Saturday 30 September 2023

What I've Been Reading Recently

Before September, things were a bit slow on the blog. Here's a partial explanation - a bumper crop of books read over the last few months.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
The Poverty of Theory by EP Thompson
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts
Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism by Christian Fuchs
Difficulties with Girls by Kingsley Amis
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Eversion by Alastair Reynolds
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Dry Heart by Natalia Hinzberg
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermas
Kepler by John Banville
Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Marxism and Literature by Raymond Williams
I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman
Till Eulenspiegel by "N"
Vathek by William Beckford
Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
A Man from the North by Arnold Bennett
Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
Hegemony Now by Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams
Johnathan Wild and The Voyage to Lisbon by Henry Fielding
Legitimation Crisis by Jurgen Habermas
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Ambroise Choderlos De Laclos
The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Not a bad wodge, to be honest. Starting with the Adam Roberts, I'm sorry to say I really can't recommend this one. Part science fiction, part weird religious fever dream it just didn't go down well. Nor, when I think about it, have many of his other books. Why do I keep reading them? But sticking with SF, I cannot praise Jacqueline Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men enough. I suppose it loosely fits in the genre, but its strong literary sensibility, existential bent and its beguiling bleakness makes it one of the best novels I've read in recent years. Why is it not better known?

A very well known book is David Copperfield. Apparently Dickens's favourite of his, and championed by Virginia Woolf - who couldn't otherwise stand his work - it every bit deserves its reputation. The characterisation is superb and memorable. The celebrated Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep, the ridiculously overt humble bragger are characters that stand out in English literature for a reason. I'm going to stop gushing now in case I embarrass myself. In the fun corner is Till Eugenspiegel, a 500+ year old work full of childish laughs. Also, My Sister, the Serial Killer. What to so when your sister's boyfriends keep turning up dead and her only explanation is *innocent face*? What to make of the notorious Les Liaisons Dangereuses? It's totally tame where modern readers are concerned but it's still a fascinating book. Told through a series of letters between a pair of utterly amoral aristocratic players, we have an 18th century crash course in grooming, gaslighting, and good old comeuppances. An excellent translation (mine was the Routledge edition) makes it a great read.

I thought it was about time I got round to the Dialectic of Enlightenment seeing as its been on my shelf for decades, and I didn't get on with it at all. Perhaps it's because the book's contents are so thoroughly embedded in leftist critiques of culture that I didn't get much from it. Much more interesting was the Federici. Strongly recommended though, as Richard Seymour said to me, the main thesis (that the witch-hunts were central to primitive accumulation) comes with a health warning - and he recommended these critiques. I should also mention Hegemony Now, Jem and Alex's book on, you guessed it, hegemony now. Very readable, it makes good use of Gramsci, Deleuze, Negri, Raymond Williams and more and provides a theory of interest that handily conceptualises how I've been using it for years. Strong recommend.

What have you been reading recently?


Zoltan Jorovic said...

My recent readinh:
When Nothing Works (Calafati, Froud, Haslam, Johal, Williams)
The Book of Trespass (Nick hayes)
The rest of us just live here (Patrick Ness)
Crucible of Gold (Naomi Novik)
A History of Witchcraft (Lois Martin)
Hegemony Now (Gilbert & Williams)

Not much of a list, but it seems I have spent too much time reading blogs and commenting on them.

Both Hegemony Now and When Nothing Works were excellent on diagnosing the problem, but rather less certain about answers. Also, and this might be an issue with shared authorship, somewhat variable in readability. There were passages in Hegemony Now that flowed, so reading was like a walk on a well made path through varied terrain, and other parts that were lumpy, stodgy and glutinous, like walking in heavy mud through a thick wood. Ditto for When Nothing Works. The Book of Trespass was elegantly written and full of fascinating nuggets, but left me feeling a sense of deep anger at the injustice and distortion of the system we live under. I recommend everyone should read it.

If you haven't read any Patrick Ness, do so. He is brilliant. It's a type of sci-fi mostly aimed at 'young adults' but worth anybody's time. His trilogy "Chaos Walking" is superb. This book was also excellent.

A History of Witchcraft is a taster for finding out more about this disturbing yet fascinating theme running through history. I also enjoyed the R4 podcast "Witch" which explores the topic.

The Novik book is one of a long series of fairly pot-boilerish fantasy, but an enjoyable read through an alternative historical world.

Dialectician1 said...

On the basis of your own Novara media recommendation, I went out and bought Dan Evan’s (2023) book, ‘A Nation of Shopkeepers, The Unstoppable Rise of The Petty Bourgeoisie’. Evans gives a very credible account of what has happened to class in the West over the last forty years. There is nothing surprising about the ‘diamond shape’ class framework he proffers (that has been around since the ‘embourgeoisement thesis’ of the 1960s) but what is credible is his historical understanding of political behaviour of the petty bourgeoisie, drawing on the work of the Ehrenreich and Poulantzas.

I particularly like the final chapter, where Evans wags a finger at the Left since 1968, when activism moved from the workplace into the universities, with its ‘foregrounding’ of identity politics. Social liberalism and identity politics has a particular class origin and a clear class character, rooted in the ideology and interests of the professional-managerial classes. It is style of ‘student politics’, with its self-righteousness, self-indulgent speeches, twee signs, contrived language, proceduralism and its moralising and scolding of those that don’t conform to an idealisation of identity representation. Like golf, left politics is an activity spoiled by the type of people who participate in it!

Phil said...

Thanks for the recommends, Zoltan.

I've just started reading Dan's book, Dialectician. I'm not sold on ranking white collar workers among the petit bourgeoisie (disclosure, I'm PMC these days according to the schema used) but I'm only 40 pages in. Hope to write on it in due course.

Anonymous said...

Disagree violently about the Adam Roberts. It's an astonishing fusion of current techno-political disaster and the horrors which are likely to come after the current elite, or something like it, seizes absolute power via variants of AI, and all directed towards a meditation on the destructive impact of humanity on the biosphere and the way in which guilt for this destructiveness is channelled into further destructiveness. One of the best science fiction works in recent decades, I thought.

Mind you, I've also been reading (not rereading, alas) Dialectic of Enlightenment and, while it's rather ponderous and repetitive, a lot of it is also very prescient, especially the appendix about the role of anti-Semitism in capitalist society (which could easily be applied to contemporary propaganda politics). So we obviously differ.

I miss Banks horribly, although Espedair Street is not, to muymind, one of his best (and nor is Garbadale, although it's more readable). If you want a good (if rather weird) representation of a 1960s or 70s rock band, with fewer of Banks' what about Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell?