What did I read in 2012? I’ve found that looking back at my last year in books helps me chart some themes and developments in my (mental) life, so I decided to do it again this year. I read 92 books in 2012, a little fewer than in 2011, but they were longer books on average, and my page total ended up higher. This doesn’t count all the articles I’ve read, but we’ve got to draw the reading nerdage line somewhere. It’s all slightly arbitrary anyway.
London & China, Fictions & Fantasies
The year pretty much started in earnest with us going to London for a small week; I was attending a conference over the weekend, and obviously we took the chance to (re-)explore the city a little. If you know us a little, you won’t be surprised that we filled our suitcase with books up to just under the airline’s weight limit (lucky guess).
In London, I had already started on China Miéville’s The City & The City, a book that had been on my list for quite a while. Miéville’s genre experiments generally seem to work well for readers, and my first impression with the author was certainly positive. In this detective novel, the eponymous city/cities are mentally divided into two realities mapped onto one physical space. The inhabitants of either city usually ‘pretend’ the inhabitants of the other are not there, even if they’re in the same space. However, when an investigator is forced to violate these conceptual boundaries in pursuit of a killer, this peculiar bipartition of mental space is severely challenged. A smart and highly original novel.
Later in the year, I descended upon Miéville’s newer novel Embassytown. Since it is sci-fi novel about alien contact with a strong linguistic theme, it was right up my alley. The future humans of Embassytown are living on the frontier of knowledge and are forced to communicate with an alien race and to learn their language of double inflections and living metaphors. Obviously, miscommunication and its consequences are a major theme of this novel. Again, conceptually very strong, but the plot was a bit confusing to me, and not as strong as that in The City & The City.
The very first book I finished in 2012, before going to London, was Marcel Proust’s first volume of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. A classic, of course, and I can see why. It’s so easy to get lost in the strangely nostalgic world he paints. I think I might be ready for part two this year. Another lovely piece of nostalgia writing was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which I read in early summer, the perfect season for it. Lots of magical moments and memorable characters in Bradbury’s sense-tingling youth portrait.
Particular mention must go to De Stille Kracht by Louis Couperus (translated as The Silent Force), a very strong novel about the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia, and how mundane and supernatural fears fester in the constant tension between the indigenous population and the colonists. Strong characterisations, and a powerful blurring of realities.
I went through a few fantasy works as well throughout the year. I finished Ship of Destiny, the last part of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Trilogy, in London, and it fell a bit flat. I enjoyed the trilogy as a whole for its focus on women, seafaring, economics, and social issues, but in the end it was a bit like a soap opera in that it’s only fun as long as you don’t have to wrap the story up. I picked up a collection of Lankhmar stories by Fritz Leiber in London, and I was anxious to see what this classic series was all about. Sure enough, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two highly likeable heroes and they have some awesome adventures, so that’s all good fun. Leiber does have some peculiar gender issues boiling under the surface. His women are certainly not weak, but there is a strange and constant tension between the sexes that makes for awkward situations. As I recall reading in a comment somewhere, in Leiber’s universe male heroes are ultimately much closer to each other than to any women. Bromance, in other words. This makes me curious about Conjure Wife, which apparently maps a form of the science versus magic controversy onto a married couple. I must look that one up for sure this year.
In June/July, I had a brief but intense fling with the MMORPG Lord of the Rings Online. I’ve learned a bit about the type of game and discovered what I suspected all along: it’s highly addictive at first, but in the end can’t hold my interest in its current forms. It did provide me with a good excuse to whip out old J.R.R. again: I reread both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I dug into Jim Allan’s slightly outdated but still quite thorough Introduction to Elvish and other languages of Middle-Earth.
I also read the eponymous second part of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy this year. My opinion remains the same: Peake’s world surrounding the castle Gormenghast is strange and unique. The initial weirdness wears off by part two, although the characters remain inscrutable as ever. As the book progresses, the plotting becomes a bit stronger, with the neurotic Irma Prunesquallor’s search for a husband providing much of the humour, and the chase after the ever more murderous Steerpike supplying the action.
In preparation for the movie, I started David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in summer, and what a read it was. The structure and genre-experiments made this a very dynamic book, while each of the six stories contained enough charm of its own, much of it deriving from Mitchell’s excellent handling of dialogue language. In November, we finally got to see the film, and it lived up to my expectations, perhaps strangely enough. I found it to be an excellent film adaptation precisely because they went with a strong interpretative voice. Cutting and interlacing the stories more so than in the book highlights thematic parallels, as did the heavy make-up choices. Unlike some critics, I wasn’t bothered by those at all. Both the book and the film are curious things, not as profound as some other works, but way more experimental and original than many.
History, Identity, Revolution, Persecution
In the beginning of the year, I got going with a reading group with a few colleagues and friends, centered around the cultural history of northwestern Europe. We focus mostly on the classical and mediaeval periods, Viking Age, history of the Germanic peoples, etc. Probably not a big surprise. We started by reading A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich by German/American historian Christopher Krebs. While we found his suggestion that Tacitus was somehow indirectly responsible for Third Reich Germanic ideology a bit overstated – granted, you have to attract readers somehow – the book does a fine job of showing how a text’s reception can lead a life of its own. Most interesting was to see how German nationalism arose as a reaction to Italian nationalism in the Renaissance, and how the Germania wouldn’t even have been known without the latter; a nice historical irony.
We continued our reading with the theme of nationalism and national identity, also as a reaction to nationalistic tendencies in the Dutch public sphere. We read The Symbolic Construction of Community by Anthony P. Cohen for a bit of theoretical background. The most valuable thing I took away from the book and our discussion was that it makes little sense to look at the truth behind claims that people make to forge (group) identity. More interesting and important is to see how symbols function in creating and maintaining that identity, and how people relate to it.
Spurred by an article in De Groene Amsterdammer I looked into René Girard’s work The Scapegoat. It’s a curious theological and sociological work on how (Girard claims) the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ can be found in human society in practice, as well as ritualised and codified in religion and mythology. Basically, the idea is that a scapegoat figure can be sacrificed by a community in a magical effort to stave off danger and violence, even pretending that the scapegoat causes the danger in order to justify the ritual killing. Indeed, we often see such scapegoat patterns in the historical accounts of the murder of Jews and other minorities. Girard’s effort to trace the same pattern in mythology is interesting, but not always convincing. His reading of the New Testament was quite exciting, but a bit too complex to reproduce here. I found his reference to the death of Baldr in Nordic mythology less convincing; somehow his murder must originally have been a communal sacrifice according to Girard, but it had later been projected on Höðr as the innocent killer, and particularly on Loki as the evil mastermind behind it. This is certainly possible, but impossible to prove in the absence of older mythological sources.
In the end, this did tie in nicely with some other books I read this year. Norman Cohn’s study on the persecution of Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders Of Zion, was a fascinating look on the textual lineage that led to the publication of The Protocols. An essential history in this age when gruesome conspiracy stories like The Protocols are still being actively circulated in the world. Cohn’s book on the millenarianism of the Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, was equally interesting, showing how all sorts of religious concerns and social injustice can lead to the creation of violent mobs, sects, and revolutionary movements. Incidentally, Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, was also about the history of The Protocols. Eco got his history down well, but the novel wasn’t as compelling as some of his classics.
Related to the theme of persecution is Victor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii, an impressionistic and anecdotal (necessarily so), but extremely astute study of the political language of Nazi Germany. It was sobering to read how systematically the Nazi regime used subtle changes and emphases in language to facilitate the desired cultural change in the German people on the one hand, and the subdual of minorities on the other.
A Fictional History of Religious Science… No wait, a Scientific Fiction of the History of Religion. No, that’s not right either… Oh sod it.
Allow me to introduce a new ‘section’ with one of my final London purchases: Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. It’s generally marketed as science fiction, and I suppose that’s sort of appropriate since it deals for the most part with outer space. However, as I’ve hinted at in an earlier post, the book is more of a mythology, a wild flight of imagination about how the Universe might have been created, and what part evolution and our species might play in the grand scheme of things. Writing in the late 1930s, Stapledon takes the science of his time as the point of departure, but dares to dream about what kinds of sentient being there might be in the universe, ‘above’ and ‘below’ the level of mankind, about galactic civilisations, and ultimately about the Star Maker, who is of course in any meaningful sense of the word, God.
Stapledon created, even if it was eighty years ago, what I often feel a longing for a in my life: some sort of cosmic spirituality that speaks to me directly. This is something that traditional religions and secularism both, in general, don’t seem to readily offer, and that’s a pity. I was raised secular, and science is, in general, my basis for knowledge of the world, but I’d be lying if I said that popular secularism covers all bases of what a human psyche (or at least mine) is in need of. Besides, there tends to be some sort of general and, to me, worrying tendency to elevate ‘science’ and materialism to a position of sanctity: the only institutions that have access to absolute truth. Well, I think a history lesson is in order, because we all love scepticism as well, right?
The thing is, science as it is popularised nowadays often seems like some sort of bastion of rigorous truth-seeking. As any insider will know, in practice there is a big discrepancy between scientific ideals and what actually happens. When it comes to writing the history of science, especially science as opposed to religion, some nuancing is in order. One of the first books to join me on this course was Chris Bateman’s The Mythology of Evolution. I’ve written in detail about the book earlier, but I’d like to reiterate that it’s a lovely, balanced, and very accessible read on fiction, myth, and truth in religion and science.
I finally got around to reading Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture in its entirety as well. Though I am no expert, this seems a vastly important book to me, as it looks critically at the way the history of philosophy, science, and religion (a curious trinity of concepts in the first place) has been written throughout the centuries. He shows, among other things, that the philosophical canon as it is today and as it arose from 18th century protestantism, has all sorts of biases, much like any other history or worldview. These biases have led to artificial partitionings in the history of philosophy, and the exclusion of various alternative ways of thinking. Of course, we may debate the value and validity of any philosophical current from a personal perspective, but if we want to write history, we must not let those value judgments get in the way of honestly depicting philosophical landscapes.
Tangentially related to Hanegraaff’s evaluation of history is Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, a bold attack on materialism in modern society and thought. Roszak’s approach is quite fiery and driven by a sort of poetic desire as well. Particularly inspiring was his discussion of William Blake’s personal mythology, which I intend to dive into somewhere this year. Roszak’s book is more creative and moral in its style than it is historical, but this fits his drive to be critical of some of the common ‘truths’ in Western society, which are nothing more than mythologies in disguise, as Bateman would surely agree.
Finally, in the ‘series’ on alternative perspectives on religion, we turn to Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal by Jeffrey J. Kripal. This book must be one of the ‘grooviest’ religious studies book I’ve ever read, and it fits quite well into a sort of sweet spot that marries popular science to great scholarship. I suppose that’s natural when you’re writing about the intersection of comics, science, occult religion, and paranormal fiction. Kripal shows that all kinds of paranormal, esoteric, and (pseudo-)scientific thinking have gone ‘underground’, and found expression in the pop culture of the 20th century. He writes an often very personal history around seven “mythemes” like e.g. radiation, alienation, and emanation. The book reminded me of a somewhat similar study that I read a few years ago, the lovely The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, who argues along similar lines that a great deal of our conceptual relations with the ‘supernatural’ have found refuge in ‘harmless’ popular entertainment culture, because mainstream ideological currents generally dismiss the supernatural as something nonexistent and not worth discussing.
Along with Kripal’s book, I read Alan Moore’s Promethea series, which is a perfect example of what he is talking about. Even more ‘out there’ than most comics, this series is full of superheroes, the power of imagination, tarot, (pop) kabbalah, and (sex) magic. Rather ambitious, and often rather focused on shapely females, but I guess that is to be expected from a personality like Moore’s. An impressive and highly original work all the same, particularly the masterful issue #12 in which the history of the world is distilled into the Great Arcana of the tarot.
The Games We Play
The final theme will be ‘video games’. At the end of the year, I decided I wanted to see if I could take writing about games a bit more seriously – I’ve written posts on games here occasionally, but I decided to see if I could get some new writings published elsewhere on the web. So far, I’ve had success with three pieces, which you can find among the older posts here, and my experience with the editorial input was very positive, so I intend to try my hand at a lot more articles in games criticism in 2013.
I’d already been reading the occasional book and article on the study of games for a few years, however, and I continued that trend this year. Quickly after I worked through Chris Bateman’s The Mythology of Evolution, I turned to his previous book, Imaginary Games. I had become quite fond of his (blog) writing, and a book about games and art was too tempting not to buy. I enjoyed Imaginary Games a great deal, and it is interesting in particular in that it further explores the relation between art, fiction, and play from a philosophical perspective. Turning the question “are games art?” on its head, Bateman argues along with some other philosophers that art itself, fiction, imagination, and make-believe, all involve some form of play, an acceptance of arbitrary boundaries in order to be able to interpret art in a meaningful way.
A big tome that I’ve had in my collection for around three years was Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s anthology The Game Design Reader. I read individual articles from this book in between other reading activities, and it’s a hugely valuable collection of essays on game studies. The entries range from cultural history (Johan Huizinga of course) to gender perspectives, game design reflections, social interaction studies, (economic) game theory, walkthroughs, games journalism, etc. Though you have to be fond of theory to enjoy this book, I’d say it’s a great companion piece for anyone involved in the study of games.
Returning to monographs, I read Jesper Juul’s Half-Real, which was a clear and thorough introduction to game studies, and in particular a solid theoretical approach to a definition of games as a concept. In the end, he arrives at this summary definition: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” Of course, this admits for borderline cases in the de facto ‘game’ landscape, but as a point of departure for future discussions it’s quite strong. Juul continues in the rest of his book to explore how this ‘gameness’ interacts with fiction and player experience.
A more recent study that I read was Gordon Calleja’s In-Game, which focuses mainly on that latter theme: ‘immersion’ and how players interact with games. His theoretical framework approaches game studies not with games themselves as a point of departure, but interaction and experience instead. This results in a book that supplements Juul’s quite nicely, providing interesting perspectives on the various ways (intellectual, emotional, social, etc.) players can be involved with games.
Finally, from the burgeoning world of games criticism came Brendan Keogh’s e-book Killing Is Harmless, which is a very in-depth critical study of the game Spec Ops: The Line. Walking us through the game, Keogh shows with excellent writing how the game comments on the genre of the ‘military shooter’ through its plot, gameplay design choices, visual presentation, and music. The book proves both that elaborate critical studies of games as cultural objects are possible and valuable, and that self-publishing such books online is a viable strategy.
This is all for now. Of course, all these books don’t quite add up to 92, and I haven’t mentioned many books I did read (and enjoy) this year. However, I think I’ve covered the major themes. If you’re interested in seeing what else I read, have a look at my Goodreads profile and/or become friends with me there.