What I'm reading - January 2021
This year I plan to read more, and to absorb more of what I do read. To this end I am going to write a little about what I've been reading each month. Here's January
Moab is My Washpot - Stephen Fry
I read this whilst at home over Christmas. It is an autobiography covering Stephen Fry's school years, a time when he achieved nothing of note. It seems that when he wrote this book, he had already published a fictionalised account of the same years. It seems that this period of his life has a strong hold on his thoughts.
Prior to reading this I didn't think much of Stephen Fry. To me he was the host of tedious British panel shows, cared too much about the indignities of having many twitter followers, and had written a pretty good good book about poetry (The Ode Less Travelled).
This book has made me more fond of him. He seems to have been a real freak as a child, which is a relatble quality. He talks about making school play costumes out of entrails, wanting to cease existing when a maggot ridden dead mole disintegrates over his clothes. He captures the unique dreads and obsessions of that we experience as children.
He also discusses the private school system of England at great length. I managed to grow up in England without ever associating a real conversation with anyone who went to a private school. This book has gone some way to helping me understand why the people that did go to these schools are so weird.
It seems that anyone who was forced through this system of boarding schools develops a lifelong attachment to it. This is central the class system in England. If one does not grow up with wealth, then one can never gain access to these peculiar shared experiences. You cannot join the elite except by birth.
""" And that will be England gone, The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, The guildhalls, the carved choirs. There’ll be books; it will linger on In galleries; but all that remains For us will be concrete and tyres.
Most things are never meant. This won’t be, most likely; but greeds And garbage are too thick-strewn To be swept up now, or invent Excuses that make them all needs. I just think it will happen, soon. """
Sexual Personae - Camille Paglia
I started reading this after seeing Paglia appear briefly in the film The Watermelon Woman. I realised that I've heard a lot about her, but had no idea what her work is about.
This book, which I haven't finished, seem to be a framework for analysing artworks and other cultural artifacts. She is interested in the distinction between the Apollonian and Cthonian. By these terms she means rational focused 'masculine' thought and earthy encompassing 'feminine' thought respectively. She uses beautiful and evocative language when attempting to describe what she means by Cthonian. It is grinding like the bowels of the earth, unknowable, deeply sinister etc.
The book seems to gradually build up these two ideas, offering more and more examples of the Apollonian and Cthonian dichtomy, looking at how human culture in different times and place reflects one or the other more strongly.
There various subsidiary elements to the Aoollonian and Cthonian. The Apollonian is sky focused, it builds towers, it focuses its eyes on what interests it. Cthonianism is earth focused, it tunnels creeps and grows, it is cruel like nature is cruel.
The book is very long and I will probably not finish reading it
Finite and Infinite Games - James P. Carse
There is a lot of fun to be had in mis-pronouncing the title of this book. Try finite and infinite games, but pronounced like infinite and finite games.
This reminded me of Paglia's book. Both are focused on dichotomies. There is some similaritiy in the distinction is finite and infite games and the apollonian and cthonian. Both books also give the sense that the author is preoccupied by playing games with language.
This book apparently made little impact when released, but gained a larger following when it was regurgitated by Simon Sinek in 2019 as 'The Infinite Game'. That book, which I have not read, claims that Business and Politics are examples of Infinite Games. Clearly they are not, if judged by Carse's criteria. Believeing otherwise is the same sort of deranged thinking that leads people to trust in "the power of why", and to buy electric cars.
K-Punk - Mark Fisher
A series of blog posts by someone called Mark Fisher, who I've never heard of before and know nothing about.
This book is very long and repetitive, and keeps referencing "Žižek" so surely as spring turns to summer, I will not finish it. Still, one of the articles was about a film by David Cronenberg and I recently watched Shivers, which was timely.
The articles oscillates between being interesting, and repetitively grouchy and depressed. Obviously the author is English.
Designing Data-Intensive Applications
As an engineer with no Computer Science degree who has mostly worked on Front End projects, this book is teaching me lot of things that I assume my colleagues already know. In particular, I've learned a lot of lingo. Cool
The Longing for Less - Kyle Chayka
This book begins with an overview of contemporary minimalism. We learn about Marie Kondo and The Minimalists, both of whom argue that the reduction of material posessions is a straightfoward path to a better life. A process of beneficial minification that is not contingent on personality or circumstance.
The author gives short shrift to these writers, considering these forms of minimalism to be meaningless. "sachharine and predigested, presented as self-help... Each book contains an easy structure of epiphany and aftermath, recounting the crisis that leads its author to minimalism, the minimalist metamorphosis, and then the positive ways the author's life changed".
The stylised minimalism of Steve Jobs and Apple is also discussed. This sort of luxury minimalism is an expensive facade, a class signifier, more than a meaningful lifstyle choice. The sleek glass of the iPhone is hiding a labyrinth of coiling infrastructure that encircles the planet and reaches into space.
We're also briefly introduced to the 'philosophical' forms of minimalism, which are popular amongst people who write blogs about productivity. This waldenponding - rejecting the world, avoiding the pain engagement. 'What the Stoics, Francis, and Thoreau have in common is a strategy of avoidance'. These thinkers were only able to reject the worldly because of their existing wealth, and the support of servants, family, or slave labour. To live a life of rarified contemplation requires certain material assistances.
The book then moves onto an overview of the lives of various minimalist artists and thinkers, and their place in the evolution of minimalism. There's a crash course in Agnes Martin, Phillip Johnson, Donald Judd, John Cage, Julius Eastman, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, and others. There's a lot of really interesting content, which I'll not attempt to reproduce here. But if you'd like to learn more about lots of vaguely related artists this book is a good way to do it. I've come away with a long reading list, and a lot of new ideas to explore.
There is a theme that runs through the lifes of the people examined, and that is that minimalism did not, make their lives easier. Instead their lifestyles became a fight against the self and a world that would rather that expected them to behave differently. The real subject of this book is not, it seems minimalism so much, as an appreciation for new ways of living, new ways of seeing.
"embrace contingency and ranomness... beauty is found not by imposition but through an absence of control"
Attached - Amir Levine
I read this book to try and understand relationships, because it has become clear that I do not. The book takes a theory that was originally meant to explain how babies interact with their mothers, and uses it to describes adult romantic relationships. If I knew more about Freud I might say something clever here.
The authors claim that all relationships are essentially co-dependent - and that this is not a bad thing. Being able to depend on another another person means allows us to do the things we want to do effectively. Having a strong base of support allows us to self actualise.
There are three different 'attachment styles' - and the interactions of these different attraction styles largely determines the success of a relationship.
The three styles described are:
- Secure - people who are good at communicating, open with their emotions, and perceptive of their partner's emotional states. Apparently this group comprises around 50% of the population.
- Anxious - these people are pre-occupied by thoughts of their relationship. They require a lot of support, and can easily come to resent a partner who doesn't meet their emotional needs. When anxious people aren't given sufficient care, they tend to act up in a various attention grabbing ways. These people are apparently very capable of building strong relationships, just so long as their partner is able to support them properly.
- Avoidant - people who are either scared of being emotionally dependent on a partner. These people do require intimacy, but are afraid of it.
There can be overlap between different styles, people can exhibit elements of different styles, and it is quite possible to move between them over time.
The key to a successful relationship is ensuring that it does not include an 'Avoidant' individual. They are sometimes capable of maintaing good relationships with a secure partner, but never with an anxious partners.
This model seems very simplistic, and like it can't be capturing a lot of what makes relationships work or not work. But still I think I found this book fairly interesting. It made me realise that I really have no mental models of how relationships work, which is something I'd like to fix. If you have any recommendations for books on similar topics get in touch!!
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