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LitMonkey – October 2013

October 31, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the twelfth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

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One full year of LitMonkey. It’s been a wonderful year sharing my literary adventures with you, one which saw me reading far more than I ever expected and writing far more about those books than I ever anticipated. Nick Hornby’s Believer magazine column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” was a tremendous inspiration, though I feel that in the 12 months I’ve been doing this I’ve taken my column in a different direction than Hornby does, critiquing – or more accurately stated, analyzing – the books I’ve read from angles that are unique to my point of view. Perhaps you agree with my analyses, or perhaps you just like reading synopses of books generally related to music or the mind (and sometimes both), but for whatever (possibly inexplicable) reason you’re here and have stuck with me. I’m looking forward to another year and at least another 50 books covered. But before we get there, here are my thoughts, ramblings and observations about what I’ve been reading in October.

Simon Reynolds is one of the world’s most accomplished music writers, and in reading Retromania I can see why.  Early in the book there were moments that made me feel that I should never write again, because everything I’ve ever wanted to say about pop culture (or hadn’t yet thought to say) had already been said by him. If the book ended after part 1 – “Now” – I would have ranked it amongst the best music books I’ve ever read. For example, in a span of just a few pages Reynolds introduces two theories that probably could be entire chapters in and of themselves: (1) Music mirrors the nature of our economy, i.e. that when music was created by people who made (industry) or grew (agriculture) things for a living, it was more blue-collar, while today’s music utilizes a white-collar skill set, namely information processing, editing, framing and packaging; and (2) just like the economy went into crisis due to derivatives and bad debt/speculation (not enough “real” investment), the music bubble will similarly burst and collapse as new music is currently derivative and built superficially upon itself.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of book left to read.  In Parts 2 (“Then”) and 3 (“Tomorrow”) Reynolds, for the most part, lost my interest (though not enough to stop reading). Retromania wasn’t what I expected it to be in two ways, one of which was acceptable, the other not so much. I was given no reason to believe that the focus of the book would so heavily be music (well, other than the obvious fact that the author is a music critic). Despite that fact, I got the sense from the subtitle – “Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past” – and book jacket that the topics explored would be more varied than music alone, hopefully touching on all aspects of pop culture. Music may be a medium in which retro is a recurring fashion, but that is true in movies, television, theater, art, fashion, and just about every other aspect of our culture that one could think of. (Urban Outfitters has built a small empire out of a certain demographic’s love of all things retro.) Reynolds talks a bit about some of these other pop culture retro phenomena – there is a particularly interesting chapter on fashion, for example – but after Part 1 the non-music topics mostly fall away.

Being the music enthusiast that I am I could have lived with, and probably would have even welcomed, a book solely about retromania as applied to music (though I would love to read the broader book that Reynolds didn’t write as well). What I couldn’t live with was Reynolds’ departure from analysis of mainstream popular culture to examinations of highly specific and extremely obscure examples of retro. I am more than impressed with Reynolds’ knowledge of the minute details of every conceivable far-flung musical genre that uses the past in any way. His ability to speak intelligently and in depth about everything from Japanese retro-punk to Trad jazz to hauntology is mind-blowing.[1] It’s also not that interesting. I’m not surprised that there are countless micro-genres of music and culture that have their roots in the past (though I was occasionally surprised at some individual’s devotion to these genres). This is a mania of a sort, but not the macro-level mania that the book promised. Consider this from back cover:

We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Band re-formations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups . . . But what happens when we run out of past? Are we heading toward a sort of culturalecological catastrophe where the archival stream of pop history has been exhausted?

Part 1 of Retromania introduces these issues and begins to answer the questions, but Part 2 gets lost in past and in Part 3 it all gets away from Reynolds. I understand the desire to put all the wonderful information he learned out there for everyone to read, but this book wasn’t the place for lessons in obscure music history. I’m still waiting for him to instead answer the questions posed above. It’s a shame, because I’m confident that no one is better suited to answer them than Reynolds.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – author, Wall Street trader, skeptic – closes his book Fooled by Randomness by attempting to provide an axiomatic framework for the entire book in a single sentence. He describes it thusly: “We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.” I can’t argue with Taleb that this isn’t the “core generator” of his ideas, but I find it easier to illustrate the brilliance of the book with an anecdote.

Taleb writes a few words on coincidences, noting that when one encounters a friend or relative in an unexpected place they are apt to exclaim “It’s a small world!” He then debunks that way of thinking, pointing out that we are not truly testing for the odds of having an encounter with one specific person, in a specific location at a specific time. Rather, we are simply testing for any encounter, with any person we have ever met in the past, and in any place we will visit during the period concerned. “The probability of the latter is considerably higher, perhaps several thousand times the magnitude of the former.”

Meanwhile, later in the book Taleb quotes “the scientific intellectual” Steven Pinker … who coincidentally I was reading at the same time as Fooled by Randomness! My first reaction? What a funny coincidence, since Taleb and Pinker’s writings really have nothing at all to do with each other – i.e., a version of “It’s a small world!” Almost immediately though my thoughts shifted to what Taleb said earlier. After all, he mentions a lot of authors, so I wasn’t testing for this specific encounter. Furthermore, he could have mentioned an author I’d read before in the past month/year/decade or something else entirely that I’d find equally coincidental, so I wasn’t testing specifically for this specific person. Also, I could have seen Pinker’s name in another (third) book I was reading at the same time, or somewhere else entirely while reading Taleb’s book, and though that equally coincidental, so I wasn’t testing specifically in this location. (Not to mention the lack of independence between the two variables – while at first blush Taleb and Pinker seem completely unrelated, they both mention similar research studies (e.g. Kahneman-Tversky) and both are something that I am reading, meaning they likely have more similarity to one another than is apparent.)

Generally speaking I am awed by coincidences and even somewhat frightened by their power. Yet a very small point in Taleb’s book helped to demystify them for me. Fooled by Randomness is filled with page after page of such practical wisdom. Some of it seems intuitive in hindsight, some of it is completely counter-intuitive, but in either case reading his theories as he so illuminatingly describes them is a highly educational experience. It will change the way you think.

Now that I’ve mentioned him, I should provide my thoughts on Steven Pinker and the first book of his that I’ve read, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. My friend Garl loaned this book to me almost a year ago and I only just now got around to reading it, intimated by its sheer magnitude. Garl suggested Pinker as an alternative to Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I love but who he finds to be … well, let’s just say he doesn’t love Gladwell. (This Slate writer and Garl have a lot in common, as do many Gladwell critics, whose number seem to be growing with each book he writes.) I can’t argue with the accusation that Gladwell writes for the masses while Pinker is for a more intellectual reader. I don’t think the two writers are altogether that comparable though. As a journalist – and a brilliant storyteller – Gladwell is by his own admission not a scientist of any kind. He conveys information gathered based on empirical evidence in a highly entertaining way and offers proposed conclusions based on that evidence, which the reader is invited to consider (but not necessarily adopt as definitive truth). Pinker is not nearly the storyteller that Gladwell is. His book is a bit of a chore to work through.[2] But his scientific analysis – in this case of language and the mind, though likely in all of his books – is far more rigorous and as a result his theories are offered with greater credibility. It’s easy to see why Gladwell is orders of magnitude more popular than Pinker, and also why certain intellectuals prefer the latter by similar orders of magnitude. If you want to understand how language explains human nature – really really want to understand it – The Stuff of Thought is an excellent read. But be prepared to devote some serious time and mental energy. If you just want to exercise your mind a little bit while riding the subway, Gladwell may be the better choice.

Switching gears, last month I read angry comedian Lewis Black’s Me of Little Faith, his attempt to tackle religion with his usual blend of criticism and contempt. This month I read his prior book, Nothing’s Sacred, a more general collection of his “rants against stupidity and authority, which oftentimes go hand in hand.” In a blurb on the cover of Me of Little Faith, Jon Stewart is quoted as saying that Black is “the only person I know who can actually yell in print form.” Stewart isn’t necessarily mistaken, but Black’s trademark style is often missing from that book and comes through far more forcefully in Nothing’s Sacred. Both books were fine reads – if you enjoy Black’s humor you will be entertained, though not overwhelmingly so – but whereas I expect Black to pull no punches, he treads a little lightly when the topic turns to religion. This is surprising. If ever there were a topic about which I think Black would go off, it would be religion (or the government I suppose). The government, along with many other “fine” institutions, are torn to shreds in Nothing’s Sacred. But religious institutions, though somewhat ridiculed in Me of Little Faith, are not given the full Black treatment. Neither book shocked me or changed my life, both were funny, but only one yelled at me in print form. For Black fans, that’s the one I’d recommend.

Finally, a few words on Amor and Psycho, a collection of short stories “about sex and death, violence and desire, love and madness.” I read about half of the stories, putting the book down for good after finishing the longest, the titular story. I could not waste my time any longer. The sex, desire, and love was bland; the death, violence, and madness unaffecting. Even as I was reading the book I quickly forgot nearly everything from the weak stories I absentmindedly read. When one picks up a book like this the point is to be left trembling, or titillated, or in a perfect world, both. Here I was neither, not for a single story. If you want psycho, look to Norman Bates or Patrick Bateman. The poorly drawn characters in this book are utterly forgettable and charmless.


[1] The book comes in at over 400 pages each rich in factual detail, before any footnotes or bibliography. The bibliography itself is a whopping 10 pages long, accounting for well over 100 entries. No one can claim that Reynolds didn’t do his research.

[2] I’ll note that once you get past the first few chapters a more entertaining payoff comes later in chapter 6, “What’s In a Name?”, and especially in chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television”. It’s almost as if Pinker is testing the intelligence of the reader in the early chapters and only allowing those who pass the test to make it to the NC-17 rated chapter 7.

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