Thinking about some books etc
A crisis of the imagination, Orwell’s reviewing style and some reading matter
After the end of term I’ve turned to these four books to try to inspire some new thoughts. Reading can sometimes get squeezed by the hustle of the academic year. I’ve just been standing looking at the book shelves in my university office, working along the rows of disorder I can’t find my copy of Les Back’s Academic Diary. I’m sure that book would have had something revealing to say about the academic year and how reading fits into its cyclical rhythms. Perhaps it was lost in the office move a couple of years ago or maybe, hopefully, I lent it to someone and it has a new home. It might even be on my shelf somewhere and I’m unable to spot it (below is a photo of one of the shelving units where it is most likely to be located, let me know if you can find it). There’s no real order or system, so when looking I usually have an idea of what colour the book is that I’m looking for. From memory Academic Diary is bright red.
I couldn’t find Academic Diary, I did though stumble upon a collection that contains a piece by Les about writing and reading. In that chapter he describes reading as ‘companionship in thought’. Books are something to fall back on, they help to move ideas and to nurture thinking. The point the chapter makes is that this is part of writing and part of managing to write amongst other pressures. If reading is companionship in thought then perhaps reviewing books is a kind of sharing of that experience.
In the last two or three weeks I’ve been looking at those four books (see the picture above) for some ‘companionship in thought’. Both for writing and lecturing. Mainly I’ve written about the issues raised by Peter Osborne’s Crisis as Form book for a magazine. The piece, which thinks about Unending crisis and the limits of our imaginations, is out today (you can read or listen to the piece through that link) Here’s the opening paragraph:
Appearing on a Boston wall in 2010, Banksy’s Follow Your Dreams artwork quickly became popular amongst those fearing the sharp-end of the financial crisis. Its wide circulation is not hard to understand. A bemused-looking man holding a bucket and paintbrush stands in front of a white-washed wall. The shaky looking words “follow your dreams” are scrawled upon the brickwork. On top of that and partially obscuring the original lettering is a red diagonal “cancelled” stamp. It was a meme before memes properly existed.
The stark message resonated: things are fairly hopeless and your life-chances have just been seriously hemmed-in. If its message still speaks to you, you can buy a poster version for around £36 on Etsy or, if you are feeling a little flush, a limited-edition print is available for just short of £140. Meanwhile it can be obtained for less than a fiver over at your favourite retail monolith Amazon. As the excellent Banksy documentary once put it, “Exit through the gift shop.”
Osborne’s book argues that we are in something like a permanent state of crisis and wonders what this means for art and culture. He identifies a crisis of form within art as it seeks to respond to its conditions. This is something to think about when we consider writing and reading too perhaps.
Of the other books, I’ve yet to read any of Tiziana Terranova’s new book After the Internet. It has a retro aesthetic that seems fitting with its title. It feels like a book you might accidentally stumble upon in a library. I’ve read the first couple of chapters of Sarah Lamdan's Data Cartels. It's concerned with ownership and access to data. The section on data brokering in particular explores how this control works in practice. I’ll probably post more about this book soon.
Alongside this I have been dipping in and out of the collection of Orwell’s journalism and reviews over the last couple of months. This was partly as a result of a crisis of form - I had two book reviews to write and I needed some inspiration for how to approach them. The Orwell reviews included in the collection do have something in common in terms of their form. They have a quite terse and direct style. It makes them very readable. I’ve noticed that most are quite short, usually two or three pages, and they get directly to the issues and questions. There is very little waste. Of course, this is partly because of the limited space in the publications, yet I imagine that a number of these oulets would have given him more space should he have requested it. I might be wrong on this, and perhaps Orwell would have wanted to move quickly to the next review in order to earn the money he needed. There is though what appears to be a stylistic choice going on in those reviews. There are very few flourishes or pirouettes, the writing is noticeably austere and perhaps even blunt. Another way to think of it might be as a sort of critical minimalism - everything it taken-back to its component parts with no furnishing.
Of course, I had no choice but to try to write a little piece that attempts to make sense of what is happening at Twitter (and Twitter-story fatigue too). Here’s the opening paragraph:
Twitter is currently providing the backdrop for a relatively lively yet fairly tedious soap opera. In recent episodes Elon Musk has taken the role of protagonist (or should that be antagonist?) in a rather clumsy storyline. As things stand it’s not clear exactly where the narrative is heading but it doesn’t feel like things will resolve in an entirely positive manner. The plot seems to be taking us towards some sort of comeuppance.
If you are interest, and if you can stomach reading more about Twitter, you can read the piece over at Transforming Society.
I’ll hopefully be continuing with The Fragment Substack in 2023. Thanks for subscribing and reading.