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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Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

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Tale of Genji

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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

  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

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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  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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