2012: A Year in Books

Lori Nix - 'Library' (2007)

Lori Nix - ‘Lib­rary’ (2007)

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).

The City & The City

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 Prousts 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 Brad­buryDan­delion Winewhich 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.

The First Book of Lankhmar

I went through a few fantasy works as well throughout the year. I fin­ished Ship of Des­tiny, the last part of Robin HobbLive­ship 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 Allans slightly out­dated but still quite thor­ough Intro­duc­tion to Elvish and other lan­guages of Middle-Earth.

I also read the eponymous second part of Mervyn PeakeGor­menghast 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.

Cloud Atlas

In pre­par­a­tion for the movie, I started David MitchellCloud 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

A Most Dan­gerous Book

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 Girards 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.

The Pur­suit of the Mil­len­nium

In the end, this did tie in nicely with some other books I read this year. Norman Cohns 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 Ageswas 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 Ecos 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 Klem­pererLingua 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.

Star Maker

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 BatemanThe 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.

Eso­ter­i­cism and the Academy

I finally got around to reading Wouter J. HanegraaffEso­ter­i­cism 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 RoszakWhere 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 Blakes 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.

Mutants & Mys­tics

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 MoorePro­methea 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.

The Game Design Reader

A big tome that I’ve had in my col­lec­tion for around three years was Katie Salen and Eric Zim­mermans 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 JuulHalf-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 CallejaIn-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 Keoghs 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.