As I recall, when I was in elementary school, all our conversations basically consisted of quotes from The Simpsons.1 And I don't think I actually watched the Simpsons, but I got a lot of it through osmosis. And one of my favorites was when Nelson calls Milhouse a nerd, and Milhouse says, "I'm not a nerd! Nerds are smart!"
Well, I've become a nerd! I think the genesis was something to do with Twitter potentially collapsing. I can't remember. But the point is, I wanted to take control of my own data. And the main data I was worried about was my kindle books. And the current best method (a paid software called ePubor) of cracking Kindle DRM (Digital Rights Management) only works on Windows machines, because it requires a deprecated version of the Kindle software that only runs on machines w 32 bit support.2
I have a huge clunky windows laptop I was using for gaming, but somehow during the Black Friday sales I ended up buying a new Windows machine, and I haven't opened my Mac ever since. Now everything I want to do takes longer and is harder: for instance, whenever I do a video-call it used to just work, but now I have to fiddle with my camera and microphone. But I also have way more options! Everything feels customizable and up for grabs.
Being a nerd also means switching away from Apple Notes. I switched to Obsidian, which is a notes software where the underlying notes are written in markdown, which is a convention for formatting your text easily without mucking around with a lot of HTML. More importantly, the texts are still readable to the naked eye, so even in ten or twenty years, a markdown file will be very decipherable.
I ported over all my notes from Apple notes. And then I started to think why don't I write my blog posts in Markdown, so I installed the Markdown plug-in on wordpress. And that words okay, but the internal markdown editor is a bit clunky, so now I've installed a special Markdown word processor: Typora. You know, nerd stuff. The kind of things that nerds do.
I also put all my audio books and comic books in calibre, which I use to organize my ebooks. And I'm doing barcode scans of all my paper books and will put notes for those in Calibre too. So eventually I'll have my whole library in one place, digitally speaking, and I'll know exactly what books I have.
With my switch to DRM-free books I also switched to a fancy chinese e-Reader, the Hi-Reader. Its essentially an android tablet. It runs the Kindle software but the best thing to use on it is a 3rd-party e-reader software called KOreader. This software is really customizable, so you can mess around with the look and feel of books if they look slightly off. It's also good at reflowing PDFs, if you're still using those. And it handles large libraries better than the Kindle software. I just imported my entire eBook library (some 2300 books, which I've bought over the course of 12 years) into it. The most fun feature is the one that'll let you pick a random book. That's led me down some cool paths and has made my library feel a lot more open and accessible.
In terms of reading news and whatnots, Calibre has a news aggregator that will upload, for instance, today's New York Times to your e-reader whenever it connects wirelessly. I also downloaded Instapaper, which has a paginated viewing style (with a button press, you can flip a page, instead of scrolling) that works well for e-Readers, and now when I have a long article I send them to Instapaper, where I can...well...let's be honest, probably never read them.
My windows laptop is also a 2-in-1, so it folds back and becomes a tablet. The screen is 15 inches, and it's very wide, so it's good for the aspect ratio of most media these days and good for reading comics. It took me a while to find a comics reader with good touch controls, since most PC comics readers are designed for keyboard / mouse controls. [Pico Reader] is by far the best here. Cover is also good when it comes to touch controls, but has bad library management and doesn't play well with Calibre (when you use Calibre to send a book to Cover, Cover opens the book, but doesn't add the book to its internal library or remember your position).
When it comes to Comic Book management, one major problem is getting the metadata. Most comics, if you get them from Humble Bumble, don't have anything besides the file name to indicate what they are. Ideally if you're importing them to Calibre, you want the author and book description meta-data to already be in the file. For this I used Comic-Tagger. This is kind of a finicky and difficult to use program. If you still can't find the meta-data, your last resort is to use Calibre's internal search tools (it'll search Amazon and other databases to find meta-data based on the author name and title of the book), but those are hit or miss. A great comics program for Calibre is Embed Comic Metadata, not so much for embedding metadata, but for the final stage in the comics conversation process.
Making DRMs easily usable in Pico-Viewer is a bit of a process, though it's not that difficult. When I buy a comic on Amazon, I download it to my deprecated Kindle software, then open up Epubor and strip the DRM. Calibre is programmed to automatically add anything in the Epubor folder to its library. Then I use Calibre to convert the comics file from AZW3 (the Amazon proprietary format) to ZIP (which is just a zip folder that has all the pages of the comic listed in sequential order). Then I use Embed Comic Metadata to convert the zip to a cbz file (this is actually a very simple process, you just need to change the file name ending, but it's a hassle to do manually). And then when I want to read it I click the link in Calibre and read it in Pico.
Now is this simpler than just using the Kindle software? Of course not. But simplicity isn't really the point. It's just about having fun.
Of course one problem with Windows is that these softwares are often maintained by small teams and frequently the team quits or goes out of business or sells their software to someone else and they fuck it up. This obviously never happens with core apps like Word or Apple Notes (or rather happens much more rarely). But on the other hand because each app handles your files in a way that's transparent and not proprietary, it's a lot easier to put in another software that does something similar.
I guess my next step, if I cared to, would be to take my site off wordpress.com and start hosting my own wordpress install, so I have full control over my site! There's definitely something attractive about that. Over the last few years, everyone has made a substack, and nowadays when people talk to me about my online journal, they're like, "I loved your newsletter". It's not a newsletter. It's a blog! I've been writing it since 2008. I never stopped! I honestly just don't like how closed-off Substack is. I want people to just hop onto my site and click around. I like how roomy it is, and how there's lots of content, etc. Just saying.
Now, finally, you might ask, has any of this affected how you write fiction? And the answer is...no. I still write almost everything in Scrivener. Sometime last year, I finally started consolidating my poetry, essay, and story-writing into their own single scrivener docs. So I have three docs: Master List of Poems; Master List of Stories; and Master List of Essays. Then all my stories, poems, and essays are inside there. I think otherwise I felt very constrained, because it seems like a lot of effort to make a document for a single poem or a single story fragment, when I might easily abandon it, and yet I don't want to just leave it in Notes or someplace I could forget it existed. With this, I can easily move around the little sub-documents, and it's easy to compile things when I want to send them out. Novel-writing still happens in its own Scrivener document, though I have recently made a doc called Master List of Novel Starts which contains attempts at novels that haven't yet gotten big enough to gain their own document.
Oh! Now that I'm writing non-fiction I might want to get some good reference software. Will have to investigate that more carefully, since I've seen from my wife and mom how you get locked into a certain software and if it messes up your database, then it really hampers your work.
I also have a lot of contracts flying back and forth, and I need to figure out a method for keeping fully-executed contracts so I can refer back to them. I am so glad that publishers switched to Docusign (all book contracts used to be paper!!!) so I know the documents are always somewhere in my email or computer, but still I occasionally want to refer to them quickly, especially when it comes to exclusivity clauses etc.
When it comes to contracts, I got tired of printing out, signing, and then scanning everything, so unless it's a very important document (i.e. book contract, which is all docusign anyway), nowadays I just use Adobe Acrobat Pro to give it a digital signature. I've never had anyone complain, so I assume that's okay.
Finally, a pro-tip regarding contracts, which I am going to bury here at the end. You can sign contracts with whatever name you want, so long as it's understand that you are you. If you're trans you don't need to sign contracts with your legal name. There's no need to run it past anyone or ask permission. Just give people your name, they'll type up the contract with that name, and you can sign with that name. If you ask permission, they'll run it past the lawyers, and the lawyers might very well say no, but lawyers constantly say no to shit that's perfectly fine. It's their job to cover the company's bases in every circumstance. For my part, unless it's a mortage or something, I just use "Naomi Kanakia" and that seems to work. I've even been running my credit card payments as Naomi Kanakia sometimes, and they go through fine. After all, the system isn't set up to protect ME, it's set up to protect THEM. So long as they get their money, they're happy. It's up to "Rahul" to complain if his name / identity are being misused, and he really has no problem with Naomi signing for him.
On a sidenote, did you know The Simpsons is still quite popular? It's true! It gets something like 2-3 million viewers an episode, and was getting five million as recently as 2014. That means way more people watch The Simpsons than watch most of the cult-hit sitcoms (i.e. Community or Parks and Rec) of the last ten years. ↩
I have no idea what '32 bit support' means. But I used the term as if I knew, didn't I! ↩
Hello friends! Normally at the end of the year I go back through my written log of books and write about the books I 'liked' the best. But this time I'm not gonna do that. Instead I'm just going to go through from memory and talk about whatever struck me the most about my reading this year.
Probably the most influential book I read in the last twelve months was Jurgen Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This book attempts to trace the evolution of what Habermas calls "The Philosophy of the Subject", which is the idea that our perception inherently orders reality, and, as such, by examining the nature of our own experiencing, we can learn fundamental truths about reality, starting from Kant, through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, and terminating in Foucoualt and Derrida.
I wasn't familiar with many of these concepts at the time (though I had read much of Kant), so I didn't understand a lot of what I was reading, but I frequently thought about this book over the next year. See, in the Anglo-American tradition, philosophers turned to logic: the study of how we can determine whether or not a statement is true. But, unfortunately, logic requires inputs. You cannot know, a priori, whether a given statement is true, unless you start with some truths. So as a way of getting to truth, it starts to seem a bit beside the point.
In the continental tradition, they kept searching for sources of validity--sources of those inputs--but continually rejected the idea of empiricism. They wanted some pre-scientific or non-scientific source of truth. Eventually, with fits and starts, they settled on phenomenology: can we find some kind of truth in the nature of experiencing. This is, on the one hand, not subject to empirical investigation, because experience isn't accessible to science (all that's accessible are peoples' linguistic and conceptual descriptions of experience). Secondly, if we're very careful, phenomenology can appear to give us things that are universally true. Now, can we know for a fact that causality truly exists in some way apart from the human brain? No. But we can know that causality is a core part of how we experience the world. The fact of causality--that everything we experience has some cause--is a truth. Of course, this gets us into trouble because it leads to the question of first causes, but Kant was careful to draw a line around what a human is actually capable of experiencing. Once we put the concept of 'cause' outside the realm of direct human experience (like, before the first human ever existed), then it breaks down--it becomes ungrounded.
Anyways, phenomenology is intoxicating because it allows you to say things with absolute certainty: this is what I am experiencing; I am definitely experiencing this thing. This then gets extended into the realm of meaning: this thing definitely means something to me. Science can't assign a meaning to this word or to this concept, but I can. I know what it means. I know for an absolute fact that I'm typing right now on a keyboard. I don't need to prove it logically. It's just self-evident.
And that seems to be intoxicating because we go from the skeptical approach, where we can know nothing, to a much more open approach, where, actually, there's a lot of things we can know! We can know what words mean! We can know what concepts are! We can know what parts of human experience those concepts refer to!
Unfortunately, as the philosophy of the subject progresses, it hits a dead end, because each person tries to create universal truth out of their individual experience, and it's not clear that this is possible. I can say what a word means with absolute certainty, but that doesn't mean it means the same thing to you. I can say with absolute certainty the meaning of a text (to me), but that meaning might not have validity to anyone else.
Habermas attempts to solve this conundrum through his theory of communicative action, which is the core of his philosophy (we can come to agreement, through discussion, about things we subjectively experience in common). I don't know much about that because I didn't read those books. This book is just his tracing, essentially, of the claim to universal knowledge, and the ways that claim gets subverted and eventually turns, over time, into the solipsism and irrationality of a 'critical' approach where, suddenly, the overt meanings of every word and concept are effaced, and now nothing means what you think it means. The philosophy of the subject leads to absolute truth, but it's incommunicable and, taken too far, it becomes irrelevant and sterile.
I found Hegel pretty frustrating. To put it bluntly, I don't think Hegel makes logical sense. Unlike Kant, who was obscure in a way that later commentators could clear up and explain, Hegel continues to be obscure to this day, because even in their original form, the ideas didn't make logical sense. His insight is that truth is developed through a historical process--essentially, he believes in progress, where over time, knowledge develops and develops and we get closer to the truth. What people fail to understand about Hegel (or willfully refuse to understand, because it's uncomfortable) was that he was a mystic. He believed in a kind of pantheistic notion of the universe, where the universe is one great spirit, and this spirit seeks to know itself. And Mankind is the knowing and thinking part of the spirit, which, through struggle, seeks to understand more and more of its essence, by incorporating more and more of the spirit into its thinking nature. To Hegel, this doesn't occur through a straightforward march of progress, but through a process whereby certain truths come into vogue and are then rejected, and then the rejection is rejected, which produces a new truth. But who is carrying out this process? Is it individual mankind? Or man as a whole? What are the mechanics of it? It's all very unclear.
The most interesting of his books is also the most difficult, Phenomenology of the Spirit is a wildly exciting look at the history of Western thought, and the ways it's shifted and permutated over time, the ways that sometimes it's embodied in an individual and sometimes in a society, and the ways that society, at war with itself, has produced new truth. Its very ambiguity--who is the protagonist here? How are they evolving?--is its strength. It's almost like a work of abstract art or a work of music, where you see certain themes taking on a life of their own and rising and falling. Philosophy of the Right attempts an equal performance when it comes to the nature of the Laws and the state, but it's not quite as bravura, because the answer is so predetermined (Prussia is the culmination of human civilization), The Greater Logic is his 800 page explication of his logical system. I read it so you don't have to--there's no system. Believe me. There is no system. It's so vague and fuzzy. He's more of an artist than a philosopher. He's like one of these provocative thinkers who throws out wild statements and crazy notions, and then is like, but it's all a SCIENCE, man. This is a SCIENCE.
After Hegel I read the three volumes of Marx's Capital. Very worthwhile. I studied Economics in college, and we were taught Neoclassical economics: the updated form of Classical economics that arose specifically to dispute with and disprove Marx. And we were told, implicitly, that Marx was illogical and had no solid empirical basis.
The thing about Marx is that his predictions aren't very different from those under Neoclassical economics. Under Neoclassical economics, in a system of perfect competition there will be no profits, aside from a certain set return to capital, which is necessary for anyone to invest in any productive venture. So "zero profits" under "perfect competition" actually means "four to five percent returns on capital." It's precisely through the division of Economics into macroeconomics (the performance of the economy as a whole) and microeconomics (the performance of individual firms) that Neoclassical economics effaces and ignores Marxist economics. Because Marx begins (in volume 1) with microeconomics, but unlike the typical Neoclassical economist, he looks at what happens to profits after they're generated. How does capital flow through the economy (volume 2) and then how is it eventually reinvested (volume 3). And this process of the flow of capital leads to certain predictions that are pretty intelligent and sound: he predicts ongoing capital accumulation, and an increasing share of production going to capital rather than to labor.
Alongside the purely economic argument, however, is the moral argument that all the returns from production ought to go to labor, and that capitalism, as a force, is nothing more than a way for a certain class to seize control of an increasing share of the returns from production. This is less convincing than his purely economic argument, but not entirely unconvincing. As a moral argument, though, it has to be analyzed like other moral arguments. And he definitely harms his work by not recognizing that he's not making an empirical argument here. Because even Marx admits that capitalist production produces a larger quantity of goods than pre-capitalist production, and that capitalist production is impossible without the accumulation of capital. So why should the accumulation of capital not be encouraged by having some return on capital? His arguments on this score are three-fold.
Excess Means of Production - The means of production are basically the means that produce shit. Under capitalism, the system will focus on making more means of production than people really need, because the means essentially are capital. When you produce means of production (rather than consumer goods), you're producing more wealth, and ultimately capitalism wants to produce wealth, not consumer goods.
Underproduction of Objects for the General Welfare - A concomitant of the means of production being underproduced is that capitalism is capable of producing lots of consumer goods for everyone, but it doesn't, because that doesn't result in increasing wealth for capitalists
Over-exploitation of Labor - For a capitalist, the primary cost is labor. The capitalist will always be driven to pay labor as little as possible, because that is the main source of profits. As a system (through a complex process that's too long to discuss here), capitalism will tend to expropriate more and more of a laborer's production. Essentially, his argument is that because capitalism allows the production of the necessities (the means of subsistence) for less and less money, it can afford to pay workers less and less for a full day's work (under the theory that capital will always drive the cost of labor to barely above the means of subsistence necessary to keep the laborer alive for a day's work).
The first two arguments are moral arguments about societal allocation of resources. How much capital stock is enough? How much is too little? How much of society's production should go to producing luxuries? It's kind of impossible to say, but it's not unreasonable to say that the decision should be made democratically, rather than through the private interest of the owner of capital.
The third argument is what's drawn the most flack, because although later commenters have tried to obfuscate this, Marx's argument against capital does, in some part, rely on the assertion that the life of the laborer under capitalism really, really sucks. And this has not proven to be empirically true. In the long run, real wages haven't fallen. Wages haven't been driven to the means of subsistence. And the share of profits going to labor, while it's sometimes gone down and sometimes gone up, hasn't trended inexorably in one direction.
Western Marxists (who largely tend to be in the humanities rather than in the social sciences) tend to attribute the prosperity of labor (relative to Marx's predictions) to a number of causes, but the main thing they say is, "The collapse just hasn't happened yet!" Lately there's been the concept of 'environmental capitalism' where looting the planet has allowed the inflation of prosperity for everyone. Before that we had the concept of impperialistic capitalism, under which other countries were being looted to allow ordinary people in the West to prosper. Now we also have the concept of Racial Capitalism, under which the continued exploitation of racial minorities creates a surplus for white workers.
Some of course also attribute the relative power of the worker, especially during the first seventy years of the 20th century, to trade unionism, but this ignores the core of Marx's critique, which is both practical and moral. The practical element is that the power of capital is destined to grow, as capital accumulates, while the power of labor will remain static or decrease, so over time capital will overcome any trade union. And, morally, an eight hour day is still slavery: why should the capitalist be allowed to keep any of their illicit gains.
I don't know the answer! It would be awfully convenient for Western Marxists if capitalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions sometimes soon, but it's unclear whether that will happen, and I don't think anyone truly expects it to. Ultimately, although the theoretical core of Marxism has proven to be the most accurate (re: how capital accumulates, how it will destroy other capitals, and how it will distort the state), it's the moral core that has proven the most enticing for intellectuals. People desperately seek the moral clarity Marx offers--the idea that private ownership of means of production is fundamentally wrong and illogical.
But it's precisely this part of his argument that has the least going for it. Even if we accept many of his conclusions about capital acting in such and such a bad way, it's also clear that it's created tremendous wealth and prosperity. Moreover, his conclusions were underpinned by the inevitability of capital's collapse (in a series of financial crises, which would radicalize the working class). It's this certainty of collapse which gave the feeling of eternal Truth to Marxism. If you were Marxist you weren't merely asserting that something was true (i.e. "Labor should get a larger portion of the world's wealth), you were also issuing a warning ("This will happen inevitably. It is the guaranteed end-point of capitalism.") But without that prediction to underpin it, Marxism loses a lot of its rhetorical power, particularly since state Marxism hasn't necessarily resulted in better social or economic well-being than capitalism.
But of course that's why Marxism is more or less dead in the social sciences, as an avowed philosophy, and continues only in the humanities, where people don't really understand the economic logic at play. In the social sciences, however, there's been great work done lately on state capitalism, on organizational capture, rent-seeking, corruption, and other political economy factors that underpin the niceties of the Neoclassical view. However, I would like to say that there's very little in Marx that, per se, doesn't accord with the Neoclassical view. Some say that marginalism--a modification of classical economics in which the prices of goods and labor are set by marginal utility and marginal cost (i.e. how much production will one extra unit of labor provide) has somehow disproved Marx's labor theory of value, but this doesn't really hold up. The whole idea of Marxism is that capital is illusory: all capital is merely someone else's labor. The machine you own isn't really creating anything: it's the laborers who created the machine who are truly, in some philosophical way, responsible for the machine's outputs. I think it's super interesting, and his ideas should be incorporated into economics curricula post-haste.
Okay, that endeded up being really long, but I want to finish by writing about Schopenhauer. I read a few of his books this year: namely The Four-Fold Root and World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Loved Schopenhauer. Marx is a little easier to read than Kant and much easier than Hegel, but Schopenhauer is the first of these philosophers that writes in something approaching plain language. When you read Schopenhauer, you understand him. He writes so straightforwardly.
Because he's so straightforward I have a lot less to write here, but essentially he's one of the first phenomenologists. He's like, what is this nonsense about trying to seek truth outside our individual experience. That's like saying, "I want to know what's true besides all the things that I know are indisputably true". Essentially he's the first in a long line of people trying to pick fights with Descartes. Where Descartes in his Meditations performed the "Cartesian reduction" wherein he said maybe the world is an illusion, and nothing I know is real, Schopenhauer is like hold on, even if it's an illusion, what does that mean? You know that everything you're experiencing is something you're truly experiencing.
So while someone like Kant tries to seek a priori wisdom, Schopenhauer is like no, let's start with the sensing, experiencing world, and see what universal truth we can intuit from the fact of this world. Anyway, he agrees with Kant more than he disagrees with him (although his critique of Kant at the end of World as Will is incredible), but his main departure is where he tries to make some judgements about the nature of the 'thing-in-itself'. This is an idea that obsesses continental philosophers. Kant basically says, we can only know things as they appear to us, we can't know things as they truly are. For instance, we can measure the force of gravity, but we can't know why this force exists at this level, but not at some other level. On the more existential level, why is there something instead of nothing? Why does matter have such and such a property instead of another? Why are loud things loud? Why are soft things soft? Why aren't they spikey instead? Why are things how they are? We can know the answer in a causal way (they are this way, because something else is this other way, or because our organs percieve in this way). But we can't know why those relationships exist.
Philosophers hate that concept. Ever since Kant they're trying to get at the thing-in-itself. So Schopenhauer, being a very logical person, says, there is one example of the thing-in-itself that we CAN know. And that is...ourselves. When a person does something, there's always a proximate cause (they're trying to achieve this thing or avoid this harm), but you never know the deeper cause (WHY do they want to achieve this thing or avoid this stuff?) Why is Schopenhauer a philosopher and not a cartoonist? Even to Schopenhauer it's a mystery--as he puts it "We can do what we will, but we can't will what we will". Essentially, you can't change your own essential nature. But that nature is, as he puts it, your Will. It's a blind, terrible force of pure wanting, pure impulse. And he develops this into a long theme, but essentially everything is will. Why do planets move? Because they will it. And yes is it because of gravity? Totally--gravity is the exterior form of their movement (the representation or appearance) while Will is the interior form. If the planet was capable of thinking, it would believe that it moved because it wanted to. Similarly, people believe we are doing what we want to because it is our will, but everything we do is also predictable and predetermined. It's a whole complicated thing on free will. But very intuitive and understandable! Highly recommend
Anyway that was my major reading for the year. A bunch of German philosophers. I also read a few books by Husserl, but I won't even attempt to summarize him right now. After him I'll try Nietzsche probably.
In non-Germans, I was less of a prolific reader, and nothing is coming strongly to mind right now, so let me look at my book list.
Okay, I went through four distinct phases.
I tried to read more African-Americans this year, particularly older, classic books. I really liked Ann Petry's The Street and Charles Chesnutt's The Colonel's Dream and The Marrow of Tradition. They're essentially big social novels, in the early 20th century tradition, about African-American people and issues. People call Chesnutt the first African-American novelist, though it's not strictly true. His works failed commercially however, and for the last thirty years of his life he abandoned writing and built a successful court reporting business, I believe. I also got really into slave narratives, of which by far the best (of the ones I read) was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. There aren't that many slave narratives by women, and fewer that deal frankly with the sexual aspects of slavery. I was very moved by the book, and I thought it was written incredibly well, too. It's one of the more famous narratives, and rightfully so. I also liked [Native Son](https://www.amazon.com/Native-Son-Richard-Wright-ebook/dp/B002BY779U/ref=sr_1_1?crid=MEFI26VKQG25&keywords=native+son&qid=1671754763&sprefix=native+son%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-1). It's little read now, and often considered a bit racist. Every white person in the book is nuanced and complex, and every Black person is awful and ignorant. As someone who often writes unflattering portraits of my own people, I respected the amount of feeling Wright must've had--the sheer anger--when he wrote this. It's not his fault white people loved it so much! I think he was really getting at something, in his own way.
I got into a phase where I tried to read a lot of popular novels. I got really into Walter Scott. The best of his books was The Antiquary. I'm pretty sure this book has no plot. It's just about an old guy who likes old stuff. Definitely listen to it in audio, via librivox, like I did. Can't imagine anyone would be patient enough to read it. Reminded me a lot of Bleak House in some ways, with its fiery protagonists and genteel older man. Scott's most famous book is Ivanhoe, which is a complete and total mess, but kind of fun--it features cameos from Robin of Loxley AND King Richard the Lion-Heart. It basically throws everything from 1200 into one big stew and sees what'll stick. There's tournaments, there's heroic Anglo-Saxons trying to defend their land, there's everything! Other charming popular novels were Little Women and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I thought the latter, in partcular, was deeply affecting. Was clearly cribbed wholesale from slave narratives and probably doesn't deserve to be read anymore (why read a white woman's reinterpretation when you could just read the original?) But as a powerful piece of rhetoric, which systematically combines and explicates and argues against every slavery trope (it starts with a kind master, progresses to an indifferent one, and ends with an evil one, to show that all are terrible and that there is no good slavery).
Finally, I had my Soviet phase, which was dominated by Nadezhdha Mandelstam's two magisterial memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Probably two of the best books I've ever read. They describe the spiritual corruption of Stalin's terror, and its effect on the intelligentsia in particular, in such close detail. And they're also full of love for Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and everyone else who managed to retain a shred of courage during the terror. Because Nadezhda Mandelstam managed to avoid the camps, they're also one of the few accounts you'll read of civilian life during the terror. Another good one in that vein was Lydia Chukovskaya's novella [Sofia Petrova](https://www.amazon.com/Sofia-Petrovna-European-Classics-Chukovskaya/dp/0810111500/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1JK96ROY7ESIJ&keywords=sofia+petrovna&qid=1671754784&sprefix=sofia+petrovn%2Caps%2C154&sr=8-1), about a working woman who loses her son to the Terror and, essentially, goes mad. It was written in 1940, when the terror was abated (because of the war), but hardly over. I got really fascinated in what being an official writer in the Soviet Union entailed, so I read Inside the Writer's Union. Great look at how the later Soviet Union co-opted writers with the carrot and not the stick. Being an official writer in the Soviet Union carried immense perks. The writer's union had its own resorts, its own clubs, its own apartment blocks. Writers could become incredibly rich, by Soviet standards.
Of course this only scratches the surface of all the cool books I read this year, and I doubt anyone besides my dad and my wife has even managed to read this far, so I'm just gonna have a final, unranked list of books.
Bambi was re-released this year in a beautiful NYRB classics edition. It's very clearly a parable about anti-Semitism. It's about Bambi's fear of Him--the hunter. But it's also a beautiful and emotional coming of age story as Bambi grows to take the place of the Old Stag (who turns out to be his dad).
My Experiments With Truth was a book I'd read in my teens, but I re-read it recently. I blogged about it earlier, but I just wanted to note the book was so human, and it made me feel connected to the India of a hundred years ago (Gandhi came from my region of India and is of a similar caste as my family) in a way I never had before.
The Great Impersonation probably should be listed under popular novels. Oppenheim was a bestseller in the teens and twenties. Literally all of his books are about how terrible Germany is. This is his most famous, about a german spy who kills a British nobleman and takes his place! It got me super into Oppenheim and I read two more of his books in quick succession.
Pull Devil, Pull Baker is one of those books it's impossible to recommend, because it's so strange. A novelist finds a Russian expatriate noblemen, penniless and dying, in a Hong Kong hospital, and she records his stories, along with some reflections on the nature of truth and storytelling. Apparently this guy really existed! I kept believing I was reading some post-modern fictional performance, but apparently not! Re-released this year by Boiler House Press, a great press.
Last of the Innocent is the sixth volume in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's critically acclaimed Criminals series. I got this as a Humble Comics bundle ages ago. This year, as part of my plan to collect all my comics in my calibre library, I ran across the series again. For the first few volumes, Criminals seemed like generic noir, but it's not. What sets it apart is how fully it inhabits that veil between regular life and the underworld. When you're in the underworld, everything is up for grabs, and it's rare that you're just an ordinary mentally stable person who commits crimes. I remember very well from my days as an addict, the feeling that anything is possible, and I grew to enjoy these reminisces. Also, the unnamed city where these stories takes place strongly resembles San Francisco. This is the best and most critically acclaimed of the seven volumes.
Manhunt is the book I read this year that made me feel the most feelings. An extremely complex exploration of gender and desire, combined with a gendercide fantasy about trans-woman in a post-male future who hunt down and kill TERFs.
The Recognitions is difficult, but not as difficult as its reputed to be. I thought it was a cynical and angry, but very human book, about what it means to be authentic in a world where so many people seem spiritually adrift. Pair it with Fire the bastards! which is an almost-deranged pamphlet that systematically dismantles the initial critical reaction the Recognitions got upon release. The writer of this pamphlet's viewpoint is, essentially, if critics can't recognize a bona fide masterpiece, then what are they good for?
The Byzantine Economy is definitely not of interest to anyone but me, but I kept wondering how Byzantium could continue to be Europe's richest state for so long. The usual answer is 'trade', but that's not really true. It wasn't a huge trading or naval power--much of its external trade was carried on by Italian city-states (which led to its downfall). The real truth lay in its administrative state. Almost alone of the nations of Europe, Byzantium had the power to directly collect taxes (i.e. there was a land tax, so every farmer or landlord paid the government directly, in coin). A highly monetized economy and relatively high literacy allowed it to, almost alone in the region, maintain a strong central state. I got really big into economic history this year and read a lot about some very abstruse issues, like monetization and the metal value of the currency. Also read a lot about medieval economic theory, which was fascinating, particularly the concept of a "just price" and a "just profit". It wasn't enforced, but merchants were theoretically only supposed to make such-and-such profit and no more. I also looked into the history of poor relief and welfare, which for most of the middle ages (esp. in England) was considered rather unobjectionable and was handled locally, since the assumption was that the only people who'd need it would be those who were sick, disabled, or old.
From Poor Law To Welfare State was the best book I could find about the development of the U.S.'s poor relief system. It's actually stunning how much of our welfare state was stealthily dismantled during the Clinton era. We really don't realize how much more there used to be, and how slowly that system arose.
Razorblade Tears is about a black ex-con and a white ex-con who team up to avenge the murder of the gay sons they were estranged from. Probably the most purely fun book I read this year, and perhaps ever. Highly recommend.
AND AND AND AND I JUST WANT TO MENTION THE FOLLOWING BOOKS WITH MINIMAL COMMENT. THEY WERE VERY GOOD THO
Gorbachev died this year. He was a really cool and honorable guy (by William Taubman)
New Teeth is Simon Rich doing his thing, writing funny short stories about whatever he happens to be doing in his life this year (in this case it's parenting)
Map: New and Selected is so wry, funny, and thoughtful. Grew to love Wislawa Szymborska's poetry. I always expect Nobel Laureates to be really heavy and serious (see: Tomas Transtormer), but she's so human!
Paths of Glory is basically The Caine Mutiny. Combo of a thorny ethical situation, military fog of war, and a courtroom scene. To cover their own incompetence these French generals order a random soldier in each corps executed for cowardice. Based on real life events! (by Humphrey Cobb)
This is only a fraction of what I read this year, and there are major authors I haven't included. Like I read City of God, by Saint Augustine. I read Little Women, Empire of Pain, Consent (by Vanessa Springora), Passing by Nella Larsen. I read The Bluest Eye! It was so good! But what am I gonna say in a blog post about The Bluest Eye? So I guess I'll have to leave it. Next year I'm really gonna try to write about more books during the year so I'm not left at the end with SO MANY it's impossible for me to talk about them all.
To show you out, here's a picture of Ol Blue Eyes himself: Hegel
Hello friends. I don't do awards eligibility posts anymore, because I'm a literary author now and all our awards are juried awards. No, I'm just kidding--it was because I was terrible at awards log-rolling, and it never went anywhere for me.1 But I did publish a lot of stuff this year! I published, umm, three essays: two on LARB and one on LitHub. One of my LARB essays, on the dreariness of book club discussions, was one of their top posts this year, according to their year-end wrap-up post. My LitHub essay, about literary fiction and money, was widely shared online and received lots of favorable comment.
When I first started publishing literary criticism last year, with my "The Myth of the Classically Educated Elite", I felt as if I'd really broken through and found a way of reaching a new audience. But this year I've reconsidered a bit. Dealing with LitHub was a prolonged and kind of embittering process. Felt like it created a considerable amount of extra aggravation in my life that I don't need. So where I started the year excited about pitching new publications, I've come to a place where I'm being considerably more selective about what I write and what I pitch. Personally, I continue to really like the LA Review of Books. They're not the fastest, but they're very no-bullshit. You can trust them. Not sure whether my relationship will continue there now that Boris Dralyuk, who's always been my contact, has stepped down as Editor in Chief, but I hope that it does!
Outside the realm of literary criticism, I've lost track of what I've published. I think that I had five stories come out. One in Analog, "Citizen Science". One in American Short Fiction, "Goodwill"](https://americanshortfiction.org/goodwill/). One in the South Dakota Review, "Endings". And one in Saundra Mitchell's YA sci-fi anthology, Out There, My story for the anthology, "Nick and Bodhi", is kind of a corker. Probably my best story out this year.
I also had poems in North American Review, Cellar Door, Cherry Tree, and Tampa Review. None are available online, but that's probably a good thing because I don't think any of them are something to write home about.
No book-length publication this year. Spent most of the year writing a new draft of my under-contract YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here. It's possible the publication of the book will be delayed by the Harper strike (which my editor, Steph, has taken a leadership role in, for which I am very, very proud of them). But maybe it won't be, who knows! Am aiming for a Jan 2024 release date. Working on line edits now, which should be the last round of edits.
Was on submission for most of the year with a literary novel for adults. It was a miserable experience. Many rejections. Felt really bad about myself. But then it landed on the desk of the new publisher of Feminist Press, Margot Atwell, and she fell in love with it. Still feels kind of strange, Feminist Press is so highbrow. Like, there's a lot of room between them and HarperTeen! But I'm really happy to have a home, and even happier to be so highbrow. Have been doing heavy, heavy revisions on the book, tentatively entitled The Default World for the last two months. Aiming for a June 2024 release date.
So my first book came out in 2016. MY second in 2020. Now I have two books coming out in 2024, so you might expect three in 2028, but I'm breaking the Fibonnacci sequence by releasing a book in 2025! I just signed a contract for an as-yet-unwritten nonfiction book that'll come out in 2025. You'll never guess the publisher. I mean it. I could give you twenty guesses, and you still wouldn't be able to get it.2
So what did I write this year? Well I did a new draft of the YA novel, which took about three months, and I also did a substantial revision, where I rewrote about a third of it. That also took about a month. I spent two months rewriting the literary book. And then I spent at least two months on an adaptation of a count of monte cristo (a trans woman comes back to take revenge on people who screwed her over in her male life) that just never went anywhere. And I spent two months on a sci-fi novel that never went anywhere. And I spent at least a month on a linked collection that at least produced a number of stories I'm excited about, but ultimately I couldn't convince myself that it'd really work as a standalone project. Other than that, I wrote maybe seven stories: three of which are for anthologies and four of which were on-spec and are as-yet-unsold.
I didn't do a lot of submissions this year. I kept meaning to put together a submissions package. I subbed a literary story I really liked, but for the rest of it, nonfiction, sci-fi, poetry, etc, I just felt like it didn't matter much. I'll still improve as a writer, whether the work gets published or not, and it didn't seem all that important to seize the moment.
Being on sub royally sucked, but if I can compartmentalize that, it was a very good year. I got a lot of writing done. Particularly when I was working on my under-contract projects, writing was easy and fun. When I was trying to generate new book ideas, it was pretty painful. I'm working now on a new literary novel idea, but it seems extremely uncommercial. I'm having fun writing it, but really don't know if I'll go the distance with it.
I usually date the start of my writing career to December 2003, when I sent my first short story submission (to Ellen Datlow at SciFiction). That was nineteen years ago. Since then I've accumulated 2009 short story rejections, and a whole mess more rejections for other things. I do feel a bit like a writing professional, even though I don't get paid much, and I'm still really learning. I don't take bullshit anymore, but I also don't produce bullshit. Life is too short to get upset over edits or delays or any of that other stuff. I think knowing that I'm not the source of extraneous drama has made me more confident in pushing back when I genuinely do want something. When it came to putting the literary book on sub, I had a pronounced opinion (it'll never be a better time to sell this book than right now so let's send it to as many people as possible), and my agent was willing to be convinced by me. When I had questions about editors, I asked them. But if the answer was "they're ghosting us", I didn't get too mad. I asked for the truth so I got it. Felt good!
My MFA advisor told me once that it's really hard to sell a second book, and even selling a third book can be quite difficult, but he's found that if people sell a third book, they usually find their niche and manage to keep on publishing and make a career. I thought the idea was ludicrous at the time, but it's proven to be true. I sold my third book last year, and now here I am with books four and five selling in rapid succession. Bizarre!
I don't keep track anymore of how many words I write, so can't provide detaileds stats like I could in my early years. I generally write a few hours a day, I think. I sit down in the morning around 9:30 or 10:00, and if it's coming then it comes. Usually stop by 2 PM and try to do other things for the rest of the day. Recently have gotten better at incorporating reading into my daily schedule, and I now treat reading like an essential part of my career. But my reading news (along with personal stuff) will have to go in a different post
All these references to awards eligibility and log-rolling are sci-fi world inside baseball stuff. And yes I spent a half-hour trying to figure out how to enable a more advanced version of markdown inside the WordPress editor just so I could more easily write this footnote, because that's the kind of person I am now. ↩
It's princeton university press! I know, right? What a trip! An editor at PUP reached out to me after reading several of my LARB essays, and we put together a proposal. ↩
Browsing the Black Friday sales, I saw a heavily discounted 15 inch Samsung Galaxy 2-in-1 computer. I've been thinking about switching from Mac to Windows, so I went ahead and got it. Since then I've been wrestling all of my data out of various walled-gardens. I had to say goodbye to most of my music: I took the core of my music library, acquired in college, out of iTunes and put it in MusicBee, and now I'm just selectively purchasing other tracks from Amazon Music (which sells music DRM-free) and adding them to the library. It'll mean fewer musics than back when I exclusively listened to streaming services, but the music won't be quite as disposable, and I won't have to say goodbye to it every five years when I switch to a new service.
When it comes to my books, I've gotten everything out of Kindle and am reading now using KOReader. I still have to get new books from Amazon, since they have the widest selection, but I have a system to crack the DRM when I need to (I didn't / couldn't use a similar system for my music downloads on Spotify bc I hadn't really 'bought' them, and it wouldn't have been right to yank entire albums and tracks out of Spotify for just the price of a streaming subscription).
TV / movies don't worry me bc I never buy those, really, so I'm content w/ streaming. If I lose access to some movie or show someday, that's fine, c'est la view.
I have a lot of audiobooks stuck in the Audible system. I believe there's a way to crack the DRM on those, but here the problem is they take up A LOT of hard disk space. I might have to use an external drive for this.
Then at some point I'll need to get all my notes out of Apple Notes, and put them into a third-party system like Obsidian. But that's next week's job.
Now you might ask, does this improve my life in any way? Is the time I spend doing this at all worthwhile?
And the answer is no and no. It's just a hobby. I mean sure, probably in 20 years I'll be glad I still have that one song (the way I'm glad I still have songs I downloaded in high school), but would I feel particularly bad in 20 years if I _didn't_ have the song? No, of course not. All this effort does is turn you into the kind of open-source nut who cares about computer ecosystems. But I'm fine with that. It's my version of tinkering with a car.
I'm liking the PC though! The performance is a lot snappier than my 2019 MacBook Air. The fan noise isn't too bad, and I can throttle it when I need to, but I never have that sluggishness I would have when typing on the mac. And although the 2-in-1 design isn't great for most people, I like it a lot. The screen on the laptop is extremely bright and great for watching stuff. Windows 11 is a bit hard to get used to--not nearly as intuitive as the mac--and I've already had crashes and corrupted files. But Scrivener and Office work fine. And all my passwords are in 1password already, and that, combined with Firefox, means that 90 percent of my browsing experience is the same. But we'll see how long it lasts!
Hello friends. I'm doing it! I busted out my little digital typewriter again, to make me sit down and actually write a blog post.
I've been busy lately. All my books came back to me at the same time time, so I've had to work on them all simultaneously. But it's fine. The work is getting done. In terms of my reading, I've been re-reading Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments in Truth. He has a marvelous voice, very warm and personable. The book is long, but one wishes it was longer--it ends in the mid 20s, well before the culmination of the freedom struggle. What you realize reading his book is how much of an oddball Gandhi was. Even his Hinduism wasn't straightforward. He really only read the Indian holy books in England, when he was in college, and he was very influenced by Western new-age spirituality and mysticism. He was involved w/ various theosophists, for instance, and he was also involved with the British vegetarian community (vegetarianism was a major fad in Edwardian England). A lot of the way he looks at Hinduism feels very distinctly Western--for instance, his view that untouchability is meaningless, or how he looks down on ritual (at one point, he goes on pilgrimage and feels ashamed of how non-spiritual the activity seems to be). His Hinduism seems intensely personal, and rather unconnected from any established tradition. If anything, it's a bit...Christian.
Seeing how Gandhi was a bit of an outsider made me feel more connected to India myself. Gandhi and I are from a similar caste and region of India, and if he can come at Indian society so askew, and yet be literally the most Indian person in the world, then why can't I? Perhaps I'm not Indian in the same way as other Indians, but I am Indian enough. I mean Gandhi only spent two years of his adulthood in India before moving back permanently at around the age of 45. He lived a lifetime outside India, and in the parts where he writes about it, he sometimes seems a bit like a stranger to it--he has almost no experience of it as an adult. Made me feel excited to read other Indian books!
Have been struggling to get abreast of all the periodicals I subscribe to. At some point I thought it would be a great idea to subscribe to the four big literary reviews (NYRB, LRB, TLS and Paris Review) and a few of the others as well. Terrible idea. Each issue is as long as a novel, essentially, and who has the time to read these books every two weeks? But on the other hand I find the coverage much more interesting than the NYT Book review. So I've been trying to think how I can keep abreast of it all. Still not entirely sure, other than a lot of skimming. But I've canceled the subscriptions (which were through kindle) because the issues were piling up horribly.
Went through a phase where I read lots of Alan Watts, a popularizer of Eastern religion during the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. He too has a very warm, congenial voice. All of his books are essentially the same, but the best is probably The Wisdom of Insecurity. I've sort of gotten into meditating and mindfulness and stuff lately, which is going well. Many problems are solved by remaining in the moment: there is no need to have any worries about the future, for instance, because the future isn't yet here. It also solves other problems that I wouldn't have thought would be affected: many of my insecurities and resentments disappear when I'm more present-minded. For instance if I am envious of someone, the envy dissipates if I focus on the here-and-now, my existence in this body, doing whatever I am doing. The envy can only exist in an entirely notional world where I evaluate my worth in some abstract way, based on abstract markers and expectations, as if totaling up the score in a board game.
On the other hand, present-mindedness does open up some new problems. The main one is: what is there to thing about? Like ninety percent of what I think about is the future, so if that's lost to me, what's left? It means spending a lot more time contemplating, a lot more time just sitting around, a lot more time staring at the walls. A lot of my activities seem less meaningful, for instance reading the literary reviews seems a bit pointless--I read them to keep abreast of the field and see what everybody was talking about. And I have no doubt that that's a valuable thing to do, professionally, but in the present, it feels oddly pointless and removed from my interests. I already have plenty of books to read: I'd rather be reading Gandhi than reading about all these other books.
Reading also takes on a different complexion. For one thing, reading for pleasure seems much more important. If I'm not enjoying a book in the moment, then why am I reading it? There's no way a person can know everything--so there's no need to read just to meet some abstract idea of being cultured or educated. At the same time, even pleasure can feel empty. Ideally, I think, I want to be reading the book because it's necessary: something about it is essential for me at this moment. I've been reading to listen to and follow that voice.
Lately (bc of the Alan Watts), I've been thinking about the ideal of effortless action--the Taoist principle that you should be like water and follow the path of least resistance, do what is easy. It makes intuitive sense to me. Like today I was thinking, shoot I need to make a dentist appointment, so I just pulled out my phone and did it. Normally I would've made a note about it in my to-do list and just worried about it. Similarly, if something is out of place, I've been picking it up, instead of just thinking, man I should do something about that.
In the midst of all this, writing has been extremely easy for me. I can't overstate how great the writing has been lately. I just sit down at the computer and type for an hour, and then I walk away. Sometimes I think about the book when I'm not working on it, but msot of the time I don't. There's no anxiety, because, you know what, I'm doing the best job I can. And what's there to be anxious about? That it'll someday get a bad review? Who cares? No, what really used to make me anxious was the fear that I really wasn't a good writer, but now I feel like the term just isn't very meaningful in day to day life. Like when does me being a good or bad writer actually matter to me, in the present? It only matters when I'm thinking, "Wow I am so great" or "Wow, I suck." But if I stay focused on the present, those thoughts don't come up. Normally I get into these thought spirals where I try to reassure myself that it's okay to not be a genius. But if I'm present-minded, then the notion of 'genius' has no meaning (at least as applied to myself). Genius only matters when I think, wow, Proust is a genius. But how can anyone else call me a genius? When would that happen? How would I hear about it? Me calling Proust a genius is an expression of wonderment at his work. Me calling myself a genius is something different--it's just an attempt to find some further, greater significance in my daily life. Because meaning is kind of like a drug. You start off feeling good after a day of writing, and you think, "Wow, this book is really great. It's gonna change everything." And that makes you feel even better! But you get hooked on the drug, and you start to tell yourself things that you know aren't true, and then a part of yourself pushes back "Maybe the book won't change anything." But you want to hold onto the good feeling so you argue, "No, it will!" But if you just give up on that good feeling, the whole exercise becomes moot. The lesson I guess is that some mental pleasures really aren't worth the accompanying costs.
Anyway I've gotten pretty far at breaking my addiction to meaning! Because if you're present-minded there's no meaning either. It's kind of like an acid trip. You're just in a place, doing things, and that's it. There's nothing more. Actually, the feeling reminds me quite a bit of being on LSD. It turns out that LSD is just the experience of existing (but also stuff moves and is really pretty).
All of this stuff seems so obvious that it seems impossible I didn't know it before, but I think the problem is that it needs to be paired with a practice of staying in the present, and that practice has to be continuous. To the extent I succumb to that desire for meaning, I lose that equanimity, and that's something that happens roughly 100 times a day.
Anyway, I feel like I'm starting to sound like one of those New Agey people I've always felt tempted to make fun of. But it's kind of astounding that all this stuff is real. It works. It really can provide you with peace and contentment. Of course, my present-mindedness will probably wear off in a few weeks, and I'll be embarrassed by this post, but so what. For now it's great.
And, finally, my reaction to the Twitter imbroglio is that I've gotten very annoyed, all of a sudden, at being inside so many walled gardens online. I want to own my own data again! My first step in breaking out was to break the DRM on all my kindle books and start using a non-Kindle e-reader. I've been using this guy: the Inkpalm 5. It's essentially a tiny e-ink Android tablet. SUPER convenient. I can keep it in my pocket and pull it out whenever I need to read. The volume buttons on the side work as page turn buttons. And I've been using KO Reader, which has a lot more functionality than Kindle--I've been able to put my entire Kindle library onto the device.
Of course, it's complicated, and in some ways not as easy to use, and I might end up switching back at some point. I go through phases w/ non-Kindle readers: I used a Sony PRS-350 for a while, and then a Kobo, interspersed w/ virtually every kind of Kindle. It's a bit of a sickness.
But lately I've just accepted that I like tinkering with gadgets! It doesn't actually make me more productive, and I don't read any more or faster--if anything, it's the opposite. But so what? It's a hobby.
To jailbreak the Kindle I needed to bring out my Windows laptop, which has been gathering dusk on a shelf for a while. Took a while to update everything, but you know what? Windows is pretty good! If anything, it's useful to not have iMessages distracting me constantly. I downloaded Scrivener 3 for Windows and started working on my novel on the PC, and I'm finishing up this blog entry on it too. It's nowhere near as convenient or easy to use, but the freedom has started to mean more to me than it did. I like to know where all my files are--I like to get at them and be able to port them over to other services. I'm thinking that next I might try and free all my music too.
Hello friendly people. I’m doing it! I’m writing a blog post! Feels like it’s been months. I’ve had a lot going on. My literary book sold to Feminist Press, which has made me really happy. They’re a great press, and it’s exciting that the book will be out there for people to read, but mostly I’m just happy to not be on submission anymore, as I was for most of 2022. I’ve worked on The Default World for at least four years at this point (the file says I started January 2018), and I’ll be happy to move on to something else. Not yet though, as I have at least six months of edits to do.
A major thank you is due to my agent, Christopher Schelling, who’s been great throughout this process—very receptive to my input and just a wonderful communicator and energetic agent. I always hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend an agent before they’ve sold a book for me, but now I can wholeheartedly recommend Christopher! He never ever lost faith in me or in the book.
I’m also about to sign a contract for another book—a nonfiction book—but details about that will pend the negotiation of a few details.
So it’s been a big year. I am pleased. Of course I’m stressed out and for the first time in my life I’m feeling imposter syndrome, but I’m definitely pleased.
For the last few years, I have (like most people) noticed that I’ve been having trouble focusing while reading books. I’ve covered this up by reading a lot of audiobooks, which don’t care if you’re focused or not, but some things don’t work well in audio. So recently I picked up a really cheesy self-help book called Hyperfocus, by a productivity expert. It contains tips and tricks on how to get you into “Hyperfocus” mode (minimize distractions before you sit down, set a timer, etc). Nothing revolutionary.
Anyway the book inspired me to adapt the Pomodoro technique for reading. What I decided was that I’d hide all my devices and set a 25 minute timer and just read. However I noticed very soon into attempting this that, while reading, I’d think of things that I needed to do, or notes I wanted to make. So instead of writing them in my phone, I started logging my stray thoughts in a journal and then going back to reading.
An unexpected outgrowth of this was that I noticed a lot of mental discomfort while I was reading my current book (which happened to be Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m An Artist). This is a coming-of-age story about a working-class girl going to art school in SF, so it bears some resemblance to my literary novel. And, like most books these days, it was represented by an agent and acquired by an editor who’d both rejected my book. So it was natural that I’d feel envy and that I’d compare my book to this book.
But by logging these thoughts and moving past them, I realized how artificial these feelings are. There is quite literally no relationship between me and this book beyond the fact that I am enjoying reading it. Everything else is just a story I’m making up.
Over the course of a few days of this kind of logging, I started to learn how to put down all this weight I’d been carrying. For a while, it seemed almost too easy. All I needed was, poof, to not compare myself to people, and suddenly I could enjoy reading again! I tore through a dozen books over the course of a few days (many were recommendations, other literary books I’d steered clear of over the years because I envied their authors too much).
Then, as I started to revise my literary book, I noticed the catch. Suddenly I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. All I saw were its flaws and its failures.
And I suddenly realized, ahh, here’s why I compare myself: it’s a defense mechanism. I want to reassure myself that I’m better than these other writers, so my book is sure to succeed, etc. Or at least that it deserves to succeed—because the alternative, maybe it’s not good enough, means maybe I am not good enough. Maybe I don’t have enough worth.
So I was satisfied that re-learning how to read would be a complicated process—it wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed. Nonetheless, what’s true is that no story I tell myself about other writers is going to improve my work’s quality or its chances in the marketplace. My chance of success is totally separate from other peoples’. So all I get from this comparison is a temporary emotional relief. But the cost is that I can’t really enjoy reading my contemporary’s books. Recently, doing all this reading, I’ve seen how much fun reading can be!
I think ultimately I’ll just learn how to feel bad and anxious in a more measured way, but in the short term it’ll probably be a rocky transition as I lose that habitual defense mechanism. We’ll see!
Hello friends, I haven't been updating often, I'm the worst, I know. Absolutely nothing to report here. I finished reading William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which was brilliant and it's one of my favorite books now. I liked the first two third better than the last part, and some of the ending seemed a bit pat, but all in all it was extremely funny and very humane, had a strong moral core. People say it's bitter or cynical or satirical, and they insist that it's somehow against modernity. I don't think any of that is true. It's a book about how to live. The hero, Wyatt, becomes a forger of Old Masters because, for him, that is the truest and most authentic art-style. The book is about how we have a cult of the individual, and how the search for individuality can undercut a person's sense of self. To be individual, to be original, you need to be unlike anyone who exists or has ever existed, but that's not what it means to have a self. Having a self, having a true inner life, means not defining yourself by the opinion of people outside yourself. It means having your own values, your own sense of right and wrong. And it's impossible to develop those values if you're atomized and disconnected both from other people and from your own history. If you don't have a place in the world, then nothing you do matters--even worse, if you have no place, then everything you do ends up being a shout for attention, and you end up defining yourself entirely in accordance with how much attention you get. A personality, in order to develop, needs demands to be placed upon it, so it can figure out its own ethic and respond in its own way.
The book is about how art and literature can misdirect people, make them focus on the glittery and ersatz, instead of what is truly timeless, and so I think that, while much of the commentary focuses on the counterfeiting and plagiarism within the book, really the book ends up being a criticism of its opposite, of the way people are so lacking in their own values that they need someone to tell them if something is good or bad. They need something to be a Van Eyck, they need something to be canonized, because without those external markers, they can't have an authentic response to it. And that, to those people, plagiarism and originality are all the same: there is nothing in them that can really respond to art.
SO I REALLY ENJOYED THE BOOK. The first half is pretty straightforward, narratively, but eventually it gets harder to read: about two hundred pages in, the author stops saying the protagonist's name, so you need to start intuiting his presence as a speaker on the page. Most of the book is told in dialogue, and sometimes it can be difficult to figure out who's speaking. I found this reader's guide VERY helpful. I would read the summary of a section when I started that section, and I would consult with the character index as needed. But I think the book is pretty doable. The comparisons to Ulysses are overstated: this is a much easier read.
My dad's been visiting, and I talked with him about writing literary criticism, one of my sidelines, and I said, you know, I used to really admire all these critics who were full of literary references and quotes, until I realized so much of it was faking. Each critic has a handful of authors they return to again and again, deploying endlessly to support their arguments.
When writing a critical piece, there's a tendency to want to do a lot of research, but you can't read everything! So where's the end-point? In an NYRB-style review, you generally read an author's entire ouevre (if it's less than five books), but for other outlets you don't even do that. I have a few big authors I've never read, and I always feel like I shouldn't write anything until I've corrected those gaps. For instance, aside from The Poetics, I've never really read Aristotle. I have a lot of Plato, but no Aristotle. That's not uncommon, unlike in medieval times, Plato is read much more widely than Aristotle, but still, it's a gap.
For me, there's also the auto-didact's curse. When you've been conventionally educated, you don't know everything, but you do know everything you're supposed to know. And this can make you seem extremely well-read if you encounter other people who had conventional educations. For instance, when I was teaching undergrads, I used to ask their favorite book, and I'd almost always read it, not because I've read every book, but because I've read every book an undergrad is likely to read. And our professors were the same: they'd read every poet or story-writer a grad student is likely to know.
But when you're an autodidact, you've often read far more broadly than a conventionally-educated person (hardly an English PhDs have read as many Chinese and Japanese classics as I have), but you also have basic gaps that can make you look very uneducated.
Often these gaps are in the realm of books about books. When you're an autodidact, you see little need to mess around with the secondary writing that grows up around literature. You just read the books, and that's it! But for an English PhD or professor, that writing constitutes the majority of their reading. So they're more familiar with, for instance, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, and Foucault. Personally, I think Derrida, in particular, is a bit of a fraud. But I haven't read Of Grammatology. So I'm in a position where I've read Hegel and Kant and Marx (which most English PhDs would not have), but not some of these far more (in today's terms) influential writers that, often, even a grad student would know. This leaves you quite vulnerable, and it's a difficult gap to cover.
C'est la vie. Anyway as I was telling my dad, when writing a piece of literary criticism, I just sit down and write it out. Whenever I get to the part where I'd put a quote, I write, Plato said something like, "this is the quote, it's not the real quote, I'm making it up." Then later on I go and look to see if I can find the real quote.
My dad said, "But how do you know the author really did support your point?"
And I was like, "Because the author helped form your thoughts! You're not going into this with an axe to grind or a prearranged thought process, you're taking the chain of associations wherever it will go. You developed your thesis precisely because of your own knowledge, which in turn comes from the books you've read."
I've actually never had the problem where I just couldn't find support for my points, because why would I make a point that couldn't be supported? Now my points might still be risible, and the support might be scanty, but there's usually enough there that I can at least make a case.
The more difficult part is when you make historical claims. For instance, if I say, "Chaucer's output was a result of England's victories in the Hundred Year's War" then I've got to think...is that actually true? When did Chaucer do his writings? When was Britain on top in the war? When was the Battle of Crecy?" It's very easy to say historical things that are just plainly, on their face, untrue. And I'm pretty sure that's something I've done more than once. On the other hand, that's why I don't write about, say, climate change policy. When it comes to writing about writing, the stakes are rather low. And anyway, at least I attempt to make coherent sense, unlike Derrida.
I've started the third volume of Marx's Capital. It's going. Am already looking forward to what I'll read next. My plan was to read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas in a project that undoubtedly would take several years. But already there have been sidetracks. I decided to read Adam Smith before Marx, which was invaluable. But now I'm tempted to read political and economic theory instead of philosophy. And I've already read volumes by Husserl and Habermas. Now am thinking too of Schopenhauer before Nietzsche. So we'll see. There's plenty of time. Will undoubtedly still be making my way through these books in ten year's time. And then I'll have the Anglo-American tradition to work through as well. And the Renaissance and Enlightenment: I should reread Descarte, and I've never read John Hobbes or Locke. I've read Hume, which was excellent. Hume is really all you need, honestly. That guy figured it out all out however-many-hundred years ago. You can't know moral truth the same way you know scientific truth--Hume proved it quite satisfactorily. But still those crafty Germans and French, not sensible like the Scottish Hume, have tried for two hundred years to wiggle their way out of the conundrum, and they've succeeded sort of (not really).
Hello friends, I had this vision at one point a month ago that I was going to post here every single working day. That vision unfortunately didn't come to fruition. But I'm still around. Just turned in probably the last big revision for my YA novel. I always think revisions are going to be relatively small, but with this revision I cut 35k words and wrote another 28k. All within a month! Feel kind of proud of myself. I feel good about this novel. I really do. Definitely worth the pipe-bomb that some right-winger will send me over it! Today I was talking to another author, and they were like our child's school does this conference for writers, do you want to come. I was like sure, then I was like wait a second, you live in Florida, right? No, I do not want to be around children in the state of Florida.
Anyway, I don't want to do that thing queer / PoC writers do where we adopt a pose that we're under a state of siege or whatever. I'm fine. I never actually get hate or harassment. The current climate is a bit like terrorism, I guess? It's meant to scare all trans people, and it most certainly does. It scares me. But it hasn't actually, literally hit me in any concrete way yet. And I am very, very lucky to be getting published! Makes me sad to think of all the trans women and girls out there who never got to publish books. Also kind of weird, because I am not at all political (in my writing) and am so new in transition and wasn't a trans kid, but now I feel all this weight to do something, to be there for the kiddies, to represent or something.
Well, whatever, good problems to have.
I've been reading a lot of poetry lately, largely in single-author collections. I've been reading a lot of Wislawa Szymborska and a lot of Osip Mandelstam. Most of Szymborska is translated into English by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, and they do an excellent job. The poetry is so rhythmic, even in English, and it contains subtle, irregular, but frequent rhymes. It sounds great. She's a very playful poet, and she reminds me quite a bit of some of the posts in the Beat tradition, with her refusal to become overly erudite and poetical on us. Osip Mandelstam is, of course, the opposite. All of his poems are about Biblical times or Renaissance Italy, and they contain exalted, very Christian images, and powerful feelings of despair and triumph.
Anyway reading these books of poetry has made me realize: you don't necessarily read poetry so you can remember it later, or so you can talk about it. You just read it for the emotions you get. I think it was the Nadezhdha Mandelstam book that gave me permission to read poets in a less-educated less-expectant way. She said something like, "What you get from a poet is their world-view." And you can't boil it down to one thing or another, but yes, you're in touch with a particular consciousness and way of seeing the world. It's also a much more emotional experience, in some ways, than reading prose. But the emotions, at least for me, are finer, more fleeting.
Lately I've been feeling very emotional. I mean, I've been trying not to. I just think many things in the world aren't as I'd want them to be. And I feel disillusioned in a lot of ways by the gap between how people act and what they say. But my life isn't materially worse. So I don't know how to balance that kind of galaxy-brain perspective with the fact that less has changed in my quotidian life.
Also I've been working a lot! I mean it still doesn't add up to an actual day of work for a doctor or a construction worker, but this year along I completely rewrote my YA book once, and then did the latest half-revision. I also have written a few proposals, and I've done tens of thousands of words on other projects. Of course it's nothing compared to last year, when I completely rewrote the literary book AND wrote a first draft of the YA book, but for some reason this year I feel more productive. Not sure why. I also wrote at least fifty thousand words, mostly in axed drafts, on a science fiction book, and I think that I'm starting to get a handle on it
For at least ten years I've been handicapped in my writing sci-fi books by one thing: I just don't want to write about people fighting. Like, combat, swords, lasers, it's just totally uninteresting to me. And I realized at some point this year, I just don't believe in that. Like, the heroes in books should lose 99 percent of the time. But they don't, because they're just that good at fighting and killing. It doesn't have anything to do with the rightness of their cause: they just win because they're better at fighting. It makes no sense to me.
The exception is military novels, of various sorts. I still enjoy those. There I think the way the fight works and proceeds is part of the story. And there is a (slight) moral component to who wins and who loses in a war. But I don't really know enough about war to write a novel like that myself.
So yes, I decided, there's no need to write about swords and lasers anymore. I'm just not going to do it. Yes, I enjoyed when I was a kid reading about that stuff, but I'm not a kid anymore. So now whenever I develop a setting, I'm like, would people in this setting solve these particular problems with swords and lasers? And if the answer is yes I just don't write that story.
Maybe the sci-fi will go somewhere, who knows, but so far good things are happening.
History of Byzantium - I’ve gotten very into Byzantine history lately, and there’s not as much out there in the English speaking world as you’d like. It’s shocking how good this is, how thoughtful, and how it mixes narrative with broader social and economic developments. Really entertaining and informative. The History of Rome is good, but this is better—one of the best history podcasts in existence.
History of Africa- There is nothing else like this out there. Popular history books (publishing in English and published in America) about Africa’s pre-colonial civilizations are pretty few and far between. As such this podcast is a major contribution—I contribute a substantial amount on Patreon every month. Start with the second season on Aksum—a civilization in the Ethiopian Highlands that rivaled Rome and Persia for size / influence and outlasted them both (it started in the pre Roman era and only fell in the 13th century). It’s stuff you can’t believe you’ve never heard before.
Don’t Go Back To School by Kio Stark— I’m always looking for books I didn’t know existed. This is a good example of one! I came across it while scanning the episode list of a literary podcast called Overdue. It’s a crowd-sourced book about ways to learn without going to school—it consists of interviews with a bunch of people who prioritized learning outside of school (and the ways their learning relates to their job and ability to earn a living).
My story isn’t really akin to anything in the book. The thing about being a writer is that virtually every writer you care about, whether it’s Virginia Woolf or W.H. Auden or James Baldwin, engaged in a long self-directed course of study as they were in the process of becoming a writer. You CANNOT learn in school the kinds of things you need to write fiction or poetry well. You can major in English, but the kind of reading you do for that degree is useless for writing: nothing in the English degree allows you to understand the well-spring of truth or beauty. Nor does majoring in creative writing really help much: you can learn a few rules of thumb, but let’s face it, writing degrees aren’t very rigorous: writing ten poems a semester or three stories a semester and reading four or five books (which is about the workload of most MFAs) won’t do anything. That’s equivalent to roughly 1/10th the work you should be doing every half-year of your writing life. And the 100 books you’d read to get an English undergrad degree or the 300 to get an English grad degree are, likewise, only a fraction of the thousands of books you’ll need to read to become a writer.
Moreover, English degrees don’t prioritize books that have the most to teach a writer. Almost every English major nowadays will read FRANKENSTEIN, for instance, but few will read MIDDLEMARCH or MOBY DICK. English degrees prioritize books that are short and teachable.
So if you’re going to be a writer, and especially one of literary fiction, you’ll at the very least need to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Dickens, Milton, Balzac, Flaubert, and a few dozen other major writers on your own. There is simply no other option.
What’s fascinating, though, is how few writers actually realize this. What’s weird is writers will be like, I love Jhumpa Lahiri or George Saunders, and not realize…both of these writers did the reading I am talking about. It’s honestly a bit perplexing. Why would you not do the same things as the people whose writing you admire?
So if you were writing a version of this book for writers, it would be: you literally cannot learn this in school.
When you’re a writer, you’re reading in order to figure out the source of the aesthetic experience: where does it come from? What provokes it? How can I replicate it? You’re basically reading for pleasure, but paying ever so slightly more attention than the average reader does. It’s not that hard!
Anyway I’ve gotten off the topic of this book. I do like the book I will say. Sometimes I’ve thought about how good it would’ve been to have skipped college and just saved the money and lived somewhere interesting and read books for eight years instead of partying for four. But I suppose you need to GO to college to learn how silly it is.
Hello friendly people. I've been feeling anxious lately. It's okay. My self-medication is reading Nadezdha Mandelstam's second memoir, Hope Abandoned. It's basically just about everything she didn't put into the first one. It's hundreds of little vignettes about Soviet literary life, organized very impressionistically, with lots of jumping around in chronology. It's one of the densest reads I've ever had. It's sad and shows humanity at its worst--she's unfailing in detailing peoples' hypocrisy and moral cowardice. But I think it's best when it comes to the question: what is literature for?
In America, there is so much hand-wringing about poetry. Does it matter even though nobody reads it? Can it be revitalized? Can it be made relevant to ordinary people?
This 'ordinary person' has become such a fetish in literature. Because almost all writers these days have egalitarian principles, we don't like to think we're writing for a rarefied intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union, too, they had this worry. Writing was supposed to be proletarian in character (this is in the early part of the Soviet Union) and the intelligentsia was frequently denounced. Writers and artists tried all kinds of dodges to make their work proletarian. In the early Soviet Union, writers frequently wrote about factories, as in the classic Gladkov novel, Cement.
Mandelstam is contemptuous of this phenomenon, but she's also contemptuous of elitism, because she sees that the intelligentsia itself is quite stupid and without taste, and that they view literature only as a way to salve their own egos. She sees that, far from prizing individuality and personality, the intelligentsia constantly lays the groundwork for its own demise, that it is wary of the power of ideas, and that it's always looking for ways of putting down the burden of thinking. She in fact charts the early intellectual currents that led to the intelligentsia's surrender to Stalinism, and she situates them precisely in this wrecking, and this break with the past, and this distrust of the power of literature itself. Paradoxically, by giving literature a purpose, you destroy its purpose.
In contrast, when discussing her famous husband's attitude towards poetry, she says, "M never thought about those things." (I'm paraphrasing). In fact that's not true, as she describes, he routinely was frustrated with himself for not being able to appreciate the new party line and not being able to write more 'useful' literature. Even though he mostly wrote short lyrics, people could tell instinctively that he was a person rooted in Christianity and tradition--someone with a deep reverence for what had come before--which also in turn gave him a reverence for the meaning of individual human life. Unlike the rest of the intelligentsia, he was not so willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater ideal of social progress.
When she thinks about the purpose of literature and poetry, Mandelstam is always drawn back to one thing: the primacy and importance of private life. Under the Soviet Union there was no private life, no freedom of belief. You couldn't write apolitical verse, because that itself was political. And without the ability to feel what they wanted, peoples' inner lives either died off or became totally other-centered (oriented towards awards and accomplishments).
Poetry helps a person develop their inner life. Poetry, at least of Mandelstam's sort, is the record of a person in the world, experiencing life. It's not like meditation, it doesn't seek to extinguish the self, instead it celebrates the self and celebrates this life on earth. The purpose of poetry is to put to music the poet's own personal world-view, and to impart their way of seeing the world, as a guide for people to develop their own individuality.
Seen this way, poetry isn't broccoli. It's there for the benefit of whomever needs it. Poetry is like speech. Poetry is like sidewalk scrawls or recipes put on the internet. Poetry is like anything that's exchanged freely, simply because people are full of joy at being alive.
I loved that, because I see my own work the same way. I know that people often find my work cynical, because I don't idealize human nature or turn away from the darkness and confusion I see in people, but my work is also about ideals. I never write anything that doesn't contain a hint of how people can be better and more courageous than they are. I like to think that my work appeals to the best of people--not the part that's looking for an easy heroism, for some collective victim they can stomp into the floor in some orgy of self-righteousness. It's for the person who has their own sense of right and wrong, and who is willing to stand up for it.
That's why my work often doesn't fit easily into taxonomies of left and right. It's why even though I'm trans, it's often ignored by people who love "transgressive" queer writers. There is nothing really transgressive about my work, but it can be very difficult for readers who don't have principles of their own, and who've never thought about the difference between right and wrong--readers who don't truly have a self.
And I think in our ongoing crisis of liberalism, it's important to remember the self. For me it's such a joy to know things. To know very deeply that some things are true and some are false. On a sidenote, whenever I say something like that, I always like to list one true thing I know, so that people know I'm talking about real, concrete things and not just vague feelings. So here's one true thing I know: it's that if you're hiding from the truth, it will hamper the work. You can be a liar in your life, but when you sit down to work, you must be honest. If you try to write a novel about a farm-boy defeating an evil empire, but part of you know that in real life it's impossible for one person to bring down an empire single-handedly, then your work will not come together. You might write it and sell it, and it might even win awards, but it won't possess life, and the person who will suffer most from the lie is you yourself, because you'll have cut yourself off from the source of lasting art.
I know that there's a wellspring of lasting art that you can train yourself to tap into. I know there is a musical note at the core of each worthwhile piece of prose--something you can train yourself to hear.
This is an aside, but lately I've been thinking of something else I know, which is that there is no unconscious mind.
That's a pretty radical idea. Ever since Freud we've accepted the notion that part of you is submerged, and that it doesn't contribute to your conscious impression of thinking, but that this submerged part nonetheless does a lot of your deciding for you. Many concepts in modern life hinge upon the idea of an unconscious mind. For instance, all our notions of racism hinge on the idea of an unconscious bias: you can hate a certain kind of people without knowing that you hate them.
And yet, is that really true? Does the unconscious exist at all? While it's true that non-conscious processes take place in our mind (all of our breathing and movement, and a lot of our sense-processing, for instance), there is no evidence that there is an unconscious mind that does our thinking for us. This bicamerality, where you have the thoughts you have access to and the unconscious thoughts that exist off on their own, in a locked room somewhere, like you're two people sharing one body--there is no evidence for that.
Moreover, what would it mean to not believe in that? Well, it would mean that we are responsible for all of our actions. That we in some sense have chosen all of our actions. We can still make mistakes, we can still be ignorant or thoughtless, but we cannot say that we are 'better' than the things we've done. We cannot say that our conscious mind knew this was wrong, but the unconscious one did not.
Modern society, by believing in an unconscious, has come to a place where it demands an unconscious. We need a place to put all of our dangerous, unspeakable thoughts and desires. But, really, those things are just as much a part of our consciousness as are all our other thoughts and desires.
The unconscious is really just a way of trying to solve the mystery of free will. Since we cannot imagine the idea that we are truly free, we instead imagine a situation where we are two people, and one of them is mute and in control of our body, while the other can speak but is mostly powerless, and the only job of the second person is to speak to the first person and convince them to do what we think is right. But if we fail to do the right thing, it's not the fault of our 'real' self, it's because we didn't convince our unconscious self, which is, at its core, a nasty brute.
But really, we are free. We do choose. The real mystery is that there isn't a reason why we do most of what we do. We simply do it because we're alive and you have to do something. People search and search for the meaning of life, without realizing that it's something they find every single day. Most of our actions are literally without any reason, not even an unconscious one, other than that we willed them.