just informing us about purchasable products, because that would be crude and ineffective. We’re smarter than that. But that understanding makes us more vulnerable. We’ve become the ideal audience for advertising—consumers who intellectually magnify commercials in order to make them more trenchant and clever than they actually are. Our fluency with the language and motives of the advertiser induces us to create new, better meanings for whatever they show us. We do most of the work for them.” Two quibbles: there is (what I take to be) a lack of ideological care (that, I take it, is what) you’d expect of pieces written for Esquire magazine. But he transcends it. He doesn’t resolve (as I think DFW mostly does) the tension between a) affirming low culture’s power and unique charms against bullshit classist disparagement, and b) despising its crudest, most conservative common denominators. Went through it in an hour, but the best hour of the year. 4.5*/5.

  • The Almost Totally Perfect People: The Nordic Miracle Examined (2014) by Michael Booth. Fault-finding things received opinion finds no fault with?: good. Booth’s says the weather, the expense, the pressurised homogeneity of ethnicity and manner leading to marginalisation, the hypocrisy (e.g. Statoil’s tar sands), and the diet are the only subtractions. The bit on their peerless state education (for decades Finnish kids have scored the highest on tests with the lowest inequality – but the kids’ own satisfaction with the system is the lowest on record) is good, basing the whole Miracle on their school system: “It is no coincidence that the region that is consistently judged to have the highest levels of wellbeing, also has the greatest equality of educational opportunity… To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need power over your own life…” How to recreate this, everywhere? He concludes that it’s a difficult-to-copy feedback loop from 1) actually respecting teachers and funding everyone’s Master’s, so 2) attracting excellent people, who 3) teach excellently and thus 1) earn the respect of their charges and society... Booth can be a bit glib (“Is it still racist if they’re rich?”), and is obsessed with tax to the point where he has to ask five different professors how on earth people don’t simply die from 50% income tax. But he gets into the cracks and his wonder and affection rise up afterward: “please don’t [form a separate Nordic Union]. Truly the rest of us would not stand a chance.” 3/5. [Library]

  • The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) by Richard Dawkins. He’s good when he sticks to his damn field! Loads of lovely examples and vivid analogies. The sidebar that naturalises human races is surprisingly careful and illuminating - that portion of the phenomenon that's genetic is more straightforward than I’d thought, in my Arts student way. (Though his placid definitiveness on the social interpretation is obvs controversial as hell. He’s an unqualified eliminativist, implying that the harm resulting from reifying race totally outweighs all gains from positive discrimination, which can’t be right.) I hadn’t heard of the ‘two-fold cost’ of sex before, super-interesting. Not as snarky as you’d expect, and full of alternative perspectives so long as they’re evolutionists’ perspectives. 4/5.

  • New Selected Poems 1984-2004 (2004) by Carol Ann Duffy. A world in a tone. I’d thought of her as sort of obvious – all first-order, meaning near the surface and all on worthy themes like childhood perversity and elderly loss. But her best (“Auden’s Alphabet”, “Shooting Stars”) unfold, see her wielding that obviousness and having fun with drudgery. More historical pieces than I expected, too. Impression: ‘dissolving into childhood’, life as school forever, if school is undemonstrative alienation and uninteresting torment. The epic autiobio documentary “Laughter of Stafford Girls’ School” is dead good; the key to it is that after the anti-authoritarian lark, the poem follows home the prim teachers who failed to control the ruckus, and imagines their own repression give way a touch; plus half a point. 4/5. [Library]


JUN

  • Intention (1957) by Elizabeth Anscombe. Christ: difficult. Very brief, very ordinary, and yet unsettling. Her language looks very clear – it’s jargon-free – but on engaging with it you'll see that it’s blurred, terse, arduous. She never introduces the question at hand, or have any introduction at all: on page 1 she just sets about the concept with that sort of Wittgensteinian observational-tragedy monologue. Anyway I think it’s about the problem of intention (‘what answers ‘why?’, and why?’ Or: ‘how can teleology be explained in terms of brute causation (science)?’). I think her central points are that: intentions are justified with reasons, not evidence; intentional explanation is not at all causal explanation; so intentional action is not amenable to a naturalist reduction (because to explain an action with reasons is precisely to not explain it with laws of nature); that intention is not a mental state but a process involving (?); that we have synthetic, non-observational, non-inferential knowledge of the world; that we have this simply because we know about our bodies and intentions. (OK, that needs filling-in to make it less misrepresentative: 1) if you don’t know that you are doing something, you’re not doing it intentionally; 2) if it’s only during, or after the fact that you infer you’re doing something, you can’t be doing it for reasons. So, if you are doing something intentional, you necessarily know you are doing it, and she thinks this knowledge isn’t based on observing oneself or post-hoc theorising. Intention was written as the first piece in the first proper, psychologised account of agency (she thought one needed an action theory before one could have a real moral theory. But I think consequentialism sidesteps that need, just as it ducks the free-will responsibility question, and the warm-glow problem, and the meta-ethical status of moral language... But of course for humans the key need, the one consequentialism can never avoid, is people’s need for bullshit intuitions about their own importance and uniqueness.) ?/5. [Library]

  • Karl Marx (2003) by Francis Wheen. Portrait of Karl Jeremiah Wooster Cosby Marx. Wheen’s an ideal biographer: fearless, careful, eventually sympathetic. (So, ideal for the readers rather than the subject.) Most of his shortish book is debunking slanders; the rest is in cementing others. Was Marx a bully? No: bullies take weak targets. A dogmatist? No; spent twenty years researching one-quarter of his big book, and admired his bourgeois forebears Ricardo and Feuerbach. Was he a Whig ‘historian’? Sort of. Petty? Oh yes indeedy. A hypocrite idealist? Tried not to be. Anti-semite? Yes, or, used the language. Russophobe? Definitely somewhat. Bourgeois patriarch? Very much so. A heartless philanderer? Once. A show-off? Yup. I came up with an epitaph for him – “KM. Excellent journalist, journeyman economist, awful leader.” but I am not learned enough to assert it yet. Wheen is in a rush (Hegel’s system gets five lines) but he writes fantastically, has read everything and understood a great deal more than e.g. me. 4.5/5. [Library]

  • The Living End: The Future of Death, Aging and Immortality (2008) by Guy Brown. Cambridge neuroscientist lets himself go, speculating a bit aimlessly on the meaning and ends of present trends. He goes via Gilgamesh, Swift and Woolf as much as HeLa, Hayflick and Kirkwood. Core evidence-based conclusions are: Life expectancy increases are not slowing down much; dementia is exploding upwards; we know very little about aging and have almost no power over it (but a start has been made – e.g. we know inflammation is important if not the core – and ). The core attitudinal point is to view aging as a disease and death an injustice. Cute (“build a dream, write that novel… have lots of sex”), and it comes from a position of strength, but not so deep. I recommend instead Nick Bostrom(as kaleidoscopic booster), Bryan Appleyard (as somewhat sympathetic sceptic) and Michael Sandel and Habermas (as non-contemptible bioconservatives). 3/5.

  • On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013) by Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek. Echo-chamber dialogue about our barely recognised crimes against humanity. I have mixed feelings about Chomsky, beautiful fist of a man that he is. For half a century he hasn’t stopped talking about unbelievable global crimes that went unreported at the time, and are now unremembered, let alone punished. But. Full discussion here. Even given their slips and exaggerations, there’s no way around some evidence-based conclusions: we are not in general a positive force in the world (almost no-one with power is); this is not well-known; as long as the US is legally immune from prosecution, international justice is a joke; we have very often given money and guns to the worst people in the world; we did this for money and control. 3/5* [Library]

    * if you already know about about Leopold II, Britain in Palestine, Operation Boot, Operation PBFORTUNE, Lumumba, the Plain of Jars, Pinochet, Noriega and Just Cause, Suharto, El Salvador, and that Iraq matter. If you don't, this is 4/5 if taken alongside Dikotter and Kolakowski.

  • On the Pleasure of Hating (1818ish) by William Hazlitt. Toty brace of magazine pieces in which he philosophises bare-knuckle fights, juggling, and yes petty hatred. He’s cute, what with his italicised phrases that are now clichés (“blue ruin”), his enthusiasm for enthusiasm, his mid-sentence verse quotations, his Latinate insults (“O procul, este profani”), and enthusiastic woe. is reaction to seeing someone juggle four balls at once:
    It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is I can do as well as this? Nothing. What have I been doing all my life? … What abortions are these Essays! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do.
    The essay that’s from is about juggling and the concept Greatness and the character of a dear dead sportsman friend – and all this in 20 pages. Big man, only sometimes clotted in the seven-clause sentences of his age. 4/5.

  • Stories, Volume 1 (1884ish) by Anton Chekhov. Was expecting these to be very severe, but, though it has more than its share of erroneous suicides and fist-shaking dread, his tack is usually to laugh at the cold. ?/5

  • Most of Gwern.net (2008-2014) by Gwern Branwen. Fantastic freelance research into the technical and the existential, with practical recommendations aplenty. (For instance, I abuse melatonin after reading his argument, plus prudent second- and third- opinions which lack the key risk/reward reasoning.) I have never seen cost:benefit reasoning this inclusive and persuasive. His breadth, depth are plain, so I'll just link some important ones: on effective altruism, mathematical psychology and metamathematical risk, abortion, analysing the analysts, sceptical self-experimentation. I skipped the animé essays – but in light of his detailed, affirmative sociology of subcultures, they make perfect sense, probably even strictly (that is, as expected value). 4.5*/5.



…I choose the opposite. Instead of confronting reality and embracing the Experience of Being Alive, I will sit here and read about Animal Collective over the Internet. Again. I will read about Animal Collective again. And not because the content is important or amusing or well written, but because the content exists. Reading about Animal Collective has replaced being alive. I aspire to think of myself as an analog person, but I am not. I have been converted to digital without the remastering, and the fidelity is appalling.
- Chuck Klosterman