Top 10 Books About Online: An Excerpt from ‘Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction’

August 13, 2018 | 9 books mentioned 9 min read

1. The Catalog of Nibru (Various, circa 21st to 20th Centuries B.C.)

I, the king, was a hero already in the womb
I am a king treated with respect
Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form
Lady of all the divine powers

These lines, inscribed in clay in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur, were initially confusing to the American archae­ologists who around 1900 uncovered them from the ruins of the city of Nibru, or Nippur, in contemporary Iraq. They appeared to be poems, or the Sumerian equivalent of poems, but none cohered, or cohered as completely as the 40,000 or so other texts excavated from the area. And so the 62 lines of this incomprehensible tablet—of this intact yet stylistically fragmented tablet—were set aside, as the more formally explicable texts were decoded. coverIn the course of that decoding, however, the same lines kept cropping up—as first lines: “I, the king, was a hero already in the womb” was the first line of a poem in praise of Shulgi; “I am a king treated with respect” was the first line of a poem in praise of Lipit-Ishtar; “Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form” was a song for hoeing; “Lady of all the divine pow­ers” was a hymn to the love goddess Inana. This led scholars to con­clude that this mysterious cuneiform slab was no avant-garde Gilgamesh (whose earliest version was also unearthed at Nibru), but a bibliography or curriculum—an index of the Sumerian canon in­tended for reference, or instruction. Literature began with the list: Online just made the links palpable.

cover2. The Talmud (Various, circa 200 A.D. to Present)
A commentary on commentaries: a book divided into books, or tractates, whose every page is divided among debates about Jewish law (Mishnah, 200 A.D.), debates about the debates (Gemarah, 500 A.D.), the glosses of the 12th-century French rabbi Rashi (in a strip down one margin), and over six centuries of tosafot, which are glosses on Rashi’s glosses (in a strip down the opposite margin). In­terspersed text blocks can feature extracts from legal codices by Mai­monides (12th-century Egypt), Nachmanides (13th-century Spain), Joseph Caro (16th-century Palestine), and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, aka the Vilna Gaon (18th-century Polish Lithuania). To speak of the Talmud is to speak of a multiplicity-seeking syncretism, a jurisprudential pullulation: a work that in­termixes Aramaic and Hebrew and exists in two forms (the earlier Jerusalem Talmud, the later Babylonian Talmud), each of which has appeared in disparate editions, with dissenting annotations and addenda. The Talmud’s ultimate interpretive difficulty, however, inheres in the fact that for over a millennium, its primary “text” had been overwhelmingly oral—commandments communicated face-to-face before being transcribed.

3. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (circa 820 A.D.)
A book from Baghdad, written by a Persian astronomer and math­ematician credited with the introduction of what we now call Ara­bic numerals to Europe. Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic treatise, which is known to us solely through its 12th-century Latin translation by Robert of Chester, delineates two ways of solving quadratic equa­tions: the first by means of completionor the movement of negative terms from one side of an equation to the other; the second by means of balancingor the cancelation of equal terms on both sides of an equation. “The balancing” was al-muqabala“the completion” was al-gabrwhose transliteration into “algebra” was relatively logi­cal when compared with the Latinate corruption of its creator’s name: from al-Khwarizmi to Algoritmi—source of the modern “algorithm.” By proposing the abstraction or transposition of all quantities into a representative language, al-Khwarizmi founded a method by which all extant mathematical disciplines could com­municate. His immediate concerns, though, were more mundane, as his treatise concludes by turning theory to practice and, like the search engines that continue its work today, becomes preoccupied with mercantile transactions: “A man is hired to work in a vineyard for thirty days for 10 dinars. He works six days. How much of the agreed price should he receive?”

cover4. Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas (1265–74)
“It seems that those who see the essence of God see all things in God. For Gregory [of Nyssa] says: ‘What do they not see, who see Him Who sees all things?’ But God sees all things. Therefore those who see God see all things. … Further, whoever sees a mirror, sees what is reflected in the mirror. But all actual or possible things shine forth in God as in a mirror; for He knows all things in Himself. Therefore whoever sees God, sees all actual things in Him, and also all possible things. … Further, whoever understands the greater, can under­stand the least, as Aristotle says. But all that God does, or can do, are less than His essence. Therefore whoever understands God, can un­derstand all that God does, or can do. … Further, the rational crea­ture naturally desires to know all things. Therefore if in seeing God it does not know all things, its natural desire will not rest satisfied; thus, in seeing God it will not be fully happy, which is incongruous. Therefore he who sees God knows all things.” Use the Ctrl key to find and replace “God” with “Google,” “Apple,” or the “Five Eyes” (the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand: the five nations that share signals intelligence), throughout.

cover5. Index Librorum Prohibitorum (First Edition 1559, Final Edition 1948)
A book necessitated by books: Gutenberg’s invention stilled the copyist’s hand, and ensured that texts were no longer the exclusive possessions of the aristocracy and Church. The democratization, along with the secularization, of “content,” suggested the establish­ment of institutional controls—if governments and ecclesiastical bodies had ceased to be the primary sources of reading material, they could at least license the printers who were, and regulate the materials they published. The first edition of the Vatican’s Index Li­brorum ProhibitorumIndex of Prohibited Books—was superintended by Pope Paul IV, and blacklisted over 500 works for rea­sons not just of heresy or blasphemy, but also of anticlericalism and obscenity; further, it set rules regarding book distribution that cur­tailed the influx of illicit texts from outside the Holy See’s domin­ion. The Index’s second edition, authorized by the Council of Trent and so referred to as the Tridentine Index, relaxed the standards of its predecessor, in that it distinguished between books to ban, and books merely to censor, and was more forgiving toward scientific works, except for those by Protestants. Taken in all its editions, the Index was both a guide to the evil opinions of heliocentrists (Kepler and Newton), pantheists (Bruno and Spinoza), Romantics (Balzac and Zola), and fascists (Alfred Rosenberg and Gabriele D’Annunzio), as well as a registry of the occulted holdings of the Vatican Library, which was required to obtain a copy of every book it proscribed. Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966—and in doing so appended it to another Index: that of Church books the Church has repudi­ated. Still, the list lives on, and has now been made searchable, at

cover6. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, by James Howell (1645–55)
An all-over-the-map, four-volume autobiography—which, because it’s semifictionalized, and because it’s written as correspondence, qualifies it for the distinction of the first epistolary novel in English—Epistolae Ho-Elianae is more regularly referred to by its more regular title, Familiar Letters. Its Anglo-Welsh author, Howell, was arguably the first English-language author to earn his living solely from writ­ing. He was the quintessential freelance, producing histories, politi­cal tracts, polyglot dictionaries, and wisdom miscellanies (English Proverbs, 1659, noted: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”). The variety of Howell’s interests—and the variety of his pre-freelance writing employment: as a tutor of and secretary to the nobility, and as the traveling representative of a glass manufacturer—accounts for the varied settings of his Letters (Germany, Italy, Po­land, prison), and the varied nature of Letters’ addressees (family, friends, ambassadors of the British Crown, fellow belletristic hacks, and chummy sea captains encountered along the way). The only ag­gregating premise to this P.O. box of prose is Howell’s naive but endearing conviction that life and writing were synonymous and that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be written down. Beyond that: that everything that ever happened to him de­served to be communicated (published).

cover7. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726)
A “projector,” to Johnson’s Dictionary, is “one who forms schemes,” and, in its second definition, “one who forms wild impracticable schemes.” In Lagado, capital of Balnibarbi, Lemuel Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Projectors, an organization dedicated to “putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanics upon a new Foot.” Which is to say, dedicated to putting them onto, or through, a computer, with which “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write books in Phi­losophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks, and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” Gulliver re­lates: “It was twenty Foot Square, placed in the middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were cov­ered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Pa­pers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Pro­fessor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the Engine was so contrived, that the Words shifted into new places, as the square bits of Wood moved upside down.”

8. The Telephone Directory, Connecticut District Telephone Company (1878)
In 1877, an inventor from New Haven named George Coy witnessed a telephone demonstration by Alexander Graham Bell and immedi­ately went about founding the Connecticut District Telephone Company—the world’s first commercial telephone exchange. In 1878, the company published its first directory—neither a white pages nor a yellow pages, just a single sheet of stiff cardboard. The company’s 50 subscribers were listed only by name. Numbers weren’t required or even useful: An operator connected, and was privy to, all calls. The second edition of the directory, published a year later, was a bound affair, listing nearly 400 names, alongside directions for telephone operation, guidelines for tele­phone etiquette, an advertisement for Watkin’s Automatic Signal Telegraph (a business that took telegrams via telephone dictation), and informative essays on “Progress in Electric Lighting” and “The Microphone.”

9. “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility,” by Émile Borel (1913)
Not the first version of Swift’s scenario (which has also been imag­ined by Leibniz, Pascal, Cicero, and Aristotle), but the first to in­volve singes dactylographes—“typing monkeys.” Borel, the French probabilist, cracks his knuckles: “Let us imagine that a million mon­keys have been trained to strike the keys of a typewriter at random, and that … these typist monkeys work eagerly ten hours a day on a million typewriters of various kinds. … And at the end of a year, these volumes turn out to contain the exact texts of the books of every sort and every language found in the world’s richest libraries.” The implication being that, given enough monkeys, typewriters, paper, and time, even Borel’s sentences are destined to be written again, as is this sentence, and so on.

cover10. The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov (1930)
“To change the world”: Half a century before this became the sanc­timonious mantra of Silicon Valley, it was the violent imperative of Soviet Russia. Platonov’s darkling novel concerns a pit being dug to accommodate the foundations of a vast residential tower that will ultimately shelter the entire population of an anonymous city in the USSR. Once the tower is finished, all the people’s former dwellings will be destroyed. “And after ten or twenty years, another engineer would construct a tower in the middle of the world, and the labor­ers of the entire terrestrial globe would be settled there for a happy eternity. With regard to both art and expediency, Prushevsky could already foresee what kind of composition of static mechanics would be required in the center of the world, but he could not foresense the psychic structure of the people who would settle the shared home amid this plan—and still less could he imagine the inhabitants of the future tower amid the universal earth. What kind of body would youth have then? What agitating force would set the heart beating and the mind thinking?”

Excerpted from Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Cohen. Published with permission from Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

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