Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Notes

Over this past couple years I've been lucky enough to find time in between classes and research for a bit of pleasure-reading. I thought it might be fun to write a little on different books that've left strong impressions on me. It's nice to keep a record, but maybe I can also share some of the enjoyment I've gotten from them.

It was tempting to put the word "Reviews" somewhere in this headline, but I'm not really trying to just share ratings and little terse blurbs here. Ratings are subjective and reductive, so it's hard to see much point in cooking them up in this context. I'd rather just share a few thoughts and impressions for each book with the hope that you'll find them interesting.

Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov): It's been a year or two since I finished this book, but it's stuck with me. The book takes the form of a sequence of tiny, self-contained episodes, in fact almost -- but not quite! -- a set of short stories. Their unifying thread is Pnin, the tragic hero, a Russian émigré to America fleeing "the Hitler war". Pnin is the absent-minded professor made full, the epitome of stereotype somehow rendered authentic. Nabokov, in creating him, has managed somehow to both epitomize and transcend the archetype. He starts out as someone absurd, someone to be laughed at -- when we first meet him, he is travelling to give a guest lecture, fussing over details while unwittingly boarding the wrong train -- but the longer we spend with him, the more we realize that Pnin himself is not to be ridiculed. Rather, people's reactions to him are.

The fact (we come to see) is that poor eccentric Pnin is a kind soul in an unkind world, and as you read more and more, you find yourself almost involuntarily rooting for him to do well, to score some small victory. These victories are rare, though, and almost always inconsequential. Far more common are tragic mistakes and misunderstandings (which Nabokov somehow manages to render both heartbreaking and incredibly witty). Throughout the book Pnin is put through progressively greater indignities, and yet he refuses to let them break him, refuses to grow jaded and cynical towards this world, which has given him little more than pain. Witnessing this, we are slowly brought around to a sort of awed respect for this strange little man, so naive, so awkward, and yet somehow utterly indomitable. Rare is the character whose failures are so inspiring. I found the book's final chapter deeply moving, and this is a book that I'm very much looking forward to someday reading again.

Something Like an Autobiography (Akira Kurosawa): I'm actually only halfway through this one, but I've come to  like it so much that I can't resist including it. Kurosawa, for those who don't know, is almost certainly the most internationally famous Japanese film director. Some of my favorite movies (Kagemusha and Throne of Blood, to name two) are his. But on top of his talents as director, he also turns out to be a really witty -- and disarmingly honest -- storyteller. The introduction lets you know that his autobiography only extends to around the time he started work on Rashomon, because everything else would be too recent for him to engage in full disclosure. At first I was disappointed by this, but the anecdoes he does provide are so engaging, and offer such an unexpectedly great level of insight into his character, that the book ends up being brilliant in spite of this restricted scope.

It's a bit funny to list this book below Pnin and above The Pale King, since all three follow roughly similar episodic formats. Something Like an Autobiography is composed of a long series of short anecdotes, most just a few pages long, recounting different moments from Kurosawa's life. Some are poignant, like his reflections on the "lost sounds" of his childhood. Others are funny, like when he recalls his "rebellious phase" in middle school. And some are utterly harrowing, like his description the Great Kanto Earthquake and his subsequent exploration, with his brother, of neighborhoods flattened and burnt to the ground, where they found piles of charred corpses and rivers so full of bloated death that they were running red-brown. But even in this passage, Kurosawa's account of what he saw, and (implicitly) of his relationship with his brother, is so compelling that it's impossible to stop reading. Notably, Kurosawa turns out to be a master of brief but vivid descriptions, of almost effortlessly calling up the spirit and image of a place, and so his stories serve not only as an account of his life but also as an account of the times in which he lived. I'd recommend this book to just about anyone, even if they couldn't care less about movies.

The Pale King (David Foster Wallace): Published posthumously, there is something suffocatingly sad about the very existence of this book. I've read all of Wallace's published fiction, and a lot of it is very powerful, but nothing else hit me in quite the same way as this. Some context: Wallace only ever published two other novels, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest. Reading The Broom of the System, there are the occasional dull moments, and I'd have a hard time identifying anything I'd call the novel's emotional center -- and yet even so, the writing is so charismatic that it's hard to escape the impression that here is someone who, on the page, can do literally anything. Next up, Infinite Jest manages to be incredibly emotionally powerful through its wrestling with themes of addiction, alienation, and the deep human need to find something to give ourselves away to. Infinite Jest was written as a critique of its times, a narrative account thereof, a catalog of insanities (among other things), and yet it tries very hard to convince you that things don't have to be this way, that there is still good in the world.

After Infinite Jest's publication, though, Wallace seemed to decide (perhaps based in part on the book's popular reception) that what he had provided was diagnosis without cure. The Pale King was to be the book in which he corrected this mistake. His struggles to complete it are legendary, and a serious case of writer's block led (at least in part) to his decision to stop taking Nardil, since he suspected that it was numbing him emotionally in a way that prevented him from realizing his vision for The Pale King. He later went back on Nardil, but found that it had stopped working. This seems to have directly led to his suicide in 2008.

This background necessarily colors how we see The Pale King. It stands unfinished; the cure couldn't come soon enough. The novel is still rough around the edges, yet even so you can tell that it could have stood on par with -- or even surpassed -- his other work, had Wallace lived to finish it. It feels kind of gross to tie the author's real life into the novel's narrative, but in this case it's also nigh irresistible, and the (involuntarily obtained) result is one of the most profound, crushing tragedies imaginable. This is probably not the novel I'd recommend to someone who wants an introduction to Wallace (for these readers, Good Old Neon and a few other titles come to mind). However, as a great admirer of Wallace's work, I personally found The Pale King transfixing.

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free (Cory Doctorow) (previously): This is one of the best nontechnical books about the internet I've ever read. Doctorow's overarching theme here is to put forward his "Three Laws", namely:

1) Any time someone puts a lock on something and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit.
2) Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it.
3) Information doesn't want to be free, people do.

Each law is meant as a statement on an issue he takes very seriously, and so it might seem at first like the book is forced into a sort of limited scope. This suspicion is natural, but completely mistaken. In expanding upon his chosen issues, Doctorow manages to draw connections to a head-spinning number of topics -- in fact, he pulls in so many different issues that it would feel disingenuous to try to give any list. There are chapters in here about the history of the music industry. There are chapters about how to find an audience and (hopefully!) make a living as an artist. There are chapters about digital rights management (or "digital locks"), and how these technologies lead to no-win situations. There are chapters about the TPP and the very serious dangers its copyright provisions pose. The list goes on. In everything he discusses, a common theme one begins to pick up on is that problems arise when we fail to put people at the center of our designs.

Every topic Doctorow touches on fits into the overall flow of his discussion almost effortlessly, and his arguments are invariably lucid and well-reasoned. I'd already heard of pretty much every issue he discusses, and yet I felt like I learned so much just by studying how he lays out his cases and picks examples. Doctorow's talent lies not just in his capacity to care deeply and passionately about these issues, but in his capacity to make you see why you should care, too. The world needs more people who can do that.

Another nice thing about Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: it's published through McSweeney's! You can buy it direct from their website, which is a nice break from the usual Amazon-induced guilt many of us associate with buying hard-to-find titles. I don't have a list of my favorite companies to give money to, but if I did, I'd probably put McSweeney's pretty close to the top.

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