The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

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Tale of Genji

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Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

Capital in the 21st Century

Long-time readers to this blog know that I very, very rarely talk about books that are not directly related to literary fiction in this space. There are various reasons for that, but it’s a practice that I’ve tried to keep pretty consistent here.

So, it’s kind of a big deal that I’m going to go all out and beg you to read Capital in the 21st Century.And I’ll even make you this promise—yes, this is a book about economics that mostly deals with income inequality, but it also tells a compelling, genuinely new story about the 20th century. And if you’re a student of literature and many of the great 20th century writers (Pynchon, DeLillo, and Bolaño all immediately come to mind as relevant) there is a lot here to inform your understanding.

So here’s my plea: If you are at all interested in the question of income inequality—which is really one of the defining questions of our era—or the matter of what exactly capitalism is and where it’s headed in democratic societies as we are currently capable of construing them, this is a book of the utmost importance. This is really a book about the limits and conditions of our reality, insofar as we construct it socially.

As I was have been telling many people lately, what Capital in the 21st Century tries to do is basically tell a new story of the 20th century, maybe one of the very last new stories we’re capable of telling about that century. The basis of this new story is the research that economist Thomas Piketty has been doing into wealth in rich nations. He’s spent well over a decade studying the accumulation of wealth in a number of major Western nations—he’s pretty much analyzed it as far as possible, given the records that we have. This is an unprecedented study, a thing that, as he notes, would not have even been possible even 20 years earlier.

So here’s the main point of this book: Piketty has tracked wealth in a number of ways across several major economies, going back into the 19th century. He’s discovered that most of these pictures of wealth were static for most of the 19th century, fell off a cliff during the two 20th world wars, and are now in the process of going back to 19th-century levels. The rest of the book tries to explain why this is, just what it means, and its implications for capitalism in democratic societies.

I’m hesitant to sum up the book like this, because it’s such a wide-ranging, continually fascinating inquiry, that this really, really, really doesn’t do the book justice at all. But I wanted to give some idea of what the main thesis is.

The things Piketty has found out about how wealth is accumulated in a capitalist society, and why we’ve managed to attain the level of wealth distribution we currently have, and whether or not this distribution is a historical aberration, are all incredibly fascinating interesting, and, I would say, hugely important. I studied economics back in college, and this book has the feel of the major studies we were made to read back then . . . the sort of a book that students of the social sciences will be reading for a long time to come.

I’ve been thinking about Capital in the 21st Century a lot in terms of something like Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Even though they’re completely different—DeLillo writes postmodern fiction, and Pickney is an academic economist—they’re really doing the same thing: giving us a new narrative of the 20th century. A new narrative that brings out aspects of the story that have never before been systematically examined, and one with profound implications for the story our society tells us about its past, and our idea of where we’re headed in our future.

Yes, it’s true that Capital in the 21st Century is a serious work of economic thought, but it’s not an excessive technical, jargony read at all. The prose is very, very clear, and it’s a pretty fast read, considering what it sets out to do. Anyone with a decent education and some willingness to use their brain should be able to read it without much trouble. In fact, this is one of Piketty’s gifts: being able to take all the data he’s analyzed and put it into comprehensible, compelling narratives. He even invokes Austen and Balzac at many points to help get his points across (and, as he does it, this doesn’t feel pedantic or trite in the least).

Beyond all of its importance as a work of serious research that speaks to one of the defining questions of our time, this book is just plain fucking fascinating. I had no idea that until the 18th century there had been virtually no economic growth on Earth (as defined by the measurements we use today). Or that Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage law. Or that World War I was basically what finally destroyed the landed aristocracy in Europe. Or that, despite everything we hear about computers transforming society these days, the economic development we’re experiencing now is actually rather slow—and still slowing down—compared to other eras. Or that inflation is a purely 20th-century phenomenon and didn’t exist in earlier centuries (and Piketty ingeniously brings in Balzac and Austen to speak about this fact).

This is the sort of book that anyone who considers themselves a cultural critic should be conversant with. If you think about yourself as a “theory” person, this book definitely belongs on your shelf alongside your Baidou, your Deleuze and Guattari, your Rancierre, your Marx, etc, etc. Even people who think of themselves as more along the lines of strictly literary critics will find a lot here to put what they’re reading into a new perspective, particularly much of the postmodern fiction of the last few decades.

For instance, here’s a paragraph from the book that I tweeted about a week ago. It speaks to how a lot of the ideas in this book can put a lot of the most important literature of the 20th century in a new perspective:

I’m convinced that this book is absolutely a major work of social science that should and will have serious implications for anyone who reads it. But don’t take my word for it. Read Paul Krugman’s essay in the NYRB, where he basically talks about this book as a major work of economics that gives us a revolutionary understanding of our societies.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. 21st Century Lit It’s obviously a little early for this, but fun nonetheless: The Millions speculates about a 21st-century literature syllabus. They’re doing it on behalf of an...
  2. 21st-Century Modernism From a review of Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism, part of Jacket 2′s Marjorie Perloff celebration. 21st-Century Modernism is, we recall, a “manifesto.” As such, it...
  3. Making Bookstores Relevant for the 21st Century Some interesting ideas on how to make bookstores destinations here. Hint: “Real” books is point III, right after figuring out how to make customers purchase...
  4. 20th-Century Compositions A couple weeks ago, New Yorker critic Alex Ross gave an MP3-driven tour of 20th-century composition. These are works that do "not to represent all...
  5. 20 20th-Century Poetry Books Here is the list of 20 20th-century poetry books that poet and editor CJ Evans put together for me. (I'm posting this because some people...

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3 comments to Capital in the 21st Century

  • F.H.

    Your tweet there, ‘the roots of modernism,’ is extraordinarily apt. Josipovici would disagree, I suspect, but oh well. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since last year, and your post only serves to upset me further for the fact I’ve not yet got my hands on it.

  • P.

    Surely you’re not daft enough to think ‘modernism’ is the result of an economic fart.

  • I’ve been wondering why Amazon has been pushing this book on me when it normally never recommends me this type of nonfiction.

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