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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

On the Shelf: Recent Sights and Sounds

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Here are a few things that caught my eyes and ears these past few days.

Rub Out the Words: the Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 ed by Bill Morgan

I’ve always found William Burroughs intriguing — after all, he did kill his common-law wife while playing a game of William Tell, or so the story goes. I read his novel Junky multiple times but could never get into Naked Lunch, the book he is best known for. Now, Ecco has published the second volume of his letters: correspondence that spans the years after the publication of Naked Lunch to the year he left London to return to New York.

Of the collection, The Telegraph writes:
“This second volume of correspondence may not quite dispel this image of Burroughs as American fiction’s resident alien, the lexical bomb-thrower in the body of a government man – but it does offer intriguing glimpses into the personality behind the mask. …

For fans of [his] way-out approach [the cut-up technique], the letters will provide a valuable glimpse into the genesis of his most impenetrable work, the trilogy that comprised The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. …

One surprising theme in these letters is Burroughs’s cosmic indifference to the swelling counterculture. Our correspondent remains unmoved as the Sixties progress, beatniks become hippies, and even the parties he attends in Hampstead start to be filled with people ‘turning on’.”

What’s the big idea?
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
by Jennie Erdal

This past weekend’s Financial Times had an incredible essay on philosophy, literature, and the blending of the two into the philosophical novel.

Jennie Erdal, the author of the essay, begins with philosophy and philosophers: “while [they] were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels”. She continues, “The analytical style [of philosophy] rigidly separated reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.”

Of novels, she writes, “The more I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered” and that some things “can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.” Erdal then makes a case for the hybrid form, “moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims . . . Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy . . . It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two.”

It’s a brilliant read all the way through. For anyone interested in literary theory and the grander workings of fiction, this is not to be missed.

Orbital / Wonky
It can be scary picking up a new album by a band who has been around for 25 years — especially if that band, up until recently, has been on hiatus — but that’s exactly what’s going on with electronic duo Orbital who just released Wonky, their first album since 2004.

About their music, one half of the group, Paul Hartnoll, told Wired magazine, “Ultimately, it has to move us emotionally…. We can get a great big thunderous beat … but melody is the real icing on the cake for me. If I get a really good melody, I get really excited about thinking about what’s going to come. That’s when I burst into tears, thinking, ‘That’s it!’ The hook’s got you, and you know you’re going to finish that piece.”

Explaining why they’re back together and making music, he says “When you’ve got a background and a history, and a rich idea of what you wanted to do, it was a real shame to give up … It was the live aspect that I missed.”

The article features the video for ‘New France’. Here’s the video for ‘Wonky’. Not sure how I feel about the cats.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Simon Pegg’s new comedy, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, looks amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of this post, no US release date has been confirmed. Science fiction and fantasy site io9 quotes the synopsis:

“Jack is a children’s author turned crime novelist whose detailed research into the lives of Victorian serial killers has turned him into a paranoid wreck, persecuted by the irrational fear of being murdered. When Jack is thrown a life-line by his long-suffering agent and a mysterious Hollywood executive takes a sudden and inexplicable interest in his script, what should be his big break rapidly turns into his big breakdown, as Jack is forced to confront his worst demons; among them his love life, his laundry and the origin of all fear.”

They also have the trailer.

The first week in April, on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron spoke with musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein. Carrie was in the Olympia, Washington-based indie band Sleater-Kinney and is currently in Wild Flag; however, these days, she’s best known as co-creator of Portlandia, the sketch show on IFC. On the podcast, Marc and Carrie nerd out about music — and other things. One of my favorite WTFs so far.

On the Nerdist, voiceover actors Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche taught me that voiceover actors are awesome. Rob and Maurice, which I only learned from this podcast, are the creators, and voices, of Pinky and the Brain. Their vocal skills do not end there. These two guys had Chris Hardwick awestruck. A must-listen.

What caught your eyes and ears these past few days? Comments are open.


Written by Gabrielle

April 10, 2012 at 7:03 am

An Interview with Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Author and Illustrator of Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary

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Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary is the story of 15-year-old Tina M., an Indian-American girl attending a posh private high school in California, and, like so many her age, trying to find her place in the world. A natural for self-reflection, Tina’s ripe for existentialism when her hippie English teacher introduces the subject to the class. The assignment for the year is for each student to find “true and authentic meaning and purpose” in their existence. What follows is Tina’s project. As the subtitle suggests, her search is in the form of an existential comic diary.

Interspersed with letters, as if they were written to the movement’s leading figure, Jean Paul-Sartre, Tina explores her life’s ups-and-downs — failed and newly forged friendships, tumultuous crushes, quirky family members — and her own identity. Moments of melodrama punctuate the pages: “Yes, my dear dead grandfather of French philosophical thought, the highs have swung to lows and I have fallen into something I am going to term CEM or Chronic Existential Malaise.”

Also familiar are those moments of introspection that meander into to the unknown: “I am east, west, happy, sad, normal, freakish, plain, pretty, Indian, American, and quite possibly a touch of Greek due to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Punjab Province in 327 B.C. I live in California, but someday it might be Zanzibar or the Left Bank of Paris. Maybe the right. I have no idea. Do you see how complicated it gets?”

For anyone who was the slightest bit broody in high school, Tina is a relatable character, and, without question, a likable one. She’s everyone who has ever felt out of place, who has ever wondered if they’ll ever feel normal, and, of course, if they’ll ever find someone who understands them — friend or otherwise.

Keshni Kashyap, author and filmmaker, and illustrator Mari Araki met through a mutual acquaintance and formed an admiration for each other’s work. Together they worked long hours and, as some of the story has autobiographical elements, Mari was introduced to the Kashyap family and shown around the high school that served as a model for Tina’s.

The two were kind enough to answer a few questions about philosophy, storytelling, and the collaborative process. You can find out more about them and their work at and and you can order Tina’s Mouth through the site

Did you always know Tina’s Mouth would be a graphic novel?
Keshni: Yes. I started working on it as a side project, and it was always meant to be a graphic novel. I have a filmmaking background, so this distinction is important to me.

How did the storytelling process differ from filmmaking?
Keshni: Because I had a ‘diary,’ I was able to do some different sorts of things. Use the images to make certain ideas bigger or more effective (the mouth, for example) or funny or contrapuntal. I could also make a visual story feel more novelistic.  I’m not sure if I succeeded, but that was my intention.  In filmmaking, you really have to be careful. Voiceovers are very hard to pull off. There are also a variety of other reasons that make being experimental tricky. Producers, for example. And crews of people. With Tina’s Mouth, it was always just me and Mari.

I found the illustrations and text well balanced and the art to be a nice fit with the tone of the story. Mari, how would you describe your style?
Mari: While developing my style, I never really thought about what genre or label of artwork I was creating, but some curators have said I fit into the “pop-surrealist” category so I suppose that’s how most will identify my artwork. However, I prefer just to be thought of as an artist. This way I have no unnecessary, self-imposed boundaries to my work.

Read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown

Written by Gabrielle

January 19, 2012 at 6:04 am

On the Shelf: So Subversive

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Bookrageous is one of the best podcasts out there. Every other week its three hosts discuss books centering around one theme. The topics, as well as the hosts, are always interesting, informative, and loaded with great suggestions—I always have a list of new titles by the end. Their latest show on subversive books is one of my favorites so far.

In this episode Josh from Brews and Books, Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog, and Jenn, the event coordinator at WORD bookstore talk about the subversive books they read while growing up. Their reminiscing made me think back to my own experience with books, read amongst the backdrop of hormone rushes and a desperate search for identity

Starting in my preteen years, I’d had a sense that I didn’t fit in. School life was often uncomfortable. It was an alien world of fashionable clothes, makeup, and boyfriends; when I found the energy, my attempts never came out quite right. My efforts always manifested themselves into an unintended parody.

It was in books that I found kindred spirits, whether they were fictional characters or stories about other misfits who rose above the constraints of society. I found role models in those who couldn’t care less about the opinions of others and over time the notion took.

According to Merriam Webster, “to subvert” means:
1. to overturn or overthrow from the foundation
2. to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith

And “subversive” is:
1. the act of subverting : the state of being subverted;especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.

Although it’s not a new idea and not at all surprising, I love that a book can prove so powerful that it has a profound effect on someone’s worldview—ideally in a way that makes them a better person and not causes them to do evil, although that’s been known to happen.

Josh, Rebecca, and Jenn’s conversation—and choices—reminded me that the right book put in the hands of teen can provide a burst of self-acceptance and inspire a quiet rebellion. As expected, many of our choices overlapped but there were a few I still haven’t gotten around to that are worth noting. Briefly, as they have an extensive list on their Tumblr page, they are: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Here’s what’s been on my subversive shelf over the years (in no particular order):

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
I remember hiding this one from my parents in fear that they would think (or more accurately, know) that I was doing drugs. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and like any kid with a tendency towards OCD and manic-consumption I read anything by or about them or anyone within their circle. Tom was one of the founders of New Journalism in the 60s and 70s and in this book he goes on the road with Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters as they drive cross country in a bus doing drugs and going to Dead shows.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Stemming from, or maybe riding parallel to, my interest in the Grateful Dead was an interest in Buddhism. I remember the Eastern philosophy flipping my Western upbringing somewhat on its head. Like many teen outcasts, I had a feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t place it but something about the surrounding culture felt off. The Tao of Pooh opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world in a way my 15-year-old brain could grasp. This book paved the way for many years of on-again-off-again study of Buddhism and probably kept me sane.

Native Son by Richard Wright
As a white girl from the suburbs of Long Island, Richard Wright was my first glimpse into the black experience. Native Son, the story of a 20-year-old black kid living in 1930s Chicago, led me on a long varied journey through other black writers with books like Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Soul on Ice by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, the gritty, pulp memoir Pimp by Iceberg Slim, and feminist books by Bell Hooks.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Or any book by S.E. Hinton really. I have a vivid memory of my mom going to the library one afternoon and asking what book I wanted. I’d just finished The Outsiders and was craving more like it. “Anything by S.E. Hinton,” I said; but what I really meant was, “anything with screwed up teenagers”. Hinton’s books brought me inside the lives of tormented kids and I took comfort in their pain. The torment the characters experienced spoke to me and I could never go back to The Baby-sitter’s Club again.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My friends and I passed this one around amongst ourselves. It’s the diary of a girl whose writing perfectly captures the “torture and hell of adolescence”. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember there being some sort of decent into drug-fueled self-destruction. Apparently it was written with the intention of being a deterrent. Oh well.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
This book did more to change the way I saw the world than any book I’d read before or since. It was the first time I’d thought of the implications of our society’s structure. Told through the point of view of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael, Quinn explains why the agrarian culture—keeping food under lock and key—was the beginning of the end of our freedom. Reading this powerful book was one of my first eye-opening experiences.

Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I credit Coupland with rekindling my interest in reading after the long, hard slog through assigned books. He made me realize that there were books out there that could speak to the modern world in a way I could relate. While the story itself is a bit hazy in my memory, I remember how the structure was something I’d never seen before. The layout was playful and creative. It wasn’t merely text on a page, there were sidebars with odd definitions and random pictures. The story itself was about dropping out of our growing materialist culture and the search for meaning along the way. Coupland showed up at the right time with just the right tone.

Radical Thinkers Series from Verso
If you’re currently looking for subversion in theory form, I highly recommend Verso’s Radical Thinkers series. There you’ll find mind-blowing thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, and others. It just goes to show that just because you grow up, the subversion doesn’t need to end.

What subversive books influenced your worldview as a kid? Did you ever hide any books at the bottom of a clothing drawer?

Written by Gabrielle

October 20, 2011 at 6:14 am

On the Shelf: Fangirl about Town, Insomnia in Paradise Edition

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Blake Butler at BookCourt

On Sunday night at BookCourt, Atlanta-based HTMLGIANT editor and novelist Blake Butler read from his latest book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, his first work of nonfiction. Stemming from his own long battle with insomnia, which he owes in part to his racing mind, Blake set out to explore the many aspects of the subject, not just his own experience.

For the book, he researched insomnia’s “role in history, art, and science through its unexpected consequences on [his] personal imagination, creative process, and perspective on reality. . . . Invoking scientific data, historical anecdote, Internet obsession, and figures as diverse as Andy Warhol, Gilles Deleuze, John Cage, Anton LaVey, Jorge Luis Borges, Brian Eno, and Stephen King, Butler traces the tension between sleeping and conscious life.” For anyone familiar with the website he created, Blake’s mad-intelligence will not come as a surprise—he’s one of the most intimidating minds out there today.

I’d seen Blake read from his debut full-length novel, There is No Year, this past April and while that was fiction and this one is nonfiction, his reading style is the same for both: manic, driving, machine gun-intense, which one can assume is how he hears it in his head. It’s an infectious intonation and once listen to, his voice is forever with you as you read his words.

HTMLGIANT is a frenetic blog, now with many contributors, and has the feel of an ongoing experiement in boundary-pushing. On a daily basis it features literary and film criticism, behind-the-scenes looks at writing and writing programs, author interviews, and occasional matters of highly-structured irrelevance. When visiting the site, you’re bound to learn about something you didn’t know existed, possibly stumble onto smart commentary regarding an otherwise mundane topic, and a bookmark a bunch of posts worthy of quiet contemplation.

Butler is someone you should know about if you don’t already. He’s an original, mind-blowing voice with a trustworthy sense for talented, contemporary thinkers.

You can listen to an hour-long interview with Blake about insomnia, writing fiction vs. nonfiction, and David Foster Wallace on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi. You can follow him and HTMLGIANT on Twitter at @blakebutler and @htmlgiant.

A Night at McNally Jackson

On Monday night, three ladies of the literary world took to the floor of McNally Jackson for an intimate conversation about the writing life. Diana Abu-Jaber, author of four novels, her most recent Birds of Paradise, was joined by her editor Alane Mason and agent Joy Harris, both of nearly 20 years.

Diana began with a short reading from the book described by the publisher as, “the story of a runaway daughter, Felice, and the effect of her absence on her mother, father, and brother.” And, in the broader sense, one that “illuminates the silent crosscurrents of guilt, anger, blame, and grief that can plague a family,” which promises to “resonate with all those who have sought adolescent independence and then yearned to reconnect with their families once they are grown up.”

When Alane and Joy claimed the seats next to Diana, the mutual admiration and respect was palpable. You could feel their years together in the air. The three launched into what a touching reflection on their triangular relationship, a behind-the-scenes look inside the writing and editorial process. The night drove home the notion that a book is not always a solo act, that editors and agents matter: Alane and Joy allow Diana to indulge her “fugue state,” as they called it, and Diana knows that she has those two to ground her work in reality when the first draft is done.

As is the intention with these multi-person events, Diana was not the only draw. Her editor, Alane, is the founder and president of Words Without Borders, a groundbreaking website founded in 1999—with its first publication in 2003—dedicated to publishing, translating, and promoting contemporary international literature. You can watch Alane discuss her motivation and mission in a 2009 interview at the Big Think. You can also follow Diana on Twitter at @dabujaber.

What’s on the shelf?

The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What’s Next by Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson’s books are quickly becoming popular with help in part to the fun videos that go along with them. His last book, Where Good Ideas Come From had this awesome trailer that’s now been viewed over a million times. His latest book’s video shows the creation of the 3-D letters used for the cover image.

The Innovator’s Cookbook “features a number of conversations with creative minds from technology, business, education and the arts, talking about their methods.” In Steven’s own words, the book is an “anthology of classic essays on innovation” with “many important essays by some of [his] heroes” includig Stewart Brand, John Seely Brown, and Erik Von Hippel. Aside from the essays, it’s also a collection of conversations he’d had with innovators. Some of the innovators interviewed are “Ray Ozzie on software; Brian Eno on music and art; Beth Noveck on government innovation.”

You can check out Steven’s website here and follow him on Twitter @stevenbjohnson.

The Best American Comics 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel
The Best American Comics is a collection of work from both new and established artists. Cult comic artist Alison Bechdel, creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and author of the biographical graphic novel Fun Home, is the editor of this series’ latest edition. In compiling the book, Alison grabbed from graphic novels, pamplet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics and webcomics. Some of the artists featured are Joe Sacco, Jeff Smith, and Dash Shaw. You can read an Interview with Alison with the AV Club where she talks about the selection process, past projects she’s worked on, and the importance of zines.

What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

October 13, 2011 at 5:18 am

On the Shelf: Death of the Mass Market Edition

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The Brooklyn Book Festival celebrated its 6th year this past weekend. One of the panels I was looking forward to was “Crashing Genres” with science fiction and fantasy authors Cory Doctorow, Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Kelly Link—the latter unfortunately was unable to make it. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Anderson, the manager of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a great place for book buying, event going, and general nerding out. Between the three of them there was so much energy the conversation never waned.

Both Cory and Jewell, proponents of childhood literacy, have written novels for young readers as well as books for adults. Jewell’s much-acclaimed book Ninth Ward, an inspiring story with a twist of magical realism, is about a young, black girl living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina. Cory’s Little Brother is a modern-day urban dystopic novel set in the wake of a terrorist attack in San Francisco.

To begin, all confessed they had no idea what “crashing genres” meant but agreed to go with it. While sussing it out, the discussion weaved through the increasing popularity of the young adult novel, the growing acceptance of once-taboo topics, and the sense of identity genre readers carry with them and what that means when their beloved subversive lifestyle goes mainstream. What struck me most during the talk was something Cory said: “You only go to bookstores once you know you’re a reader.” It felt true and hit me as something I’d never given any thought.

As a bookworm I take it for granted that the first place I think of when considering where to spend my time is a bookstore. There are plenty in my area, all with a carefully tailored selection. Bookstores are where I’m most likely to feel most comfortable and meet like-minded people. Doesn’t everyone go to bookstores? The bubble in which I live burst at that moment. Not, not everyone does.

The question Cory opened with this statement was, “where do new readers go to find books?” As someone in the publishing industry, and as a passionate reader, it’s an important one.

Always a wealth of information, Cory went into a brief history of the mass market paperback, the main format of genre fiction and often the cheapest, which makes it a great “gateway drug”.

According to Cory (a brief internet search didn’t bring up much information so this is un-fact checked), before the bookstore chains and big-box stores there were 400 distributors of books, now their numbers have been significantly reduced, possibly to the single digits (again, couldn’t find reliable information). The larger stores who were able to buy in bulk and negotiate for better discounts with publishers passed on larger discounts to their customers. Good for customers but bad for the industry as a whole. Before this massive growth, books could be found in grocery, candy, and drug stores but with chains gobbling up the competition, and with fewer distributors, these numbers have significantly decreased. Cory’s point in all of this is that the majority of “non-readers” found books in these unconventional locations and the inexpensive price of mass markets made them a low-risk purchase..

Michael Connelly, best-selling mystery writer, in the New York Times article The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age, said, “Growing up and reading primarily inexpensive mass-market novels, it allows you to explore. I bought countless novels based on the cover or based on the title, not knowing what was inside.”

The article, citing a survey done by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, says that since 2008 the publishing industry has expanded over all but mass-market paperback sales have fallen 14 percent. Claims of the mass market’s death is nothing new, it’s been going on since the 1980s. This was when the chain stores pushed out many independents with their discounts on hard cover titles—people no longer felt the need to wait for the cheaper edition.

Today, the same thing is happening with e-books. The affordable pricing of the electronic version, available for sale the first day of publication, makes it more appealing to readers who otherwise would’ve waited for the paperback to come out a year later.

And therein lies the double-whammy: although the price of e-books is right, the distribution is not. At the moment, they lack a physical presence in the stores listed above, regardless of how many distributors there might be. While I don’t believe e-books are a threat to publishing, their possible triumph over the cheap mass-market just might mean fewer non-readers finding their passion for the written word.

What do you think? Are non-readers exposed to books in more unconventional ways now than in the days of dime stores? Comments are open. 

This week’s selection owes many thanks to the great podcast Books on the Nightstand and their uncanny ability to talk up a book.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This book is getting a ton of attention in the media but as Ann Kingman of Books On the Nightstand says in the latest episode, it’s buzz not hype and there certainly is a difference. Here’s a bit about the book from IndieBound:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos (Illustrator), and Annie Di (Illustrator)
Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand mentioned this one in the episode on graphic novels. He warned that it was a bit of a difficult read but if you’re into Betrand Russell and all those other logicians, you’ll want to grab this one.

Here’s a bit about it, also from IndiBound:

This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal—to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics—continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories edited by John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is a busy man. When he’s not getting married at Worldcon he’s working hard earning award nominations for his science fiction and fantasy anthologies. Not only does he edit short story collections, he’s also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine and co-hosts the podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Brave New Worlds, as the subtitle suggests, is a roundup of dystopian fiction written over the past 30 years. Contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, M. Rickert, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury.

Written by Gabrielle

September 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Writer’s Philosopher

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“A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world. They are all constructed according to a common logical plan.”

In Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, renown British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a strong case for summarizing the late-philosopher’s views. Critics of the idea argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work, often stated in aphorisms, is compressed enough already and that any further breakdown would misrepresent both the content and intention.

For those first coming to Wittgenstein it’s helpful to know beforehand that his later writing is largely a takedown of his earlier work with his middle writing acting as a transition. Another problem posed to newcomers is where to start. His first book, the one that garners most of Wittgenstein’s criticism, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was the only book published in his lifetime. All others emerged posthumously and are often featured in many different collections, making difficult to know which one to buy.

A Very Short Introduction, aptly named, moves swiftly through Wittgenstein’s personal details—born in Vienna in 1889 to a wealthy family, taught at the University of Cambridge before serving in the First World War, after returning he took a 10-year hiatus from teaching, at the age of 40 he went back to Cambridge, World War II broke out, he felt compelled to help and left teaching for the last time, and finally, at the age of 62, he died of prostate cancer. Instead, Grayling spends most of  the 134 pages charting the ins-and-outs of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and explaining the trajectory of his evolving theories.

Categorizing Wittgenstein is not easy. In another book on this towering figure, a collection of analytical essays, The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, the editor, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hans Sluga, says that what makes it difficult to peg the twentieth century philosopher is “first of all the unconventional cast of his mind, the radical nature of his philosophical proposals, and the experimental form he gave to their expression.”

What does help provide context is his main influence, and possibly biggest supporter, the prolific philosopher Betrand Russell. It was Russell’s 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, where the author argues that mathematics and logic are identical, that put Wittgenstein on the path to a career in philosophy. With Russell, Wittgenstein, at the time of their writings, took part in what Sluga calls a “sense of a new beginning in philosophy”. Together they broke from the traditional and national constraints that prevailed.

Russell was instrumental in getting the Tractatus published and had written an introduction to the edition in 1921. Known to be irascible, Wittgenstein had a bad reaction to what Russell’s interpretation and in an angry letter claimed his friend had not understood a word of his work. However, as Wittgenstein’s theories progressed he realized that he had not reached his objective: “to solve the problems of philosophy . . . by showing how language works”.

Wittgenstein’s focus on language makes him something of a writer’s philosopher. With saying such as, “Language must speak for itself” and “Language is like a collection of very various tools,” his books are brain candy for those who love words.

Throughout Wittgenstein’s work there are brilliant sayings that make him sound like a spiritual leader: “A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion,” “Philosophy is not a body doctrine by an activity,” and famously, the last line of the Tractatus, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But as with those gurus from the 60s, it’s tempting to hang onto Wittgenstein’s theories as if they were absolute truths; they’re concise, poetic, and have a koan-like quality to them. Unfortunately, history shows them to be misguided, refuted by the very same man who had once believed in them wholeheartedly.

It’s refreshing, however, that Wittgenstein was not afraid to disagree with himself and that over the years he continued to flesh out his ideas. Sluga believes that “Wittgenstein’s development from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations parallels that of the culture at large” and goes on to explain that the analytic tradition as a whole “progressed from the single-minded pursuit of an ideal of formal unity to the acceptance of informality, pluralism, and proliferation of forms.”

Grayling summed up the shift saying that the Wittgenstein made the “rejection of [the Tractatus’] central doctrines the very cornerstone of his later philosophy”. What Wittgenstein had originally asked readers to believe he later felt was oversimplification and instead began to argue the opposite, “that language is a vast collection of different activities each with its own logic.”

Abandoning his earlier assumptions, Wittgenstein focused on language as a medium of communication that doesn’t follow strictly prescribed rules and became interested how language is learned. In short, he went from asking “What is the meaning of a word?” to “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. He even went so far in the Philosophical Investigations to make the critical view of the function of rules his central theme.

One is left to wonder, does Wittgenstein’s sharp divergence from his early work mean that the Tractatus should be thrown out the window? The answer, if we are to listen to the man himself, is no. Wittgenstein felt that the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations belonged side-by-side, understanding that the latter is largely a reaction to the former.

A.C. Grayling prepares the casual philosopher and autodidact for the content and context of Wittgenstein’s theories while The Cambridge Companion’s essays, spanning a diverse range of views regarding the philosophers work, expands the reader’s scope of analysis. Both introductions will create a more confident reader and spark an interest for further investigation.

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein edited by Hans Sluga and David Stern
The Puzzlement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
The Unhappy Family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone

Written by Gabrielle

August 9, 2011 at 8:31 am

Posted in books, reviews

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On the Shelf: Mediums and Messages, Generation Xers, and Senior Mavericks

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Anniversaries are great. I’m not talking about personal anniversaries like your wedding or the day you brought your dog home. I’m talking about public anniversaries like bicentennials, the Civil War, or the invention of peanut butter. A more cynical person would call them a marketing gimmick and honestly, sometimes they are, but they’re also a time to focus on an otherwise forgotten occasion. Oftentimes they introduce people to someone or something previously unknown.

Recently, the 100 year anniversary of Marshall Mcluhan’s birth brought this fascinating media-philosopher to my attention. Wikipedia bills Mcluhan’s work as “one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory”. The Marshall Mcluhan website describes his first book, Understanding Media (1964), as focusing on “the media effects that permeate society and culture.” The entry explains that “McLuhan’s starting point is always the individual, because he defines media as technological extensions of the body” — a forward notion at that time and one that is much-echoed today by our own forward-thinkers.

What struck me about Marshall Mcluhan was his poignancy delivered brilliantly in sharp aphorisms—his most famous being “the medium is the message” followed up by his coining of “the global village”. Being a sucker for aphorisms—and who isn’t?—I was sucked into the celebration. It’s a good thing public broadcasting shares my enthusiasm because over the past week or so there’s been an outpouring of favorable remembrances of the man. You can listen to a great To The Best of Our Knowledge episode devoted to him alone. Australian radio’s Big Ideas had a roundtable discussion with media-thinker Douglas Rushkoff and electronic musician DJ Spooky (the first 20 minutes or so is an intro by the mediator).

If you’re wondering why DJ Spooky was invited to speak about Mcluhan, you can check out his essay on his work and download a track he created using Marshall’s words.

On Mcluhan’s official site, maintained by his estate, you can watch Tom Wolfe’s introduction to the man and his work and check out some “Mcluhanisms”.

Here’s a print interview Marshall conducted with Playboy in 1969 and the video “The World is a Global Village” from 1960 on Canadian television (opens with sound).

What do you think of our mediums today? What do they say about the messages we receive?

What’s on the Shelf?

The Medium is the Message by Marshall Mcluhan
I always endorse reading primary sources—as opposed to books about a particular book—if the author is accessible. The publisher says The Medium is the Message remains Mcluhan’s most popular work and that it “is still one of the most insightful and provocative works ever to have been published on our modern culture.”

Marshall Mcluhan, You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland
Coupland’s biography of Mcluhan has seen some mixed reviews but appears to be a worthy place to start if you’re looking for some background. Here he is discussing the book with The Paris Review. While we’re talking about Douglas Coupland I’d like to endorse his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a book whose originality changed the way I viewed reading. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I owe my current voraciousness to Coupland and this book. While the book Generation X did not coin the term it did make it popular.

Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff
The publisher says this of the book: “In this spirited, accessible poetics of new media, Rushkoff picks up where Marshall McLuhan left off, helping readers come to recognize programming as the new literacy of the digital age––and as a template through which to see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries. This is a friendly little book with a big and actionable message.”

You can watch a video of Rushkoff at SXSW discussing his book. If you’re convinced and you’re now looking for some good programming books, check out O’Reilly Media’s books.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly is a founding editor of WIRED magazine and is currently on staff as their Senior Maverick. Last year he published a sweeping history and forward thinking book on technology called What Technology Wants. Cory Doctorow on his site boingboing summed up the thesis as: “technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.”

I truly enjoy listening to Kevin discuss technology and suggest you check out a few of his talks available online. Here he is on the future of the digital media landscape (opens with sound). For more you can check out Kevin’s page on the TED Talks site where they have a few short videos and you can find a great interview with Kevin on To The Best of Our Knowledge. If you’re craving more here’s his talk at the New York Public Library last fall with fellow big thinker Steven Johnson. The discussion was moderated by Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich.

What’s on your shelf this week?

Written by Gabrielle

July 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

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