37 posts categorized "Books"

Alan Bennett's anthology of six English poets

Thanks to a London nephew, I'm reading Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin, an anthology of poems by Hardy, Housman, Betjeman, Auden, MacNeice and Larkin, chosen by the English playwright Alan Bennett, with commentary by Bennett between each presented verse.

The commentary is more about the disposition of the poets and their subject matter, rather than the art of their verse. But it's breezy and entertaining, and interesting to try to situate the six poets Bennett chooses with one another as a group.

Bennett's critical method is to end-run the cultivated pretensions of each.

For instance, speaking of A. E. Housman and his preoccupation with death in English colonial wars, Bennet writes:

"When the Great War came, and hundreds of thousands of young men died in battle, it might be thought that Housman would have been particularly affected. In fact, he appears not to have been, and this seems shocking. But poets are not statisticians; to them, one death means more than a thousand. When men are dying like flies, that is what they are dying like."

Of Betjman, Bennet praises "his marvelous ear for language." But the praise is qualified. "It's the limited language of the middle class, or of those aspiring to be so, but he was a master of it."

A very English book. I see that the content relates back to a Channel 4 television programme from the 90s! Still I feel well ahead of things, reading this in the fall of 2014, rather than the spring 2015 publication date set in the US.

Alan Bennett's anthology of six English poets

Twitter and idleness

In preparation for my trip to the East Coast next week (I'll be speaking at the Thomson Reuters Online Financial Services Symposium in New York City, and then at the 2014 Angel Capital Association Summit in Washington DC; details in this post from earlier this week), I'm reading Charles Simic's beautiful little volume about Joseph Cornell.

9781590174869_jpg_200x450_q85It's a series of prose poems, I guess you could say, about Cornell's art, but really about Cornell's daily habits, wandering around New York City. Reading Simic interpreting Cornell as an existential presence, you really track how living within the circumference of New York was more than sufficient for Cornell's artistic and reflective life. The outside world reached in through pictures, objects, references, stuff that travelled into the city - like minerals from other planets - and were lost there, for Cornell to find and curate.

Simic picks up on how a life of calculated idleness can engender emotions of the rawest authenticity and, through that meditation and suffering, art of the purest conceptual order.

And somehow all this makes me think of Twitter. (Twitter as proxy for social media, I think.)

My friend Joe Wallin joked some years back that exposing oneself on Twitter and/or social media generally was "a cry for help." I think he was joking, but I appreciate the point and it had a certain ring of accuracy back then.

Not now. Those who may have once been craving attention now want to slice through the noise to get you to buy something, or buy into them.

To use Twitter now other than to promote or advertise is to use it idly, for no real purpose.* Which raises the possibility: is there a Joseph Cornell-like art that can be tweeted to?

But is the idleness of using Twitter (not for PR, and thus, necessarily, by my measure anyway, to use it without direct purpose) analogous to the idleness of wandering around the streets and towers and theaters and basements of New York? Does it, might it, yield discovery, or nurture attitude that might pressure those discoveries into diamonds?

Or is Twitter more like watching cable TV?

It may depend on who you follow in your tweet stream.

*Maybe that's not true; maybe some people have relationships with others that are mediated at just the right equipoise of intimacy and distance through Twitter. I suppose I am necessarily talking about how Twitter seems to function or present possibilities to to me.

Bleeding prose

I've been reading the new Thomas Pynchon book, Bleeding Edge, and I'm puzzled about why I keep with it.

If the Thomas Pynchon name were not on it as author, I'd be quick to say, this is a book by someone with a snarky attitude about being a New York City insider. Somebody who over the years has collected inside tidbits about living in New York, and has little other purpose in his narrative than to showcase that he's hip and in the know.

But I do keep reading it.

Here's a quote from late in the book, from a character who's critiquing the Internet. Ostensibly, within the frame of the story, he's speaking and 2001; but it's obvious this perspective can only be from 2012 or 2013:

"Yep, and your Internet was their [Cold War-era intelligence types] invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there's no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and I don't think anything has changed, kid."

That's about as good as the book gets, but, you can't give it credit for prophesying the near future. This is 20-20 hindsight into the near past.

It makes me think again about the new Dave Eggers novel, set in the near future, which is just as outlandish, but at least can be read as satire and, if moral instruction might be the point, can be said to illustrate a future we might yet avoid.

Bleeding prose

Squaring "The Circle"

I squared "The Circle" last night. (Don't read further if you don't want to know yet how the plot works out.)

The main character, Mae Holland, does indeed reassert herself as the protagonist.

Mae's weakness of character and lack of integrity, now made impregnable by an impressionable audience of millions and a god-like control over a global surveillance network, turn her into a very formidable protagonist indeed.

9197481_abed7d9ab6_oWith her power she hunts down and literally drives an old boyfriend, in his pickup, off a bridge, the deadly crash and explosion streamed live from cameras fixed to drones crowdsourced at Mae's command.

She also betrays Ty, the hoodied, Mark Zuckerberg-like figure who founded The Circle intending to bring civility to the interwebs, but who inexplicably keeps himself aloof from direct interaction with the public or even company employees - other than Mae - even after he realizes that the company is now an instrument of tyranny.

Ty remains an icon with company employees. At company events, old videos of Ty speaking, shot years ago, are reassembled and projected onto a wall. Invariably, he apologizes for being too busy on an important project (always unspecified) to attend the company event in person. But from time to time he is indeed present in the halls, passing himself off as an employee named Kalden who doesn't have much to do other than attend meetings; he skulks around, sans hoodie, sans glasses, self-consciously altering the way he carries himself so his Ty identity isn't recognized. Most of the time, he confines himself to secret vaults deep underneath the company campus.

Ty is incidentally Mae's lover. Inexplicably, until the very end of the book, Mae buys Ty's Kalden cover. Even though he is the one person on the globe she cannot effectively research on The Circle's systems, even though he secretly escorts Mae to the most proprietary parts of the campus, she can't connect the dots. Eggers' reader makes the connection right away. I suppose the point is that someone like Mae cannot process any information that is not mediated by a server.

(The spooky connotations of that common name for a computer, "server," are thrown into relief by this book.)

The politics of the book are summarized in a single speech from Ty, who at the end of the book, and for a second time, implores Mae to publicly turn against The Circle. (Ty intimates that he has incriminating, inside information that will support a change in public attitude about the company - but it's never clear why he doesn't simply conduct the campaign on his own.)

And the politics are this: information communism mixed with capitalism yields poison. Privacy may or may not be theft, but if all information is to be monetized, you do have to be concerned with who keeps the keys to the cloud.

But Ty is talking to exactly the wrong person. Mae is a true believer and she turns Ty in to the Eric Schmidt-like figure (personified in two characters, the better to identify the uneasy tension in techno-utopianism that Ty spells out).

In a brief dénouement, Mae sits by the bedside of her hospitalized friend and former mentor, Annie. Annie previously collapsed from information overload and remains in a coma. A hospital monitor shows Annie's brain is active.

While Mae is not a sympathetic character at any point in the book, Eggers does at least build narrative turns that help explain how she might have been brainwashed so thoroughly. For instance, an episode in which Mae innocently sets out for a nighttime kayak ride is turned by the powers at the company as a means to shame and humiliate her. The episode sets up her "redemption" as the face of the company and all that it represents.

But at the end of the book, by the unconscious Annie's side, Mae becomes a pure grotesque. Watching the monitor tracking Annie's brain activity, Mae finds she wants to know what is going on in Annie's head. Worse yet, she finds it intolerable that Annie should keep her dreams from her. She resolves to task The Circle with the project of outing Annie's unconscious mind.

My previous posts about this new novel by Dave Eggers are 100 pages into "The Circle" and Center of the circle. For a post about Jaron Lanier's critique of techno-utopianism, see Mark Byrnes on Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"

Photo: cobalt123/Flickr.

Center of the circle

I'm about halfway into Dave Eggers' "The Circle," his new novel about techno-utopianism.

The main character (at this point I'm not sure she's the protagonist), Mae Holland, continues to suffer indoctrination by friendly intervention.

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One particularly intense session is a round of overt censure at the hands of two members of the company's social media police. During the course of questioning, they learn that Mae enjoys kayaking. One of the inquisitors becomes incredulous.

"Josiah was looking intently at his tablet. 'Mae, I'm looking at your profile, I'm finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you're telling me you kayak once every few weeks?'"

The second inquisitor can't understand how Mae can identify the birds and wildlife Mae sees while on the water, without being connected to the interwebs. Mae explains that she carries around a little foldout paper guide an old boyfriend once gave her.

Josiah's reaction is priceless.

"Josiah rolled his eyes. 'No, I mean, this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper brochure, and that's where it ends. It ends with you. Like you're the only one who matters. But think if you'd been documenting. If you'd been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit – naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds were on the day on that day. It's just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don't want to call it selfish but –'

"'No. It was. I know it was,' Mae said."

Photo: Pierce Hanley/Flickr.

100 pages into "The Circle"

I'm hundred pages into "The Circle," Dave Eggers' new novel, set in the near future, about a tech startup which, as of the opening of the narrative, has grown "into the force that subsumed Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe, and Quan."

6a01156e3d83cb970c019affebebbd970cAt this point in the story, two significant events have occurred.

Eamon Bailey, one of the three chief executives of the company, has held an internal company meeting to showcase the performance of a new surveillance system. Cameras have been placed in Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Pyongyang and other places where tyrants suppress dissidents. Henceforward, any political suppression will be not only notorious but also open, live-streamed.

The surveillance system is a hardware/software play, like Microsoft's Xbox, Apple's iPhone or Google's chromebook. The hardware part of the system consists of cameras with uncanny battery life, priced at $59 each. The cameras are so small as to be unnoticeable in public spaces. So far I don't know how the satellite-networked services for the system are priced. (Maybe they're free, if you let advertisers or governments look in?)

The second significant event is that the protagonist, Mae Holland, has received a visit from the company's social network participation enforcer. Turns out that in her first week on the job, Mae neglected to meet her daily target quota of status updates, blog post comments, and like and favorite clicks.

So the stage is set. 21st Century Silicon Valley oppression is frantic, technological, and opt-in.

A third plot line stands in for the proposition that larger societal ills are not being addressed. Mae's father has multiple sclerosis, and is getting the runaround from health insurance companies.

Will report back.

The inevitability of American independence

Just finished reading Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis' new (published 2013), short, readable accounting of the political and military maneuvering of the Americans and the British, played out in the confines of Long Island and Manhattan in the middle of 1776.

Ellis' prose lacks the style and dramaturgy of David McCullough's 1776, a book that covers the same campaign but opens the action on the other side of the Atlantic, on the clacking London cobblestone streets where an incensed George III makes his way by carriage to Parliament to denounce the American insurgency. (Parallels to the contemporary vocabulary of the War on Terror are not subtle.)

I loved reading McCullough's book and bought extra copies to hand out to friends.

But I'd recommend the Ellis book, too. Revolutionary Summer may not be a treatment anticipating a screenplay, but its chapters are quickly paced and decorated with telling details (e.g.: Jefferson's obsession with preserving his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, before it had been edited by Congress; Franklin's canny, personal correspondence with Lord Howe). Though narrative in structure, Ellis' book as a whole has the feel of a reasoned essay. It's as if Ellis has summarized, for popular consumption, recent scholarship on the American Revolution, and has chosen to revisit key episodes in the year of the Declaration of Independence to throw into relief newer, more nuanced views on the significance of the military conflict.

Capture

Surprisingly, Ellis finds, or argues, that the social, cultural and political forces leading up to the decision of the Continental Congress in June, 1776, to declare independence from Great Britain, had a logic of their own that were not dependent on the prospects or performance of the Continental Army, hunkering down in New York.

Acknowledging that it was distinctly possible that the destruction of the Continental Army at the hands of the British and Hessians in 1776 would have altered the establishment of the United States (not posited by Ellis, but perhaps New York and New Jersey would have returned to the "protection of the Crown," or perhaps the British would have systematically occupied the northeastern seaboard?), Ellis nevertheless walks us through how various important and influential American patriots convinced themselves - each in different ways - that "the Cause" would inevitably triumph. Such belief was well-founded. Demography (the population of the States was doubling every twenty years, far outpacing population growth in England) and geography (the Howes would necessarily lose the war by winning it, as each successive occupation depleted the next occupying force) meant that the American states were not reversing their independent course.

The most interesting upshot of the "essay" is found in Ellis' last footnote:

"I solicited the opinions of four distinguished historians of the American Revolution in response to this question: Would the demise of the Continental Army and the capture of George Washington in 1776 have changed the outcome of the American Revolution? Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, and David Hackett Fischer all said no, though all agreed that the way the war played out would have been different. Ed Lengel, editor of the Washington Papers, disagreed on the grounds that Washington was indispensable and irreplaceable."

I hugely admire George Washington. McCullough's book about that summer, Ron Chernow's one-volume biography of Washington's entire life, and other books and stories I have read about the father of our country, all marvel over Washington's amazing physical courage and emotional stamina. If there are any persons with such character in American life today, they must be hidden among the military or business classes; there certainly are no such persons in our national political life.

I want to be really careful here as I warm up to pointing out that Ellis' treatment of Washington is . . . decidedly not hagiographic. No question Ellis cites Washington's physical bravery - he is among the last to evacuate Long Island in the tactical retreat to Manhattan; he exposes himself to British artillery; he must be forcibly led by subordinate officers off the open battlefield as British regulars advance within the range of a Russell Wilson pass - but he also allows that Washington was indecisive.

But Ellis also states that by the fall of 1776 Washington had come to appreciate that the Continental Army needed victories for psychological reasons as much or more than for tactical ones.

Along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the Howe brothers - Richard in charge of the navy, William in charge of the army and the overall commander in chief of British forces - end up being the main characters in Revolutionary Summer. A question I am going to take away from reading the book - or perhaps it is a working thesis to be tested by further reading - is whether the Howe's reluctance to crush Washington's army when the chances to do so presented themselves that summer, whether that reluctance was belatedly prescient: did the Howes also appreciate that that war might only be won in the hearts and minds of the American people?

Image: "the invasion fleet under Admiral Howe assembling in lower New York Harbor off the coast of Staten Island in the summer of 1776." Wikimedia.

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