For whatever reason—generational, geographical, biographical–I’d managed to go my whole life without ever reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, first released by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective through Simon & Schuster in 1973. (Earlier versions, beginning with 1970’s Women and Their Bodies, had previously been published by the New England Free Press.) It turns out to be the missing—or lost!—link between health class and internet pornography. Instead of just showing women what our reproductive organs look like on the inside, or what pleasure (allegedly) looks like from the outside, it offers some of the best descriptions of desire—of what it feels like to live in a body that wants things—I’ve ever come across. Plus, there are lots of helpful and unexpectedly heartwarming illustrations. If you have the 1976 edition, I recommend in particular the drawings on page 53, as well as the pictures on pages 24, 26, 39, 67, 217, and 229. The last is the only photograph I’ve ever seen of a woman having an abortion. Now that is what democracy looks like.
Although I’ve spent this week mostly packing and unpacking my books, I’ve had some time for reading, notably the Epic of Gilgamesh, on a borrowed iPad. I thought I would see if the earliest surviving work of tablet literature translated well into the latest incarnation of tablet literature. A capsule review of an epic seems somewhat gauche, but I can report that Gilgamesh “transprosed” in the 1964 Penguin edition available on cheap download is bound to provoke some thoughts on historical cycles. Perhaps these thoughts aren’t as fully baked as the bricks of fair Uruk of the plazas, but anyone who fears the death of the book will be somewhat consoled by an encounter with a text that has survived four ages of “textual reproduction,” from oral poem to cuneiform clay to a book stitched together from fragments found in the ruins of 7th century B.C. Nineveh, Babylon, and other Near Eastern sites, and now coming to screens everywhere in 3-D.
Ron Suskind’s new book is better and more interesting than everyone says it is. To be sure, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President is, like a Bob Woodward thriller, full of insider bluster and foul-mouthed, fat white men. There are the usual passages tying banal everyday events to cataclysms: “Tim Geithner ran cross court and whipped a winning forehand down the line. Deuce. You could never tell from his smooth topspin stroke that the fate of the world economy lay in his hands,” et cetera. I made that one up, which is maybe being a bit unfair to a book that is better written and frankly more damning than any of the left-wing screeds that followed hard on the heels of the Obama meltdown. To some extent, it’s nothing we don’t already know—the Prez comes off as someone with a technocratic zeal for integrative, bipartisan policies, which turn out to be pretty bad policies that he pushes weakly and compromises on triumphantly, making everything worse in the process–but it’s never been laid out with so much comprehensive evidence. And Larry Summers is yet again confirmed as the arrogant, sexist pig we all knew he was. We’ve all heard about him feeling “home alone,” but his confidence in the efficiency of markets and his pseudo-Hippocratic oath to “first, do no harm” to the financial system has led to the ruin of us all. Occupy Wall Street should change its name to “Larry Summers Sucks”—a slogan that would be received with approval and equanimity throughout the universe.
I’ve been paging my way through A Ready-Made Life, a collection of early modern Korean short fiction (translated into English by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton). Ch’ae Man-Shik’s 1934 story (from which the collection derives its name) is the standout here. The tale centers on “P,” a struggling student who begins to feel dispirited and “shopworn” as family and fiscal troubles loom. On the streetcars of Seoul, “P” grapples with his own ambition, the strictures imposed on those with “no technical know-how,” and the influence of the Japanese occupation. I’d recommend the story as encouragement to those occupying Zuccotti Park—or, for that matter, to anyone interested in Asian literature and modernism more generally.
I’ve been reading The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C. L .R. James, the Trinidadian writer, Marxist, and cricket enthusiast. It’s interesting not only as a fiery account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 but as an exploration of how the entanglement between France and Haiti shaped the upheaval underway on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as suggesting that European narratives of the French Revolution overlooked the extent to which the influx of colonial wealth destabilized the Ancien Régime, James proposes that it was Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slaves who recognized the radical possibility within the ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité declared by their colonizers.
Sky’s the Limit, a gossip-driven chronicle of super-high-end Manhattan real estate by Steven Gaines, a gossip-driven chronicler of American wealth and camp (previous preoccupations have included the Hamptons and Calvin Klein), provides a reminder that silly books are often more useful than serious ones. Plying readers with the faux-intimate tone of a limited-edition luxury travel guide, Gaines offers mini-biographies of Manhattan’s “Good Buildings,” difficult-to-get-into, Jew-restricted co-ops assembled by Tom Wolfe in a 1985 article for Esquire. Gaines writes to celebrate, but as readers, we get to choose how we process information, and for what purposes. As a guide to the housing bubble and primary document of the culture that sustained it, the book fascinates. For those who want to understand what happened to uptown in the late 20th century, Gaines’s book provides a fruitful entry point.
(For fun, here are the buildings: 1 Beekman Place; 10 Gracie Square; East End Avenue: 1, 120; Park Avenue: 550, 555, 635, 640, 720, 730, 740, 765-775, 770, 778, 812; Fifth Avenue: 810, 820, 825, 834, 953, 960, 998, 1020, 1030, 1040; 435 East 52nd Street – “River House”; 4 East 66th Street; 131-5 East 66th; 2 East 70th Street; East 72nd Street: 4, 19, 36, 117, 160; 50 East 77th Street; East 79th Street: 21, 39, 66, 79; 25 Sutton Place North; One Sutton Place.)
If a classic tends to become mentioned by everybody and read by no one, the tendency is especially marked with the classics of economic theory. Has anyone, including professional economists, actually read The Wealth of Nations or Capital? The first of those remains on my to-do list, but a few weeks ago I finally, with some judicious skimming, reached the end of Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, and no reading experience I’ve had all year has been more thrilling; I drew vertical lines of enthusiasm and approval beside paragraph after paragraph across whole chapters. For one thing, the tract is masterpiece of tone. Keynes is by turns sarcastic, sweetly reasonable, wistful, haughty, impassioned, amused, and all in all the voice is that of a superbly intelligent radical with just enough faith in the capacity of his audience to overcome its intellectual defensiveness that he can imagine his views carrying the day. This means the book can only be useless for most politicians, businessmen, economic journalists, and practitioners of the dismal science in America today: no point talking to them. But some people are more open-minded, and The General Theory deserves a place along with the placards, tents, pizza boxes, and other necessary paraphernalia of the ongoing occupation of Wall Street. To read Keynes is to glimpse a few features of the economic arrangements we need. Some of these:
Maintenance of the interest rates available to citizens (including those on student loans and credit cards) at the lowest possible level consistent with tolerable inflation.
Promotion, by the central bank, of a temporarily negative rate of interest on savings if this should be necessary, as now, to free the economy from a liquidity trap.
Determination of the volume, if not the direction, of total capital investment by way of communal saving through the agency of the State.
Achievement, by this means, of full employment: a job for all who want and can perform one.
These demands, which quote or paraphrase Keynes, can be grouped under one overarching demand for something he didn’t name:
A public utility credit system, employing our collective savings for the public good rather than for private profit.
I’ve finally decided to take on Franzen’s Freedom—a book that, I admit, hardly needs my commendation or review. More interesting maybe, are the essays that finally led me to it: his collection How to Be Alone is an insightful read on how a novelist ties personal struggles to many of the social ills of our time. Here is a favorite excerpt:
The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture? These were unhappy days. I began to think that there was something wrong with the whole model of the novel as a form of “cultural engagement.”
There are currently no books I could justifiably say that I am reading. But I recently visited a place where I plan to take up this activity once again. Deleuze let us know that he grew tired of trees (preferring the rhizomatic structure of fungi), but the French National Library makes wonderful use of them as a metaphor for public knowledge. While most of Paris looks like an open-air museum, the François Mitterand Library welcomes its visitors into bleak postindustrial surroundings overlooking the city. The books are stored in four abrasive towers marking off the territory. As you approach, an abyss opens up before you. But it’s not scary; it’s filled with treetops. In a touch of French megalomania, the late Socialist president had 1000 hectares of woodland moved from the Bois de Vincennes to the library that was to bear his name. The treetops are the crowns of the intellectual work going on deep underground. The escalator takes you to the ground floor where students go about their work and the public is invited to attend numerous exhibitions. But to get to the root of a problem (and of the trees), the library asks its readers to go to the basement. In an amazing inversion of hierarchies, research happens at n-1.
Christian Marazzi’s The Violence of Financial Capitalism is both more elegant and more serious than it first appears. Short, substantial, and refreshingly omnivorous, the book gives us the financial crisis less as a policy failure than as a structural inevitability made world-historically bad by the hybrid form of the global economy. Faced with a crisis of profitability in manufacturing, firms turned to circulation and distribution to make up the difference. This cyclical process of financialization is not new, but it was prolonged and deepened by historically peculiar factors, both externally and internally. Internally, the explosion of household indebtedness–what Marazzi calls the “privatization of deficit spending”–made up, in the form of consumption by non-wage incomes, for the lack of purchasing power resulting from stagnant wages. As borrowing against rising housing prices increasingly became the only way to maintain a standard of living (home mortgage extraction accounted for a 1.5 percent growth in GDP every year from 2002 to 2007) owning a home became less a rational choice than a rational necessity. This exempted housing from the law of supply and demand as rising prices stimulated demand instead of depressing it. Externally, the Asian response to its own lost decade was to buy up American debt, defeating the Fed’s attempts to cool the economy by raising interest rates, which in turn furthered more borrowing, which both delayed and deepened the crisis when it came. “Though closer and ever more frequent crisis, access to social wealth, after having been structurally stimulated, is destroyed”—Marazzi might have said harvested—“again and again.”
I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind in manuscript earlier this year, and at the time it seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of the American left. Ostensibly an argument about the counterrevolutionary nature of conservatism (not a “humble attempt” to preserve the existing world, as we were told back in college, but a radical attempt to reinstate the past), it most persuasively showed how progressivism had become the real “small-c conservative” philosophy, merely trying to preserve what it had gained. It was the conservatives who had mastered the intricacies of radicalism. And if the left, at mid-century, had won so much of what it wanted, it had done so only to see its original energy dissipate—much like the self-satisfied gentry of England, who, as Robin points out, even Edmund Burke criticized for lacking the passion to maintain their prerogatives. The only way to defend social security, medicare, unionization rights, and all the rest may be by learning from the counterrevolutionaries about “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” One hopes we can one day move beyond trying to win back what we’ve lost, or simply maintain what’s threatened, but in the meantime one need only look to Occupy Wall Street to see what happens when you take your lessons as much from the Tea Party as from Tahrir Square.
Some English graduate programs require that students undergo a general qualifying exam after their first year. Unlike the Orals exam, which happens later and is confined to a discrete historical period, “quals” aspires to cover everything–the entire breadth of English literature–from Beowulf to the present. Of course, it’s impossible to cover everything. The professors know this–even they haven’t read everything. The aspiration is what’s important. The prevailing logic of the exam is, we might as well try. The quals list includes plays, eight from the Renaissance, six by Shakespeare, two from the Restoration, and four from the 20th century; also novels, from Oronooko to Jude the Obscure to A Bend in the River; intellectual prose, with selections from Bacon and Hume and T. S. Eliot, to name three; and poems, lots and lots of poems, Milton and Keats and Lowell and . . . you get the point. This is how I spent my summer. The exam itself is a lesson in anticlimax. What can I recommend? Not everything, or even the aspiration to have read everything. It’s not that these texts shouldn’t be read, just that they shouldn’t be read all at once. I recommend reading not out of an anxiety for comprehensiveness but simply out of anxiety. When you start to feel guilty–when the voice in the back of your head starts agitating for classic literature, exhorting you to be a better person–only then pick up Pamela. Otherwise read whatever you want, whenever you want.
—Edward Morgan Day Frank
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezs Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect–in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises–the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
I haven’t been reading, I’ve been moving. I spent two days last week trying to throw out books, because books are heavy and I’m growing old. It was a pretty depressing experience; I really like my books, as a whole, but going through them one by one revealed just how many of them came into my life because they cost a dollar, or, more exactly, forty-eight cents. Anyway, I put on my game face and made what I thought were some mature decisions. I did not need four copies of Portnoy’s Complaint, I realized; I finally admitted that I was just never going to read Habermas’s Toward a Rational Society, or Iban Hassan’s Radical Innocence. It’s not that I shouldn’t; it’s just that I won’t.
And yet now I’m unpacking the same boxes, about a mile north of where I packed them, and I find that three days ago I was under the impression that I am still going to find time to read Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution and Althusser’s For Marx. So I guess there still remain things about myself that I haven’t yet faced up to. On the plus side, a friend of mine emailed this morning to say that I should read the passage in one of Naipaul’s books about how people in India shit outdoors, and though I had to go through two boxes before I found it, there it was, undiscarded. “Indians defecate everywhere,” writes Naipaul. “They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover. . . . Indians are a poetic people,” one young Muslim told Naipaul. “He himself always sought the open because he was a poet, a lover of Nature, which was the matter of his Urdu verses; and nothing was as poetic as squatting on a river bank at dawn.”