In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our Fall issue to write about what they’re reading.
Alexander Kluge, the German writer-philosopher-filmmaker, was in town last month, and his visit prompted me to pick up Dispatches from Moments of Calm, a collaboration with the artist Gerhard Richter. It’s a book of short stories, essays, and parables, each about the length of a newspaper article, many paired with photographs. Indeed, that was how they first appeared, in Die Welt on October 12, 2012, on a day when the editors traded their thirty pages of news for whatever Kluge and Richter would give them. The resulting dispatches are various. There is a story about a five-year-old boy who just misses striking his head on the pool ladder when he leaps into the water, just misses concussion, and drowning, and never knows it; a story about a couple that sets up their projectors outdoors, after the Lebanese Civil War has reduced their theater to rubble, and shows movies with sound tracks that mix with the sound of battle; a story about the Italian waiters who died on the Titanic and the fiancées they left behind in the Abruzzi, whom local custom forbids seeking husbands in an adjacent town. There are meditations on cities and photographs and species extinction and survival. When I read it, I didn’t foresee my present traumatic relation to the newspapers, and today is no moment of calm. But Kluge’s mosaic doesn’t feel like a refuge so much as a reminder of the real world, the whole real world, surprisingly connected to itself, as full of thought as of accident, all of it worth living in, and worth (though Kluge is patient and irenical) a fight. —Jeff Dolven (“The Art of Poetry No. 101: J. H. Prynne”)
I’ve been reading Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. The recent election is just the latest example of how our algorithm-driven media world—from faulty polling to fake news on social media—has become a threat to democracy. But O’Neil, a former hedge-fund quant turned Occupy activist, shows how pervasive and powerful and ultimately unaccountable misused data is across our lives. The book is not math heavy, but written in an exceedingly accessible, almost literary style; her fascinating case studies of WMDs—ranging from teacher evaluations to fast-food-staff scheduling to crime prediction to global-financial crises—fit neatly into the genre of dystopian literature. There’s a little Philip K. Dick, a little Orwell, a little Kafka in her portrait of powerful bureaucracies ceding control of the most intimate decisions of our lives to hyper-empowered computer models riddled with all of our unresolved, atavistic human biases. It’s a little terrifying to read her accounts of the human costs of Big Data improperly deployed—jobs lost, lives damaged, insurance denied, opportunities foreclosed—but also frightening to see how deeply our society has already invested in this pseudoscience, what she calls “digital phrenology.” Seemingly abstract and benign mathematical models might be the powerful tool ever for reifying and exacerbating existing structures of inequality—but there’s some power in knowing how to spot a WMD and defuse it before it explodes. And it turns out they’re everywhere. —Chris Jackson (“The Art of Poetry No. 100: Ishmael Reed”)
I met Hannah Pittard years ago when she was getting an M.F.A. (She’ll tell you: I’m a hard-ass, so this isn’t cheering for the home team.) Her novel Listen to Me elides so many genres that it’s Houdini-like, bursting through constraints. It moves between its two characters’ inner lives as effortlessly as an Olympic swimmer strokes through water. Pittard references a particular movie, subtly worked in to the book, that makes you eerily aware you’ve been simultaneously watching and experiencing two things. (Brilliantly, the movie—I don’t want to spoil this—is far from a mere allusion. It anticipates and changes the playing field.) This astonishing mini-movie—chapter fifteen—conjures up (for me) Eliot’s The Waste Land, and a certain corpse in the garden, as well as Joyce’s “The Dead.” It’s perfect: everything that’s been frighteningly expanding with ominous implications does a tailspin, becoming a tracking shot of a little car in the middle of nowhere, just moving along in the night. The narrative voice is subtly but recognizably the movie director’s—it interjects a narrative presence that lets us know someone’s pulling the strings, yet the strings aren’t quite taut. Where we end up is heartbreaking. —Ann Beattie (“Panthers”)
Lately I have been in two earthquakes: a literal one in Rome and, returned, a political one in my New Jersey village with its HILLARY FOR PRISON signs poking up through the burnished autumn leaves. Antony and Cleopatra have come to mind: “Music I’ th’ air / Under the earth. / It signs well, does it not? / No.” My reading in this period has given me some perspective. First, António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World—a brutal, unredeemed novel rooted in the author’s work as a young medic in the Portuguese colonial war in Angola. Next, Steven Weinberg’s thoughtful and clear account of the origin of the universe, The First Three Minutes (“the stars lie in a flat slab, a ‘grindstone’ of finite thickness, but extending to great distances in all directions in the plane of the slab. The solar system lies within the slab, so naturally we see much more light when we look out from earth along the plane of the slab than when we look in any other direction”). And, most recently, the best takedown of mansplaining ever written—Austen’s Emma: “suppose we all have a little gruel.” —Susan Stewart (“Channel”)
The subtitle of James Gleick’s The Information is tripartite; a History, (highly edifying) a Theory, (somewhat demanding) a Flood (the most familiar topic, as we all sense our inundation). His bottom line is deeply unsettling, the idea that everything we see, touch, or measure subatomically is essentially information, be it DNA code or quantum state. It evokes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Robert Pirsig sides with Plato, claiming that the world is literally composed of ideas. I haven’t seen the world in quite the same way since reading The Information, looking for algorithms to potentially account for or compress everything from the people to the art I love. Gleick triangulates with so many approaches that we can dream of free will, of contingent mutability, which in turn allows me to keep on painting the human form in our age of dehumanizing data. —Lincoln Perry (“Past Present”)