Purposeful Imperfections


Category: Readings

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman (cover art)

Aside from the occasional reference to antiquated software and machines, much of Life in Code reads as though it was just written. Many of the very same quibbles, worries, issues, and insights found in recent issues of Wired or Fast Company have been on her mind for decades. Even more impressive than this sagacity, though, is Ullman’s ability to render technology (and its socio-cultural implications) in clear and immersive text. For example:

“…I spent a long time thinking about the interior life of a robot. I tried to imagine it: the delicious swallowing of electric current, the connoisseurship of voltages, exquisite sensibilities sensing tiny spikes on the line, the pleasure of a clean, steady flow. Perhaps the current might taste of wires and transistors, capacitors and rheostats, some components better than others, the way soil and water make up the terroir of wine, the difference between a good Bordeaux and a middling one.” (p. 191)

It’s a rare person that can negotiate the world of bytes and world of words with equal deftness, but that’s exactly what Ullman does. We’re lucky to have her insight, foresight, and wit as we digitally blaze forth.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (cover art)

The Waves is a journey through trauma, one that plays out collectively but also internally. It distills a set of lives into vignettes that are equal parts explosive and exquisite, each character reconciling themselves with senescence, change, and loss. “I have sons and daughters. I am wedged into my place in the puzzle” (p. 216) one of them reflects, content but also a bit crestfallen, realizing that the limitless potential of youth is no longer up for grabs.

While the journeys of each character are unique, it’s not merely the trauma that is shared. Woolf seems obsessed with conveying how crucial we are to one another’s formation. “Let me then create you. (You have done as much for me.)” (p. 85) If this is true, what then do we owe ourselves, our community? What’s is our responsibility–what does it mean–when it’s not merely you or me, but “…our life, our identity.”? (p. 277)

Approaching Nowhere: Photographs by Jeff Brouws

Approaching Nowhere: Photographs by Jeff Brouws (cover art)

A beautiful meditation on neglected landscapes and built environments. With a decade or two between us and Brouws’s photos, it’s interesting to consider the locations in Approaching Nowhere that have since begun to gentrify. Does that alter or lessen the poignancy of his thesis? I don’t think so. Rather, I’d argue it just leads to new possibilities for reexamining the places and ideas that Brouws introduced us to in the first place.

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture by Jace Clayton

 Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture by Jace Clayton (cover art)

Digital culture is complex. I personally owe what little audience my music has to the internet. It’s such an incredible tool for creation and community. But, in the past decade or two, just about every cultural construct has been digitally disrupted, whether it’s the music and publishing industries or journalism or physical media. I tend to agree with Jace Clayton that this upheaval is predominantly good, but the degree to which seemingly everything has been undermined has left us all in a kind of vacuum that is often quite dizzying.

That’s why a book like Uproot is pertinent and necessary, as it’s trying to sort through the rubble in an effort to build up new narratives. In a range of chapters dealing with everything from auto-tune to cut and paste to what world music actually is, Clayton begins to map a new sonic terrain. He shows that the openness that has long defined folk music is alive and well, lending cultural legitimacy to a global community of creators. He finds the spirit of the Arab Spring not so much in Tahrir Square, but in the Cairo exurbs where DJs mirror the chaos of car horns and mega city life in FL Studio beats and traditional Arab music mashups. He draws insightful (and frequently hilarious) ties between disparate art, such as how Whitney Houston might have something to do with contemporary Beber music’s obsession with auto-tune. Throughout, Clayton is incisive, unpretentious, and refreshingly irreverent.

Who knows how all of this is going to shake out, but that’s all part of the fun, right? After all, as Clayton reminds us, “Music is a social act. And it’s never been healthier…” (p. 24)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (cover art)

“But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward…to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax….Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, refusal to change–which made it, in a way, a kind of courage…The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)

On the one hand (and this is a very large hand), I’m completely unable to relate to Dmitri Shostakovich, having never lived under the watch of a repressive regime. Each time I would question his decisions or motives, I’d quickly remind myself that I haven’t the slightest clue of how I would have reacted were I in his position. The only thing I know for sure is that I bear him no envy.

Yet, thanks to Julian Barnes’s vivid and human portrayal, I ultimately felt deeply connected to the composer. The tension between pursuing one’s career and ambitions and devoting yourself to others; the neuroses; the fear of failure, of falling out of favor with the powers that be; the feeling that you’re doomed to cowardice. Man, I can relate, though again: Shostakovich was under far more pressure and stress than I will ever know. All the more reason for profound admiration.

These anxieties are still so prevalent, and Barnes knows it. This is why–along with the craft of his pen–The Noise of Time is such a moving text. So, push forward, embrace the irony and absurdity of it all, and remember that, in doing just this, you’re being courageous.

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann (cover art)

A hundred and one years after independence, we find a country expanding westward at a cosmic rate, fleeing the carnage of a civil war and inciting new conflicts and bloodshed en route. In pursuit of land, resources, and power, treaties are broken, territories are seized, battles ensue, and entire peoples are dispersed and destroyed. Those who were once allies are made bitter enemies.

For such a profound subject and monstrous text, The Dying Grass is often minute in scope. Yes, it covers the major decisions and events that made up the Nez Perce War, but its prime concerns are two reluctant leaders and a surrounding motley chorus of characters, who, when cobbled together, form the cast and cause of this violent and deeply unfortunate conflict. Throughout, William T. Vollmann reminds us that war is not solely the purview of generals but also forged from the thoughts, desires, and actions of its soldiers, civilians, and victims, many of whom care far less about politics and strategy than a new pair of boots, some land of their own, a rowdy evening at a saloon, or, often, returning home to their families and previous ways of life. By situating much of The Dying Grass directly on the ground, war becomes much messier and uglier but also more personal and tangible.

Vollmann’s fractured narrative, which, in giving voice to so many characters, pivots quickly and frequently between speaker, external/internal voice, and the past and present, offers more than enough cadence and momentum to propel the reader through this massive work. To steal a recurring phrase from the text, it’s “beautiful and automatic,” and–simply–a thrill to read.

What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974 by Robert Adams

What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974 by Robert Adams (cover art)

As with all of Robert Adams’s work, What We Bought is striking. Compositionally and aesthetically sound, the photos are also singular, notably in subject matter as well as what I like to call the “Adams Blowout”–the almost excessive brightness that you find in so many of his landscapes (which I used to credit as much to the high altitude light of Colorado as to Adams’s sensibilities, but he’s maintained this along the rainy, shadowy Northwest coast, so it’s safe to fully credit him).

Then there’s the personal connection. As one who grew up in Denver in the decade following Adams’s New West work, I find my connection to these photographs to be almost primordial. The cocktail of nostalgia and déjà vu they produce is visceral, and looking through a book like What We Bought is a meaningful if emotionally draining experience. I am grateful that an artist of Adams’s caliber chose to document my hometown at such a transitional point. These are annals, crucial to Denver’s cultural preservation.

In the introduction, Adams writes that “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy,” and that Denver has been ruined. Yet, it’s been two decades since this was written–four since the photos were taken–and, in the interim, Denver has seen even greater booms (and all for same reasons as those previous: a near universal attraction to “the region’s natural beauty” or quality of life, as we’d label it today). Assuming that Adams’s motivation in taking these photographs was, at least in part, in hopes of sounding an alarm, then did he fail? Or, is it more accurate to ask if we failed? After all, where Adam’s saw destruction and unchecked growth, I mostly just see the sleepy cowtown of my youth.

Presently, though, I find myself in a position akin to Adams’s. The Denver of my early years–one quite similar to what’s found in What We Bought–is all but gone, replaced by a very large and rapidly-growing city. Is this just another case of history’s lessons going unheeded? Is all of this inevitable? Is it actually all that bad? Forty years on, Denver is almost unrecognizable from Adams’s photos, but it’s an even more thriving, diverse city–albeit one that’s more segregated and unaffordable.

I don’t have any clear answers, and I’m not sure Adams does either. But I do believe that spending time looking at and thinking about photos like those found in What We Bought is important, if for no other reason than it gets us asking these types of questions. What the next steps are, I’m unsure. Perhaps, it’s time to reconsider Adams’s critique–maybe we need to accept that these types of changes are more-or-less inevitable outcomes in our socio-economic system and learn to work with what we’ve got. Or, maybe we need to redouble our efforts. One thing is for sure, though: for all of Adams’s gloomy pronouncements, he was always able to find beauty, even in unlikely places. We owe it to ourselves, and Adams, to continue to do the same.

My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knuasgaard (cover art)

Four books into the series, I was no stranger to the prolonged moments of slowness and inaction that periodically crop up in My Struggle. It’s to be expected from a project that aims to document seemingly all of a person’s life, and one of Knausgaard’s great accomplishments is keeping readers engaged and clamoring for more, even when the narrative drags. Book Five is no exception, though I did find it more trying than the previous installments. Here we trace twenty-something Karl Ove’s attempts at forging a writing life, which, for the first 500 pages or so, is mostly made up of bouts of acute self-consciousness that end in drunken escapades. Racked with guilt after each binge, our hero refuses even the slightest efforts at remedying the situation. It’s this recursiveness that makes Book Five a bit of a slog and, for me, induces a surplus of annoyance.

Yet, despite the many portions that try my patience or cause my interest to drift, Knausgaard always manages to reel me back in with insightful, beautiful passages like this:

Perhaps in a way because dialects grew from the countryside around them, the style of speaking originated just there, in that particular valley, where the pronunciation of one word, for example, had come into existence with the great oak tree, which was now almost a thousand years old, the pronunciation of another with the terrain being cleared and the ancient stone wall built. In other areas there were other words and other oak trees, fields, and stone walls. (p. 530)

Or this recollection from childhood:

The big square cooler bag Grandma would life out of the trunk. The dry moss in the cracks of the stone wall, all the smells there, some of them dark and moldy, if you lifted a stone, it could be dame underneath and tiny insects would dart in all directions. The same was true of the stiff grass, it smelled dry and hot, but beneath it, if you dug down a little, there were quite different smells with more presence and depth, akin to decay. (p. 585)

The final 150 pages, which detail Karl Ove’s first marriage and return us to the death of his father, are more than worth the price of admission. We know all too well what happens to his dad, as this is the core subject of Book One. By now, though, we have gained a completely different perspective, one deepened and colored by the thousands of pages in the books that follow. Being brought back to where we began is a lot like cresting a hill to glimpse down on a city or town you know and love but have been away from for a long time. You approach it with an utterly different understanding. It’s a moving, powerful experience.

Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks

 Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks (cover art)

In Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks chips away at some of literature’s loftier assumptions, including those regarding globalization, translation, writing professionally, and much more. I found plenty to disagree with, but Parks’s clear and welcoming approach makes the experience more akin to being a part of a dialog than reading a screed. And, oddly, in questioning literature’s function, Parks managed to rekindle my interest in reading fiction. Novels don’t change the world, he says, and that’s okay–the enjoyment derived from the experience of writing and reading them is sufficient reason to be glad they exist. It’s been a long time since I read literary criticism with such gusto. How refreshing.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (cover art)

A smart, eloquent, and deeply personal memoir, Hold Still’s prose is ornate in a manner befitting the fecund, gnarled landscape of the American South, which serves not merely as the setting but as a primary force in Sally Mann’s life. Utterly blunt, Mann thankfully doesn’t balk at addressing life’s complexities head on, though every confession and insight seems to inspire a whole new set of quandaries. It’s a text that’s at once revealing and opaque, a tension Mann seems to revel in–especially within her art–and despite her poise and intellectual rigor, Hold Still is quite messy in places. It regularly left me conflicted and unsettled, and the process of sorting out my responses–to Mann’s art, decisions, ideas, etc.–was an engaging, rigorous, and gratifying experience.