Favorite Reads of 2015: #2 Counternarratives by John Keene


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

The pieces in this book, which is comprised stories and novellas, are really just exquisite. One of the most apparent things about Counternarratives is that John Keene writes in a really lush, twisty register that runs counter to the very minimalist spareness that’s in style right now. I’d say that one of the reasons that spareness is currently au courant is because it’s far easier to master—and easier to teach in an MFA course—than the one Keene has chosen for these works. This is not a voice for beginners or dabblers, but, that said, Keene knows exactly how execute this sort of writing.

The pieces in Counternarratives were written over the course of years, and many have been published independently in various journals, but they all fit together so perfectly that they must have been written with some idea that they would one day form a larger whole. I think this sense of continuity is exactly what my friend Brad Johnson, bookseller extraordinaire at Diesel, a Bookstore, means every time he calls this book an “American Seiobo.” Each piece in Counternarratives has an independent life, but it’s also part of a larger project that’s moving forward through time and existing at various points of the New World, and inside of a wealth of different minds.

I would also suggest William T. Vollmann’s historical fictions of the Americas as a reference point for Counternarratives, for that’s exactly what this book is: fictions that begin with the colonization of Brazil and continue right up through the early 20th century, ending with a Beckettian alternate past/future. What’s truly astonishing is how Keene masters the voice of each era, not only finding the correct words and sentence structures but also being aware of the manners and preoccupations and methods of conveying information that would pertain to numerous different classes of individual writing in different forms at many different points in history. If a masterful novel is content to give you maybe 3 or 4 lifelike, idiosyncratic voices (at the most), Counternarratives gives you about 15, and they are all genuine, independently existing human beings, not mere pastiches or cheap impersonations.

And as the title suggests, these voices are the ones that have not been collected in the historical record. In effect, Keene is creating documents that fit into spaces where these voices might have existed, had they had the chance (and the education) to leave a written record of themselves. And this too is part of Counternarratives’ canvas: depicting these struggles to have a historical voice and to leave a mark. In fact, that very well may be the great theme running through this great book: the struggle to have a voice and to leave one’s mark on the world. It is a most human struggle that goes on today.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #1 Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Mann considered Joseph and His Brothers his “pyramid,” the monument that would withstand the decades and centuries as smaller works were ground to dust. Indeed, it is enormous: sixteen years to write, 1500 pages, four volumes, and it recounts one of the central stories in all of Western civilization.

Yet it is probably the least-read of Mann’s major books. I myself had read almost everything else of Mann’s of similar status before I got around to it this year, and I only did finally come toward it because of a fascination of the ancient world and its religions.

Although the story of Joseph is a central story in the Judaic and Christian religions, Mann did not write this book out of a religious fervor (his spirituality seemed to be more attuned to “peaceable homoeroticism“). Rather, Mann here is interested in the status of myth in our culture, how these religious stories came to dominate all life in the West, and how Western culture discovered its god. He is also utterly compelled by the ancient world, reading countless books to master its details so that he could render this alien landscape as precisely as possible.

Needless to say, this is not the Bible you may have been taught in Sunday school. The book’s 40-page prelude (“Descent into Hell”) is Mann at his most Borgesian, pondering just how much of our own history we can possibly know, and where exactly history descends into rumor and folktale before it stops entirely at the boundaries of the written record. He also wants to know how these stories have come down to us, and why in this form. Throughout the tetralogy, Mann draws freely from pagan and gnostic belief, as well as his own bizarre, 20th-century imagination.

This is a massive, deeply intellectual work, although the storytelling is brisk and vivid, and Mann’s sharp sense of irony is evident throughout. Which is to say, Joseph and His Brothers is as much as a bizarre old page-turner as are all of Mann’s large books. It fascinates, and jabs, on every page. It is indeed a pyramid: climb to its heights and you will see new things.

Leg over Leg in Paperback


A couple of year ago many of us were quite to see the emergence in English of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that kind of is a Tristram Shandy of Arabic literature. You can read the enthusiastic assessment at The Complete Review, and here’s some of what the TLS had to say:

Whatever its general maiden reception, the first publication in English from the Arabic of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s four-volume nineteenth-century comic masterpiece, Leg over Leg, will eventually be acknowledged as one of the most important translations of the twenty-first century . . .

The only problem was that this gorgeous, hardcover, bilingual edition came out in four volumes that, collectively would set you back $125.00.

Happily, now the publisher has seen fit to release the entire book in a handy two volumes that will only cost you $17.00 each. They’re no longer bilingual (which you probably didn’t want anyway), but they do retain about 150 pages of helpful endnotes and an index. So now you have no reason not to read this amazing book.

Some Thoughts on Gender


I’ve spent a great deal of the past year writing a book on gender, or more specifically a book on my gender, and why I feel quite ambiguous about being male. I’ve learned that in this area of thought conclusions are very hard to come by, and they’re apt to change as you learn more about yourself, but I think I’ve managed to figure out at least one thing that feels pretty solid. This is it: my interest in being female is as least equally as much a disinterest in being male. Or to put it a different way, what my mind and body experienced as a desire to be female, was at least partially a desire to open up a space outside of the popular perception of masculinity. At the time this was the only way my mind knew how to make that request.

These reflections are occasioned by something I read by Rebecca Solnit today in Lit Hub. As I was reading Solnit’s piece right here, it occurred to me that this sense of alienation from conventional masculinity is probably a very widespread thing, even if I doubt that many men would feel compelled to choose the methods I have for working out that sense of alienation. In her piece, Solnit is writing against a really dumb list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” that appeared in Esquire magazine. But what she’s really writing against is the kind of idea of masculinity promulgated by magazines like Esquire.

Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.

Now I don’t mean to say that Esquire exerts some occult force upon the men of the world, forcing them to live up to idiotic stereotypes about what it takes to be a man, no more than does Cosmopolitan force every woman to live up to its own cheap ideas of femininity. And Solnit isn’t arguing this. What she is arguing, and where I agree with her, is that these types of stereotypes are very prevalent in our culture, so prevalent that there is a very real pressure to live up to them. Not in the sense that every man is going to do exactly what Esquire says, but in a more general sense that there’s a certain burden that needs to be lived up to, and that you receive these messages every single day from a million different points of entry. And of course this goes for women as well.

There are differences between the expectations placed on women and on men, and where I might draw one of the most important differences would be that there are a lot of forces advocating on behalf of women’s rights to not be a Cosmo stereotype of femininity. Nowadays there are lots of people invested in delivering the message telling women to be themselves, and to not be coerced by what the mass culture is telling them to do. There’s a very established set of theory and literature arguing exactly why women should not feel compelled to receive these messages. Which I think is fantastic, and which I wholeheartedly support. And it goes to show you how deep these cultural stereotypes can get into our skulls, as these counter-arguments need to be repeated all the time in a million different ways, just to keep pushing back at what the dominant culture is trying to force into women’s heads. While I think analogous counter-forces exist for men as well, I don’t think they’re nearly as strong, and I think the options allowed for men are much more narrow. I think this is what it boils down to when Solnit writes that, “I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man.”

This, at any rate, is how it has felt for me. What became clear as I wrote this book on gender is that, essentially, I had to create a whole alternative identity for myself, and an alternative system of logic to go with it, in order to give myself some sort of psychological grounding with which to step down from the ranks of the masculine men. To repeat, I don’t think it’s necessarily that every man at odds with the idiotic burdens of masculinity will step back as I have stepped back, and nor do I think many men even want to step back from these burdens. Probably many people don’t even recognize these questions as burdens and are perfectly fine being men and women in the mold that society wishes. I, however, have opted out, and I do think that this choice necessitates a kind of inner struggle to find a way to do so.

And, interestingly, what helped me a lot in this struggle was feminist theory and feminist literature. As I began to read more and more from that school of writing, I began to understand how difficult it had been for the first generations of feminists to step back from the dictates of the culture at large and to simply be the kind of woman that they felt compelled to be. That in a very real sense the writing they did was necessary to them finding the way to rebel against their culture and be as they wished to be. A lot of their arguments and methods and emotions resonated powerfully for me, and these writings were instrumental in showing me my own way forward.

I think that, in general, the matter of determining what one’s own gender is and how one wishes to express it is rather confusing and challenging, and the interference from the dominant culture makes things even more confusing and challenging than they would be already. Writing this book—which entailed going back to Day One of my conception of gender and recounting every important fact I could get a hold of—was a process that showed me just how confusing everything had been, and how difficult it was to even get to a place where I could begin to sort it out. This has perhaps been the most insidious burden of all—that it took so much struggle just to reach a place from which I could begin to systematically unwind these questions. i don’t at all think that I have exhausted these questions for myself by writing this book, but I have reached a very important point of vantage now, where I can really think clearly about these things. I hope that, if they wish it, everyone who reads this website can reach the same point of self-realization and self-understanding.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [2]


Following up on last week’s post, I’d like to take a moment here to write a little more about the literary reportage work that’s happening in Poland. To my mind, Poland is a nation that has not lacked for interesting world lit, and I think that the reportage happening there is one of the most interesting things going on.

First, a really quick review of just what reportage is. The best-known author by far is Ryszard Kapuściński, frequent Nobel candidate, author of some verified classics of Polish literature (and someone who is not even close to being translated in full).

For those who think reportage might be a tough sell in the U.S., let me point you to a more recent example of the genre: Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), published in 2013 by Melville House. Despite being about the (some might say) obscure subject of “the Czech half of the former Czechoslovakia”, Gottland received to raves from the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and Julian Barnes. Apparently it sold out quick, as it is no longer available and copies now go on Amazon for $60.00 (I hope Melville House reprints it soon).

One of the publishers that I found there was Dowody na Istnienie (“Evidence of Existence”), which is affiliated with the Reportage Institute that I mentioned in my Lit Hub piece. To be perfectly clear about it, the Reportage Institute is an umbrella organization that oversees the Polish Reportage School, the Wrzenie Świata Bookstore, and the Dowody na Istnienie publishing house. It is run run by the legendary reportage authors Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. At the book expo that ran concurrent to the Conrad Festival in Kraków I met Kamil Bałuk, who was a former student at the School and a reportage writer, and is the coordinator of the School of Reportage and an editor with the press. He was manning the booth behind a bunch of very intriguing books of reportage that I lamented that I could not read. Among the authors here were the legendary Hanna Krall, as well as Aleksandar Hemon.


Kamil is a young, hip guy with a beard and glasses, and during one of our conversations he told me about an amazing, multi-week road trip he and his wife recently took across the United States. Said trip involved some couch surfing, including one overnight stay in the house of a certified gun nut who owned multiple guns and slept with a loaded one clenched in his hand. If I had overnighted it in the Polish countryside with some guy clutching a shotgun, I would have been terrified.

This is what Sean Bye, a Polish translator with two books forthcoming and an employee of Polish Cultural Institute New York (as well as my guide around Kraków and all-around amazing human being), told me about Dowody na Istnienie publisher:

Dowody na Istnienie has two main series they’re doing: Faktyczny Dom Kultury (which would translate as something like “Factual Cultural Center”), which is their series of rediscovered classics of reportage, and the Reporter’s Series, contemporary writing.

From the Classic series, I think the most interesting book is Wiesław Łuka’s “I Won’t Swear Myself.” A family feud in small-town Poland, set off by some sausage stolen at a wedding, culminates in three people being deliberately run over by a hijacked bus full of terrified locals. At the trial, the perpetrators refuse to testify, instead repeating an odd, ungrammatical Polish phrase translating roughly as ‘I won’t swear myself.’ The witnesses also refuse to testify, and the whole town basically ends up on trial. The book was first published in the 70s and was basically forgotten about until Mariusz rediscovered the author a few years ago.

[Note: I kept hearing about this one while in Poland, and it sounds absolutely like a Polish In True Blood. I would really like to read this book one day.]

From the contemporary series, Robert Rient’s book “Witness” is about a young man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness who leaves the church and is cut off by his friends and family. I haven’t read it, but it’s purported to be great.

While I was in Kraków I also met with the head of the publishing house Znak, which does a broad range of titles, including some of the leading reportage work. Znak was founded in 1959, and it has the distinction of remaining independent during the Communist era (during which many publishers were taken over by the state). I met Znak’s avuncular publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose office is adorned with a poster of two rhinos fucking (captioned “make love not war”) and memorabilia from Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived for a spell in Kraków and was a personal friend of Illg’s. In Polish Znak is the publisher of authors including Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Szymborska, and, of course, Miłosz.


One of the best authors in their catalog is Małgorzata Szejnert, who is an acknowledged master of reportage but has never been translated into English. She’s written books on Zanzibar, Ellis Island, Poland in World War II, and most recently, one about Belarus called Usypać Góry (“Raising Mountains”). I happened to look through the one on Ellis Island while in Znak’s offices, and it sounds like an amazing book—basically all of these stories of people who passed through the Island on their way to America. Sort of an outsider’s/immigrant’s view of one of the most hallowed pieces of this nation’s myth and history. Below, in a spread from Usypać Góry, you can see the time-honored usage of images in reportage titles.


Znak also publishes Grazyna Jagielska, who is the wife of the noted reportage author Wojciech Jagielski, an author known for risking his life in war zones (and whose Burning the Grass was just published by Seven Stories Press in Antonia Lloyd-Janes’s translation). Jagielska has written a reportage book about the immense mental pressures involved in being the wife of a man who regularly leaves home for months at a time and puts his life in peril. She also published an amazing-sounding book called “Angels Eat Three Times a Day” about her time in a mental hospital. I really wish her books were available in English.

I also saw some very fascinating works by an author named Andrzej Szczeklik, who seemed to write books roughly comparable to Roberto Calasso’s. In particular, I flipped through the Polish edition of his amazing, genre-bending Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, published in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation by Counterpoint in 2012. To give an idea of this book’s range, it included a series of full-color reproductions of works of art from various eras, which are integrate into Szczeklik’s rather wide-ranging meditation on illness and medicine. This is one I’m glad I can read right this second.

Lastly I should mention Sean Bye’s two forthcoming reportage translations. The first is Watercolors by Lidia Ostałowska (forthcoming from Zubaan Books), about the Czech Jewish artist Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt who survived Auschwitz (forthcoming from Zubaan Books). During my trip to Kraków I was able to travel to Auschwitz, and they actually had some of Gottliebova-Babbitt’s watercolors on display, which she made at the request of Josef Mengele, and through which she was able to save the lives of herself and her mother. The second title is “Remember the People of Kupferberg” (working title) by Filip Springer, about the German mining town of Kupferberg, which was handed over to Poland after World War II and had its population evicted and replaced by Poles from the east, before finally being abandoned as the mines closed in the ’60s and ’70s (forthcoming from Restless Books). They both sound like hugely worthwhile books that speak to the history that is still playing itself out in Europe, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled for their eventual release.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [1]


I was recently a guest of the Polish Book Institute in Kraków, Poland, where I saw the wonderful Conrad Festival that is conducted in that city every year, as well as a lot of Polish publishers doing very interesting work.

Some of this I wrote about for a recent piece in Literary Hub, and some of it I’m going to write about in this space. I think I’m going to have to do it in true lazy blogger style, which will mean writing about it bit by bit over the course of a while. But I think it’s very worthwhile stuff to talk about, and there are so many worthy authors that have not had the chance of being published in English, so I hope you all will be interested to read about this. And the publishers out there should want to publish more of these books.

Kraków was the seventh UNESCO City of Literature, and there is quite a bit going on in this city. A couple of the key authors that I heard about on this trip, Hanna Krall and Olga Tokarczuk, have had some books in English, although perhaps not with the reception they deserve. Tokarczuk, who is often described as Poland’s leading author, and whom some mentioned as a future Nobel candidate, has only two books in English. They are House of Day, House of Night, which came out in 2003 with Northwestern University Press, and Primeval and Other Times, which came out a while ago with Twisted Spoon and has recently gotten a U.S. release of sorts. There are still many other books of hers to be translated, including her enormous The Books of Jacob (which I discuss in the Lit Hub piece), and Runners, which Jennifer Croft has received two grants to translate.

Hanna Krall, whom many consider the leading living writer in Poland’s nonfiction reportage genre, has scattered a number of books in English, although i do not think any of them has managed significant regard. The most recent in the U.S. was The Woman from Hamburg: and Other True Stories from Other Press in 2006. In 2017 Feminist Press will publish Chasing the King of Hearts, which many people told me is her masterpiece. Peirene Press published it a couple of years ago in the UK, and if you’re living somewhere else you can illegally buy a copy from a 3rd-party vendor on Amazon.

If you’re itching to see more of this reportage genre face to face, Seven Stories has just published Burning the Grass by the noted writer Wojciech Jagielski, translated by the remarkable Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This is a book about South African apartheid, and frankly I’m quite eager to see the Polish perspective on apartheid and the resistance movement, given everything that nation has endured in its history.

There are so many more titles in this genre that have never been translated. I’d like to share a few of them in a future post. But for now, perhaps these two authors will suffice if you’re interested in learning more.

The Bookstore Made By the Bookseller That Thinks Books Are a Pure Commodity


Aside from the bemusement of seeing a bricks and mortar bookstore launched by the online retailer that led a million pundits to declare the death of the bricks and mortar bookstore, I’m genuinely curious to see what Amazon thinks a bookstore should be for the reason that the Amazon website was founded on the principle that books were a pure commodity. That is, that any copy of a book was perfectly exchangable with any other copy of that same book, and all you needed to do to sell them was to find the person who wanted to buy that particular book.

Interestingly, though, Dustin Kurtz’s delightful overview of Amazon’s first physical bookstore seems to indicate that Amazon is departing from that ideology:

Amazon Books is paying its booksellers well—wages begin at $18 an hour, with benefits. That’s well above starting rates at most indies; it also comes in ahead of Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage. The effort Amazon had to exert to recruit these talented booksellers—they were noticeably good at their jobs—and the wages they’ve had to offer, stand in an odd juxtaposition to one of the central ideas of the site. Take the shelf-talkers. Amazon has always asserted that there is value—financial and culturally—to letting readers decide which books are good. Now, not only are they bringing in gatekeepers (the press release uses the word “curator”) to tweak and hone those lists of books, and to present the books in an attractive and reasonably intelligent manner, but they’ve had to pay them well in order to bring them into the Amazon fold. This is, first, one of Amazon’s occasional seemingly accidental acts of decency in their continued expansion, but it is also a hell of a big asterisk on what has been their guiding principle: that books are all made equal and people can choose what they want with little oversight or guidance.

Of course, this is still Amazon after all, so one can’t expect them to depart entirely from their books-as-pure-commodity orthodoxy. I’m interested to see where this goes. Unless this is really just the whim of an over-empowered Amazon middle manager, there is obviously a bigger strategy here. But, of course, Amazon is famous for just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and I’m sure they’ve spent far more on long-since-discarded algorithms and apps than this whole store cost to set up, so maybe this is just a whim.

On Hating Difficult Literature


I’ve published an essay at Entropy about my frustration with the idea of “difficult” literature.

I get it why this word is used so much. Some books can be read much more quickly than others, some require you to stretch the resources you’ve got or discover new ones. I understand all that, and there are many different kinds of reading experiences, but I really despise people calling books “difficult.” To me, that’s a very lazy shorthand for what they really want to say about these books, and I think it does everyone involved a disservice. It scares people away from great literature they should be reading, it creates dichotomies where none actually exist, and it’s just not an interesting way to talk about these books.

I should say that I’ve often been guilty of relying on this crutch, and I’ve started making a concerted effort to get this word out of my writing (that was part of the impetus for this piece). The essay deals with some other ways we might start talking about these books, plus why we’ve come to use this term and what we actually mean when we say “difficult.

Three Recommendations


Three books I’ve been enjoying recently that you might want to take a look at.

Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you is a lyric essay by Janice Lee, a little bit of John D’Agata, a little Roland Barthes. About the sudden death of the author’s mother, this book feels as though it’s a private letter being written to the reader, it’s just that immediate and striking. It’s passionate, but not melodramatic, very purposeful and effective in what it does. Here’s a review.

The Strangest by Michael Seidlinger is a contemporary take on Camus’s The Stranger. He takes us into the consciousness of a person so withdrawn that he must have some sort of social anxiety disorder; every bit as affectless as Camus’s stranger, his smartphone is his only lifeline of communication with people, even when they’re right on the subway with him. I like how the author constructs the protagonist’s consciousness, with the integration of social media being elegant and measured, and I particularly like a few pivotal scenes where what is happening is carefully elided by the author—it’s very effective. Here’s an excerpt.

Sebald’s Vision is the most recent entry in the genre of Sebald criticism, this one by Carol Jacobs. This is an academic text, but it avoids the traps of academic writing and is, in fact, quite well-written and with interesting takes on a sizable portion of Sebald’s body of work. There are real insights here for people who like Sebald, or the themes he covered. There’s a review of the book here, and you can have a look at it for yourself in Google preview.

Pillars: #4. River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

When I was younger, I had very little knowledge what the modern world was. Like everyone, I lived in it, so in theory I should have been a specialist on this question. Like everyone, I was taught in school about industrialization and the working class, I had been taught to say bourgeoisie, we had even learned a bit about fascism and communism and the great wars that had decided that they would not be suitable forms of government. In theory I knew very much about the modern world, but the fact is that we all are so extremely close to modernity that it is difficult to make interesting observations about it, just as we have to learn to see ourselves with the acuity of a Proust in order to be good observers of our nature.

In those days I still had very little idea what separated my world from the medieval one, other than that we didn’t die of infected wounds any longer and we could get around much more easily. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows was one of the first things I read that systematically attempted to explain a significant chunk of the ideology governing our world, and where these ideas had come from. It succeeded magnificently, making this explanation into a story that could easily engage a mind, but without neglecting the rigor that such aspirations required. Because of that, River of Shadows was not only a formative intellectual experience for me, it was also a key aesthetic one, pointing the way to the sort of book-length essay I would one day wish to write myself.

So what is this book about? Well, the two inventions at the heart of it are the photograph and the railroad. They are two inventions that Solnit argues have played an outsized role in forming the modern consciousness. Photography allowed us to see the world in ways it had never been seen before. For the first time, humans might know what a horse looked like in mid-gallop, or they might examine the beautiful patterns made by water droplets springing up in the aftermath of a splash. Before photography we did not have the technology to record details that would only exist for a fraction of a second—it was a whole new world opening up for us, a visual, artistic, and scientific revolution. In addition, before widespread photography we did not have the capabilities to record images of moments from our lives, nor to easily see what diverse places all over the Earth looked like: photography began a drastic re-shaping of our memories, and thus our conception of ourselves as individuals that existed over a long span of time within a vast and changing world.

As to railroads, they allowed the mass transportation of human beings and commodities farther and faster than ever had before. As railroads propagated, we began to see that our common understanding of time was not sufficient for the new reality they wrought. Time zones were invented so that there was some logical cohesion operating over where and when a train departed, and where and when it arrived. Similarly, railroads forced the dissemination and orchestration of timekeeping so that railroad schedules could be kept. Never before had such a broad section of humanity known the exact time of day, and never had we been so aware that time as measured by a clock might govern our life. Railroads also forced new conceptions of distance: whereas previously individuals might have lived their entire lives within a radius of a few miles, now it was quite common to travel much greater distances, and it was possible for there to be levels of exchange and interdependence never before imaginable.

It is not hard to see how these ideas would prove pertinent to a reader in 2003, when this book was originally published, or even today. Concepts of time, speed, and distance—mastering them, or fearing being mastered by them—are of course central preoccupations of our conversations. Just look around social media for all the think-pieces about the pace of life these days, or how much time we spend working now that we’re on-call 24 hours every day. River of Shadows attempts to locate the beginnings of these lines of thought, and for me these ideas were transformative in establishing my concept of what this world I lived in was.


If photographs and railroads are the central inventions in River of Shadows, the central actor in this book is the inventor and photographer Edweard Muybridge: he’s probably best-known for his motion-studies of humans and animals, the most famous of which finally settled the debate over whether all four of a horse’s hooves were ever off the ground during a gallop. Muybridge, an adventurer who was acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover for reason of justifiable homicide, made possible modern photography and film through the high-speed emulsions that he invented. Prior to Muybridge’s inventions, it would take minutes to made a single photograph in broad daylight; obviously this would not do for the sort of stop-action photography that was Muybridge’s goal, and nor would it have been possible to creation motion pictures with such technology.

What struck me as I read River of Shadows was how Muybridge’s compelling personality let Solnit create an absorbing narrative for her book, and how it also enlivened her imagination and her diction. This compelling figure and his compelling story granted her the narrative momentum to layer her book with philosophical digressions on the nature of the modern consciousness. As I read, I understood that Muybridge was this spine that allowed the book to be a book-length essay, and not a collection of essays on a shared theme. I also saw that it was his compelling story that allowed the book to appeal to a broad audience of readers, and which allowed it to achieve a success that most of her previous titles had not. Comprehending this was a revelation; as I looked around, I began to see that many of my favorite book-length essays had adopted a similar tactic, layering philosophical heft and dense observation on top of what they hoped to be a compelling through-line.


I think what also appealed to me about River of Shadows was how much original research was in this book. This was an important thing, because I had always known that the university system was not one that I wanted any part of, even though I very much wanted to be a part of the conversation of ideas to which it laid claim. I knew that I wanted my writing to be rigorous, and well-researched, and, if possible, to make an original contribution the world of ideas. I just wanted to do all of this outside of the academy. River of Shadows was exactly this book. It showed me a way to do this sort of writing beyond the university system—it proved that such work could be done independently, and it showed that such an independent endeavor could have a very serious impact (the book was broadly received, sold well, and received a National Book Critics Circle Award).

It was also a very personal book, one in which Solnit allows her subjective passion and admiration for certain ideas and individuals to emerge. And this was a formative thing for me as well, because even then I believed in the importance that subjectivity could make to an intellectual inquiry, and I felt that many of the best and most lasting ideas have come about because certain people allowed their obsessions to gain some influence over their pen. I think it is seeing the value in this sort of passion, and in knowing how to carefully walk that line between the subjective and the objective that allows a person like Solnit to write a book like this. And I think that, ultimately, this is what allows a thinker to be original. Reading this book, I was able to explain to myself why I had been right not to choose the university as the arena in which I would attempt to think original thoughts.

Reviewing River of Shadows for The New Republic, David Thomson wrote, “even if River of Shadows is finally as beyond categorization as it is marred by its very large assertions, still it is a book of enormous intelligence and fascination.” He proceeds to take Solnit to task for claiming too much. Well, first, I find that a strange critique to be lodged by a man who once wrote a very good book about how Psycho changed film forever, unleashing a new sort of passion and horror into our consciousness. Just as Thompson chides Solnit that someone else would have inspired film if not Muybridge, we could equally tell Thompson that there were many people other than Hitchcock working toward inventing the slasher-flick-as-art. In both books, this critique is beside the point. Both of them succeed for the same reason, the grand narratives they create in spite of the nitpicking that can be applied to either. Certainly you could similarly nitpick many great essayists and thinkers who have offered us master narratives. Great ideas are not imagined and propagated by writers concerned that they will be nitpicked to death. Yes, if Muybridge had not invented high-speed emulsions, someone else would have. I do not think it is Solnit’s point that only he could have done it. I think her point is to tell the story of the visionary who did create these inventions, to understand why it was he, and the world that he operated in.

I like that in River of Shadows, as elsewhere, Rebecca Solnit shows the sort of courage and ambition that Thomson unfairly criticizes her for, the same qualities that have made Thomson himself such an original writer on film. It is what gives their writing the quality of vision. Of course, courage and ambition alone are not enough; far too many of our would-be visionaries are nearsighted without realizing it, lacking the kind of perspective and insight needed to make interesting observations about out world. They and their clickbait fodder are easy enough to dismiss. River of Shadows, however, is not dismissible (even Thomson will admit that). It ignited in me untold numbers of thoughts, and it put my thinking onto a new plane. It was certainly one of the beginnings of a true understanding of what our world is.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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