Jacobin’s friends and contributors pride themselves on their impeccable taste. They may not have any disposable income, but they rack up library late fees like it’s some sort of publicly funded expense account. Here’s some recent selections . . .
The current issue of Jacobin, of course! Got unexpectedly bored reading Slavoj Žižek — love him but tend to find his musings on “violence” too abstract and posturing to be helpful — but I really enjoyed the robustly supported arguments by Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs.
I’m also reading The Selling of the President, Joe McGuinness’s classic chronicle of the 1968 Nixon campaign, and I’m loving it. It’s a period piece now — a window onto a more innocent time when when the marriage of Madison Avenue and politics was novel and still a bit disreputable — but also an enduring model of snarky anthropological journalism. Reading this makes you realize the turnover of the ruling class in this country is incredibly slow — Roger Ailes is a leading character, and of course forty-plus years later he is still telling us what to think about. This book also has the best appendix ever — including memos showing that the Nixon people were assigned to read Marshall McLuhan.
I generally don’t like to read, opting to surf Tumblr for vintage pornography instead. But I have, on strength of Perry Anderson’s endorsement, skimmed Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. It’s an absolute masterpiece. I thought it was hyperbole when others said it, but its scope and power truly brings to mind E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.
I was also impressed by Bertrand Patenaude’s Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. It may have been written by a Hoover Institute fellow, but it’s an honest, well-researched work. It reads like a novel and expertly captures the tragedy of the Old Man’s years in exile. Patenaude is no Isaac Deutscher and a few facets of Trotsky and Lenin’s thought are garbled, but the account is gripping. Don’t let anyone spoil the ending for you.
On the fiction front, I had my first encounter with Saul Bellow. Seize the Day is a nice book, though I know it’s one of his “minor” works. I didn’t dislike Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men as much as others, but my time would’ve been better spent perfecting my Peter Gabriel karaoke.
Finally, I breezed through A Man for All Seasons, the classic play about Sir Thomas More. It made me glad this century’s finest work of fiction, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, was written. I’m much more attracted to her Cromwell than Bolt’s More. A handful of vigorous, bourgeois-types like Thomas Cromwell did more for human civilization than centuries of self-righteous religious zealots. It’s a pity their “late capitalist” inheritors are such odious bastards.
I just finished Tom Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, in essence the Baffler plus footnotes. It argues that the advertising business didn’t co-opt sixties counterculture because it was dangerously antithetical to capitalism, but because it suited its growth so well. Good stuff, with some especially nice work on how the “generation gap” is invented and exploited by advertisers. If you want to fight capitalism, kids, love thy mother and thy father. There is no organic slice of humanity that is “the Pepsi generation.”
To counter this commercial madness, there’s some Wendell Berry floating around, most recently The Hidden Wound, his book about race. Berry draws on the resources of childhood innocence to imagine overturning racism without liberalizing society and thus losing his trademark virtue, a “sense of place.” I quested to Berry’s farm this summer, and now I gaze at the page and see rolling Kentucky hills.
Currently reading Retromania by Simon Reynolds, about the aural Frankensteins we cobble together from the infinite influences at our wired fingertips. He deals with the drives of collecting and replicating and is apparently well-acquainted with the specter that haunts my bookstore wanderings. “I’ve managed to acquire an awful lot of material goods over the years, mostly books and records. Perhaps that made them seem somehow nobler than mere possessions,” introspects the rock critic. “Still, for a ‘non-consumerist,’ I’ve done a lot of shopping.” And for all you optimists out there, yearning to set information free, there’s this gem, “Downloading can all too easily open up a kind of abyss, the dimensions of which are in proportion to the emptiness of your life.”
I just finished James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. I’d only ever read The Black Dahlia, which didn’t impress me, but American Tabloid is a beast. And definitive proof that Ellroy’s far-right public persona really is just a bunch of bullshit. It follows three men as they seamlessly hop across the payrolls of the FBI, Howard Hughes, the 1960 Kennedy campaign, Jimmy Hoffa, the Mob, the CIA, and the US Senate all in the name of good ole American Anti-Communism. Ellroy’s fictionalized “Gay” Edgar Hoover is a hoot.
John Dolan (of The Exile(d) fame) sent me a list of his favorite books and I’ve been slowly making my way through it. So far, it’s staggeringly great. High at the top is You Can’t Win by Jack Black, a pseudonym for a turn-of-the-century hobo and burglar. It’s a memoir of what it was like to live such a life between the 1880s and 1910s. William S. Burroughs considered it his favorite book and his foreword does far more justice to its charms than I ever could. Especially brilliant: a chapter devoted to the nerve-racking art of night-time home burglaries and the subsequent opium dosage needed to calm the resulting jitters. Revelation: 19th century Canadian prisons are a lot less brutalizing than contemporary US ones. Who’d-a-thunk?
Also from the list and equally great, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I’d steered clear of Wolfe for some time (genre-anxiety?), a mistake. A sci-fi book about colonialism, though that makes it sound trite — it’s not.
I’m in the middle of several books at the moment. John Cross’s Informal Politics is an ethnography of street vendors in Mexico City. While the government of Mexico City tolerates street vending as a sop for unemployment, vendors prove adroit at forming political organizations and winning concessions from the state.
Negativity and Revolution, a volume of essays edited by John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, and Sergio Tische, argues that the work of Theodor Adorno (derided on both left and right as a leading offender of “Cultural Marxism) is actually of great interest to activism. Holloway in particular makes an interesting case for Adorno as a touchstone for autonomist politics.
I’ve also just finished Lee Edelman’s exploration of the outer reaches of negation, No Future, a queer-theory polemic against “reproductive futurism” instantiated in the figure of The Child. It’s a bit too steeped in Lacanian jargon for my tastes, but there are some interesting resonances with the Holloway.
I just finished a galley of my friend Gigi Roggero’s first book in English, The Production of Living Knowledge, which comes out in October. Gigi is one of the brightest and most readable members of the Italian Marxist post-operaismo clique, and this book on the contemporary university and its relation to economic crisis is a thoughtful and useful take on higher education. If you’ve been looking for a good primer on “cognitive capitalism” or post-Fordist production, this is a great place to start.
And after stupidly ignoring my mother’s advice about Katherine Dunn for years (something you’d think I’d learn not to do after making the same mistake with Virgina Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Lawrence Durrell, John Berger, and Italo Calvino), I finally read Geek Love. The story about a family of circus freaks and their internal struggle for power is the best novel I’ve read this year. The amount of plot she manages to pack in without sacrificing character development, description, or narrative experimentation is staggering.
John Blair’s The Control of the Oil is the classic study of how the oil majors exerted almost total control of both supply and prices in the world oil and gas “markets” from 1928 until 1975, including by keeping Iraqi oil-fields largely unexplored for decades. Any explanation of American imperialism in the Middle East that does not refer to this book is not an explanation. Make of that what you will.
Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal’s Lords of the Land is supposed to be a study of the Israeli settlement project, but ends up more as an apologia for Ashkenazi hegemony in the pre-1977 era than anything else, a sharp contrast to Zertal’s Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, which is a fascinating monograph on the creation of post-founding Israeli culture and collective memory, as well as the role of a specifically constructed memory of the Jewish Holocaust in that culture.
Joel Beinin’s Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East is a synthetic study of workers and peasants (no shit) in the Levant, Iraq, Egypt, and the rim of the Arabian Peninsula. Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos has a nice cover. It remains unopened.
I should warn that my summer reading has been mostly related to research for a book I am writing on the culture wars.
Jefferson Cowie’s provocative mixture of political and cultural history, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class; Charles Taylor’s tome on modern shifts in religious thought, A Secular Age; Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America, the latest in the fine intellectual historical tradition of trans-Atlantic reception studies; Daniel Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, the best synthetic history of this topic to date; Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture, a masterpiece of recent U.S. intellectual history; George Cotkin’s fun and compelling Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America; Elaine Tyler May’s quick, readable, revisionist America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation; and Diane Ravitch’s intellectual u-turn, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the best critical history of so-called education reform. Plus, I always read my colleagues and fellow co-bloggers at the U.S. Intellectual History blog.
My friend Scott Hamilton is on his way to becoming the E.P. Thompson of the South Pacific. I read his book on the original Thompson at the proof stage but it’s finally out and it’s great: The Crisis of Theory: E. P. Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics. Scott focuses on a number of Thompson’s essays — especially his famous book-length attack on Althusser, The Poverty of Theory, and paints a bigger picture of the New Left in Britain from the 1940s to the 1970s. It’s not a hagiography and really delves into the issues at stake.
I’ve also been enjoying Scott’s edited edition of Auckland poet Kendrick Smithyman, Private Bestiary: Selected Unpublished Poems 1944–1993 and I’m looking forward to the biography Smithyland.
Somewhat dryer but just as fascinating is Matthew Smith’s Thomas Tooke and the Monetary Thought of Classical Economics — Tooke was the leading light of the Banking School in the great monetary controversies of early-Victorian Britain and a big influence on Marx’s monetary thought.
Fiction-wise, I read an old Penguin Classic edition of Balzac’s Gondreville Mystery — a political thriller about the open wounds of the French Revolution and their manipulation by the Napoleonic state. There’s a fantastic moment of social-science fiction when a character races a message carried along the semaphore network to Paris. Speaking of sci-fi, I’ve been on a binge since finishing my thesis last year: Iain M. Banks, China Mieville, Brian Aldiss and Charles Stross.
Finally got around to ordering Capitalist Realism and just received my copy yesterday. Mark Fisher, of K-punk renown, examines the implications of capitalism’s presentation of itself as “the only realistic political-economic system.” Fisher’s probing of the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism promises to be engaging and, based on the volume’s length (only 80 pages!), succinct.
I’m also reading e-flux journal’s Are you Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, which, as with much writing on the thorny terrain of oppositional art practice and the predicament of the “creative cultural industries,” contains as much insightful analysis as it does turgid declarations and garrulous shibboleths.
I recently finished Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, which chronicles the bizarre story of an insane American Civil War veteran — incarcerated for murder in a British asylum — and his invaluable contributions to the OED. Mental illness and violence lurk in the codification of the language foundational to our ubiquitous “Globish;” a thumping good yarn!
George R. R. Martin is eating my social and intellectual life. Seduced by the HBO adaptation, I picked up his Song of Ice and Fire in late June and I’m currently nearing conclusion of the fifth, and most recent, thousand page tome. I’m truly and utterly addicted. The pacing reminds me of the sprawling (and sometimes lazy) ambition of Lost, but with characters I actually care about.
Speaking of political intrigue and strife in elite circles (Martin features large doses of both), I’m also reading Rick Perlstein’s Before The Storm, a great history of Goldwater’s doomed campaign and the birth of the contemporary conservative movement. Today’s political consensus didn’t burst into existence randomly and it isn’t inevitable. Perlstein depicts a committed core of reactionaries who eventually succeeded in pushing both political parties, and the American electorate, to the right by organizing the hell out of them.