Book Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is situated amid that violent uplift from childhood to adulthood, when the world simultaneously expands and contracts. It’s a vertiginous time, when feelings of possibility and responsibility, invincibility and vulnerability play musical chairs in our psyche. Those places and moments from childhood–so enormous, profound, and permanent in our memory–often turn out to be small and imperfect when reencountered. This destabilization, while liberating, is also uprooting, and Karl Ove’s saga, this round, is one of wild experimenting, stumbling, and, as the subtitle suggests, dancing in the dark. It’s a period of contextualization, in which he tries desperately–via booze, via writing, via sex–to locate himself, and, throughout, he seems to be asking: how much of what I was will I still be?
A wonderful geology primer, equal parts lyrical and erudite, what sets Rising from the Plains apart from other narrative science writing is the way in which it situates and negotiates people amid vast, ancient landforms. At the core is a character study of David Love: decorated geologist, native son of Wyoming, and a composite of wiseness, living history, and closeness with the land. Love is our very capable ambassador to the terrain in question, where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the high plains.
Having spent a half century surveying the land, Love bemoans our inability to fully appreciate it. Our behaviors–our insistent exploits–prove this time and again. In response, Love maps once unknown terrains, not for conquest, but in the name of understanding and awareness. Stubborn and principled, he devotes his life to the preservation of his homeland, readily owning up, however, to privileging industry over preservation early in his career. Perhaps most crucially, Love understands that things are rarely as cut and dry as they seem–be it an outcropping of rock or industrial development. People need to make a living, Love concedes, and the land can certainly provide.
But can we learn to utilize the bounties of our environment without destroying it? Are we willing to look beyond ourselves–remembering that, geologically, we’ve not yet lasted a blink-of-an-eye–in order to persist more sustainably? It’s this message of seeking a balance, of taking the very long view and gaining a more holistic perspective, that keeps Rising from the Plains as fresh and necessary as when it first appeared thirty years ago.
A lyrical fever dream that’s labyrinthine in subject and form, Under the Volcano is a book about trying to escape–one’s self, one’s weaknesses, one’s failures, one’s environment. It’s an experience that’s at once colorful and dreary, vast and oppressive, hopeful and hopeless, though ultimately a journey redolent of doom, a portent which grows at a dizzying rate with each passing chapter. It’s an obscured book, enveloped, as the title suggests, by massive shadows–a darkness that the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, wishes desperately to emerge from.
But Under the Volcano is not merely a document of Geoffrey Firmin’s demise. Sure, that’s the “plot,” but, true to his modernist roots, Lowry cobbles together a manic collage composed of shifting narratives, varied languages, ornate symbols, memories, inner conflicts, global collisions, a love quadrangle, and events of sudden violence, all of which are situated amid the wreckage of the Mexican Revolution and imminent war in Europe. It’s these types of tensions that permeate the experiences of Geoffrey, his half-brother Hugh, and his estranged wife Yvonne, as each struggles with what should be done, what can be done–with their lives, with their relationships with one another, and with these larger, looming conflicts that are consuming the world. Taken together, this vibrant tapestry of a text is a powerful consideration of one’s place and role amid life’s perennial chaos.
If nothing else, an active photographic pursuit (in taking as well as viewing pictures) reminds us of the importance of looking. It’s an exercise that trains the eye and mind to steal quick moments of intrigue from our everyday environment. Simply (and somewhat platitudinously) put, it makes us aware of the potential beauty in every situation.
John Pawson’s A Visual Inventory is a kind of treatise on the powerful effect of purposeful seeing. Culled from a lifetime of photographic documentation, Pawson’s work is a testament to the visual interest inherent in unlikely places. His photographs rarely present a traditional subject or narrative, but, rather, what catches his eye are subtle lines, shapes, and forms–the geometry of environments. This phenomenon can be found everywhere, and it’s stunning to behold, especially when we realize that it’s as often the result of accident as intention. Incidental beauty–these subtle but pervasive designs–are what Pawson is keen to share with us.
Formally, A Visual Inventory is made up of pairs photos with some kind of shared theme. At times the pairings can rely a bit too heavily on obvious compositional parities, but, as a whole, the doubling and comparing of often disparate subjects is a powerful reminder of the visual world’s underlying structures. This is not to say that, when you get right down to it, everything is the same–far from it. It’s that there’s something powerful in being able to glean a consonant geometry that’s present everywhere we look. If, of course, we bother to do so.
The name, Le Corbusier, rang a bell. I knew he was a twentieth-century architect. French, probably (Swiss, actually). Big concrete buildings came to mind. But that’s about all I knew off the top of my head. I had no idea that he was responsible for modular architecture, or that he was among the first to try to address overpopulation through dense urban planning. And I was certainly unaware that Le Corbusier was tackling all of this as early as the 1920s. Thus, Anthony Flint’s biography, Modern Man, is a worthy venture, shedding light on this thinker and provocateur who, outside of architecture and design circles, has undeservedly fallen out of recognition.
Of course, as with most visionaries, Le Corbusier had his share of missteps, often due to a megalomania and opportunism that wouldn’t keep him from working with anyone when it suited him, even the Nazi-connected Vichy Regime in WWII France. And, while he basically gave us IKEA and some initial ideas and blueprints to build smarter, he also championed the type of urban design that gave us crime-ridden housing projects and car-centric sprawl in America. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, but Flint reminds us not to throw the baby “out with the modernist bathwater.” (p. 213) Or, more poignantly:
“For the twenty-first-century, however, among the greatest lessons to be learned from Le Corbusier are his design innovations in housing, and his recognition of the grand scale necessary to accommodate millions of people moving into cities each year. The reasons those contributions are important is because the urban century has arrived, in dramatic fashion.” (p. 213)
Flint’s writing is clear and engaging, making for a fairly quick read. He structures each chapter around a major project of Le Corbusier’s, so those looking for a strictly chronological biography may grow a bit frustrated, as the narrative does bounce around quite a bit (an aspect I mostly found intriguing, though, at the start of a few chapters, I did find myself a bit confused as to which decade we had landed in). Regardless, those interested in architecture, built environments, urban planning, or even just design, will be hard pressed not to gain some insight from this text.