When I was in graduate school, a professor introduced me to a documentary called The Century of the Self. Directed by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, it follows the rise of modern public relations, whose Austrian inventor, Edward Bernays, exploited Americans’ innate self-centeredness to sell us on everything from psychoanalysis to cigarettes. It’s an eye-opening piece of work, and one I used to rewatch once or twice a year. Last time I did though, it occurred to me that it might not be all that relevant. Because we aren’t living in the century of the self at all anymore, but the century of the crowd. It would be easy, I guess, to argue that the self is still ascendant since social media gives people more ways to think about themselves than ever. But a hashtag can’t go viral with just one user, nobody cares about an Instagram photo no one likes, and does a YouTube video that doesn’t get watched even exist? Even as users do the self-focused work of updating LinkedIn profiles and posting on Twitter and Facebook, they do it in the service of belonging, at the back of everyone’s minds, an ever-present audience whose attention they need if their efforts aren’t to be wasted. In his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer argues that this shift from individual to collective thinking is nowhere more evident than in the way we create and consume media on the Internet. Because tech companies like Facebook and Google make money off the sale of our personal data to advertisers, they depend on the attention of the masses to survive. And because their algorithms shape much of what we see online, it’s to their benefit to coerce us into thinking of ourselves not as individuals but as members of groups. “The big tech companies,” Foer writes, “Propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.” Foer started his journalism career in the late '90s as a writer for Slate when it was still owned by Microsoft. He edited The New Republic twice, from 2006 to 2010 and later, in 2012, after it was purchased by millennial billionaire and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The year Foer first joined TNR, only college students could have Facebook accounts, the iPhone hadn’t yet been released, and the Internet still represented an opportunity for democratization, where a small website could attract a self-selecting group of readers simply by producing well-written articles about interesting things. Today, there are two billion people on Facebook, which is also where most people get their news. Media organizations have adjusted accordingly, prioritizing stories that will travel widely online. Foer resigned from TNR shortly after Hughes announced he wanted to run the magazine like a startup. He uses the contentious end of his tenure there to make the case that news organizations desperate for traffic have given in too easily to the demands of big tech, selling out their readership in the pursuit of clicks and advertising dollars. The end result of this kind of corruption is sitting in the White House right now. “Trump,” the subject of thousands of sensationalist headlines notable primarily for their clickability, “began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.” Foer, of course, is writing about this topic from a position of relative privilege. He rose in his field before journalists relied on Twitter to promote their work. His career-making job was at a publication that has, more than once, made headlines for fostering an environment of racism and misogyny and a system of exclusion that may have facilitated his own way to the top. In late 2017, news about the sexual misconduct of his influential friend, TNR culture editor Leon Wieseltier, spread widely and quickly on Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps aware even as he was writing that he was not in the position to launch an unbiased critique, Foer chooses to aim his polemic at the people who run large online platforms and not at the platforms themselves. Foer doesn’t want Facebook to stop existing, but he does want greater government regulation and better antitrust legislation. He wants a Data Protection Authority, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to manage big tech’s sale of our personal data. He wants increased awareness on the part of the public of the monopolies Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google represent. He wants everyone to start reading novels again. And he wants news organizations to implement paywalls to protect their integrity, rather than depending on traffic for revenue. While I agree that reading fiction is one of the only ways any of us are going to survive this era with our minds intact, implementing subscription fees to save journalism sounds like suggesting everyone go back to horse-drawn carriages to end climate change. Foer dismisses the dictum “Information Wants to be Free” as “a bit of nineties pabulum,” but he’s wrong; If we put up blocks against information online in the form of paywalls, it’s going to find a way around them like a river around a poorly built dam. [millions_ad] We’re not going to go back to the way things were before, and if anything, the Internet’s information economy is going to carve out a wider and wider swath in our brains. Subscriptions work for The New Yorker and The New York Times in part because they come with built-in audiences old enough to remember when paying for information was the best way to get it. People might pay monthly fees for subscriptions to Stitch Fix and Netflix, but this model won't sustain itself in a world full of readers who expect good writing not to cost anything. Foer also has a higher opinion of human willpower in the face of massively well-funded efforts to dismantle, divert, and repurpose it than I do. I don’t know if the founders of Google and the big social media platforms always knew it would be possible to turn their user bases into billions of individual nodes ready to transmit information—via tweets, texts, posts, and status updates—at the expense of all their free time, but they do now. Our phones and our brains exist in a symbiotic relationship that is only going to intensify as time passes. As Foer himself notes, “We’ve all become a bit cyborg.” The more addicted we are, the longer we spend online, the more data we give big technology companies to sell, the less incentive they have to change. We aren’t in a position to go offline, because online is where our families, our friends, and our jobs are. Tech companies have the lobbying power, financial means, and captive audiences necessary to ensure that the stimulus-reward loops they offer never have to stop. Media organizations that take advantage of these weaknesses will grow, while those that put up pay walls, adding friction to the user experience, will wither and die. As a writer at Slate and an editor at the New Republic, Foer was a member of the generation that helped put in place the framework of a media industry whose flaws he’s railing against. He’s unlikely to be the person who fixes it. And just as Foer can’t solve the problems inherent in an industry he helped build, big tech companies aren’t going to remedy the problems they’ve brought about. Not because they don’t want to (though, why would they?) but because for the most part, the people running these companies can’t see the full picture of what they’ve done. In an interview with Axios’s Mike Allen, Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg demonstrated little remorse at the role Facebook played in facilitating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election via fake campaign ads. “A lot of what we allow on Facebook is people expressing themselves,” Sandberg said. “When you allow free expression, you allow free expression, and that means you allow people to say things that you don't like and that go against your core beliefs. And it's not just content—it's ads. Because when you're thinking about political speech, ads are really important.” In the universe where Sandberg lives, our problems—which include a president poised to start a war for the sake of his ego—are her problems only in so much as they damage her company’s ability to accept money from whomever it wants. In late 2017, Twitter, Facebook, and Google were all called upon to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Some members of Congress want a bill requiring big tech companies to disclose the funding source for political ads. Facebook and Twitter announced new internal policies regulating transparency. But how well these regulations will be enforced is unknown, and, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which insanely well-capitalized companies steeped in the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley let rules get in the way of “innovation.” One of the best chapters in World Without Mind involves the coming of what Foer calls the Big One, “the inevitable mega-hack that will rumble society to its core.” Foer writes that the Big One will have the potential to bring down our financial infrastructure, deleting fortunes and 401Ks in the blink of an eye and causing the kind of damage to our material infrastructure that could lead to death. Big tech can see the Big One coming, and is bracing for it, taking lessons from the example set by the banks during the economic collapse of 2008. They’re lawyering up and harnessing resources to make sure they’ll make it through. We, the users whose fortunes will have been lost, whose data will have been mishandled and who will have potentially suffered grave bodily harm as the result of this mega-hack, won’t fare so well. This prediction brings to mind another recent book about the current state of technology, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. Ullman also denounces the dismantling of journalism as we know it by social media. “Now,” she writes, “without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes ‘truth.’” Ullman, like Foer, blames these platforms for the election of President Trump, calling Twitter the perfect agent of disintermediation, “designed so that every utterance could be sent to everyone, going over the heads of anyone in between.” But she veers from Foer’s pronouncement that unregulated tech companies are going to be the death of intellectual culture as we know it. Describing San Francisco, where she lives, she notes the failure of more and more startups, the financial struggles of LinkedIn before its sale to Microsoft, the mass exodus of investors from Twitter, and Uber’s chronic struggles to reach profitability. Life in Code was written before Snapchat went public, but Ullman predicts correctly that it won’t go very well. “The privileged millennial generation has bet its future on the Internet,” Ullman writes. “I wonder if they know the peril and folly of that bet.” Ullman, a programmer, lived through the first tech collapse. Now, she writes, conditions are ripe for a second fall. “The general public has been left standing on the sidelines, watching the valuations soar into the multibillions of dollars, their appetites whetted: they, too, want to get into the game. I fear that on the IPOs, the public will rush in to buy, as was true in 2000.” These two dark visions of America’s future–one in which big tech brings about the end of society as we know it, and one in which it crashes under its own weight—both lead to similar outcomes: CEOs take their payouts and head to their secret underground bunkers in the desert while those on the outside get left holding the bag. Both potential endings also point to a precipice that we, as a society, are fast approaching, a sense that the ground is ready to fall out from beneath us at any time. “There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself to be ‘modern,’” Walter Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project, “and did not believe itself to be standing directly before an abyss.” Thanks to climate change, Donald Trump’s perpetual nonsense, the rise of white supremacist hate groups, and the mass shootings and terror attacks that pepper the headlines each day, it’s hard not to feel as if that we’re all alive at the start of a dawning apocalypse. And maybe that’s because we are. But the end that’s coming will not be all encompassing. “The ‘modern,’’’ Benjamin also wrote, “is as varied in its meaning as the different aspects of one and the same kaleidoscope.” In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, historian Yuval Noah Harari outlines the Dataist hypothesis that human beings are algorithms, elements of a massive global data processing system, the output of which was always destined to be a better, more efficient data processing system. “Human experiences are not sacred and Homo Sapiens isn’t the apex of creation,” Harari writes. “Humans are merely tools.” The endpoint of our current evolutionary trajectory, some researchers hypothesize, could look like a series of non-biological networks capable of communicating, rebuilding, repairing, and reproducing new versions of themselves without us. Harari points to theories that suggest we’ve always been headed towards that point, that it has always been what was supposed to happen, that we’re only one step in a process longer and more far-reaching than we can possibly imagine. It’s those enterprising entrepreneurs willing to exploit our connectivity-inclined, data-processing inner natures who stand to profit most from humanity’s current evolutionary moment. In a recent feature in New York about Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s former ghost writer Kate Losse, trying to remember Facebook’s “first statement of purpose,” recalls her boss saying often, “I just want to create information flow.” Where Curtis’s PR executives in Century of the Self exploited our innate selfishness for their own gain, the Zuckerbergs of the world cash in on our uncontrollable impulse to share information. An impulse that, according to Harari, might be leading, even now, to the development of an entity that, in its pursuit of greater networking capability, will absorb human biology then leave it behind. It sounds, I know, like science fiction. But, 15 years ago, so did Snapchat, Facebook, and the iPhone. Right now, the tide seems to be turning against tech. Last year, New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo promoted a series of articles on the monopoly power of Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. The Guardian published a story about Facebook and Google employees safeguarding themselves against the addictive properties of the platforms they helped create. Cathy O’Neil’s look at the algorithms that shape the Internet, Weapons of Math Destruction, was shortlisted in 2016 for a National Book Award. Following closely on these reports, of course, have come the inevitable accusations of alarmism from technologists and the people who love them. Where that discourse will lead is hard to say. One of the central question authors like Foer, O’Neil, Ullman, and Manjoo seem to want to raise is this: What will our legacy be? Will we be known for having set in place the foundations for a tech industry beholden to its users’ well being? Or will we be a blip, the last people who believed in an Internet capable of bringing about a brave new world, before everything changed? Benjamin is correct that all generations harbor an anxiety that theirs will be the last to grace the Earth before the world ends. But no generation has been so far, and ours probably won’t be either. And so to this question, I would add another: What will rise from whatever we build then leave behind? Because for better or for worse, something will.
1. On the cover of his When I Was a Photographer, we see a studio self-portrait of Félix Nadar in a hot air balloon. The French artist gazes into the distance like Hernán Cortés staring out over the Pacific, binoculars at the ready lest something should warrant closer inspection. He is also fully clothed. When he became the first person to capture an image from the air, he was stark naked. Low on gas, he had closed his balloon’s valve on the ascent and began lightening the load, dropping his trousers, shoes and everything else except his camera onto the ground below. Shivering as he rose to an altitude of 80 meters in his “improvised laboratory,” he produced the world’s first successful aerial photograph. (In his many previous failed attempts, the balloon’s gas valve had been open, which had contaminated the developing bath: “silver iodide [from the bath] with hydrogen sulfur, a wicked couple irrevocably condemned to never produce children.”) Nadar, it could thus be said, was a pioneer in both aerostatic and nude photography. This triumphant, naked flight is one of the spirited accounts in When I Was a Photographer, Nadar’s 1900-book translated and introduced by Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou. Nadar’s is not one of those conventional memoirs in which the orderly progression of reminiscences serves to obscure rather than illuminate the subject. Rather, Nadar relates an assortment of vignettes, some approaching the central subject head-on, others slantwise, but all in an engagingly conversational style. Reading Nadar’s eccentric musings brought to mind Max Beerbohm's praise for the lively, unorthodox prose of James McNeill Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: “It matters not that you never knew Whistler, never even set eyes on him. You see him and know him here.” Like Whistler’s, Nadar’s writing is revelatory in the literal sense of the word. 2. Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, Nadar moved from his native Lyon to Paris in 1838, where as a man of letters on the make he became a fixture of the Latin Quarter’s bohemian set. The talented eccentric would eventually turn his attention from journalism to caricature, prompting one illustrator, Paul Gavarni, to exclaim: “Ah! we are done for now that Nadar has learned to draw.” Nadar was prolific, composing caricatures for such publications as Charivari and Le Journal Pour Rire and pouring his considerable energy into the "Panthéon Nadar" (1854), in which the brightest of Paris’s literary lights -- nearly 300 in all -- appear in a tightly-packed, snaking line. The work is a marvel of compression, the distinctive faces of the teeming cast standing out in stark relief from the collective, sinuous body of the French intelligentsia. Nadar prepared for the Panthéon project by photographing some of his subjects, and soon his artistic focus shifted yet again, this time to photographic portraiture, which, like his comicalities, sought to capture the “moral and intellectual” nature of the subject. Though his studio was primarily a commercial outfit, Nadar could never resist a technological challenge. Apart from his foray into aerostatic photography, he experimented with artificial lighting in the catacombs and sewers beneath Paris’s streets, embarking on a katabatic “journey through this outlet of the infinite putridness of a great capital.” Nadar and his team lugged their equipment through the stygian mire and staged shots that could take up to 18 minutes of exposure. In the final minute of one such exposure, “a cloud rising from the canal came to veil our photograph -- and how many imprecations, then, against the beautiful woman or the good man above us, who, without suspecting that we were there, chose that exact moment to replenish the water in their bathtub!” The ruined plate goes out with the bathwater. Nadar’s life was full of exploits. In Sidetracks, Richard Holmes notes that Nadar and 500 Republicans attempted to liberate Poland from the Prussians in 1848. As if providing instructions for fellow caricaturists, Nadar’s fake passport read: “Age 27 years, height 1.98 meters, hair rust red, eyes protuberant, complexion bilious.” Nadar found himself resisting the Germans once again, this time during the 1870-71 siege of Paris when he oversaw the effort to transport mail over enemy lines in hot air balloons. Neither snow nor rain nor the Prussian army...Nadar’s “patriotic satisfaction” mixed with wry bemusement over his new role: Certainly never, after passing through diverse professions in our life, never would we have imagined our latest incarnation under the aesthetic of a varnished cockaded hat and a mailman’s bag on the belly. Still adventurous in his old age, Nadar would plunge himself, camera in hand, into an unleashed swarm of bees, trusting only the blithe assurances of a Provencal apiarist (“They are sheep, sir, real sheep!”) that he would emerge unscathed: They have always been alluring for me, these kinds of expeditions: it seems that the adventure whistles for me... -- and then once again, as my friend Banville would say, it is so much fun to get mixed up in something that does not concern you: and what’s more, well, my tempter appeared to be so sure of his business, of our business... In that shift from his to our we can glean the essence of the photographer, who makes a life getting up in his subjects’ business, so to speak. Nadar’s reverence for the medium and its skilled practitioners is undeniable; that for his everyday clients nonexistent. Nadar compares a colleague’s studio, a “fateful hut” perched on a Parisian rooftop, to “the Greek temple of the Odeon.” Most of the clients he mentions, however, are distinctly unheroic or comically clueless. One orders a portrait, pays, and leaves. Nadar chases him down and tells him he must actually pose. “Ah...As you wish...But I thought that this was enough...” In general, men suffer from an infatuation with their photographic appearance “pushed to the point of madness;” one spends a sleepless night fretting over a single misplaced hair in his proofs. Men might be the worst offenders, but all subjects present problems: So good is everyone’s opinion of his or her physical qualities that the first impression of every model in front of the proofs...is almost inevitably disappointment and recoil (it goes without saying that we are talking here of perfect proofs). In that wonderful parenthetical, Nadar counters his client’s vanity with a display of his own. 3. Nadar’s breezy style at times belies the book’s gnomic core, in which the “astonishing and disturbing” photographic technology inspires exultation and anxiety in equal measure. (As the translators note, Nadar’s reflections on art in the age of mechanical reproduction attracted the attention of Walter Benjamin, who refers to certain passages in The Arcades Project.) Nadar believed himself to be living in “the greatest of scientific centuries,” an era in which technologies arose with dizzying speed: Such is in fact the glorious haste of photography’s birth that the proliferation of germinating ideas seems to render incubation superfluous: the hypothesis comes out of the human brain in full armor, fully formed, and the first induction immediately becomes the finished work. The reference to Athena’s birth from Zeus’s head resonates when Nadar describes the godlike element of photography, which finally seems to give man the power to create, he, too, in his turn, by materializing the impalpable specter that vanishes as soon as it is perceived, without leaving even a shadow on the crystal of the mirror, or a ripple in the water in a basin. One detects here, not for the last time, a hint of the demonic: photography as a dark art. Nadar’s recollections begin with the initial unease brought about by photographic technology, “the contagion of...first recoil” that afflicted even “beautiful minds” such as Honoré de Balzac, Théo Gauthier, and Gérard de Nerval. Balzac, for instance, subscribed to the theory that “each body in nature is composed of a series of specters, in infinitely superimposed layers, foliated into infinitesimal pellicules, in all directions in which the optic perceives this body.” Each “Daguerreian operation” would thus seize one of these spectral layers until a body could waste down to nothing. The ever-playful Nadar seizes on this theory to needle his friend about his weight -- “Balzac had only to gain from his loss, since his abdominal abundances, and others, permitted him to squander his “specters” without counting.” (The playground taunt would go something like, Yo Mama is so fat, I could Daguerreotype her all day and she still wouldn’t disappear!) From Balzac’s “terror before the Daguerreotype,” Nadar moves on to the demonic perceptions of photography: This mystery smelled devilishly like a spell and reeked of heresy: the celestial rotisserie had been heated up for less. Everything that unhinges the mind was gathered together there: hydroscopy, bewitchment, conjuration, apparitions. Night, so dear to every thaumaturge, reigned supreme in the gloomy recesses of the darkroom, making it the ideal home for the Prince of Darkness. It would not have taken much to transform our filters into philters. The passage is tongue-in-cheek, but Nadar repeatedly flirts with occult rhetoric to describe his art. Take, for example, his attempts at underground photography, described in the language of esoteric exploration: The subterranean world was opening up an infinite field of operations no less interesting than the telluric surface. We were going to penetrate, to reveal the mysteries of the deepest, the most secret caverns. When Nadar leaves the subterranean world and takes to the skies, his initial inability to capture a clear image makes him feel “as if under a cast spell,” unable to “get out of these opaque, fuliginous plates, from this night that pursues me.” Generally lighthearted though he is, Nadar is haunted by sinister faces and spectral gazes. One chapter involves Nadar’s mysterious entanglement with a mountebank named Mauclerc, one of whose cons involves long-distance portraiture (i.e., a camera in Paris produces an image of a subject in Toulouse.) Years later, Nadar is visited by a young man claiming to have performed the same feat, at which point the has an eerie vision of Mauclerc and his “hideous smile:” ..the features of my noble Hérald [a friend] and the honest face of the young worker were merging, blending into a kind of Mephistophelian mask from which appeared a disquieting figure that I had never seen before but recognized immediately: Mauclerc, deceitful Mauclerc...mockingly handing me his electric image... Long-distance photography at last! By conjuring the face of his distant tormentor out of thin air, Nadar’s feverish imagination has performed the impossible feat promised by the conmen. In another vignette, Nadar receives a “funeral call” to photograph a recently deceased man. “Surely, this man had been loved...” begins a chapter that will end with an expression of “hatred and contempt.” As Nadar delivers the print to the deceased’s wife and mother-in-law, whose “hellish gaze bore into [him] relentlessly,” he is compelled to admit that he has already given out a print to another mourner: the man’s mistress. Here Nadar witnesses the perils of reproduction. The copy is just one of a (potentially) infinite series, but its circulation destroys the wife’s own image of her husband. She collapses, and Nadar, crushed to have “unwillingly caused so much pain,” is forever after haunted by yet another specter troubling the photographer’s regard: How many, many times have I found her unexpectedly, at a street corner, at another, everywhere, suddenly focused upon me, an always living reminder of that atrocious hour -- motionless and piercing me with her ashen eyes -- which I still see... The most dramatic display of photography’s dark side comes in a chapter entitled “Homicidal Photography.” There Nadar recounts the sensational case of a pharmacist, his bored wife, and a scheming assistant who cuckolds the former, jilts the latter, and robs both. Nadar traces the characters of this “insipid epic of little people” as they develops with the “fateful monumentality and progression of a Shakespeare drama...” Once the wife confesses her adultery, the pharmacist enlists her and his brother to lure the assistant to a remote location, stab him to death, drop his corpse from a bridge, and return to Paris. According to Nadar, a sure acquittal, a simple case of “adultery committed, adultery avenged.” Until, that is, a journalist photographs the decomposing body. Nadar describes this body in vivid detail, but prose is prose, no matter how sickening. Photography exposes the full horror of the “drowned man in total putrefaction, so abominably fashioned that the humor form soon becomes illegible.” The drama, “monstrous...and sensational in its staging,” riles up the public such that only one outcome is possible: “It is the photograph that has just pronounced THE SENTENCE -- the sentence without appeal: “DEATH!” Nadar personifies photography as an avenging angel who, through the accursed image, makes her terrible will known. “But PHOTOGRAPHY wanted it this way this time, ” Nadar concludes, stoically accepting the whims of the capricious demiurge to whom he is, or was, in thrall. 4. The passages I have selected attest to Nadar's peculiar temperament, his buoyant lugubriousness. Nadar threw himself into his art with the same abandon with which he followed the apiarist into the beehive: We find ourselves enveloped, obscured, blinded, lost in the midst of these myriads of sword-bearers, titillated everywhere...by these moving effervescences -- an immersion into a universal touch. This tableau is emblematic of Nadar, an artist forever immersing himself -- in a swarm of bees, in the “thickest part of a cloud,” in the Piranesian sewers of Paris, in the mysteries of photography, in darkness and in light.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I've started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went. As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I'm going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven't bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don't want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading. Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle -- which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard's been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book's scope and its candid thefts from the author's own life. It's not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the '80s can't touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard's prose -- even in Don Bartlett's lucid translation -- as refined as Proust's. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader's. A key word in My Struggle is "presence," and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard's descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you'll never quite manage to unseal. But then, it's hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart. I'd started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century -- like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I'm still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector's semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this...and that it took me so long to discover her. She's one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece. Speaking of Modernist masterpieces...the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I'm crazy about Walser's early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called "short shorts"). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser's sentences room to breathe...and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely's 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it's snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely's symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book's whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city. Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner's Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre...a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book's supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, '30, '31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one's idea of a feminist icon. But she's a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too. ...And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under "classics?" The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer's sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please -- provided Bolaño's doing the dreaming. This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, not least because it's about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it's an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book's hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book's formal dare: with one exception, it's written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn't be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he's one of our best and bravest writers. So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I'm not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, "Two Paths for the Novel," much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It's equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book's approach to character. Smith's protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book's temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed - an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn't mean it's not a step forward. I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter -- the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest -- may put some readers off, but Robinson's eloquent embrace of faith doesn't banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer's early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure...unless it's the pleasure of Wurlitzer's bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace's college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn't exactly a complete novel -- it's missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene-- Costello's one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of...well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel's eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now. But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we're not ready to recognize it when it comes. That's one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler's Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I've read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin's story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen's Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book ("If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction..." Um...). Here, the attraction's not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all. I'd also recommend Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm's little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it's an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn't read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra's book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra's book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem's been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn't spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through. Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann's 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there's an obvious case to be made that he's not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don't feel like you understand; you feel like you've lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it's a head-fake. The essay's really about Everything. Or so it seems to me at present; I'm only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I'm grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I'd been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an "illustrated fiction" into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with "the future of the book." In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and '70s "experimental" literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out - replete with color photography and typographic mayhem - Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I'd just published would never work on it. Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac's for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions: At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses.... [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest... In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the "provincial" Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for "sellout." (Not to mention - horrors - a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon - not with Field Guide, anyway. To "sell out," you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the "beautiful" book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce. Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are: Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book Step 1. Use Color The iPad and Barnes & Noble's NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn't it cool...in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it's good enough for a Nobelist, isn't it good enough for you? Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that "photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen" of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy ("glossy"?) magazine readers are apparently "flocking" to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it's worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we're seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it's the literary equivalent of abstract painting's retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations - as in Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring - or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams' Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader. Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle's remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski's House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel or William H. Gass' The Tunnel - difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass' lead in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there's white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler's There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It's available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don't think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds "the 'powerpoint' chapter...extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.") Step 4. Run With Scissors The opening story of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It's a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn't - and couldn't - exist. Step 5. Go Aleatory Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar's Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau's "A Story As You Like It." But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn't matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover's "deck of cards" story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates... Step 6. Put It In A Box Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, "pile of pages" aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can't be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney's, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman's archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition. Step 7. Pile on the End Matter This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren't palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren't you likely to hit "The End" and think: I'm done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I'm thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text. Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books: 1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object. 2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book...though, given the $35 cover price, I can't imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it. 3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I'll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov's and Jonathan Safran Foer's. There. I've done it. 4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel's conclusion rises...and falls. 5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen? 6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a "male version" and a (slightly different) "female version," bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon! 7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text - which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further - to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can't blame a guy for trying. 8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan "poetry machine" is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you'd just have to build in a "shuffle" function) - though by equivalence rather than reproduction. 9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I'd bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann's detractors would argue that's a good thing. I'm not so sure... 10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children's librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what's called a full-bleed)...and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book's explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen...but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can't, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad...perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
It can only be with mixed feelings that we reiterate what you've probably already heard: David Foster Wallace was indeed well into a new novel at the time of his death last fall. At The New Yorker, D.T. Max's long fact piece (accompanied by an excerpt) reports that the novel was to be called The Pale King and concerned the I.R.S., as we had speculated last year. "Good People," which appeared in The New Yorker, and "The Compliance Branch" (whose publication in Harper's triggered those speculations) were both parts of the novel-in-progress.The Howling Fantods (the preeminent website for Wallace readers) lists a couple of other fragments that may or may not have been linked to this longer work. Of the uncollected Wallace fiction I've read, "Three fragments from a longer thing" and especially the "Peoria" pieces from TriQuarterly (which I don't think anyone has connected to the longer manuscript) strike me as remarkable, and thematically of a piece. That the "Three fragments" are no longer available online suggests they are part of the incomplete Pale King manuscript, which Little, Brown will publish next year. The resulting book will probably be more like The Arcades Project than 2666 - a blueprint, rather than a raised edifice. The fact that Wallace was already reading and publishing from it may allay some of the queasiness associated with posthumous publication. Still, as of this writing, that seems at best a complicated kind form consolation.See also: David Foster Wallace 1962 - 2008