Two Difficult Books Read Last Year

Most people write their 2006 wrap-up shortly after 2006 has ended, where “shortly” refers to a span of a couple days, a week at most.

But I seem to have a different definition of the word “shortly”.

Last year was a timespan for reading much that I hadn’t read before, exposing my brain to academic ideas that tickled it into different directions, said directions leading to applications for science, technology, and society PhD programs. Yet at the same time I was reading more and more experimental fiction, seeing on the page new ways to define old words. Both strands are difficult to follow as the brain has to “work hard” (read: get more glucose) to understand the neoteric when it is constantly surrounded by the conventional.

So, two difficult books read last year that belong to both strands.

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

This was one of those books where you read it and say, “Wow! That’s exactly how I’ve always felt but unable to put into words!” What Latour does is show that the traditional split in the social sciences between nature and society is non-existent in reality. Sure, we try to effect that divide, to go on acts of “purification” to ensure that there is no mixing of the two realms, but we’re never completely able to do so. And in fact, it’s the artifacts of modernity that show the purposelessness of the divide: things like global warming, new biotechnological drugs, and the so on have as their actors examples from both nature and society.

The title is in reference to the modernist belief in purity, in the assigning of each part of the world to either nature or society. Thus Latour says that in fact we have never been modern, and that we are actually pre-modern.

From my reading of this book by Latour I got into actor-network theory and a new way for me to think about technological artifacts and objects with agency. I can’t overestimate the influence of this book on my current thinking and direction.

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

I’m a native English speaker, but I had an incredibly difficult time reading this short book by Ben Marcus. Not that the vocabulary used was beyond my own. No, Marcus instead reuses familiar words but in completely unexpected ways. Weather becomes something you eat: humans become observation machines. The diction and syntax are entirely familiar, yet the semantics are entirely novel. Basically it’s a mindfuck, but the best kind. Like when I first read ee cummings in high school and realized that you could write poetry in that way. With Marcus’ collection I realized you could write fiction in that way. Eye-opening in an obfuscating and revelatory way.

Over Christmas break I read his most recent novel, Notable American Women, that is strangely related to the stories in his first collection. For some reason what works on the level of the short story lost some strength over the course of a novel, so I recommend you start with The Age of Wire and String.

What of 2007?

Here’s to more difficult books, more strange ideas, and more crazy ways to think about the world.

Add new comment