In the coming weeks I’ll be adding some brief thoughts here on Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, currently being published in English translations by Penguin. I think of this as a pandemic project, though with luck we’ll be out of lockdown before I’m done.
Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website you can read my review of Richard Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden. This is a book about the impact that the new digital giants (or FAANGs, to use the acronym) are having on Canadian news media. In brief, that impact has been catastrophic, leaving nothing but “losses as far as the eye can see.”
I share many of Stursberg’s concerns, as well as his more dismal conclusions. In my review I’m left to wonder how many people even care. It makes me think of the current state of the CBC. I believe in the CBC’s mission, and think they have some good people working there, but whenever I watch their local or national news programs or go to their website I end up feeling that they’re just not doing it right. And given how badly they’re faring in terms of their ratings and market share I’m not alone. I think the CBC does well in Quebec, and CBC Radio still has a lot of listeners, but they just don’t seem to have any clear identity as a broadcaster, sliding from paternalistic to aggrieved and back again.
Still, I want them to succeed. I do think Canada needs them.
I have to begin with a disclaimer. I read a lot of books in 2020, but not very many new books. And in particular not a lot of fiction (outside of SF). This is something that I’ve noticed is only getting worse. I’d like to read more new fiction, but much of it seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of pages.
Best fiction: I don’t think Clifford Jackman’s The Braver Thing is a perfect book, but it is challenging and different, which is saying something. A pirate ship becomes a social-science lab for experiments in different forms of government. As with S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (see below) it’s a political allegory. Something must have been going on at this time that was turning people’s minds in this direction . . .
Best non-fiction: Trump dominated my non-fiction reading for most of the past year, as he did throughout his whole depressing reign. Is it over now? I suspect that after a wave of books about the 2020 election land it mostly will be. But we’ll have to see. One non-Trump title I really liked was William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist, which takes a look at the collapse of the arts economy and how it’s being felt on the ground. I think I was most impressed though by the final volume in Rick Perlstein’s epic chronicle of the rise of the American political right, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Not a Trump book, though the arrogant New York City real estate maven does have a cameo and you don’t have to look too hard to see where America’s right turn was heading. A fascinating read, despite its heftiness and a ton of typos.
Best SF: I could go with a number of different titles, but S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid sticks out the most. Not so much for the story as for the way it projects politics and even theory into a fantasy realm which is still relevant and interesting. One of few contemporary SF titles I found myself wanting to read again right away.
I first noticed something disturbing about fifteen years ago. I was lending books out and not getting them back. What made this disturbing was not discovering that I had friends who would take advantage of my generosity, but that they were surprised I wanted them returned. “You mean you want it back?” one of them gasped in disbelief.
I’ve since stopped lending out books (and DVDs too). I’m afraid that one day I’ll be informed that the borrower no longer has it in their possession, having thrown it out. This loss of status is something I talked about in Revolutions, and a lot of other commentators have addressed it as well. Here is what I said then:
What will be the consequences, not just for us but for our cultural inheritance? What will happen when people come to see Pride and Prejudice no longer as a novel, or even a book, but only as a worthless file to be diced, sliced, mashed-up, manipulated, and (mostly) ignored? . . .
There is something more to this transformation than the shedding of a Benjaminian “aura.” Not just the integrity of the text, but our sense that text can have any value or meaning at all is being lost.
I was thinking of all this again recently while reading William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist. There’s nothing new in what he’s saying, but it’s a message that is still worth heeding. At least it helps explain why I wasn’t getting those books back.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of free content, as well as the most demoralizing, is the extent to which it devalues art in the eyes of the audience. Price is a signal of worth. We tend to value more what we have paid more for or worked harder to get; what we have gotten for free with a click we tend to value not at all. With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the like, music, text, and images are now akin to tap water, accessed with a turn of the spigot and supplied in an endless, homogenous stream. . . . We used to take pride in the books, albums, and movies that we kept on our shelves, personal touchstones as well as permanent companions. Now that we don’t even store anything on our hard drives, art is here one minute, gone the next.
Nor is this devaluation purely psychological. The creation of art cannot be automated, nor can technology make the process more efficient. Quality, therefore, will sink to meet price. Artists who are paid less, all else being equal, will be forced to spend less time on making any given thing. Kim Deal, the indie rocker, remembers how, at a certain point, music came to be “considered not only just free but trash, a bother to have to wade” through. We still put a tremendous amount of value on the arts in general, but less and less on any given work.
I had an earlier post where I mentioned Len Deighton’s use of the word “azoic” (lifeless) in The Ipcress File. I’ve been revisiting Deighton’s spy novels for a viewing of ’60s spy movies I’m preparing for Alex on Film, and recently turned up a passage in Funeral in Berlin where the hero is driving past a timber plantation where saplings are planted in rows and he looks out to where “the graticule of trees glowed with fiery foliage.”
A graticule is the grid of lines, typically of longitude and latitude, on which a map is drawn. I didn’t know that. Thanks again, Len!
Over at the Toronto Star I’ve got a reading guide to some of the more recent books on the Trump White House and what led to it. Whatever happens in November, I’m sure there are going to be many more.
I recently reviewed Bob Woodward’s Rage, his second book on the Trump presidency (the first was Fear). It’s not a flattering portrait, though I thought he did his best to cast his subject in the best possible light, including excerpts from over a dozen lengthy interviews. What it made me think about though was what an official biography of Trump, when we get it, will look like. You’d have to think it will be flattering, but since no amount of flattery can satisfy a narcissist Trump will still object to it. Putting lipstick on the pig of this presidency, however, will be no easy task. Who will say anything good about Trump’s handling of the job? Not people like Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or James Mattis, who all held high positions in his administration but were cashiered or resigned in (quiet) protest, only to be insulted by their boss on the way out. I anticipate a truly Herculean feat of apologetics.
From The Modern Century (1967) by Northrop Frye:
If certain tendencies within our civilization were to proceed unchecked, they would rapidly take us towards a society which, like that of a prison, would be both completely introverted and completely without privacy. The last stand of privacy has always been, traditionally, the inner mind. It is quite possible however for communications media, especially the newer electronic ones, to break down the associative structures of the inner mind and replace them by the prefabricated structures of the media. A society entirely controlled by their slogans and exhortations would be introverted because nobody would be saying anything: there would only be echo, and Echo was the mistress of Narcissus. It would also be without privacy, because it would frustrate the effort of the healthy mind to develop a view of the world which is private but not introverted, accommodating itself to opposing views. The triumph of communication is the death of communication: where communication forms a total environment, there is nothing to be communicated.
From From Russia With Love (1957) by Ian Fleming:
Kerim turned and faced Bond. His voice became insistent. “Listen, my friend,” he put a huge hand on Bond’s shoulder. “This is a billiard table. An easy, flat, green billiard table. And you have hit your white ball and it is travelling easily and quietly towards the red. The pocket is alongside. Fatally, inevitably, you are going to hit the red and the red is going into that pocket. It is the law of the billiard table, the law of the billiard room. But, outside the orbit of these things, a jet pilot has fainted and his plane is diving straight at that billiard room, or a gas main is about to explode, or lightning is about to strike. And the building collapses on top of you and on top of the billiard table. Then what has happened to that white ball that could not miss the red ball, and to the red ball that could not miss the pocket? The white ball could not miss according to the laws of the billiard table. But the laws of the billiard table are not the only laws, and the laws governing the progress of this train, and of you to your destination, are also not the only laws in this particular game.”
This morning I was surprised to read, in Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists, that in Paris’s Universal Exposition in 1867 “The Americans exhibited an amazing new invention: the ‘rocking-chair.'”
Could that be true? I mean, it seems like such an obvious and fun bit of furniture as a rocking chair would have been around forever. And in fact it does seem to have an earlier provenance. Surprisingly enough, however, they were indeed an American invention. That’s where they apparently got their start in the early 1700s. Though cradles had been rocking since the days of ancient Rome. I wonder why the idea took so long to catch on.
I think Roe must have been thinking of Michael Thonet’s first bentwood rocking chair, which premiered in 1860. Which was a breakthrough but technically wasn’t the first rocking chair. Still, a much later development than I’d thought.