Might reading harm?

who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

- ee cummings


  • One might spend one's life reading about living, without actually living. (Man.) The easy response is don't tell me what living is and is not, I can decide that for myself thanks.

  • Maybe a lifestyle centred on reading encourages a false sense of superiority - or a false sense of the power of reason. (The original sin of philosophy: to mistake philosophy as essential to good action.)

  • More generally, you might think of reading as parasocial, involving false, dubious interaction with someone you wouldn't much identify if you met them without the filter of composition. Or worse, a replacement for live discourse which hides the ad hoc, underdetermined, unpersuadable nature of even highly intellectual encounters.

  • There's a Latin phrase I like a lot - Aut tace aut loquere meliora silencio, 'be silent or say something better than silence' - and maybe this goes for intake too; maybe unreflective reading just clutters up the mind. But nah: the evidence for the whole Shallows-Overflowing-Brain thing is no good. A friend of mine insists that reading too much makes creativity more difficult by cluttering you with precedent in this way but more by cultivating an unhelpful sense of reverence for the past and past ways in you. We can straw man this just by saying "OH NO now I've seen this round thing I can no longer reinvent the wheel!" but it is an ok hypothesis, I spose.

  • A cliché about reading philosophy in particular holds that its strict and dislocating analysis makes you vulnerable to psychopathology. Czech even has a dedicated verb ("umoudrovat se") for the act of "philosophising oneself away" - and if you've spent any time in epistemology, you'll recognise the need for the word. ('The logical production of ontological insecurity' or sth.) But the cliché probably gets the causation wrong: more likely vulnerable people are drawn to philosophy because it offers a rare outlet for our schizoid or socially unusual tendencies.

  • Reading broadly but shallowly (like me) prevents you from getting to the bone of any thing, the frontier of knowledge where invention and underdetermination remain (so, where the productive work is). Also specialisation is necessary to understand anything really technical properly. Obviously this is an argument against a kind of reading only.

  • Some conservatives are united with some feminists in what you might call unkindly symbolic paranoia: the worry that we (or children) might be programmed by explicit media, somehow encouraged to copy violence or misogyny. It took us a very, very long time to accept that reading e.g. de Sade doesn't cause sadism. (Though it might well be a good indicator of it.)


  • Maybe reading has no effect either way - because my memory's so terrible that reading just heaps up temporary sand dunes on my essential thoughtless inner desert. Maybe there's a skeleton of sickly crabgrass (one-liners and shadow gists), but maybe that's all. Maybe artistic knowledge, or 'wisdom' (if there is such a thing) doesn't last either. Maybe. But even if all this is so, I can reread without waste or resentment.

  • Reading boosts cognitive reserve. The idea is, the higher you build your mind, the further you have to fall into dementia. (The intellectual colossus and Alzheimerean Iris Murdoch is not so much a counterexample as a reminder of how horrific the rate of falling can be.) To create reserve without reading, you could get a hard job (e.g. involving maths) or take up Yahoo Chess. Exercise and lots of socialising do it just as well.

  • I like the idea that reading novels makes you more sensitive to whatnot, but honestly who knows?

  • Ultimately, reading is the best way to a modicum of ideological autonomy. While no one has no ideology, freedom consists in knowing many and slipping between them - and that skill takes either reading or spending a lot of time with all sorts of very annoying people.

I've been dissembling; of course I think reading improves. I'm mostly just out to tease mate James (who wrote his dissertation on similar lines). Cummings was an idiot, and "philosophy is salutary, even when no positive results emerge... The colour is brighter - that is, reality appears more clearly as such." - Goedel


Do you have an ultimate goal? Are you working towards some kind of a grand unified theory to which all these works will contribute and end up in your bibliography? Do you feel that these books are basically ideas trying to separate themselves from the minds that generated them and to survive their human sources through generations, ultimately ending up in every copy of the transhuman brain of the future?"

- TK

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

I read for a bunch of reasons. The mundane reason is that I read because I enjoy working things out more than I enjoy anything else - and books are still the most stable and constructive way of understanding the world better.

The grand reasons (built on top of this pleasure, but pretending to be independent and dialectical) are that it is only by possessing many different ideas that one can begin to call oneself mentally individual - having access to only one set of ideas means you are doomed to immobility, that is, illiberty.* Also clever people have a duty to society to think clearly, and in the case of people who want to claim the title "intellectual", a duty to provide an answer every time anyone sincere questions any of their beliefs. And more duties!: to at least try and keep up with the torrent of knowledge produced in this, our highest era yet.

The spiritual version is that I read so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. (The futility of building even the most sophisticated self-understanding, as a mortal, has never really worried me, possibly because I am still young and so death is not properly real to me. Please see the Larkin poem at the bottom of this for a mature, terrified view**). In fact, the spiritual version loops round to the mundane one: my burning joy in attaining understanding seems along the lines of Spinoza's amor dei intellectualis, though maybe with less metaphysical excess.

As to there being an ultimate goal to my reading: sadly not - I am a moralist more than a metaphysician. (The modern word for a rationalist-moralist is "effective altruist".) I have been warned off of systematic ("totalising") philosophy by the history of philosophy: too many Aristotles and Rousseaus missing half the world because they let their theoretical aesthetics stand in the way, stop inquiry prematurely. (Rorty says we should give up the idea of their *ever* being a real end to inquiry.) As such, I do not count on the Singularity or posthuman Upload, even though there is a strong decision-theoretic case for them. I am a transhumanist with an emphasis on the trans; we are probably doomed to be the failed first wave, with the right goals and theoretical means (e.g. "the abolition of suffering from earth", achieved via ecosystem-level genetic engineering; "the end of involuntary death") but laughably insufficient material means. But the successful ones will not come without our failed attempts, so.

* Sure, reading isn't the only way to get em. You could get these alternatives from extensive travel or living in a really global city; or by having an unsually well-developed theory of mind. Most of us can't.

** "And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying."

  - Larkin


Never mind that: since we should read, what should we read?

  1. Good things, that is, morally proper things.
    Who argues for this anymore? No, the popular form is instead

  2. Good things, that is, politically correct things.
    I don't mean this in the horrible pejorative way of tabloids, just in the sense of made with modern tolerance and sensitivity. Trouble is, books are a lousy source of moral cues (sorry Tolstoy) and a work completely ideologically pure will find it hard not to end up dull and lacking in

  3. Good things, that is, work of quality more or less independent of its morals.
    Well, sure, by definition. The question is whether this takes priority over other concerns, for instance

  4. Challenging things, which is to say disconfirmation.
    That's the ticket. Books by different people doing different things, and particularly with differing views. Even those of us who cling to discredited univeralist ideas should read more subaltern, queer, foreign things, just as a basic matter of proportionality. (Are 6% of your reading list in whatever sense queer? Are 85% nonwhite? Well then.)


mathematical desire

(c) Randall Munroe (2010)

Model of romance for you. Say there are two functions:
  • A(y) – how attracted person x is to person y, and
  • R(y) – x's respect for y.

Then, two composite functions with each other:
  • R(A) - how much respect x has given a degree of attraction, and
  • A(R) - how much attraction x has for a given level of respect.

If we assume that they aren't symmetrical (that people can have non-monotonic functions), then romantically active people all fall into 2 or more of 8 exhaustive romantic functions:

  1. [If A(y) goes up --> R(y) goes up]. R(A) is proportional: x is ruled by beauty's halo.
    (X is shallow.)

More eye pop, swell chest
  1. [If A(y) goes up --> R(y) goes down]. R(A) is inverse: The mind's revenge.
    (X is sadistic.)

More eye pop, shrink chest
  1. [If A(y) goes down --> R(y) up]. R(A) negatively inverse: Hm!
    (X is maybe insecure?)

Less eye pop, swell chest
  1. [A(y) goes down --> R(y) down]. R(A) negative proportion: Reverse halo.
    (X is nasty-shallow.)

Less eye pop, shrink chest
  1. [If R(y) up --> A(y) up]. A(R) is proportional: A just and rational desire.
    (X is blessed.)

Swell chest, more eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) up --> A(y) down]. A(R) inverse: The mind's disdain for the body.
    (X pedestalises.)

Swell chest, less eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) down --> A(y) up]. A(R) negatively inverse: Masochism.

Shrink chest, more eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) down --> A(y) down]. A(R) negatively proportional: Dignity (or purity).

Shrink chest, less eye pop.

Quelle surprise, those that have attraction determining respect (5&8) are the humane ones. But there are more perverse strategies than healthy ones, and can you say you’d be surprised if this were borne out empirically?

James points out the need of a reflexive self-respect variable, R(x), to really see the shape of an ordinary relationship (since we're drawn to people who are in some respect better than us). [If R(x) > R(y) --> A(y) down.] and [If R(x) < R(y), A(y) up.]


It is equally fatal to the spirit to have a system and to not have a system. One will simply have to combine the two.
- Novalis

Now, the exercise is laughably incomplete, missing as it does dozens of salient variables* as well as the internal poetic significance - what feels to be the whole point. (For any given individual, I would guess the above R-squared of the above at less than 0.3.) In fact just adopting this nasty economic-sociobiological posture dissolves the thing's poetry. But nothing can talk about everything.** The model’s as simplistic as can be and still illuminating, and that's the interesting bit; how much of us can you show up, how surprising can you be, with just two quantities and four relations. To me the options seem to be: entertain theories***, or settle for courageless commonsense (in which I include intuition). Aporia – the aseptic procedure for handling the debilitating pathogens, ideas – is a rare talent. Its opposite, human dogmatism, is the default but it's our failure, not theory’s.

When is a model unacceptably distorting, though? (Can we model that?) People who take the above line must be clear with themselves about when models become liabilities. This happens when: the class of mathematics used is too restrictive for the class of problem (generally true of human affairs, though do note Nate Silver-style stats); when the use of precise maths implies we have solutions where we have none or can have none; and above all when the model obscures more of the phenomenon than it uncovers. There could be good theories we wholly lack the maths for. People who think formally about people should remember they are heuristics: we use theory as a conditional reminder of the complexity of people, rather than a predictive or exhaustive encapsulation of them.*****

* e.g. The interval between the two's self-respect, simple proximity, parental influence, inverse parental influence, y's place in local pecking order, degree of shared interests, romantic anosognosia (or the whole subsystem of casual criteria)...

** You might say that theoretical silence preserves more than any theory can state, but I think you'd do silence too much honour. It doesn't mean anything to mean everything, and implying anything's the same.****

*** This claim is close to ludicrous fiat, saved from it only by my saying ‘theories’ rather than ‘a theory’.

**** What about Tractarian silence? Sure it's a peerlessly beautiful thought, but people divorce it from the properly hellish mathematical world that gives it its punch and significance. No-one is a Tractarian (except the very ill), because life would be intolerable without the nonempirical kinds of meaning the Tractatus shoves out of language and almost out of life.

***** All right, all right, let's say you've justified precise theorising about fuzzy humans. Why cloak it in maths, a rhetorical device that repels 80% of even the educated world?******

****** Look, it's a joke, A JOKE I TELLS YA!

XKCD (2000)

on not finishing books

Sometimes I don't finish books because I've become someone else in the interim and don't share their goal of reading it. Any book that takes more than a week is liable to fall foul of young people’s mutability in this way.

A lot of what we read is just to say we’ve read it - they are plugs for gaps in cultural armour. We fail to see these through because they are interminable – cf. Gibbons’ Decline and fucking Fall – and because our motive’s so base in the first place. The act of plugging could be noble – the will to improve oneself – but it's more often the ignoble fear of looking ignorant (rather than the excellent fear of being ignorant). The educated world keeps up an arms race in which indifferent bystanders are gunned down by fully-auto sneering, where books are secondary to the concept of themselves. This side of ‘literary’ culture, call it the consumerism of the immaterial, is scarcely different from more obvious consumerism about designer labels and very large cars. Each of the games motivates the player with identity concerns, providing us with superficial status by association and not via anything actual like form or content.

Relatedly: we can stop reading out of simple disappointment (because misled by hype) or simple disgust (because of unbearable prose). I’m no aesthete, but on occasion I’ve had to bail out because of style; bad translations from e.g. Swedish or Chinese, academic work of any field from the last 50 years.

Finally there are books you haven’t finished reading even when you’ve read to the last page. The hermetic, or meaningless, or stodgy, or countably infinite: Finnegan’s Wake, Pound’s Cantos, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest. Whether it’s worth returning depends on how poncey your peers are, or how much you trust the book’s ineffable reputation (which will be to the same extent you distrust your ability to actually read).


  • The particular is much less good than the general: look how much smaller it is.

  • Independence is necessarily nationalist.

  • Independence is divisive. It can only put up arbitrary walls.

  • Scottishness is an insular and bigoted thing.

  • Very Scottish art - set here, with Scots phonemes and concerns - is insular and uninteresting. (Unlike British or Greek or Indian art, which can be universal.)

  • Abandonment of Scotland is virtuous: it’s transcendence.*

  • How we imagine our groups is irrelevant to improving the world. Nation is only a delusion.**

  • Of course self-determination is secondary to welfare!

The big one was my conflating an opposition to Scottish nationalism with a contempt for Scotland. It was also very stupid to overlook how self-deprecation – being an anti-Scotland Scot – tied in to a wider devaluation of Scottish things. This actually put me in line with the British elite, like so many other ‘individualist’ Scots in history. Overcompensating, á la Trainspotting.

* But “In all parts of history, the bourgeoisie tend to side with the colonisers for personal and group advancement.” - Kelman

** It is actually a delusion with teeth.


Been reading, Q3 2013

(c) Denis Frémond "Rue des Boutiques Obscure"

Dead confused in September: read three people with absolutely different politics, one after another. First, Clive James, who in latter years is the consummate droll liberal railing against both wings of partisans: he’s against celebrity culture, Ostalgie, and anti-American critical-theoretical cuteness, but also ‘clash of civilisation’ nonsense, socially destructive austerity and conservatism in the arts.

Next, James Kelman. Kelman’s what I call a liberationist, a beautiful and extreme sociologised Leftist focussing on society’s failures, exclusions and legal crimes, who demands much of themselves and everyone else (but who does so via a terrible error: reducing the world whole to politics).

Lastly, John Gray, the really disturbing wildcard. Technically a (radical) conservative, Gray actually agrees with no-one. He is anti-Communist in the highest degree, but anti-torture, anti-war, anti-Thatcherism, anti-Hayek too(!) His dreadful challenge – backed by considerable historical understanding and true scepticism – is that we, humans, have problems that will not go away, and that attempts to make them will only make matters worse. Is this true? (Isn’t this exactly the attitude a dominant system trying to perpetuate itself would spread?) But that's circumstantial, ignoring how well-supported Gray’s pessimism is (...)

Kelman and Gray agree that old-style liberalism (universalism plus rationalism equals justice) is made untenable by multicultural life – so Kelman bites one bullet, shedding universalism; Gray bites another, shedding rationalism (and therefore progress). James bites neither, and seems to get on alright

1/5: Just pretend you’ve read it and hated it. 
2/5: For enthusiasts only.
3/5: Skim it.
3*/5: Mind candy.
4/5: Read attentively.
4*/5: Exceptional, but probably only one readthrough.
5?/5: Perhaps a vade mecum. 5/5: Life-changing, to be read every other year forever.


  • Building Stories (2012) by Chris Ware. Enormous, 3kg, 150-piece jigsaw-comic about ordinary desperation at varying physical scales (from anthropomorphised insect up to anthropomorphised house). I actually resented the format at first - it's a unwieldy doorstop that cannot be read outside - but by the end is a pleasing experiment: that Ware has succeeded in making the order of reading more or less irrelevant is of course incredible. 4/5.

  • Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1989) by Liz Lochhead. Never read her before. Not sure how she slipped me by, given the absolute consensus in Scotland about her, as Greatest Living Literary Yay. It’s hard to picture in my head – there’s lots of disjointed speech and speaking to camera – but no doubt it was important to take Mary off the shortbread tin and into her real, human sense of betrayal. 3/5.

  • Learning to Live: A User's Manual (2010) by Luc Ferry. Awful title, awful cover, but interesting from start to finish. Fleeting pop tour of the development of philosophy (particularly the Continent), with an emphasis on those moderns who do eudaemonic life-work. Ferry is a compleat product of France's elite École culture – Sorbonne, philosophy prof, did his time in Office - but his insistence on clarity, even when talking about the likes of Bourdieu and Gadamer, and his rejection of their anti-humanism is somehow free of elitism. Another instance of the biggest trope in pop philosophy: 'reclaiming philosophy from the analysts'. Makes Nietzsche out as more unavoidable than he is? 3/5.

  • Reread: Master of Reality (2008) by John Darnielle. Totally crushing, beautiful portrait of teenage alienation, institutionalisation, and Black Sabbath, from a man uniquely placed to deal with these things (as an ex-psychiatric-nurse metal fan, also America's greatest lyricist of neurosis). That's heavy. 4/5.

  • Unstated: writers on Scottish Independence (2012), edited by Scott Hames. Bunch of generally radical Scots thinking things through. It’s good, occasionally surprising. The entry by Asher is a perfect example of the horrible clotted prose of the humanities today, form as wall obscuring content, assuming there actually is content behind it. 4/5. In summary:

    - John Aberdein: The SNP suck. We already control plenty and little changed. Still we must go independent to have any hope of foiling capitalism. Take the fisheries and mines, and take out tax evaders.
    -Armstrong: SNP are crypto-unionists. Diluters! (They’re keeping Sterling, the Queen, NATO, same bankers, low tax.) Need "Internationalism from below".
    - Alan Bissett: We are atomised because of Thatcher. Class never went away. Despite the jokes, do not underestimate what Braveheart and Trainspotting did for us. May 2011 majority is The Moment. Scotland's Yes will inspire change elsewhere.
    - Jo Calder: Independence, for proper arts funding(!)
    - Margi: Scotland is a woman.
    - Suhayl Saadi: Wooo! Waa! Hypercognitivist hoots mon!

  • Shakespeare (1990) by Germaine Greer. Was expecting this to be theory-laden and partisan, but the keynote of its 80 pages is just love, context and facts, deflating the man-myth while insisting on the incredibly modern philosophy to be found in him. 3/5.

  • Emotional Intelligence (1996) by Daniel Goleman. It's funny, this book and its concept. Though based on good (contentious) research, though written by a paid-up experimental psych academic, the book is presented exactly as empty self-help blah books are. (It doesn’t help that the sequel is a dialogue with the Dalai Lama - who, though an incredible, important world figure, isn’t exactly an authority on contemporary cognitive science.) Anyway, the core claim seems important: “IQ, abstract fluid intelligence, is separable from EQ, the rapid and humane understanding of social situations, emotional networks, and intentionality.” I want to believe. 3/5.

  • A Chinese Anthology (1984) edited by Raymond van Over. Bunch of parables and fairytales taken from three millenia. Fun, and Other to me. Van Over has a thing for Pu Songling, the vernacular master of the form shunned by the mandarin system because of his colloquial and ornamental style. I’m not sure I learned much, but it beats Aesop. 3/5

  • Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (2000) by Lewis Wolpert. I am disposed to dislike Wolpert - he's anti-philosophy in the most tired scientistic way - but this is clear, historical, philosophical stuff, and since he suffers from a filthy case himself he can wield authority properly for once. The chapters on the cultural variation in the expression of the illness (e.g. as a result of even more intense disdain for mental illness, Asians tend to report its symptoms as physical ailments rather than mental malaise) is startling to hear coming from such a conservative scientist, and all the more persuasive as a result. Learnt a very good word, too: "somatisation". 3/5.


  • Nothing to Envy: Real Tales from North Korea (2010) by Barbara Demick. Horrible portrait of a deluded, brutalised and shadowed country. You’ve probably already imagined the emotional sway of the political religion, the incompetence and manipulation of the cadre: here are some of the only first-person accounts. The dozen defectors she interviews agree on enough. She repeats entire sentences verbatim at various parts of the book, and runs out of ways to reflect somberly on collective madness and individual caprice (fair enough). It’s hard to see a country in which 10% of the population die of state-caused starvation ever rising up. 4/5.

  • Waltz with Bashir (2009) by Ari Folman and David Polonsky. Comic of the crushing film about the Lebanon war. This stark honesty is maybe not what we associate with Israeli artists, but of course it suits the lobbyists for us to forget the large part of the population that are two-state anti-settlers. 4/5.

  • Witch Wood (1927) by John Buchan. Wonderful, subtle, ornate picture of the Scots Borders during the Reformation. Mystery novel without a detective. Went into this with unfair scepticism - he was such an imperial gank - but was dead impressed by his making boring theological debates portentious, and his unsentimental nature prose. I also learned lots of words. 4/5.

  • The Blade Itself (2006) by Joe Abercrombie. Perceptive, subversive high fantasy. Prose is a delight, lucid and free-flowing - the opposite delight to China Mieville's prose. There's a sarcastic wizard, a torturer for a protagonist, a corrupt feudal society. 'The blade itself' is from Homer - a rare moment where that fucker recriminates about war. The details are the most convincing - the torturer's inner monologue is always asking questions, casting doubt - the amputee waggling his stump thoughtfully, scared people forgetting where their sword is (when it's in their hand). Addictive. 4/5

  • Before They Are Hanged (2007) by Joe A. Yes, that addictive. So yeah it's about a big siege, a big battle and a big quest, but somehow new and uncliched. The heroes, of the quest: "What are we doing here?"; "Got nowhere better to be". 3/5.

  • A World Without Time: Einstein and Godel (2004) by Palle Yourgrau. Popularisation of his scholarly expose of Godel's mathematical argument which seems to prove time's nonexistence as a direct consequence of General Relativity. Yourgrau argues this case using the overlooked friendship between E & G to stir up human interest. He beats the drum a bit hard, taking popularisation to mean more superlatives and jibes ("A German Jew among WASPS"). I get the feeling that Einstein’s in the title more to boost sales / Godel's profile than because the men's relationship is all that critical to the proof Yourgrau thinks has been hushed up or ignored. 3/5

  • The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (2011) by Stephen Collins. "Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show." Beautiful, pellucid, interpretable graphic novel about social angst. Baldest and most passive drone Dave suffers catastrophic facial hair - the first outbreak of disorder in a neurotically ordered island society (ours). The sea surrounding them is the Other (and the construction of 'evil'). Collins’ text is almost blank verse, and the drawings are clean, with just enough detail to make each panel pop. (Dave hangs his wig on the hatstand every evening). In the middle of a boring meeting - suddenly chaos and apartheid. It's honestly not stretching matters to see the thing as a treatment of the Deleuzian idea of the Event. I cried at the climax of part 3, but it's part 4 that makes it exceptional: after Dave's gone, his society papers over and commoditises the event that threatened to destroy them. 5?/5.

  • Ecce Homo (1908) by Nietzsche. Despite studying him off and on for two years, I still don't have much of a handle on Nietzsche. I do have a predictably humanist reading which I hope is true enough – “N as the grandest troll in history, as a necessarily scathing surgeon”. But I can't ignore his brutality, his never showing his working, and his less funny self-regard. The chapter titles of this, his autobiography, speak to both possibilities. 4/5.


  • Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In these Times (2002) by Various. Anthology of news from an American newspaper written largely by Left historians. I expected to disagree with much of the contents, but the selected pieces - uber-brief and factual - instead offer a shocking and low-ideology portrait of the news unreported or begrudgingly reported by mainstream sources. It’s way left of the Guardian and still undeluded. I’d never looked into the Contras scandal which In these Times scooped – if you don’t know, this was that time Reagan-funded murderers imported massive amounts of crack into the US using government money. For real. Even the Zizek piece is low-key, wise, and borne out by history! 4/5.

  • The Meaning of Recognition (2005) by Clive James. Stunning cultural and political essays, often really funny to boot (his series on the 2005 UK general election is acid and insightful). I needed to read someone who doesn’t believe that everything personal is political tbf. (Larkin is a great poet and was a terrible man – why is this so difficult for people to accept? Is it just the halo effect?) His long essay on Isaiah Berlin is fantastic and contentious, and his retorts to the professional philosophers who come at him about it devastating, inspiring. Everything I learn about this man increases my affection. 4*/5.

  • Some Recent Attacks on the Public (1992) by James Kelman. Righteous, detailed, paranoid liberationism, mostly about Glasgow and race. Published by the redoubtable AK Press – the anarcho channel into the pre-internet teen bedrooms of Scotland. 4life. 3/5.

  • Gray’s Anatomy (2009) by John Gray. Hard to read - not for his prose, which is luminous and droll, but because he disagrees with almost everything almost everyone holds dear (whether reason, science, or organised social movements are your tool for improving the world). These essays span his career, satirising Marxists and Neocons, eulogising Santayana and explaining why communism sucks and doesn’t work, and why liberalism is cute but doesn’t work. (I paraphrase somewhat.) This leaves only Stoicism and resistance to dangerous meddlers as the ‘good’ life. Lucid, unclassifiable, horrific. 4*/5

  • Read aloud: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. Totally straightforward book: it is constructed of plot plus the geography of the Borders. Even so, it's just about full enough of archaic words to be diverting. Totally irresponsible book: it made of Germans omnimalevolent villains in 1915, blaming them tout court for the war, and suppressing ambiguity. Buchan was an unusually humane imperialist, and couldn’t know we’d do this properly at Versailles soon after, but still, a dick move. 2/5.

  • Read aloud: Steppenwolf (1927) by Herman Hesse. Aging Romantic pessimist Harry comes to a crisis, and learns that fun is fun (and meaningful). I’ve been avoiding this book because of its status in rockist, hedonist circles, but after the first 50 pages it begins to subvert this reputation, and itself, over and over again until charming. Hesse also inserts himself, as the domineering, sparkling ‘Hermine’ which is mad and excellent. Would’ve changed my life if I’d read it aged 16, or in 1930. As it is, Regina Spektor, the Supremes and DJ Hixxy had already forced me to admit the existence and glory of non-cognitive, non-consequential, non-political pop sides to life. 4/5.

  • Read aloud: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, translated by Joan Tate. Acclaimed yet awful pioneers of Scandinoir. I couldn’t stand the prose – uniformly banal, full of aimlessly detailed descriptions of rooms never returned to, and, the weirdest thing, they’re in the habit of repeating the protagonist Martin Beck’s full name, eight times a page, which reminds me of nothing but preschool stories. Gets an extra point because this translation might just be terrible. 2/5.

  • The Logic of Life (2008) by Tim Harford. Celebration of the entrenched imperialism of economics (the application of the field’s hard-nosed acquisitory rational choice theory to more and more human phenomena - crime, romance, addiction, corporate pay, and The Ascent of Man). Harford is better than Levitt - to whom the books owes its format, cheek and some of the original research - because he’s less delighted (: sociopathic) about the unflattering and anti-humanist results people have apparently uncovered. Some of the research is properly astonishing – and thus contentious (I have in mind the 200x paper that purported to show significant shifts in [expressed] sexuality as the AIDS epidemic peaked, in proportion to how well people personally knew sufferers, “cost of AIDS”.) In any case, Harford writes extremely clearly about technical things, and the research can’t be ignored, because it suggests routes for generalised policy (rather than cynical rules to apply to all individual cases). Extra point for his lovely immanent-performative ontology of maths: he claims cricket players and economic actors are doing maths unconsciously when they catch a ball or opt for an optimum (third-order differentials). This implies that sunflowers are mathematicians -  that all the world is not merely describable with maths, but acts as maths, is maths. I don’t believe this, but isn’t it lovely? 4/5.

  • Flat Earth News (2010) by Nick Davies. Calmly furious hatchet job on what I will call mainstream media - but don’t thereby imagine me in a tin hat. I was on a news diet anyway (though this doesn’t mean politically disengaged), so this told me what I’d already nastily assumed: commercial ownership of outlets means vast staff cuts and over-milked productivity; which mean no time to research or check facts; which means “churnalism”, the frantic-lazy reproduction of PR and State material, and worse, their interpretations. (88% of all UK stories are now based on press releases. This trend includes the Guardian (50%) and Times (59%).) His model of the origin of hysteric snowball stories like the Millneium Bug or Diana’s death is brilliant and convincing, disparaging conspiracy-theory suspicions
    1. Uncertainty exists.
    2. An expert sexes up the dangers to increase popular impact.
    3. Impact stirs commerce, who exaggerate for gain.
    4. Exaggeration is absorbed by cranks (cultists, columnists), who begin to scream.)
    Economise, kowtow, slink, hegemonies, neutralise, service, decontextualise, validate, exaggerate and conform: the rules of production. Was balling my fists through most of this. 4*/5.

  • Notes from a Native Son (1964) by James Baldwin. Cultural and autobiographical essays by a lionised black-consciousness writer. His attention to pop representations of blacks prefigures the modern Left (Racealicious and Feministing) by 60 years; his political wit and casual familiarity with high art prefigures Clive James, though with more weight and tragedy put upon him. ‘The Fire Next Time’ is the single piece to give anyone who wonders whether quieter, structural racism has all that much effect on people. 4/5.

  • Questioning Identity (2000) edited by Kath Woodward. Bleh. I’ll continue to give radical sociologists a chance to show me they have something to say, because - although the evidence is not good that they do - the consequences of ignoring them wrongly are too awful. 2/5.

  • Consciousness Explained (1993) by Daniel Dennett. Damn: impressed. The title’s supreme arrogance is misleading: his prose is clear, stylish and flowing, he's as expert in the relevant experiments as any neuroscientist, and he’s much less hectoring in book form – he admits his theory’s counter-intuitive and hostile appearance, he flags alternate positions and possibilities, and it’s hard to doubt him when he says he’d change his mind if the science pointed away from his detailed eliminativism. And yet it doesn’t. I am very resistant to functionalism and mind-brain identity – in fact I’ve never been able to take it seriously - so that he manages to patch my failure of imagination is a mark of the book’s power. You begin to wonder – for instance when he talks about his work on children with multiple personalities disorder – if he’s cultivating a humane exterior to make his theory more palatable. But it's probably just that our backlash against his loud, cartoon atheism overlooks his humanity. The first section, where he admits the wonder and difficulty of studying consciousness, and carefully lays out the method ahead, is a model for modern scientifically engaged philosophy – and at the end he suggests a dozen novel, detailed experiments to test his theory (ante up). I begrudge it being so amazing but won’t deny that it is. Read it (and The Conscious Mind) if you want to have a serious opinion about mind: you shouldn’t entirely agree, but nor can you ignore. Minus a half for being twenty years old in a field where that matters. 4*/5

  • The Examined Life (2013) by Stephen Grosz. Don’t like psychoanalysis either, but this was neat, sad, surprising. It’s a series of polished case studies illustrating the wide variety of ways we can be broken-down and knotted-up. The book settles into a pattern: difficult patient’s puzzling actions are to be explained by a timeless subversion - thus, praise can be destructive, pain is vitally informative, spitting in people’s faces can be a defence mechanism, etc. He’s honest about the questionable utility of his field – he doesn’t seem to help some of the people, let alone cure them – and this makes the book. 3/5.

  • Hamewith (1979) by Charles Murray. I’m away from home, and so must retreat into an archaic and falsely distinctive version of it. (“Thir’s a pig in ilka bed.”) Murray’s poems about Aberdeenshire were written from South Africa, and they’re funny and surprisingly brutal. Some jingoism too, unfortunately, though check out ‘Dockens Afore His Peers’ for subversion. He avoids the kailyard by focussing on tatties instead (the Classics, drunks and work-sore backs, over the lad o’ pairts and the light on the rapeseed). 4/5.

  • Buzz: The Science of Caffeine and Alcohol (1999) by Stephen Braun. I only recently started dosing caffeine, so thought I’d check up on it. This is fun, with lots of historical flavour and scientific wonder. (The coolest fact in it is that the body’s direct link between effort and fatigue is the result of an incredibly elegant cycle using adenosine: the production of energy in the body (by breaking down adenosine triphosphate) is exactly the same process as inducing sleep, as the process’ byproduct adenosine triggers dampening receptors in the brain. He doesn’t give a straight answer to the question “Does our rapid formation of caffeine tolerance make its long-term effects zero-sum?” but the evidence isn’t good. 3/5.

  • The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) by Iain Banks. Banks was super-important to me as a boy – The Crow Road, though even darker than his sinister average, offers a sincere and positive vision of atheism – but I’ve been less enthralled on rereading the real-world novels (while his scifi feels instantly classic). This is relatively light, offering the familiar Banks themes: the extended-family drama, a focus on human foibles, and globalised Scotland, which are inexhaustible enough. 3*/5.


Mnemonic for Kahneman's Three Divisions of the Mind

Otto's secret author of
much of what you think;
Connie cannot rouse herself
unless he's on the blink.

Econ's cold and maximal
a lucid heart of glass;
Zappa's contradictory,
inconstant, foiling Nash.

Remmy is deluded, or,
creative with the past;
Esper suffers greater thus
and flies off, Otto-fast.

(I should really use "Tass" instead of Otto but that ruins the last line.)


magic rationalism

Say you're a magician. Say you know that most things can be controlled with magic, but say each spell takes ages to learn - decades, say. What to learn first? How to produce terrifying fireballsimmense speed? understanding of aliens?

No: as every child knows, you wish for more wishes first. Immortality would be best, obviously, but no-one knows that one yet, so you take those cheap potions of minor fortituderecall and wit that are around. At the same time, you target your own willpowermemory, reading speed, and read other wizards getting to the point of spell-books, saving years. Most of all, you learn the hard spell that makes you as right as you can be: strict conscious and unconscious reason.


leaving home miscellany

(c) Roddy Macfarlane (2012)

Beauty... You came back. But I didn't notice. I was too busy defining myself.
- Carter Ratcliffe

Five years in Aberdeen; I was transformed here. It's enough to make you grateful for the pathologically dark cold, the fish stink, and those that fled sinking economies for this raft of fossilised sun-sludge. Aberdeen is a test of character. There are so many cliches about why it's a shit place that valuing it, choosing it, does say something about you. Everyone grumbles about the town - its insane weather and uniform architecture, its oilmen and lack of clubs. The difference between you as incomer and you as settler is if you see past this to quieter facts: the pride and persisting difference of the place. You earn your affection. If you disagree, go watch this and then talk to me.

(Anyway towns are like multiplayer games - their worth depends more on who you're playing with than the game.)


When is a set of thoughts an ideology? I think it is some family-resemblance of

  1. when they are political thoughts.
  2. when they're applied to everything in the world (always wrong).
  3. when they are held too tightly (a comfort blanket).
  4. when they are validated socially rather than justified empirically
  5. when one doesn't agree with them.


the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is... a moral one... scientists know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic... But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too... The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will... It is that kind of moral health of the scientists which, in the last few years, the rest of us have needed most; and of which, because the two cultures scarcely touch, we have been most deprived.
- CP Snow

I think about Snow's ancient 'Two Cultures' thesis a lot. (It is the fact that science people and arts people are socially, professionally and philosophically segregated in a drastic and unhealthy way.)

First thing, though: lots of people are in neither culture - Snow's division is for the middle classes. And a second thing: some are in both. (A non-standard instance: hard scifi fans. They look into and beyond our knowledge, beyond the nasty ahistorical product cycles of capitalism, or the crypto-primitivism of its opposition.)

For all that arts Open Days go on about employability, there is a vast difference in the basic goal of Arts degrees and Science ones. Sciences offer knowledge, mostly for the purposes of practical power; the arts tend to encourage self-creation and social criticism. (To supplement this crude model, here is my crude model of all education.

  1. Primary school: purpose is pupils' survival in a world driven by more or less abstract information - thus literacy, numeracy, IT, general knowledge, socialisation).

  2. Secondary school: purpose is differentiation. Exposure to lots of types of knowledge in the hope that one of them sticks.  

  3. Tertiary: Where it diverges. Arts kids are supposed to 'think' and locate themselves in culture. Science kids are to memorise things and obtain control. Savoir c'est pouvoir.)

As always, Rorty offers a drastic solution to the Culture split: if, he says, we only gave up foundational philosophy, letting the names of departments denote very loose communities of people rather than strict subjects about defined objects in the world... "the oppositions between the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, might gradually fade away". It is very hard to imagine this. But this doesn't necessarily speak against him: it's our failure too.

(PS: There is also the third culture of people who can speak to no one but themselves, but from whom the physicists derive their power and the economists derive their authority.)



I took English in first year, and quickly became contemptuous of it, though not for the usual reasons. What I resented was that no-one realised I was a fraud - that I never read the books, that I didn't know the history I discussed, that my opinions were just that: groundless reaction-shot opinion. It spoke badly of the whole practice 'English' that they couldn't see I was making it up (or, at least, that they didn't call me out for making it up).

Certainly this was unfair - I attacked people for being charitable to the fucked-up ball of woolly thinking I was. I was radically unfocussed, dully countercultural, miserable, and ensnared in the awful twin ideologies I now call rockism ("extreme experiences are the only really real ones") and lacrimism ("sadness is the source of the profound"). Luckily there was a kernel of curiosity and arrogance too, the kind that can in the right conditions grow up. After reading Pierre Bayard I can actually see unfalsifiable bullshit as a strength of the field. It allowed me to unfold.


Sadism is masochism for egalitarians.


Rappers in a single sentence (in honour of Christian):

  • Jay: I am telling you, I have always sounded victorious.
  • Kanye: Fine; I am awful - but one must love oneself regardless.
  • Biggie: Look at me, up here (but not like I'm not meant to be up here).
  • Nas: The old soul's new life: how is it smooth villainy becomes me?
  • Em: Your knives have such short reach: the last must be the blade itself.
  • Fiddy: Refrain from disparaging my cynicism - unlike yours, it is earned.
  • Chuck D: I read so hard, the books combust; neoliberalism earns my disgust.
  • Missy: Out beyond ideas of wrong and right there is a field; I shake my behind there.
  • Kim: A phallus is hardly necessary condition of overbearance.

I don't know why abridged rap should sound like the Bloomsbury Set - but you're in my head, you follow my rules.


(c) BBC (2013)

I read to forget the impotence of reason.


Idea for the purposes of drawing attention to effective altruism: create a posthumous league table of people's charity. A list of folk (including celebs for PR purposes) in descending order of % of lifetime income given. (The second column would track the stat which actually matters: the % given to effective altruist organisations.)


Novel idea, based on a true story:

Nuclear engineer comes to Dounreay in 1955. These people are bloody brilliant as standard, and after the plant came online, there's nothing to do up there: so he's bored off his tits. Starts a cactus farm in the north, to see if he can. Publishes awful Caithness poets. Plays clay pigeon with sea mines.


(c) Nicholas Roerich (1901), 'Overseas Guests'

How often is the pain of being mistreated overtaken by the pleasure of thinking you're not, right now, the oppressor?


Thought up one actual argument against the Abolition of suffering: maybe pain, and only pain, enables the expression of defiance and the will to survive. (What Spinoza called the conatus.) These are not nice, but they are unique and thrilling feelings which arguably give life as we know it an extra dimension. (Not particularly convincing, is it?)


People say 'the revolution' when they just mean 'a better world'. Sometimes unironically. But when I hear 'the revolution', I hear 'a better world for me and mine, right fucking now, over the broken spines of those who disagree with me in the merest detail.'


"A couple should be two people against the world."

This belief and those like it are the reason we should spit when we hear the word 'romanticism'. To justify your selfish quasi-psychosis, simply latch on to another human being. Declare your egoism a matter of 'romance'. Nietzsche famously says that real lovers act beyond good and evil. Maybe. Then entering this dumb kind of passion is itself wrong. Beyond nothing, signifying no-one.

Love of one is a piece of barbarism: for it is practiced at the expense of all others.
- Nietzsche, mocking me
(read this line in a silly voice)


The maddening maxim: To ignore is to abet.


Reputation is the integrity that other people think you have, not what what you actually have.

(Alternatively: your 'integrity' is just the reputation you deludedly think you deserve. I like the first one better, probably because my rep is diminished, of late.)


"Join us in the resistance. (We moonlight as the resistance to the resistance.)"


bookshop miscellany

(c) Beatrice Warde (1932)

What's the Hamlet of scifi? (Not the 'greatest and most complex work in its field': the book which earns you disapproval if you admit to not having read it.) Brave New World? Do Androids Dream? Dune? Gravity's Rainbow? It's hard to imagine anyone making fun of you for not having read 2001. So, is scifi less centralised and hierarchical, then? Maybe. Maybe the scifi world is just yet to have its Robert Hutchins, the fossilising stipulation. Maybe I've just not spent enough time around the geek equivalent of academic snobs: convention attendees.


Scandinavian countries are the least violent places in the world, all hovering around 0.5 murders per 100,000. But their crime fiction - unusually pessimistic, lonely, and depraved even for crime fiction - has been taking off like nobody's business. How long will it take for the entire population to be fictionally murdered?
  • Scandinavia's population: 25m.
  • Scandinavia's actual murder rate: 0.5 per 100,000. (Iceland had one murder in 2010.)
  • Scandinavia's actual birth rate: 7374 per 100,000 
  • Date of area's death by murder: Never.

  • Number of Scandinoir books: At least 160 in the last 20 years.
  • Scandinavia's fictional murder rate: 8 per book for British crifi; extrapolate 10 for Scandinoir.
  • Scandinavia's fictional birth rate: 0. I wouldn't bring children into a world like that, would you?
  • Copies of Scandinoir sold: 150m (65m of which Stieg Larsson, 30m for Camilla Läckberg...)
  • Copies per year (1992-2012): 7.5m
  • Number of fictional Scandinavian murders per year: 75m (150m x 10 murders each / 20 years). Falsely assume constant sales for 1992-2012.

  • Date that there are only murderers left in Scandinavia: 1999.

    (And this is ignoring all books sold after 2004, so even without Larsson and Lackberg the area was modally doomed.)

(The above relies on the deeply dubious but metaphysically funny idea of counting the same character's death once each time their murder is read. This is balanced, a bit, by my false assumption that each copy of each book is read only once.)

Cheap explanations of Scandanavian crime fiction and Scandinavian are easy: 1) nasty escapism could get a boost from society's safety: the lower actual violence is, the safer and more enjoyable fantasy violence is. 2) Money: Did you see how successful Stieg Larsson's books became?

"What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness... A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley."
- Nathaniel Rich


lot of contemporary novels have twee, mysterious titles of the form:

"The [Wacky Thing] of [Cute-Name McStrange]"

e.g.The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (2010); The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite (2008); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2013); The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud (2004); The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009); The Universe versus Alex Woods (2013); The Evolution of Mara Dyer (2013); The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (2008); Hector and the Search for Happiness (2010); Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2011); Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2012); Peaches for Monsieur le Curé (2013); The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012); The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2009); Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (2010); The Confession of Katherine Howard (2011);  The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007); The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2011). Spot the four which are good.

These books ride the era's general trend toward twee products of all kinds. Maybe it was the sugar-goth romp Charlie St Cloud started off this specifically crap form of the crap trend. I like to think it is actually because every writer in the Anglosphere is a massive fan of John Irving (consider his 90s books A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed). 

What does it mean? Nothing much - just that authors are carried by dumb currents as much as anyone, and that the internet continues to bleed and make most things less formal.


Some classics rendered in this Twee Synopsis form:
  • "The Pervy Journey of Humbert Humbert"; 
  • "The Shit Island of Robinson Crusoe"
  • "The Efficacious Errors of Elizabeth Bennett"
  • "The Catastrophic Errors of Eddie Pusrecks"
  •  "The Frightful Society of Winston Smith"
  • "The Fantastical Follies of Theseus and Hippolyta"
  • "The Plangent Becoming of the History Boys"
  • "The Strange Death of Gustav von Aschenbach"


See also
"[Mundane Thing] in [Marginal Place]"

e.g. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2006); Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2010); The Cleaner of Chartres (2012); The Swallows of Kabul (2005); The Bookseller of Kabul (2004); The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2013); The Taliban Cricket Club (); A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (2013).


What's the difference between Crime fiction, Mystery fiction, Horror fiction, and Thrillers?

In general, they're all about violence as the simplest and most scarily probable destabilising Event in life. In Thrillers, a powerful protagonist is set against even more powerful antagonists; in Horror, the protagonists are impotent. Further, you don't get closure from the event: either no explanation is given for the awful act, or a supernatural explanation is. Mystery is obvious, bound as it by certain strict rules mostly about the perpetrator ("Whodunnit?", "The red herring", "The brilliant insight", "The chase").


"There are three problems afflicting contemporary poetry, each one serious enough to render the art irrelevant to the vast majority of intelligent readers in our time... 1) There is far too much poetry being written and published... 2) contemporary poetry is crippled by the fact that only one particular rhetorical mode is considered acceptable and prestigious. That mode is the confessional lyric... gaseous emotionalizing is identical with what we [now] call poetry... 3) Finally: the Portentous Hush... the tendency of contemporary verse to generate an air of highfalutin sanctity about itself, to pose before the reader as Something Of Great Importance, with capital letters... The real subject of such a poem is the celebration of its own heightened sensitivity... A literature that remains stuck in the rut of a single rhetorical mode, and that can offer nothing but emotional plangencies and hieratic posturing, ought to sink into tongueless oblivion."
- Joseph Salemi

Very few people read poetry. Let's see if we can hazard just how few:

In the UK, poetry is 0.2% of book sales (plummeting from, what, 30% in 1900?). [Poetry made £6.7m out of £3.3bn.] There are fewer people reading less, and older, poetry. That doesn't mean 0.2% of the population, for a number of confounding reasons. Let's get as much out of sales data as we can, though:
  • Total sales / average price per book: £6.7m / £9 = 740,000 books a year.
  • Total books / average books per reader: If you buy any, you'll buy a few, say 4 = 185,000 poetry readers.
  • Readers / total population: 0.19m / 62m Brits

    = 0.3% of people (buy) (mainstream publishers') poetry (new).

However, a 2009 report by the NEA found 8.3% of Americans claiming to have read a book of poems in 2009. We think ourselves a more poetic people than them, so what gives?
  1. Book-buying is highly concentrated. Lots of people buy 40 books a year, many more buy none.

  2. Perhaps the sales data captures little of the practice these days because poetry is even less commercial now.
    • Free stuff online. (Project Gutenberg and its like cover everything up to 1930 for free, , and blogs cover the amateurs and pre-professionals of the C21st Century.)
    • Running a small press is cheaper than ever.
    • Performance culture.

  3. This new bright grim picture is spoiled by the point that old poetry makes up 90% of the sales and no doubt as much of the online spoils, and that poetry readership has been falling throughout the C21st - when the online archives got big and should have revitalised things. 
How many then? Data fails. Closer to the 0.3% sales figure, anyway.

Why so few? Well, the standard line is to call people stupid, or to blame high school English for scaring all but the very weirdest kids away. Salemi's entertaining rant about poetry these days (2001) has something to it, though I suspect him of being a broken down grump. For the first time it's plausible that more people write poetry than read it.

But say also that few people have need of it. What rare need supposedly drives poetry reading? That of obscurity, ambiguity, and quasi-mystical inflation of experience, particularly emotion. For most people, negative capability is better known as speaking out your arse. For everyone else...


Since poetry is so marginal, are writers who see their work as primarily or significantly ethical forced to leave it behind in pursuit of making an actual difference? In computer games, for instance?

(c) Winston Rowntree (2013)


Peter Singer

Speak now of the soul's ratchets and the stirred Stakhanovite silt
of the bed of this generation. of pitiless benevolence.

Ratchet, reason; ratchet, ruck;
Progress slow through dry valleys, slow as

Fate; despicably kind. vegan cynic,
now shame meagre wealth,

Now balk at cost of consistency
now strike, wages of sin;

Now maximise like fatcat
now route cold virtue road;

Now niggle, now coin
now manumit the tenderloin;

Now not sit still
to tunes ignored.


I have been reading, Q2 2013

New Zealandish propaganda about New Zealandish propaganda (1917)

"Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling - for as soon as the mind responds, connects with the thing, the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us. If the poet presents directly feelings which overwhelm ... they cannot strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!"

– Wei Tai (C11th)

Was in a sciencey mood. (This makes my ravishing encounter with Rorty - the greatest of the irrealist literary crusaders - more notable still.) Science is most easily taken in via sweet funny geeks - so I returned to scifi for the first time in years. Poetry overtook me mid-May. Been active, but the increase in reading is really just redistribution, taken from my crash news diet and cutting down on my beloved web aggregators (3QuarksDaily, Wood S Lot, and Arts & Letters Daily). Some long gushes here; forgive.

1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts, I guess.
3/5: Skim it.
4/5: Read it receptively.
4*/5: Amazing, but probably only the first time through.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.
TBC/5: I don't have the evaluative tools for this (yet?).

  • Read aloud: Trial of the Clone (2012) by Zach Weinersmith. Super-fun choose-your-own-adventure book. It's a satire of Star Wars and classic scifi, your character's greed and passive aggression matched only by his/her incompetence. Bellylaughed a lot, which is unusual for me. Sometimes the gags fall back on scat when it gets tired of mocking religion, but I mean that in the best possible way.
    4/5. [Read twice, one and a half hours each]

  • Mogworld (2010) by Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. Similar to Trial, this is a pop-postmodern treatment of its genre's conventions, for fantasy: it's self-aware videogame NPCs living and suffering in an uninspired swords-n-sorcery MMO. The parts where the characters begin to realise that the gods are incompetent nerds are my favourite. It doesn't have the vitriol of his famed game reviews, but the ending is suitably brutal, and there is a sad tension throughout (the protagonist repeatedly and sincerely asks to be killed) which elevates things a bit.
    3/5. [4 hours, lightly]

  • Thinking About Texts (2001) by Richard Hopkins. Just an A-level English textbook, with good, long extracts and scrupulous presentation of alt perspectives. English students at my university were taught very little Theory indeed - and while this made discussions much less pompous, they were also kinda toothless. Without theory, the subject "English" has little to distinguish it, being as it is just an odd dilution of philosophy tied to narrow history of ideas with sprinklings of sexy concepts from newer humanities (e.g. Media studies, Race studies, Queer theory, Area studies). Anyway: tutorials would have been less unbearable if this book had been ubiquitous.
    3/5 (4/5 for culture people.) [6 hours]

  • Venus in Exile: the Rejection of Beauty in C20th Art (2002) by Wendy Steiner. Warm, masterful. Main thesis is that beauty and women were so intertwined a hundred years ago that Modernism was essentially misogynistic - in form, as well as just in its practitioners. Furthermore, that this misogyny, as part of a wider smashing of old things, was key to feminism finally breaking out and establishing new options for women. Convincing.
    4/5. [5 hours]

  • Key Concepts: Gender (2006) by Tina Chanter. Annoying: conventionally unconventional, dogmatically anti-dogmatic. I've been looking for a good introduction to give to Questioning friends. This is not that. (Is it a coincidence that the best popularisers - Paglia, Greer, Moran - are all highly problematic feminists?) It manages to make the most exciting parts of current feminism - standpoint theory, Calhoun's post-deconstruction ideas - sound dull, dense and theoretically empty, as if it were the same kind of navel-gazing theorism as the hyperinflated Althusserian-Foucauldian stuff. (To be fair, any overview has to cover French theory, because that's what our counter-gender people have actually been up to for decades. But not necessarily with this much blind acceptance.) You get the impression that the only progress in feminist thought is in calling your predecessors timid or bigoted - JS Mill calls out the Victorians, Okin calls out JS Mill, Butler calls out Okin, Wittig calls out Butler, and then Calhoun calls Wittig heteronormative(!). The book does give a breakdown of French feminism in slightly less abstruse language, and goes through all the Waves, including the intentionally confused interference-wave that is pomo-poco gender studies. And it's brief.
    2/5. [3 hours]

  • Turn Off Your Mind (2003) by Gary Lachmann. I'm a sucker for this book's thesis: that Charles Manson, Scientology, and Altamont were not horrible subversions of the 60s' ideology - but its logical conclusion. The book's a series of pop history lessons, and is in fact a bit too full of sections like: "...and then Ram Dass went to India and met Guru McFamous who also knew Bastard McProfound who was notorious for writing a best-selling book of consciousness revolution and being racist for kicks". A fairly clear-eyed account of a bunch of fucking creeps who still have cultural capital.
    3/5. [3 hours, very lightly]

  • Audiobook: The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps (2011-3) by Peter Adamson. Ongoing series of free podcasts. It's mostly introductory, the standard readings plus the odd surprising debunking (e.g. "Heraclitus is not a philosopher of chaos"). Not a massive amount of women here, even given that he's going through the Medievals and Islamic Golden Age atm. (Hypatia? Arete? Heloise? Hildegard of Bingen?)
    3/5. [30 hours with my ears]

  • Conundrum (1974) by Jan Morris. "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. It is my earliest memory." Memoir by our first trans national treasure. (Even the Daily Mail said:
    A compelling and moving read, a world away from the tabloid titillation that normally surrounds the subject.
    !!) Her:
    I see now that, like the silent prisoners I was really deprived of an identity... I realize that the chief cause of my disquiet was the fact that I had none. I was not to others what I was to myself. I did not conform to the dictionary's definition - 'itself, and not something else'.
    While it's technically detailed - dealing with the nittygritty of eight years of medical tourism, voice training, colleague adjustment, and a compulsory divorce from her wife - it leaves lots about the subjective experience of crossing unanalysed. Which is both fine and disappointing.
    4/5. [3 hours]

  • Map and Territory (2010) by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Manifesto for LessWrong's radical empiricism, and a genuinely good intro to epistemology (and formal epistemology) to boot. Being a tricksy wishywashy philosophy student, I unfortunately can't follow them in stamping Bayesian-Quinean realism as The straightforward answer to everything (as he says, "the simple truth"), but I admire Yudkowsky's hard-headedness, technical creativity, and style a whole lot.
    4*/5. (LessWrong is reliably between 3*/5 and 5/5.) [2 hours.]

  • Capitalist Realism (2012) by Mark Fisher. Short book by one of Britain's premier net intellectuals, trying to demystify the Hegel/Baudrillard approach to society, existence, and pop culture. He is humane, focussing on why we might think we need these Theorists, and he does well to handle critical theory without the field's usual airless, salacious presumptiveness. But it's still logic chopping without the logic. YMMV.
    3/5. [3 hours. (Short; not simple)]

  • The "Transcendental Analytic" (1787) by Immanuel Kant. Difficult, flashy apodixis. His arguments are gappy; prose awful; goals anyway radically different from mine (he wanted certainty, exhaustiveness, the establishment of free will at any metaphysical cost: a.k.a. submission). NB: The Analytic is only about 1/8th of his Critique of Pure Reason. I don't doubt that there's enough subtlety and complexity to spend a career reading him. I just doubt there's world enough and time for me to return for the rest.
    2/5. [14 hours, including modern help.]

  • Anglo-English Attitudes (2013) by Geoff Dyer. Stunning bunch of 3- or 4-page essays. Often on French or Italian figures or places (Althusser, Cartier-Bresson) or unusual objects of aesthetics (Action Man). What we call "research" is just incidental to Dyer - glittering coincidences and correlations fall into his lap as he sets about reading, apparently, everything. 
    4/5. [2 hours, skipping some of the French ones]

  • Read aloud: Until Before After (2011) by Ciaran Carson. Solemnly blatant. Plainly good. 157 unpunctuated sentence-poems, each poem holding maybe three jarring, run-on thoughts. It's melancholy, about loss, time and rhythm, but present itself as neither pitiful nor gnostic. It's really difficult to parse, but you don't resent that. There's a shout-out to China Miéville in the back, which is mad! because these poems are stylistically nothing like Miéville's clotted, neologistic prose. There are maybe 2 words less than a hundred years old in the whole book ("credit card"). Closer inspection. 
    4/5. [Twice = 2 hours]

  • Hijack Reality: Deptford X (2008) by Bob and Roberta Smith. Aggrandised history of a cute London art festival he helped found. I'm not much into zany free play atm. Art, as an institution, seems much more hollow and ritualistic than it recently did. Which leads me to wonder: am I on the CP-Snow-seesaw? Does my current enthusiasm for science mean I must gain some contempt for arts? (Art might be the proper home of structuralist waffle - being, as it sometimes is, a floating system of signs with no correspondence or weight.) Anyway, this gets an extra point for being starry-eyed and democratic - too rare in art.
    3/5. [< hour.]

  • Read aloud: Aphorisms (1838) by Napoleon Bonaparte, compiled by Honore de Balzac. Not very good, mostly. He's obviously truly independent - e.g. there's lots of praise for Muhammad here, lots of fearless anticlerical scepticism, lots of examination of despots. He's not coherent at all - he's both an anti-intellectual "man of action" and a shiny-eyed Enlightenment rationalist; Machiavellian bastard and Aristotelian virtue-seeker; imperial elitist and populist revolutionary. Consider: Napoleon caused the deaths of between 3 and 7 million people (i.e. 0.5% of every person alive at the time), imposing significant effects on almost the entire world - and he's a very average writer. Read him next to Nietzsche, who plausibly never harmed anyone in his entire life, but whose writing stills scorches and stuns us. (This gets better when we remember that Nietzsche considered Napoleon one of a handful of people who have been truly 'great'.) Charitable reading: We happen to have caught up with Napoleon's thoughts, but not with Nietzsche's.
    2/5. [1 hour] Some good lines that don't depend on their speaker being extraordinary for impact:
You never climb that high unless you do not know where you are going.

Politics - which cannot be moral - is that which must make morality triumph.

Superstition is the legacy left by one century's clever people to the fools of the next...


  • The whole of the Open University course MST209. I am a really bad student. I am just promising enough, just engaged enough for my laziness and bluffing to be actively shameful rather than a mere sad fact. (I expect glory regardless.) This course is obviously as abstract as can be, but the occasional human fact still breaks in - e.g. when the anonymous author(s) complain about the chilling effect Christianity had on the development of probabilistic reasoning. This is funny. I excuse my own lack of drive here.
    2/5. [60 hours, including ratiocination.]

  • Read aloud(!): Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville. Enormous steampunk social commentary dressed in gorgeous nasty prose (think Nabokov on America). This is ethical science fiction. His dank, evil city, 'New Crobuzon', is a dark mirror of Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork (itself a funhouse mirror of Elizabethan London) without its animating sense of fun and justice. Instead, it has fearsome class consciousness; satires on academic, tabloid and political speech, misogyny, and the deeply tainted political economy of science/capital/government.
    Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof.
    What I take to be the central metaphor: one of the oppressed races are found to have a native power - the 'potential energy of crisis' - which, with a scientific harness, could revolutionise the world: i.e. Classical Marxism. Our heroes are not especially heroic. In the face of The City, no one has all that much power.
    4*/5. [22 hours, because spoken]

  • The Marxists (1962) by C Wright Mills. I take this to be a fair appraisal of the development of the great opposer. Book is mainly extracts from brilliant, now-obscure theorists and commentators (e.g. Kardelj, Luxembourg, GDH Cole). Mills is anti-Stalinist and anti-McCarthyist - i.e. he took what we now take to be the only virtuous path through the marsh of the day - which required considerable bravery and fairness (as the respective failures of Orwell and Sartre on the matter show). The chapter on "How Not to Criticise Marxism" is amazing, distinguishing types of Marxist that people still confuse these days. He died just before publishing this, thus missing the great wave of neo-idealism from Frankfurt, a wave that more determines the character of today's radical Left than the classical economics detailed herein. He prepared the ground, but would not be one of them.
    4/5. [5 hours, some skipping.]

  • The Rorty Reader (2009) by Richard Rorty. Epochal, encompassing, uplifting. I've been in love with the idea of Rorty for years. (He is: the renegade Analytic, the outrageous unifier, the literary soul, the pessimistic utopian, the great puncturer, and the bravest postmodernist by far - because he just comes out and says it, bites the bizarre bullets.) He is illuminating about philosophy of mind, poetry, foundationalism, the public/private divide, feminism, America, MacKinnon, Derrida, Davidson, and Dewey (obv), among lots of other things. One can usually taste meanness in postmodern writing - stemming, I suppose, from our sense of being hopelessly undermined by it - but never in Rorty. I found this really hard going - I've been reading it since January - despite his being utterly clear, original and sometimes funny.
    5?/5. [Long. 40 hours?]

  • Surface Detail (2010) by Iain 'M' Banks. Meditation on consequentialism and moral progress, only more fun than that sounds. ("Consequences are everything.") I'm a big fan of his Culture novels, but this is only good. Spends 300 pages setting up its thirteen protagonists into like seven plot threads. As a result, he has to repeat a lot of exposition to keep us - including, in one instance, a full page of quoted dialogue which we'd heard 50 pages back. Oddly simplistic despite its fifth-order intentionality, then. Surface Detail fills out some of the mechanisms and organisation of the Culture; throws his usual bucket of ideas at the plot (graphic descriptions of Hell, a first-person account of an aquatic, hair-thick species, an extended section in a Medieval convent) and keeps a good amount of tension and mental strain going. Good, full of simple dramatised philosophy.
    4/5. [6 hours]

  • Matter (2008) by I M Banks. This entry's mostly set on a C17th world, the rest given over to barely interesting galactic politics. The Culture novels feel free to wave away technological plot devices with talk of "energy grid!" or "nanotech!", but Banks shows off hard-scifi cred here, giving a few lovely, moving images based on meteorology and astrophysics. A scathing note on the current-affairs blogosphere:
    A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation...Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths,our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.
    Ending is good and brutal, made me stop and infer for ten mins afterward. So, yeah, Banks has been playing the same "ooh, neo-colonialism", "ooh, consequences", "ooh, angst in utopia" note for a while. But it's a good note.
    3/5 for a 4/5 series. [5 hours.]

  • Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (1987) by Alistair Reid. So beautiful: set of long essays punctuated with poems. He's a poet, Hispanicist, translator and long-time New Yorkerer. He was right there when the Latin American lit boom began, giving Neruda a home in London - mates with Marquez, insofar as anyone is. I like his prose even better than his excellent poems.
    Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics. The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might somewhere be a place – and a self – instantly recognizable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live.
    I love him for his scepticism about identity - the piece on returning "home" to Scotland is great because of his distance from it. "Scotland":
    It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
    when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
    and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
    Greenness entered the body. The grasses
    shivered with presences, and sunlight
    stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
    Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
    the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!
    cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
    And what did she have to say for it?
    Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
    as she spoke with their ancient misery:
    'We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!
    5?/5. [3 hours]

  • Desperate Characters (1970) by Paula Fox. Amazing, portentious realism. Wife: "Oh, never mind what I say." Husband: "I don't and I can't." Fox draws intense, evil significance out of ordinary irritations (a cat bite, a smashed window, a feud at work) - as we do when at our lowest. It's dark without being Gothic; apocalyptic without melodrama; heartbroken without self-pity. On a hospital waiting room:
    It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined the three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry, inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes... a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind...
    The quiet, careful way that every character is sketched in their paranoia is convincing, and unnerving. Sure, it's about upper-middle class people's pain, but that's still pain. The least tractable kind, in fact.
    4/5. [4 hours]

  • Stuff White People Like eBook (2010) by Christian Lander. Didn't really get the point of this. It mocks a certain small, ridiculous group - C21st upper-middle-class lefty American hipsters -and sets them up as the whitest people in the world. I'm in the same boat as the author - white guy liking "white" things (The Wire, green tea, public transport, Europe) and worrying that this marks my participation in class trends that exclude people. I also share his contempt of people with contempt for practicality. So this is, I suppose, a handy guide to the fads of a certain group of middlebrows in our particular cultural moment. Insofar as it encourages actual class consciousness among alt.consumerist hipsters: hooray. Insofar as it sneers at trends that actually could change the world if adopted en masse (e.g. vegism, bikes, talking about diversity, engaging with foreign art), boo. 
    2/5. [1 hour.]

  • An Embarrassing Book Title (2010) by Tim Ferriss. Hodgepodge of extreme, supposedly scientific Pareto "lifehacks" for: rapid weight-loss, lazy bodybuilding, polyphasic sleep blah, regeneration from chronic injury, DIY female orgasm therapy. (One of the worst tropes in reading culture is the stupid presumption that to read something is to approve of its contents. So, I feel bound to mention that I'm not interested in the stats-obsessed quasi-pro-ana muscle busywork this book centres around; I don't like his Silicon Valley technicism either; his conspicuous consumption of medical attention is risible ("Just $3800 four times a year for this battery of vanity tests!"); as is his desperate name-dropping self-promotion.) Came across it in the course of my new favourite hobby: grazing on other peoples' Kindles. Ferriss has a ... creative grasp of biochemistry, and his brute lack of self-doubt lets him be productively provocative (e.g. "I do not accept the Lipid Hypothesis of cardiac disease"; "DO NOT EAT FRUIT"). He quotes heavily from more expert people, and he does do everything he advocates. The main advantage of him is that he is fearless about ridicule, actually following what he sees as the evidence. Thus there's a long section on the bodybuilding potential of vegetarian diets - which got him lots of scorn from the meathead-o-sphere - as well as an idiosyncratic list of the substrates that vegists are often missing. (Boron, anyone?) Alongside the unreflective drive to thinness, his most telling concern is his fixation on testosterone and morbid fear of infertility. So I scoffed at his fear of phones irradiating his testicles - but there actually is reason to think so. Less annoying than your average loud guru pseud.
    3/5. (1 hour, lots of skipping - which he actually explicitly recommends.)

  • Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. Say it is 1985 A.P. (After Peckinpah). How can anyone write anything new about poor white psychopaths in the hot rural places of Victorian America? The answer turns out simple: just have prose so tight and freshening - a jet hose comprising one-third Bible, one-third Emerson, one-third Ballard - that you again uncover the  elemental bones of the Western. Also savagely de-emphasise your characters. Place them in enormous, indifferent vistas; give us no inner monologue - nor even indirect report of subjective life; have no speech marks to set their words apart from the landscapes (do not draw the eye to their presumed humanity); have no apostrophes, no hyphens even, lest we remember; have as few names as possible, leave them as types - "kid" or "captain" or "mexican" or "brave"; set their incredible violence among such vast places it looks like little; have few capital letters but for God's. Lock your readers out; make everyone and everything opaque. (As he says himself:
    In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.
    These cowboys and injuns punctuate the beautiful land of Central America with hanged babies; rings of decapitate heads; a four-eyed dog; a man calmly eating his own shit; endless thirsty hallucinogenic despair. This is exhausting, quite hard to read:
    All night the wind blew and the fine dust set their teeth on edge. Sand in everything, grit in all they ate. In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature. The animals were failing... That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses' trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men... the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.
    (As well as this Nabokovian trudge through the middle section, McCarthy sometimes steers close to the comical with sentences like "Itinerant degenerates bleeding west like a heliotropic plague.") A typical human interaction in this book is "The kid looked at the man"; no more. There's plenty of grandeur - just not in humans. At the centre of the book stands the Judge - Satan, Ahab and Moby Dick all in one. ("His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment.") Racism, fear and poverty form the baseline. The Comanches, for instance, are here worse than demons 
    ...grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns... riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning...
    - "at least demons are Christian"!

    Lots of descriptions of the stars, inbetween brutalities
    The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely a space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are no less...

    The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven.
    For the first time I understand why Aristotle's physics divides the world into different celestial and terranean operations: from down here back then, the stars look so clean and permanent, they're just not of our world, dirty, unhinged, and endangered as it has been, for almost everyone.

    4*/5, but I understand if it's 2/5 for you. (11 long hours)


  • Open City (2010) by Teju Cole. Careful, slow-burning diary-novel. We follow Julius, an upper-middle New Yorker doctor who lives, largely, in the absence of overt reference to his race (half-Nigerian, half-German). For existential reasons, he walks and observes. ("The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.") Cole mixes in plenty of banality, setting up the tension to come, in which the brooded past breaks in, and freedom (in its American, European and larger, shadowy senses) is weighed up and found to be a very mixed bag. The most interesting & flawed character is the Moroccan critical theorist Farouq - a hypereducated livewire working in an internet cafe. (Who probably got to me because I flatter myself to be like him... if I had racism and massive chips on both shoulders to deal with.)
    4/5. (4 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Stranger Music (1993) by Leonard Cohen. I don't think he's depressing! Does that make me in some way broken? Anyway: Cohen the Jewish Buddhist leverages literary power from a faith he does not own: his poems are thus as erotic and grotesque as the best Christian writing. Much funnier and more concrete than his songs, too. Sure, everything is ominous in his work, but it's also banal, and these often admit they're ridiculous. To my surprise he is never obscure; to my relief he is never fatally wounded by the vicious retribution his many flaws invite. His is a gnarled urban spirituality. A strong, unlikely comparison: Bukowski. They both fixate on: plain poems about poems, bitter desire, nakedness, grandiose self-loathing, losers in love, and the significance of everyday things. (Look at this: "The art of longing's over and it's never coming back.") Speaking of Bukowski: is Cohen sexist? Arguable. For every slap in the face like 'Diamonds in the Mine', there are several tendernesses ('Portrait of a Lady') and self-aware apologies for lust. I would say: shocking and honest about patriarchal shapes, generally not unfeminist. ("You took my fingerprints away / So I would love you for your mind.") Moments of chastity inamongst the randy fury - for instance he never says 'God', always 'G-d'. Lots about the Holocaust too, mostly its banal consequences.
    Kiss me with your teeth
    All things can be done.
    whisper museum ovens of
    a war that Freedom won
    The newer stuff is generally weak, because less wry, profane and specific.

    (4/5 with lots of 5/5 moments: 'French and English', 'Israel', 'A Working Man', 'Queen Victoria and Me', 'Montreal' 'Hydra 1960', 'A Cross Didn't Fall on Me', 'Disguises', 'It's Probably Spring'.)

  • Altered Carbon (2002) by Richard Morgan. Class act: cyberpunk without cheap gothic neon and lolspeak; noir without cartoonish conventions. A meditation on identity and consent via sex and violence. Genuinely. The Scene: Consciousness can be up- and downloaded. In this world, if you are rich enough, you do not die. If you're richer than that, you can be uploaded into a young clone of yourself - otherwise you take whatever marginalised corpse is going and adjust your sense of self to fit. He picks out implications from this tech brilliantly (e.g. what happens to celebrity culture?). The inevitable neologisms are excellent, intensely suggestive of the new culture's inner life: death is just "storage"; bodies are just "sleeves" and to be reincarnated is to be "sleeved"; a plasma gun is a "sunjet". Murder is just "organic damage". Catholics are (once again) the world's underclass - unable to travel interstellar because it involves casual storage (suicide) and resleeving (heresy), and killed with near-impunity because they alone cannot testify at their own murder trials. Cartoonish moments: our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs is attacked or apprehended 7 times in the first 150 pages.) People transition gender with regularity. Morgan makes a bold essentialist statement, which is somewhat backed-up: "To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male... To a man, skin was a barrier. To a woman it was an organ of contact. That had its disadvantages." (Kovacs is tortured, horrifically, as a woman.) Advertising can be beamed obtrusively into your mind. The UN has become a Shady Galactic Empire. It is strongly suggested - not least by our trained-psychopath protagonist - that this transhuman society is more psychopathic, owing to the lower stakes of violence, injury, and taboo-breaking. Gritty but not just gratuitous. Better than Gibson.
    4/5, at least. (9 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Poems of the Late T'ang (8th & 9th Century), translated by Angus Charles Thomas (1965). I've been playing at knowing China for years, but of course I do not. (For instance, I picked this calm, modest book up unwittingly, and learn it is the gold standard translation by the greatest Western sinologist of the day.) It's a great hook: supposedly, Chinese poetry (world poetry?) peaked in the Ninth Century. For almost their whole history, passion and violence were considered inappropriate topics for poetry! They resented melodrama and fantasy in their poets! I must be jaded to think this is great. The poets seem all to be old men trying not to care about death - "snail shell men", in Ancient Chinese. They are mainly ultra-concrete - lots of masterpieces about mountains and rice and fish. Graham is a droll, masterful guide, making the requisite comparisons to Baudelaire and Pound for me, the clunking reader. (I can only assume the strange meters he uses are good approximations to the original.) The war between Confucianism and Buddhism is prominent here, and is hard for me to imagine -probably because I have a Hollywood understanding of these two "serene" "coping" philosophies. Li Shangyin's (李商隐的) "Written on a Monastery Wall":
    They rejected life to seek the way. Their footprints are before us.
    They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies: so firm was their resolution.
    See it as large, and a millet grain cheats us of the universe:
    See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint.
    The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia:
    The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine.
    If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves
    We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell

    Like a typical Westerner, I like the weirdoes: Li He (李賀), who's their wild fantasist (Blake?) and Meng Jiao (孟郊), barren kin of Poe. I enjoyed this, but don't really have the tools to judge:
    TBC/5. (3 hours)

  • Read aloud: De Rerum Natura / The Nature of Things (-0060) by Lucretius, translated by Alice Stallings. An epic, declarative philosophy of peace and pre-scientific science. Lucretius poses a serious problem for a neat theory of poetry I like (from IA Richards): the claim that poetry's meaning and significance is almost independent of its truth-value; that poetic language is thus the opposite of scientific language, in which truth-value is the first and critical quantity. De Rerum messes with this because it explicitly sets out to lecture us on the ultimate reality of all things in verse. (Maybe I can say that "from the European Renaissance onwards" poetry becomes the land of the irrelevant fact.) Anyway: long, full of skippable stuff about a random rich guy (Memmius), but also a catchy guide to Epicurus, the most modern and loveable Attic Greek. (He was secular, undramatic, naturalist, tolerant, good-humoured...)
    And yet it is hard to believe that anything
    in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.
    The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses,
    like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire;
    red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam;
    hard gold is softened and melted down by heat;
    chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid;
    heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold;
    by custom raising the cup, we feel them both
    as water is poured in, drop by drop, above

    Also worth reading for the ironies that Epicurus' lucky guesses and near-misses generate - e.g. ghosts aren't real, being just images of mental atoms, and so on.
    4/5. (3 hours.)

  • Wild Harbour (1936) by Ian Macpherson. Post-apocalyptic Morayshire folk do Cold War survivalism before the Cold War? I was of course primed to love this, but it's a lead ball of a book, drab and flattened. This probably makes it a brilliant picture of the era's background of vast fear, but that doesn't make for a good read. The three characters are just scared, and though their hardships are harsh indeed, they're oddly unaffecting. The political economy that drove them out there is completely absent, only represented by sketched armed thugs. Nor is the world-justifying love of the central couple convincing, either. So it's tragic, but in no meaningful or honourable way. The prose does sometimes have a lovely Doric lilt - "We were but young in stealth. As we drove along the Spey, the silent night was full of ears that harkened to our passing. It was midnight when our second journey ended, and dark, dark." - and local loons will get a kick out of it.
    2/5. (2 hours)

  • Read aloud: Of Mutability (2010) by Jo Shapcott. Wasn't this massive, as contemporary poetry goes? ('What dyou mean it's on display in the front of the shop?') Of water, London, transformation, plainness. It's a moderate book. Moderately sad, moderately whimsical, moderately vulgar ("Piss Flower"), moderately modern, moderately transcendental. Good. Am I supposed to say this makes it immoderately British?
    3/5. (1 hour)

  • Read aloud: Women's Poetry of the 1930s (1996), edited by Jane Dowson. Raising up unjustly obscure things is one of the main points of having academics around. However, half the poets in this actually refused to be segregated in their lifetime (that is, refused to be anthologised as women, or at all). Dowson is candid about this, and half the book is just suggestive little biographies as a result. Though she is shackled to the humanities' chaste, hyper-qualified prose ("I have tried to illustrate that through their interrogations of national and international affairs, their preoccupations with cultural politics and their experiments with language and form... rejects the language of centrality and dominance...") and their fear of judgment / love of equivocation ("If consensus over a 'good poem' is neither desirable nor possible, then value is largely determined by context..."), it's not exactly hateful. Whether through Dowson's bias or the necessities of the time, these poets are even more independent than their male counterparts. Of those selected, Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell are already fully reclaimed as the canonical boss ladies they are. Two big oversights of mine: Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townshend Warner. Mitchison is amazing - wise when wounded, droll and passionate, politicised but never journalistic: check out "To Some Young Communists", "Woman Alone", "Old Love and New Love". Warner is both blunt and metaphysical. (Others are just passable. Vita Sackville-West's are surprisingly poor, in fact. Highlights: "Beauty the Lover's Gift?" (bitter objectification); "Pastoral" (Manly Hopkins after empire). "A Woman Knitting" (the infinite in the finite); "Song of the Virtuous Female Spider" (satirising pious motherhood clichés); "The Sick Assailant" (rare for the time: male violence focus); "On August the Thirteenth" (on abruptness, gentle impotence of human pretensions).
    4/5. (5 hours)

  • Read aloud: Red Ice (1987) by Colin Mackay. Bitter, accusatory collection from a self-described "European pessimist" (i.e. Diogenes, Hobbes, Arnold, Spengler, Schopenhauer). Politically betrayed, he goes in for nihilism. "We were hungry for belief / hope fed us human flesh." Aside: Mr Mackay had a bloody tragic life, suffered without even any thrilling hubris or heroic end. Of course, many, many Canon artists had unusually hard lives and/or mood disorders. But it's not necessarily that sad people write better in general. Instead, readers - we cheap egoists - are just not receptive to others: we need to be woken up to a book, whether that's by recommendation, or biographical detail, or some other gimmick. A tragic biography is the most reliable primer. (Witness the death bump.) I would love Mackay's poems to be incredible; I've never been as primed as I was by reading Mackay's published suicide diary. But they're just ok. Of moons, angels, deserts, atomisation, Hendrix. Red Ice was written well before Bosnia (the crowning, horror of his life), but it's already overflowing with dense ruined empathy and snarly emptiness and survivor's guilt.

    Are there great paintings in only black and grey? Well, yes, sort of. Calvary features four times in twenty poems. ("the mountains are mere hills / the calvarys are daily and inconspicuous / and we are retreating into closed worlds") Mackay was playing at genocide logic, forty years after Adorno and twenty-five after Geoffrey Hill. (Does it matter, being late to the worst thing ever? No, but do it right, do it new.) The brute fact of the C20th drives him to nostalgia and lairy isolation ("[I said] I will be me for the hell of it / [he said] "you working-class tory / you aren't worth a shit".) So the poems are chaste and flat, romanticism with the innocent wonder ripped out; unleavened except for his spurious racial memory of everything being ok, once. (Wordsworth at Katyn.) (I do not think highly of Wordsworth.) The long title poem has automatic force, being as it is about the gulags and the shame of Stalin apologism (and Lenin, tbf). But it's also uncompressed, clumsy with rage ("stop these follies of the human race!"). It contains a direct condemnation of MacDiarmid, which is rare and titillating. On the like of his and Sartre's hypocritical silence on Stalinism:
[They said to]
"Find something in your own hemisphere!"
to salve my Commie conscience with,
to express solidarity with.
(If only there was someone I could
express solidarity with...)
There is one poem that gets somewhere: "Phantoms", a fast, vocal, twisted/triumphant repudiation of war and hippies alike. And "Holy, Wholly My Own" is admirable Golden Age crap. Faint praise: 'Nightwatchman of the lonely ex-socialist Scot's soul'. Anyway: for loads of reasons it's not nice to attack the hegemony of the sad in art. 1) They are still good, when they're good; 2) they are often Witnesses, speakers-against-power, and anyone can be crushed and saddened by having to do that; 3) leave them some bloody consolation!

2/5. (2 hours)


Books I once thought were 5/5s
  • What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (Bukowski is odd: you can blast through any of his books in like a half an hour without losing any of its message or effect - but I still don't think of him as a 3/5 writer. Also, I don't see how anyone can resent his free verse, because it doesn't suggest it's any better for being "free".) A really good 3/5.
  • Infinite Jest (1998) by David Foster Wallace. The most 4.5/5 book ever.
  • White Noise (2000) by Don DeLillo (actually 4/5)
  • Our Band Could Be Your Life (actually 4/5)
  • Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (3/5)
  • The Crow Road (2000) by Iain Banks (3/5)