Stuff I’ve Been Reading

My lifestyle has changed. It now involves shuffling children around to dentist appointments and Little League games, joining the solidarity of the parents in the bleechers. I live in a small working-class town by the beach. I’m busy with writing projects. And BURIED in books. It’s been a heavy year so far in re: reading material, although that’s always true of my reading habits. I read books about tyranny and war and dictators and always have. I am also drawn to the difficult, the challenging, the hard to absorb. I feel like it has helped keep my mind sharp over this last very challenging year, where I have been alone 90% of the time, and dealing with SPOOKY MENTAL GHOSTS. Easy to drift into a mental fog. Reading HARD SHIT has helped, although it’s often slow-going. I’ve noticed I’m reading slower than I normally do. So be it. So. Following the breadcrumbs, here are some of the things I’ve been reading, offline and on.

Ed Simon’s piece on Cynicism (the ancient philosophy and then its current-day meaning) is well worth it. That first paragraph – and the delayed “reveal”- is … something else.

Conversations with Stalin, by Milovan Djilas.
Ben just gave them to me when we met up at the Old North Bridge on Mother’s Day. He knows my interests. And nothing says “Mother’s Day Celebration” like a book on Stalin. Djilas was a Yugoslav Communist, a true believer, who met with Stalin three separate times to discuss Yugoslavia’s politics and Tito, etc. Djilas clocked instantly the personality-cult in the comments from Stalin’s toadies, and he expressed shock at the censorship placed on Soviet authors. (Ah, the naivete.) He lived to see the same thing happen to him (and others) in Yugoslavia. He was imprisoned for his writing, his critiques of politics and bureaucratized Stalinism. FASCINATING. Plus, his intimate observations of Stalin the man. His black crooked teeth. Disgusting! And the constant drinking and aggressive toasting – a kind of hazing for any guests. I’m devouring it.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, by Walter Benjamin.
I have been thinking of writing a piece on Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which made me think of Benjamin’s famous “angel of history”. I want to write this piece. So I figured it would be helpful to dig into Benjamin’s fantastic iconoclastic sui generis work. He lived such a short period and his ending is haunting but what a huge impact he has had on our world. This is a good introductory volume, with intro by his friend Hannah Arendt.

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend, by Thomas Mann
Jesus God this book. I can’t believe I haven’t read it before. I never want it to end. Every page is so filled with gems of philosophy and observation and truth I want to transcribe the whole book just to savor it. (Something about taking notes helps things to “stick” in my head. I figured this out back in high school when I developed my “system” of studying, which I use to this day. It’s too byzantine to explain. But it works for me.)

History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, by Deborah Lipstadt
(Made into the movie Denial, which I highly recommend.) Holocaust denier and anti-Semite and Hitler apologist sued Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a “denier” and a bad historian in her book on Holocaust denial. Because of England’s libel laws, it was on her – the defendant – to prove that her original assertion was true. I followed this case in the news as it happened – in 2000 – it seemed essential that she win. I have always meant to read her book on the trial and so I’m finally doing so. It’s very good, especially in our current atmosphere of fakery and lies and propaganda declaring itself as true, and the media complicit in presenting “both sides”, as opposed to taking a stand and declaring a lie to be what it is, a lie.

Now this piece – by the great Nick Pinkerton is … beyond belief. It was the most fun I’ve had reading anything all year. Seriously: I read every word the man writes – and have been on a couple of podcasts with him, he’s great fun and super smart – anyway, this piece took me four days to read. I had to break it up, just so I could savor it. It’s almost impossible to summarize – which (for me) is the mark of good writing – but in general it’s about the experience of being a collector. Do not miss it. Very few people write like this anymore. But he’s in a great tradition of deeply learned cultural criticism.

Diary of a Man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck
A brutal book: Reck was a conservative, even reactionary, German, who watched with horror and “despair” what Hitler and his thugs wrought on his country. He hid this journal in the woods, breaking it up into pieces and burying it, etc. Too dangerous to keep it around. He is so devastated at the destruction of human values that the Nazis represented. As I read, I thought of the footage this past year of cops in SWAT gear literally pushing over an elderly man, who cracked his head open on the pavement, and the cops walked on by, not stopping to help. That is representative of a total degradation of human values. Reck’s secrecy with his journal was all for naught. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he perished. A must-read.

Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, by Clive James
I cherish him. See above comment in re: Nick Pinkerton. This is the tradition he’s in. It’s the tradition I want to be in too. I have no interest in participating in the mainstream cultural criticism as it exists today. So I’m basically refusing to participate. I pay a price for this refusal and sometimes I feel left out of “the discourse” but …9 times out of 10 I find the “discourse” annoyingly reductive, and also … considering the gigs I get, I’ve done all right even with opting-out.

Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz
It took me a while to finally get to this one. I INHALED it. And quickly sought out everything else she wrote. She should for sure be as well-known as Joan Didion, another chronicler of California, albeit a very different California. Didion’s is a genteel Sacramento California. Babitz’s is the beachy arts-y Hollywood California. Both are obsessed with where they are from and find fascinating ways to pass on their observations. Babitz is a legendary SIREN. I’m in awe of her. Hell of a writer.

The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
This memoir by Stefan Zweig, written during his forced exile from Austria post-Hitler invasion, and published just a month or two before Zweig and his wife committed suicide … is such a sorrowful document, it brought me to tears multiple times. You feel his despair, you feel the “end of the road” in every word he writes. What a writer. He lost everything. His books were banned and burned. Austria had been a Utopia for him (an imperfect one, but still) … a place where art and culture was paramount, where Jews could assimilate (to a certain extent), where for almost the first time in history Jews were allowed to join society. The lie of this – the betrayal of it – the unleashing of anti-Semitism during Hitler’s rise – shattered Zweig. It’s a devastating book. (All of his work is essential. I’ve written quite a bit about him.)

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6 Responses to Stuff I’ve Been Reading

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    I’ve had The World of Yesterday sitting on my shelf for a few years, but I’ve been afraid to read it – especially during the Trump years. I was genuinely afraid it would cause me to give in to despair, which I had to fight against every day from Election Night in 2016 until Biden took the oath of office. Maybe now I’ll be able to screw up my courage and read it.

    • sheila says:

      It’s very very difficult to get through, his pain is so palpable. Also that you know he didn’t find a way to “go on” – even though he had reached safety! He just couldn’t go on. It’s a tragedy.

      But an amazing book about that whole period in history.

  2. KH says:

    Finding Eve Babitz was a very WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE moment. She’s great.

  3. Luis Guillermo Jiménez Gómez says:

    Devastating is really the right word for The World of Yesterday. I’ve been reading a few of his stories and novellas this year (Chess Match, Summer Novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman and others) and it’s almost unbearable how palpable the disintegration of Zweig’s world is in them, even when they’ve gone filtered through the lens of fiction.

    • sheila says:

      // and it’s almost unbearable how palpable the disintegration of Zweig’s world is in them //

      yes! total destruction. World of Yesterday is really good at giving a picture of just how successful he was, too – how well-known and beloved he was throughout Europe – which I think is important context. It’s not that it made him feel “safe” – he never looked for that kind of success – but the fact that his apolitical cultural criticism found such success throughout Europe for him represented hope for the future – the ideals he believed in. Progress, etc.

      It’s just devastating.

      Have you read Beware of Pity?

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