Saturday, June 19, 2010

10 Books

I know I did this one four years ago, and it trended again a year or two ago, and I never really got around to it then, but I've been thinking about what books changed me. Also I just integrated Amazon into the blog so this is kind of a way of testing that "I get a little if you go through me" deal. It's supposed to be just what pops into one's mind at some time, so here, currently, are 10 books that occur to me as being important, in no order:

1. Malcolm X's autobiography. I don't know why this had such an impact. I'm a white chick and he's pretty dismissive of white chicks. Maybe it's the way he implies that any former hoodlum could have the leadership to make a fringe church humanistically righeous, while clearly being the only possible one. Maybe it's the "self-made man" aspect. Maybe it's that halfway through the book he takes Hajj and loses his separatism - it's an example of inconsistent opinion within a single work that makes the work stronger. Alex Haley didn't try to consolidate too much, working as medium, and is brilliant for it. Red's pretty funny too, in a dry, angry way. Too much of mainstream race politics avoids obvious, historical bitterness, that both supports Obama and continues despite him, and is not necessarily symptomatic or problematic.

2. Samuel Delaney - Dhalgren. I think this book took a lot of the uneasiness I felt about sexuality and how it's treated in literature, and turned it inside out. Same with race and class. There's a casual lack of repression, including repression about how it's repression that makes things hot, that I suppose can only come from a writer for whom sex with strangers of all varieties was so normalized. I'll admit I still don't entirely get what's going on with Bellona, or why the book is more science fiction than magical realist meta literature. Probably the temporal paradoxes, the continuous entropy.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
3. Julie Phillips - James Tiptree, Jr. (and Tiptree's short story compilation).
I feel a certain kinship with Sheldon, mostly because she considered herself a painter, then an art writer, before joining the army. She's one of my heroes, and to compare myself to her makes me realize how lucky I am for my historical circumstances. She was brilliant, depressive, and indefinably queer before there was a community and politics for such, and only in her age did she begin to see changes that would have made sense of her younger self. Tip's experience of the conservative turn of post-war America made her/him deeply cynical about feminism, with a certain biologically deterministic resignation that serves to question the concept of progress.

4. Donna Haraway - Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
Primarily the essay "A Cyborg Manifesto", which aims to reprogram the language we use about nature, culture, human and nonhuman (and animal and object)in a way that feels like it's been there all along. Perhaps it's a female perspective, but the implication is that not all females will agree and that there's nothing particularly biologically automatic about rhetoric or belief - both of which are immanently physical phenomena. At the same time, I wouldn't say that this approach to animal rights necessarily prescribes a code of action. Nor am I entirely sure the culture of criticality about science can own this, either.

5. Bruno Latour - We Have Never Been Modern
Especially in translation, sometimes you just have to let the nonsense sweep over you and own whatever misinterpretation of it you make. He's thinking about social science, meta-history, and how facts are constructed in democratic collaboration between human and nonhuman members of society. There's a defiance for the objective against post-structuralist relativism while using its rhetorical slipperiness. What I take from it applies to art history and the absurdity of 20th century theory, an understanding of any majority as infinitely complex.

6. Jared Diamond - Collapse
It's not so fresh on my mind as the others but it has to be in here because I still think in terms of wastes of resources, and how to define a society and the decisions it makes. While Guns, Germs, and Steel, despite the complicated research, had a simple and somewhat deterministic thesis, Collapse is not only more thorough but more urgently emphasizes sustainability in the relationship of system and environment. The many contradictions don't overpower the obvious quite enough, and it's more a link between sciences and history than an examination of how those are made (which is what I really like), but it at least overturns what we imagine to be prosperity, civilization, and success.

7. David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest
What can I possibly say? Take drugs or kill yourself. My sister and I realized that we were way less interested in reading anything after reading this. And it's not that it argues that, or anything. But having an answer that the best answer is always having more questions (which is not the only possible takeaway) kind of spoils you for reading. It changes something.  I'm also pretty much always rereading it because it's in my bathroom.  I don't know what kind of hubris that implies.

8. Michael Pollan - Omnivore's Dilemma
In a few years this won't be in my mind as quite so influential, but it's one of the most impactful books I've read. It makes you think about how food links you to society, and how strong the urge is to not worry about where it comes from. I'm less worried about health issues than the fact that so many cheap calories are basically petroleum.  And again, it's realist.  It recognizes that knowledge does not necessitate practice.

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This didn't blow me away topic-wise or revolutionize my bio-ethics, which were already made posthuman by previous entries.  It did make me imagine going into science journalism.  It's simply a very good example of the genre, that I've read recently.

10. Thomas Pynchon - V.
Gravity's Rainbow is hot shit, too, but V. is almost the dry run for Gravity's Rainbow, so that what's in the former is almost taken for granted by the latter.  It's a much more intimate, personal pastiche, much more concerned with the problems of desire and the interiority of things.  It's one of those books that influenced a lot afterward, yet is primarily about taking influence from everywhere.  It's about the sexuality of inanimate objects, okay?  Basically making an existentialist-mocking joke of all the modernist literature puzzling over the female other.  It's by the same sort of wanker, but one who emphatically wants the book, in its duplicates and internal separability to speak for itself.

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