For a book designer, walking (or surfing) into a bookstore can be overwhelming — an effect not so much Stendhal syndrome as, say, a couture seamstress walking into a department store. This year I’ve struggled with fiction fatigue and a shattered concentration (Nicholas Carr blames the net). Reading happened in a strange zone — firewalled from the stop-go of daily life.
The book industry has suddenly, shockingly, entered its own strange zone, a state of imminent crisis as it slips from brute pulp to the ethereal electronic. As Malcolm Fraser predicted, Life wasn’t meant to be e-asy.
Here are some books which have found long term storage in my biosoftware in 2010.
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The iPad — it changed everything. Despite early reports that it wasn’t a really revolutionary device, it really was. It’s the harbinger of the believable new — we didn’t believe, and now we do. It was proof that e-books can look good, and really sharp, and be read in the dark, and with type as big as your father-in-law likes (and you can surf when not reading.) The iPad is the first locust, or first robin, or first blossom. The rest are coming, slates and tablets and pads, soon, and suddenly. People, get ready.
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Reality Hunger by David Shields
Easily the most engaging book of my year. This book of literary criticism is an extremely curious animal with which I argued for the course of its 618 entries; marginalia infests my copy. A holiday book, I read it in cars, at restaurants, at bars, with friends. Its ironic subtitle is ‘A Manifesto,’ and Shields’ aim is to disabuse fiction of its established claims on our goodwill. He wants to knee the belletrist tradition, he wants to mix it up — reality writing (ideas, memoirs, essays) crossed with fictionalised narratives. It’s excited the natives from San Francisco to London. Zadie Smith stages a defense against ‘novel-nausea’ (bits here and here). Jonathan Lethem says, ‘I’m lit up by it — astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed.’
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NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi
The single most beautiful book I’ve seen all year. It’s also unexpectedly inspiring. An impossible cookbook of the most original dishes, this comes from the chef of the restaurant voted the best in the world. I was talking to a Danish friend over coffee and he said that he had merely walked past NOMA in Copenhagen as he couldn’t afford to eat there — 3 courses a la carte or a 7 course tasting menu costs around 1000 Kroner, or AUD180 (not inc. plonk). He explained it was all about simplicity, going back to the basics — the available produce in the Scandinavian region. That’s what the book says too, somewhat disingenuously, but what I love about it is its outrageously extreme ideas and the remarkable style of their presentation. (The photography is sumptuous, the typography bold but judicious.) One feels like one might paint differently, reading this book. As the chef author once said, ‘Give people something unique, whether they like it or not.’
Top left, Dessert of Flowers, top right, Pork Neck and Bulrushes, Violets and Malt.
Don’t try this at home: Left page above is Pig Tails and Potato Skins, Cep Oil and Wood Chips. The recipe includes these instructions: ‘Cook in the oven for 10 hours.’; ‘… cook in a water bath at 80C for 12 hours.’; ‘Toast wood chips in a pan to release the aromas and pour the bouillon over them. Let it infuse for 5-8 minutes, then strain the bouillon and add the birch wine to taste.’
Above right page is Langoustine and Sea Flavours: ‘Place 6-7 dots of oyster emulsion on a stone of a suitably large size…’
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I’d been meaning to read this genre classic for ages and did it this year, on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Here’s the substantial Wikipedia entry, but briefly it’s a post-apocalyptic novel in three books, about the life and movements in a Catholic monastery in the American desert. Fiat Homo is set in the 26th century, Fiat Lux in 3174, and Fiat Voluntas Tua in 3781. Canticle is about ‘the cyclical theme of technological progress and regress,’ about religion and science and the ‘search for truth and the state’s power.’ Erudite, alertly humourous and unpredictable, it’s quite as good as they all say; in 1970 Time recanted on its first opinion to deliver this backhand: ‘an extraordinary novel even by literary standards.’ Someone was even inspired to write a ‘possible soundtrack for the blessed tale.’ Electronic ambient music — it’s good.
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Gibson, the fleet leader of the cyberpunks, coiner of “cyberspace,” returned this year with his post-scifi novel Zero History (post-SF because we’ve finally caught up — we live as he writ). I liked it a lot. James Bradley has written pin-point reviews of the three books and the Gibsonian Weltanshauung. I revisited his early collection of short stories, Burning Chrome, published in 1986. They blew up the future as we knew it, redirected SF and emplaced a new source of genre energy. It reads like new.
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Radio National’s Book Show — Invaluable, irreplaceable, expansive, ecumenical and pretty much unique in the world, the Book Show is the national literary treasure. Rock on, the Ramonas, Hey Ho, Let’s Go! (*Okay, the treasure is our network of public, state and national libraries — we really shouldn’t take that for granted.)
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City of Tongues — novelist James Bradley‘s literarily inclined blog. Bookish, exceptionally nuanced, and taking in personal interests spanning musical enthusiasms, Battlestar Galactica, ebook design, WikiLeaks et al.
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Bolaño’s posthumously published novel — the dying author wrote it to leave an income for his family — now in English translation, it has been received by the world’s literati with rapture and ecstacy. I carried it on holidays with some misgivings, as it weighs in at just over 1 kg, a seventh of cabin luggage allowance. 2666 is the ultimate shaggy dog — I was entranced and irritated in various measures; but the hypnotic rhythm seduces an acquiescence on a journey that seems to go everywhere, and on, and on.
His techniques are pretty fancy, especially the sleight of hand where he goes hyperbolic, followed by an anticlimactic reversal: ‘…very tall, a man of turly great height.’ … ‘Although by the way she said it, Archimboldi might as well have been a dwarf.’ He does this trick regularly, and almost always footfaults this reader. The effect is one of bemusement, and a kind of suspension of … commitment. That is, I was invested in the telling of the story, rather than the characters, if that’s possible.
As it was, the duration of my holiday only afforded reading 383 pages out of 898. Whatever, it’s ambrosia for those susceptible to narrative magic.
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London Review of Books — even when the LRB isn’t talking about stuff I care about, it’s really good. Londoners, they do literature and politics like breathing.
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The Unfinished Poems by C.P. Cavafy, translated and with notes by Daniel Mendelsohn
The great Cavafy’s poems do what they do: they talk the ancients as if we’re sitting in a three thousand year old parlour, sunlight pouring through the window; or they nurse on the sexy memories of a feverish youth. Mendelsohn’s translation seems effortlessly dignified, easily demotic. And his loving notes, occupying two-thirds of the book, are a generous enhancement.
‘. . . The Alexandrians, / who love to chaff, bestowed on them the right / names, without a doubt. More suitable for them are / “Interloper” and “Potbelly” and “Chickpea” and “Scarlet” / than Ptolemy, than Cleopatra.’
The Niagara River by Kay Ryan
America’s previous poet laureate. A collection from 2005, full of great lines, her unmistakable, prickly, vertical stacks. Like this enblematic On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up:
One does not stack.
It would be like
a mouse on the back
of a mouse
on a mouse’s back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers
a wobbling tower
with nothing more
than a mouse inside.
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T H I S S U M M E R
A Life in Pictures by Alasdair Gray
The extraordinary autopictography (author’s term) of the extraordinary writer, artist and all-out eccentric. You may recall or have heard of his wild, debut masterpiece, Lanark, written over three decades. RB Kitaj said, Some books have pictures, some pictures have books. Here’s that book, here are those pictures: this book, which Gray wrote and designed, is dense with a lifetime of images — his drawings and paintings and book designs and murals (!) — all of which are imprinted by a peculiarly distinctive mind and hand, a fluent awkwardness. He even includes three chapters on artist friends whom he feels have been under-appreciated, and a postscript promoting a charity for an epileptic friend. Gray’s “success” came late in life; he is now seventy-six and this book is a stunning, irreducibly odd monument to a great Scot. (I’ve been luxuriating in an advance copy. It’s published in Australia Jan. 4, 2011.)
‘Inge was not jealous of women I painted so my love of this tall, blonde, beautiful woman did not make my marriage stormier. Before Marion moved to London in the mid 1970s I often drew her. She seemed to be the heroine of a great drama that had somehow missed her. Like many of us she certainly felt that way.’ — from page 126
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On my summer reading list. Our friend Claire’s superb bit of scholarship — Huang Binhong is her specialty — on one of the last of China’s brush and ink masters and his frendship with a young, cosmopolitan critic. The revered Huang died in 1955, at age 90, which saved him from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Fou Lei and his wife, Zhu Meifu, committed suicide in 1966 to avoid it. Friendship in Art — a rare thing in a hard time.
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Just Kids by Patti Smith
What I would like to read over the break. Life with Robert Mapplethorpe as young scragglemuffin artists in the zip zap art world of New York. You just know it’s going to swing. (Recent winner of the US National Book Award.)
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