February Reading

Books Acquired

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad | Jennifer Egan
  • Anathem | Neil Stephenson
  • The Unconsoled | Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Robbing the Bees: a Biography of Honey | Holley Bishop
  • Voice of the Violin | Andrea Camilleri
  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer | Sarah Bakewell
  • A handful of remaindered gardening and natural history books, which I’ll just pass right by
  • Bird by Bird | Anne Lamott

Books Read

  • Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
  • Pulp Fiction (screenplay) | Quentin Tarantino
  • Farm Anatomy | Julia Rothman
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad | Jennifer Egan
  • Zoo City | Lauren Beukes
  • Bird by Bird | Anne Lamott
  • Cognitive Surplus | Clay Shirky

A book most relevant to this year’s reading project, Alan Jacobs’ was an endearing stroll through the nature of reading: why we do it, and why we should, with digressions into the popularity of Harry Potter, and the stultifying nature of “to read” lists. I read it first as an e-book on my computer monitor—it was available instantly and for free from the university library, but for a maximum of 4 days, so slow readers were out of luck. In a discussion of marginalia, Jacobs mentions that Renaissance scholars often just cut out good passages from manuscripts they were reading. “I have been thankful, in the writing of my recent books, to have recourse to the digital version of this practice, which allows metaphorical pasting without literal cutting—how admirably nondestructive.” pleasuresofreadingThe irony is that I had to type that quote out, because the e-book was DRM protected to disable the Copy command.

Call me juvenile, but one of the highlights was Jacobs’s discussion of counterfeit Chinese editions of Harry Potter books, chronicling his further adventures: Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon, Harry Potter and the Big Funnel, and Harry Potter and the Waterproof Pearl. These actually sound more interesting than the legitimate ones.

All through Cognitive Surplus I was compulsively underlining and marking key paragraphs in an approved Jacobsean manner. Shirky elegantly illustrates how participatory culture—like Wikipedia or YouTube—changes the nature of media, and gives names to many of the phenomena we’re peripherally aware of as users. He attempts to draw up guidelines for successful harnessing of cognitive surplus at the end, although I didn’t find that as successful as his catalogue of examples. But the man is amazingly quotable, and you feel like he actually understands where media is going (his online writing on the state of newspapers has been the best analysis of their woes I’ve read).

“You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.” —Anne Lamott

There was a plenty of light reading too: Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City is an urban fantasy novel, chiefly interesting for its South African setting; Bird by Bird, the funniest book on writing I’ve read; and a sort of hipster farming manual in comic form—the sort of thing that would make an Ideal Gift. A Visit From the Goon Squad was the most fun read of the month, and I flew through it in preparation for the NZ Listener Book Club selection Look At Me, in the queue for March. I have to point out the saddest thing, for a typography nerd, in Visit from the Goon Squad is that a decade hence the default PowerPoint font will still be Times New Roman. But it’s pretty implausible that kids in the 2020s will still type double spaces after full stops.

Goon Squad has an asynchronous narrative that begs to be turned into a chronological timeline or narrative timeline. Egan in interviews has mentioned how influenced these interweaving stories were by the movie Pulp Fiction—there’s even a character called Jules. As often happens, one book led to another, and I dug out the playscript for Pulp Fiction, which in turn reminded me of my long-time ambition to stage some of the dialogues from the movie using Punch and Judy puppets (the project would, of course, be called Punch Fiction). I noticed that in the last Wellington Arts Festival someone did this already with marionettes, but I maintain hand puppets would be far superior. They lend themselves much better to violence.

And coincidentally, Punch plays an important part in the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker: puppet shows are both a religious ritual and a kind of news media in Russell Hoban’s far-future Britain. The book’s famous for its invented language—a degraded English—and this makes it a slow read, but what’s engrossing about is the unreal touches, which verge on magic realism, of which Mr Punch is just one. Riddley Walker is of course science fiction, but it’s almost a fable. I’m loath to use that word, though, as Michael Chabon (in a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) memorably described reviewers bandying about the word “fable”, when a mainstream writer slums it with some SF, as “warming the author’s bathwater a little”.

The Road was certainly the highlight of my month’s reading: a stunning book. We’re emotionally invested in the survival of the two main characters and their privations and triumphs, but constantly confronted with the horrifyingly dead and final state of the world. McCarthy conveys apocalyptic doom through the smallest asides or observations; cows and crows are extinct, fish bones line the beach. Every day that the protagonists stave off death, we wonder how long before they give up. So I agree with Chabon’s contention that althought this looks like science fiction, it’s actually literate, highly-skilled horror writing, which seeks to induce dread, and succeeds such that we’re riveted and compelled to read on.

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