Stuff I've Been Reading

For what I intend to read, have a look at my Amazon Wishlist. You can also follow me on Goodreads. My favourites are here.

Read: December 2017

He had not merely said "welcome" but "welcome back", as though he somehow knew that she was back. She thanked him, and in the grey of the evening darkness, the air burdened with smells, she ached with an almost unbearable emotion that she could not name. It was nostalgic and melancholy, a beautiful sadness for the things she had missed and the things she would never know. Later, sitting on the couch in Ranyinudo's small stylish living room, her feet sunk into the too-soft carpet, the flat-screen TV perched on the opposite wall, Ifemelu looked unbelievingly at herself. She had done it. She had come back.

How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.

Ifemelu decided to stop faking an American accent on a sunlit day in July, the same day she met Blaine. It was convincing, the accent. She had perfected, from careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with "so," and the sliding response of "oh really," but the accent creaked with consciousness, it was an act of will. It took an effort, the twisting of lip, the curling of tongue. If she were in a panic, or terrified, or jerked awake during a fire, she would not remember how to produce those American sounds.

Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.

In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.

And so began her heady days full of cliché: she felt fully alive, her heart beat faster when he arrived at the door, and she viewed each morning like the unwrapping of a gift. [...] This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.

When she told him about her American life, he listened with a keenness close to desperation. He wanted to be part of everything she had done, be familiar with every emotion she had felt. Once she had told him, "The thing about cross-cultural relationships is that you spend so much time explaining. My ex-boyfriends and I spent a lot of time explaining. I sometimes wondered whether we would even have anything at all to say to each other if we were from the same place."

Each memory stunned her with its blinding luminosity. Each brought with it a sense of unassailable loss, a great burden hurtling towards her, and she wished she could duck, lower herself so that it would bypass her, so that she would save herself.

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Read: December 2017

Nothing in the world, I thought to myself, is as old as what was futuristic in the past.

Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of building features in the memory, even if that memory was then projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and the chin? He could, of course, enumerate the features: gray-blue eyes, what they call a full mouth, thick eyebrows that she was probably careful to have threaded, a small scar high on the left cheek, and so on. And sometimes these features did briefly integrate into an higher-order unity, as letters integrate into words, words into sentence. But like words dissolving into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and plots, combining these element into a face required forgetting them, letting them dematerialize into an effect, and that somehow never happened for long with Hannah.

"I promised to pass through a series of worlds with you," I remembered from her vows.

His narrator was characterized above all by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation.

So much of the most important personal news I'd received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone while I was abroad in the city that I could plot on a map, could represent spatially the events, such as they were, of my early thirties. Place a thumbtack on the wall or drop a flag on Google Maps at Lincoln Center, where, beside the fountain, I took a call from Jon informing me that, for whatever complex of reasons, a friend had shot himself; mark the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, where I read the message ("Apologies for the mass e-mail...") a close cousin sent out describing the dire condition of her newborn; waiting in line at the post office on Atlantic, the adhan issuing from the adjacent mosque, I received your wedding announcement and was shocked to be shocked, crushed, and started a frightening multi week descent, worse for being so embarrassingly cliched; while in the bathroom at the SoHo Crate and Barrel--the finest semipublic restroom in lower Manhattan--I learned I'd been awarded a grant that would take me overseas for a summer, and so came to associate the corner of Broadway and Houston with all that transpired in Morocco; at Zucotti Park I heard my then-girlfriend was not--as she'd been convinced--pregnant; while buying discounted dress socks at the Century 21 department store across from Ground Zero, I was informed by text that a friend in Oakland had been hospitalized after the police had broken his ribs. And so on: each of these experiences of reception remained, as it were, in situ, so that whenever I returned to a zone where significant news had been received, I discovered that the news and an echo of its attendant affect still awaited me like a curtain of beads.

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Read: October 2017

What was once fully there, absented itself over time in tiny increments, each one unnoticed by me. I recall now a fragment of something hard and white in the sink, something soft torn and vinegary in the bedside waste-basket. A tooth, a stockings, what I remember least.

Ellen’s voice has gone. First, I lost what she had said, all those everyday weaves of words that make one belong or angry or lost. Then I forgot how she spoke: the pitch, the timbre, the rhythm. Maybe she was one of those people whose everyday statement rises querulously at the end, suggesting that everything is in question. I say something aloud; I think I might have forgotten what the human voice sounds like.

Following the beautiful or ugly animal necessities, pretence is how life comes about. Pretence shaped by the pretence of others, pressured by time like air weighing on a lake, or rock saddled on rock, or great, impermanent expanses of nothing grinding away on nothing. I told myself I had governance over the passing objects, some of them personas. I acted part of a part that was necessary. I read enchantment in everything dead. How fresh and lovely is disbelief, flowering in the mind. I faked enlightenment. I made a flicker. What exactly? Mush in the head. Thinking, thinking.

Play is not fun. It is what we must do in order to live. If I win I might live well before I die but, nonetheless, I experience the aguish of playing the game. Anxiety is the primary condition of play. Our smiles are grimaces. Our laughter: the sound of rage surging up from out guts. Most of you people are the product of a mentality that see idleness as the enemy of material progress.

Disenchantment is how the game ends. The rules become, not just apparent, but the only visible part of play; the spirit has departed, the players are brought low and what was spontaneous and jubilant — the broad, chaotic joy — becomes cramped and weakened until the last, fading, playing soul, palms held out, voices the breath of a cry saying "peace, peace" but meaning "end me".

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Read: October 2017

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

The Worship of Man The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam. Islam is of course different from Communism, because Islam sees the superhuman order governing the world as the edict of an omnipotent creator god, whereas Soviet Communism did not believe in gods. But Buddhism too gives short shrift to gods, and yet we commonly classify it as a religion. Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life. Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts. Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order.

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Read: September 2017

The recollections of an older man are different than those of a young man. What seemed vital at forty may lose its significance at seventy. We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant, a fragmented series of pictures, conversations, doors, and the touch of things and people. We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die.

People can't help what they feel. It's what they do that counts

I've always thought that love thrives on a certain kind of distance, that it requires an awed separateness to continue. Without that necessary remove, the physical minutiae of the other person grows ugly in its magnification.

"Forgetting," I said, "is probably as much a part of life as remembering. We're all amnesiacs."

I'm not sure that love is an excuse for everything.

We all live there, I thought to myself, in the imaginary stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

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Read: August 2017

It occurred to me, for the first time with such clarity that what remains are not the exceptional moments, not the events, but precisely the nothingeverhappens. Time, freed from the claim of exceptionality. [...] In the small and the insignificant — that's where lifes hides.

Old age is getting used to things.

Even if you weren’t born in Versailles, Athens, Rome, or Paris, the sublime will always find a form in which to appear before you. If you haven’t read Pseudo Longinus, haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns, of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.

The world is set up in such as way that it looks obvious and irrefutable. But what would happen if for a moment we turned the whole system upside down and instead of the enduring, the constant, the eternal, and the dead, we decided to revere that which is fleeting, changeable, transitory, yet alive?

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Read: July 2017

Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe — in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn't, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don't in fact take at all well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

I haven't yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things: I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that's not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream. And daydreams return me to my original sense of things and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again. So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive.

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Read: July 2017

The more abysmal the experience of the actual, the greater the implied heights of the virtual.

Our contempt for any particular poem must be perfect, be total, because only a ruthless reading that allows us to measure the gap between the actual and the virtual will enable to to experience, if not a genuine poem—no such thing—a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.

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Read: July 2017

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo's tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they're you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn't know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

Most people, the minute they meet you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources. It was as if everyone lived in fear of a shipwreck, where only so many people would fit on the lifeboat, and they were constantly trying to stake out their property and identify dispensable people – people they could get rid of.... Everyone is trying to reassure themselves: I'm not going to get kicked off the boat, they are. They're always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people... The number of people who want to understand what you're like instead of trying to figure out whether you get to stay on the boat - it's really limited.

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Read: May 2017

A free man should walk slowly, that's what the Greeks thought, says W. The slave hurries, but the free man can take all day.

It's a sign of the end, he says, when you can no longer make real distinctions.

I live each day as though it were the day after the last.

For me, the afternoon's always planning-time, world conquest-time, as W. calls it. I have to pretend to some kind of hold on the future, W. has noticed. It's like climber throwing up grappling hook, or Spiderman swinging by his squirted webs. I'm never happy in the moment, W. says. I'm never happy in the belly of the afternoon.

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Read: May 2017

Yesterday he experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul. Some hours of terrible negativity. A sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life, and now it was over. The sun was shining outside.

That's the thing about fate, the way you only understand what your fate is when it's too late to do anything about it.

Floating over the world, the hard earth fathoms down through shrouds of mist and vapour, the thought hit him like a missile. Wham. This is it. This is all there is. There is nothing else. A silent explosion. He is still staring out the window. This is all there is. It's not a joke. Life is not a joke.

He likes the little world of the university. He likes it. The fairy-tale topography of the town. A make-believe world of walled gardens. The quietness of summer. The stone-floored lodge, and the deferential porter. Yes, a make believe world, like something imagined by a child. Somewhere to hide.

Everything so settled, you see. It all happened a thousand years ago. And the medievalist sits in his study, in a shaft of sunlight, lost in a reverie of life on the far side of that immense lapse of time. The whole exercise is, in its way, a memento mori. A meditation on the effacing nature of time.

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Read: April 2017

I’m starting to think paradise isn’t eternal contentment. It’s more like there’s something eternal about feeling contented. There’s no such thing as eternal life, because you’re never going to outrun time, but you can still escape time if you’re contented, because then time doesn’t matter.

There's the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you're a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don't, there's no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you're just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. . . . Your identity exists at the intersection of these lines of trust.

I’m telling you that I will be all right without you. Everything we have is temporary, the joy, the suffering, everything. I had the joy of experiencing your goodness for a very long time. It was enough. I have no right to ask for more.

Filtering isn’t phoniness—it’s civilization.

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Read: January 2017

They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever...

Why was she dancing? No reason. Just alive, I guess.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.

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