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I have been reading, Q4 2012

 (c) Leland Holiday (2010)

Came home from Tanzania, where I'd been stuck with the same 5 hard books for 3 months - Does Foreign Aid Really Work?, Philosophical Investigations, Lipsey's Mathematical Economics, Crawford & Imlah's Scottish Verse, and Beyond Good and Evil - I binged a bit, re-reading old favourites. (This included three different books with "How To" in the title, but they're much better than that might suggest.) Also got a job in a bookshop, so, y'know.

Grading system:
1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts, I guess.
3/5: Skim it.
4/5: Read it receptively.
4*/5: Exceptional.
5?/5: First read of a 5/5.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.

  • Monogamy (1996) by Adam Philips. Casually radical bunch of aphorisms questioning our automatic pair-bonding. Every page has something to raise or furrow yr eyebrows. 4/5

  • Bring the Noise (2007) by Simon Reynolds. My favourite pop writer traces his own development, from slightly clumsy Marxist projecting onto old-school rap, to the most acute pop-culture theorist we have. 4/5 

  • Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews (2009) by Simon Reynolds. Less impressive collection, but his love of the music shines through, and his scepticism about the more wanky post-punks helps considerably. David Byrne and Green Gartside come across particularly well. 3/5

  • Re-read: Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Daniel Gilbert. This is really amazing, pop-psych survey of how to apply the last 50 years of psychology / cognitive science. He's one the pioneers of the Economics of Happiness school, but nowhere near as annoying as those tend to be. Also has a good Woody Allen-type flow. 5?/5

  • Re-read: How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read (2008) by Pierre Bayard. Astonishing and therapeutic work against the reading classes (of which I obviously am, but still). Bayard actually disowns it, and there's plenty of obvious irony involved, but the "Bayard" of this is still a credible and persuasive devil's advocate. 5/5

  • Re-read: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Favourite children's book. Sarky and warm and overflowing with ideas. 5/5

  • Read aloud, aborted: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871) by Jules Verne. Proper boring. First 150 pages (out of 220) is a completely uneventful dialogue about an obscure Victorian geological debate. Narrator is kind of charming. Didn't help that we were just waiting for the dinosaurs to appear. Gave up. 2/5

  • Flight to Arras (1942) by Antoine Saint-Exupéry. Powerful nationalist elegy written during the defeat of France. I don't think I've ever been moved by anything that subsumes the individual so totally. The central thought is that war is futile and absurd but that he must continue. The existentialism can get kind of leaden in comparison to his other stuff. 4/5

  • How to Travel With a Salmon (1994) by Umberto Eco. Bunch of satirical pieces about academia and consumerism. One piece, analysing a cheapo catalogue, is quite affecting. But it hasn't aged all that well. He's still funny. This has the feel of a notebook which is cool? 3/5.

  • Read aloud, aborted: Critique of Criminal Reason (2006) by Michael Gregorio. Couldn't resist this after reading the blurb - Kant solving murder mysteries in wintry Konigsberg - but gave up after 80 pages of samey dirty Gothic blah. I really don't like crime fiction: by virtue of its conventions, it is rarely humanistic, fantastical, or realistic - the three ways fiction can impress me.

  • Escalator (2006) by Michael Gardiner. Incredible set of short stories by a Scot living in Japan. I rarely engage with the genre, but each of these is too powerful to stay distant from. Racism, hyper-reality, economic pressure, and family, all handled with subtlety and quiet desperation. 4/5

  • How to Live Forever Or Die Trying (2007) by Bryan Appleyard. A very versatile thinker being critical and fair about transhumanism and cryonics. His portrait of us as morbid/paranoid pill-munching nerds is not obviously incorrect. The book's a bit of a mishmash, with an extended middle section on ultimate meaning and Medieval funeral habits not totally meshing together - and his grasp of the science is, as he admits, insufficient. But his summation is balanced, and his apriori estimate of the intractable philosophical problems and potential social catastrophes of these disruptive technologies is hard to fault. 4/5

  • Open University material from M823 (2012). Started a Master's in Maths, but quickly realised I'd overreached myself. 3/5.

  • Museum Without Walls (2012) by Jonathan Meades. Another favourite, the best bellowing arts contrarian in the land. This is mostly just a collection of TV scripts I've already seen, and though this means that we can at last catch up with his rapid-fire aesthetic barbs, they still suffer without their inspired, bizarre visual production. A sense of loneliness comes through on paper, where anger and historical sweep is the dominant note in the final programmes. You can see almost all his work at this Youtube channel. It is a fine use of a week.
    4/5, for 5/5 programmes.

  • No Other Place: Poetry from the Aberdeen University Review (1995). Got this as a xmas present for someone - but I know they encourage pre-using media presents (why wouldn't you?) so I snuck in a read-through. Lots of poems about Aberdeen U specifically, which got me good and sentimental. 3/5 in general tho. The final piece, by Archibald Wavell, is amazing:

...My chin, once glossy as a nectarine,
Now looks like holly on a Christmas card,
Or straggly hawthorns in a woodland scene
Such as is deftly drawn by Fragonard;
No R.S.M. would pass me for a guard
However much I titivate and preen.
My luck would daunt a Roland or Bayard;
I left my shaving-brush at Aberdeen.

Pity me, Prince :  the water here is hard,
Hourly my tongue inclines to the obscene,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
I left my shaving-brush at Aberdeen.

Hm. I gave mostly high ratings. (I suppose that means I wasn't taking many risks with my reading.)