(Starting today I intend to do a series of book-related posts looking back at 2011. First up I have contribution from Michael Johnson, he of the excellent Overweening Generalist blog. Michael's been on a hot streak lately on his blog, with posts about surveillance and privacy on the Internet and a two-parter "On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts." -- The Mgt.)
Books Read This Year: Some of My Favorites
By Michael Johnson
Only two of these actually came out this year. This year I spent a lot of time reading IN some fantastic books while not reading the entire volume. I keep a list of what books I read cover-to-cover (mostly so I can cite them if need be), and this year there's only 38 books on the list; in past years there's been 105, 97, etc. I also find as I get older I tend to spent more time re-re-re-re-reading in some books that I love so much: Ulysses, Montaigne, Vico, Robert Anton Wilson's oeuvre, Korzybski, Popper, Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, Lakoff and Johnsons's Metaphors We Live By, etc.
But this year I really enjoyed reading Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs by Morton A. Meyers, MD, which originally appeared in 2007. This guy knows how to tell a story. He's a radiologist who wanted to image some part of the body, using a radioactive dye, and he ended up accidentally finding out how tumors spread: a pretty cool breakthrough. This book goes a long way in bolstering Nassim Nicholas Taleb's idea that most great things happen after a lot of "tinkering." It also bolsters the anarchist sociologist of science Paul Feyerabend: the classic "scientific method" isn't really how new breakthroughs happen; they happen when people are dinkin' around and have the creativity and wherewithal to NOTICE that they don't have a "failure" but something that might be applied somewhere else. The last chapter in on LSD. The Intro, about "the scientific method" and the nature of serendipity, is worth reading alone for anyone who got the bug for how scientific knowledge progresses from some Kuhn or Popper or Lakatos or even Francis Bacon. (Or Robert Anton Wilson's The New Inquisition?)
From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner first appeared in 2006 but I finally got around to reading it cover-to-cover this year. David Kaiser cited John Markoff's What The Dormouse Said in his How the Hippies Saved Physics; Turner's book is sort of a more academic and longer version of Markoff. It's told with Stewart Brand at the center, but it's really well-researched and a lot of RAW fans would love it: Buckminster Fuller, Tim Leary, John Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Berkeley in the Sixties, Gregory Bateson, John Perry Barlow, etc. If the Reader liked Markoff's book they might love this one...
I'm not sure how well this will resonate with readers of RAWIllumination, but I really liked a book about heavy metal that came out earlier this year titled Mean Deviation, by Jeff Wagner, a dedicated metalhead, but by far dedicated - a true scholar, really - of "progressive" metal: from Rush to Voivod to Celtic Frost to Dream Theater to Watch Tower to Opeth and literally hundreds of bands in between, Wagner has something to say about how these bands constantly strove to change from album to album. Which is pretty much the opposite of most "pop" music act, who hit it big with some sound then are afraid to alienate their fans by trying anything new. The things these guy did to stay fresh! Get much better on their instruments, for one! But also: long, story-like epic songs with many parts, odd instrumentation, sudden jazz of classical influences, a sudden obsession with odd time signatures. Wagner is so knowledgeable and writes so well about some of these bands - many I'd never heard before - that he made me search out some of the bands and my musical horizons have been expanded due to this book.
Visions and Affiliations vol 1 and 2: A California Literary Timeline, Poets and Poetry 1940-2005, altogether 1200 or so pages, by Jack Foley. Arriving earlier this year, this is an education in itself, and for anyone interested in Wilson's and Leary's theory of "westerning," the locus of money and culture traveling throughout history westward "and mildly northward," as Buckminster Fuller said, might find this of interest. LA/San Francisco seemed to have been where the poetic world zeitgeist fermented in the second half of the 20th century. Foley's assembled research is totally staggering, and even when he's writing about the art/poetry scene in Los Angeles in 1959 or San Francisco in 1990, he writes in present tense. The cabals, the social movements, the gossip, the theories surrounding some new poetry group, who knew who and who they were influenced by and what they did and how they died and how weird they were: it seems that everything is here. This is a compendious, astonishing work of detail and breadth, and even if you're reading this in London of New York of Cleveland you can still find much of interest here. Foley, like Wagner, is so thoroughly steeped in his subject - even knowing personally many of the "famous" personages - that it's infectious, a labor of love that's filled with so many fascinating characters it's hard to put these two massive tomes down. The two volumes look like reference works, but they are immanently readable page-turners.
Similar in massive scope, 2004's Orgies of the Hemp Eaters, edited by Abel Zug and Hakim Bey, is a total feast for fans of the vilified herb. Subtitled "Cuisine, Slang, Literature & Ritual of Cannabis Culture," this book delivers in a way many a dope book doesn't. 694 pages, well-indexed with a tremendous bibliography (I'm a connoisseur of annotated bibliographies and this one's a delight), this is the most underrated pot book as far as I'm concerned. Almost 300 pages cover India and Islam and the history of pot/hash/and the myriad ways it was used, the social effects it had on those cultures, and how it influenced artistic, religious and intellectual culture. My favorite portions are the scientific and literary commentaries and excerpts. There's a history of cooking with cannabis, too, complete with recipes from 1790's "Sweetmeat of Cannabis" to 1995's "Leary Biscuit." It's copiously illustrated and I almost guarantee a contact high from just holding this tome in your hands.