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.