What I'm reading - February 2021

In Praise of Shadows - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

I was put onto this short book by 'The Longing for Less' which I read last month. It is an exposition of traditional Japanese aesthetics, and the loss of these aesthetics due to modern electric lights, heating, glass windows, etc. The book talks about experiences which probably no longer exist, and which are by their nature too ephemeral to have been effectively recorded, other than in prose.

For example, the author talks about the practice of blackening teeth, which taken with extremely low lighting and dark clothes lead to an impression of a persons face being perfectly white and floating in a sort of void. You can search for photoss of people with blackened teeth, but the impression that these photos gives is entirely different. The photos are uniformly well lit, and make the practice seem artificial and grotesque.

The way that technology makes the old impossible, or ugly, is I think the main message of this book. The author is particularly interested in shadows, coolness, quiet - three things that cannot be found in the overlit, overheating and loud modern world.

Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood

Short stories based in and around (hello Rugen!) Berlin (where I live). I enjoyed reading about familiar streets and districts, imaging what has a has not changed.

The book reminds me of Henry James' Tropic of Cancer, or Orwell's book about working in kitchens: a disconnected anglophone slums it in a European City cultivating rareified social connections that are completely unavailable to the majority. The song 'Common People' covered this pretty well I think.

Isherwood is more enjoyable than Orwell because he doesn't pretend to care very much about the people he meets. He just documents crushing poverty, and airs other people's dirty laundry. There is no sense of moral superiority.

I enjoyed this book! You should read it.

Mating in Captivity - Esther Perel

Continuing the trend of reading books about relationships! This is about eroticism inside of long term relationships.

The central premise is that people assume that passion cannot exist in long term relationships, but that this is not ture.

The book then goes on to describe various ways that passion can disappear, or become stunted in long term relationships. The author believes that these reasons mostly resolve around a lack of differentiation between partners. Eroticism relies on the unknown, but in most relationships intimacy is sought, and achieved - which limits the amount of unknowing that is possible.

She diagnoses a narrowing of conceptions of what it means to be intimate. "We no longer plow the land together; today we talk. We have come to glorify verbal communication". The vocal forms of intimacy that are popular are coded feminine and are easier to achieve for those who have been socialised as females. "We think of intimacy primarily as a discursive process... that insolves self-disclose". Men are not trained in this style of communication, and this inability can be diagnosed as 'fear of intimacy' or emotional inaccesability.

Similarly to the book I read last month, Perel considers relationships as something that should require work. "we think it’s easy to love, but hard to find the right person.". There are practically infinite possible people to build a strong relationship with. The building is the difficult part.

Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov

This is a re-read. I liked this book the first time, but am enjoying it a lot more the second. I think the structure of the book makes the first reading difficult. I was focusing too much on flipping back and forth between the poem and commentary, and trying to understand what was going on. When you have a lay of the land it's a lot easier to simply read and luxuriate in the madness.

I've appreciated the poem itself much more this time. It's hard to take in a thousand line poem in one go, there is so much beautiful language, that I imagine I will keep dipping back into this book for a long time.

As for what is actually going on in the book - I have no idea.