A Year in Reading: Helen Dewitt

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Helen Dewitt’s novel, The Last Samurai was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books in the US and in many other countries. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 to work on a novel using information design to represent mathematical ways of thinking about chance. She collaborated recently with the Australian journalist, Ilya Gridneff, on Your Name Here, a novel about a) the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist or b) the impossibility of writing a novel with an American writer who thinks it’s about the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist. An extract has appeared in n+1.This was unexpectedly hard to answer; casting my mind back over my reading in 2008, books were not what first sprang to mind. I realised suddenly: it’s not that I’d read no good books, but for me 2008 was the year of the blog, the year I discovered various bloggers whose writing was so addictive I have, well, moved into an apartment with no Internet access for five months so I can get some work done. The guiltiest parties were three blogs on language (Language Log, Languagehat.com and Bremer Sprachblog) and Mithridates’ Nighthauling. (xkcd.com, while also a favourite, does not interfere with work in the same way.) Rafe Donahue’s Fundamental Statistical Concepts in Presenting Data: Principles for Constructing Better Graphics – a 102-page PDF handout available on his website – held me transfixed, laughing out loud, for hours, on yet another day which had been optimistically allocated to work.Two books reminded me of what can be accomplished using the resources of the printed page: Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence and Claude Abromont’s Guide de la théorie de la Musique (Fayard, 2001). Beautiful Evidence, the most recent of Tufte’s pioneering books on information design, discusses the cognitive defects of Powerpoint in characteristically tendentious style; introduces Tufte’s latest invention, sparklines (small, information-intense word-sized graphics), and shows what can be done with them; and, like all Tufte’s work, makes the reader wonder why all books don’t look like this. (A: He publishes them himself.) The Guide de la théorie de la Musique includes chapters on silence, on nuances, on the history of ornamentation, on jazz, an overview of post-tonal music (and, of course, much much more); the exceptionally intelligent use of graphic design enables the reader to take in at a glance the relationship between intervals, the relationship between the keys, in short the many aspects of music which require intellectual apprehension. One turns to a random page and exclaims: But this is fabulous!Two books on political science reminded me of how essential a book is for getting to grips with sustained argument, if one is the sort of reader who underlines, writes in the margin, sticks tabs on pages and constantly flips back and forth (and no, highlighting a PDF is not remotely the same): John Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion and Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.Zaller argues that we need a new model of what public opinion actually is; given that most people (or most Americans, at any rate) pay little attention to politics, what exactly is the “opinion” that is elicited in surveys and the like? And what is the relationship between changes in the political views of the political elite (those who follow politics and are well-informed) and the views of those with little political engagement? Most people, Zaller argues, don’t have fixed, preformed opinions on a wide range of specific issues that that can be looked up like documents in a filing cabinet; they often form views when asked for them, drawing on whatever considerations happen to be uppermost in their mind at the time… The model has profound implications not just for politics but for our view of the self. A book, in short, which leads one to do violence to the notional word count of the round-up and still be conscious of doing gross injustice to its power, importance, and originality.In Red State Blue State Gelman, or rather, Gelman, Park, Shor, Bafumi and Cortina, look at various myths relating to the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states and offer a wealth of statistics to show the more complex reality. Is it really true, for instance, that the rich vote on economic issues, the poor on ‘cultural (God, gun control and so on)? Is there a split between working class ‘red America’ and rich ‘blue America’? According to RSBS, church attendance predicts Republican voting much better among rich than poor; within any state, more rich people vote Republican, while there is a significant difference between rich voters in ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states… PUP has permitted Gelman & colleagues 8 pages of colour plates to display properly the remarkable difference in ‘winners’ when states are classed by rich voters only, middle-income only and poor voters only, as well as an enlightening map showing counties as red, blue or purple. This was, naturally, gripping reading in the run-up to the presidential election; a number of posts on Gelman’s blog offer analysis of more recent results in terms of the area of inquiry set out by this remarkable book.And finally… Reminiscent of the Ficciones of Borges and Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Bernardo Moraes’ Minimundo offers a succession of brief takes on a world where the narrator plays Playstation with God, outwits zombies, is offered three wishes by the Demon of Coca Cola. Minimundo is currently available only in extremely witty Portuguese, but anyone familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan or Romanian could probably understand enough to see why this is a wonderful book. Hillary Raphael’s I Love Lord Buddha, the story of an American girl who founds the Japanese terrorist cult Neo-Geisha, had a savage deadpan humour which stayed with me months after I put it down.More from A Year in Reading 2008