Thinking Back on This Year's Reading
by Christopher Brown
We live in a neighborhood where twentieth century industrial buildings are slowly being redeveloped into what the real estate brokers oxymoronically call “creative office.” Most days when I head out into the world I pass between two buildings that have thus far resisted any such taming, one a 1930s warehouse filled with used hospital equipment and the other an abandoned novelty lighting factory. And every couple of months over the past few years, their walls get tagged with calls to action from the East Austin Maoists:
CAST ASIDE ILLUSIONS!
WORKING WOMEN KNOW ALL POLITICIANS ARE OUR ENEMY!
BOYCOTT THE SHAM ELECTIONS!
OUR PLACE IS IN THE FIGHT FOR REVOLUTION!
Maybe it is the science fiction writer in me that finds it refreshing to see retro-utopian Red Book-inflected aphorisms popping up at the edge of the fastest-growing city in America. When the self-styled Red Guards make the local headlines, it is generally as an object of liberal derision, especially since their most newsworthy activity is impeding progressive candidates for elected office. But as annoying as they must be to those trying to achieve more realistic goals like getting good people into the City Council or the Legislature, I can’t help but think they are onto something, adapting theories of post-colonial uprising to the oligarchic landscape of contemporary Texas. And thinking back on this year’s reading, much of it research for new writing projects seeking paths to a greener and more just future, those graffiti dreams of the Shining Path seem to have shaped my perspective more than I realized.
Thief becomes social bandit becomes revolutionary. That’s the basic thesis of Eric Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a text I have returned to frequently looking for charismatic archetypes to drive fictions of radical change. This year I discovered Hobsbawm’s earlier work on the same theme, Primitive Rebels, in which Hobsbawm first theorized the idea of the social bandit. I first encountered Hobsbawm at the end of the Cold War, when an Oxford tutor asked us to research why it was that Marxism, a theory of industrial society, was most often put into practice as the ideology of peasant revolutions. Hobsbawm’s studies in the area are surveys more than theories, but their focus on rural fights over land illuminate the agricultural roots of climate crisis and their connection to social and economic injustice. And the characters Hobsbawm describes are consistently fascinating, like Antonio Conselheiro, whose messianic guerrilla resistance to federal forces on the 19th century Brazilian frontier I went on to read in Euclides da Cunha’s book-length account, Rebellion in the Backlands (translated by Samuel Putnam).
Allison Graham-Bertolini’s Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction provides a fascinating survey of a similar but different type of radical, the female avenger, in a study that focuses on fictional protagonists in works of modern literature that continue the folkloric traditions that mythologized historical figures like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. It’s a fascinating prism through which to consider popular works like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. It got me to go read the stories of Drusilla Hawk in William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, only to find that his variant of the social bandit steals the ballot boxes in an effort to deprive freed slaves of their right to vote.
I read Bertolini’s book as I tried to imagine the sort of figure who could defend nature from our continued destruction, but that archetype is hard to find, and my search instead led me to ascetics and mystics. The London Review of Books served up a fascinating and good-humored series of podcast conversations between the scholars Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley about the lives of four medieval women as revealed through their texts: the “harlot saint” and desert penitent Mary of Egypt, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, and the pilgrim, entrepreneur, and visionary mystic Margery Kempe. Dumitrescu and Wellesley do an excellent job of situating these figures in their historical cultural context, and of drawing out how they challenge conventional wisdom about medieval women as authors, property owners and thought leaders, and each in different ways confound the dogma that chastity is a predicate to goodness. I even popped for the related texts from the LRB bookshop: Hugh Magennis’ edition of The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, Alma Classics’ 2019 annotated edition of The Canterbury Tales, Barry Windeatt’s 2015 translation of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and Anthony Bale’s 2015 translation of The Book of Margery Kempe. And reading Mary of Egypt’s tales told to the Abbot Zosimus, I found myself reminded of how much the core teachings of the early Christians were about resisting our animal natures, even our appetites for food and water.
My own search for our animal natures got me to try out a number of new climate fictions, but I found I bounced off most of them, especially the speculative ones that evade hard looks at the coming century in favor of utopian far futures and fantastical recent pasts populated with magical beings. I found some more interesting new eco-fictions that were categorized as horror, like the excellent stories collected in Brian Evenson’s Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell. But most of my fiction reading this year was focused on novels about our relationship with nature that are not often presented as such.
On my springtime runs I listened to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (as narrated by Simon Vance), a book I had only ever experienced through juvenile abridgments or televisual adaptations, and found myself fascinated with its depiction of the state of nature, its ur-conception of the property-owning white Anglo-Saxon male’s view from nowhere and self-absorbed reinvention of the rule of capture, and its subtextual revelation that there is no such thing as a deserted island (or an empty lot).
As autumn blew in, I started John Steinbeck’s climate refugee novel The Grapes of Wrath, and found myself surprised by its frank sexuality and reminded once again that works that tell the story of the 1930s are usually the most economically radical in the American canon, providing anyone prone to alternate history counterfactuals with a window into how differently things could have played out.
Over the summer I finally tackled Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book I had started once in my 20s only to get distracted before they even got on the Pequod. Its wonderful and under-acknowledged queerness was the one thing I did remember from my first attempt. Reading the whole thing after managing to have written a few novels myself, I was astonished at how stylistically crazy it is, veering from faux-Shakespearian riffs to lengthy technical manuals. It’s the latter that makes it such a singularly American novel to me—it even brought to mind the early books of Tom Clancy, which similarly built long-form fiction around lengthy descriptions of men and their tools, especially their big ships roaming the open seas (something also true of much American science fiction). But where Clancy has a fascistic proclivity for uniformed military hierarchy, Moby-Dick is a business novel, as we learn when the owners negotiate shares with each new crew member, and Ahab nails that doubloon to the mast. More than anything, as the long middle of the book shows us the strange business they are in, harvesting the flesh of marine leviathans to provide fuel to light human habitats, one is reminded of the truth that all business enterprise is rooted in extractive dominion over nature.
I got to Melville’s epilogue with the devious-cruising Rachel right after I had finished Rachel Kushner’s wonderful new nonfiction collection, The Hard Crowd. I was biased in favor of the book, which includes a revised edition of a piece she originally read at the memorial for my brother, the painter Alex Brown. But I really loved all the pieces, which couple creative memoir with the incisive critical eye of a great essayist. Kushner has become best known as a novelist, but I think it’s in her nonfiction that the power of her voice is most evident, the way she couples literary truth-telling and real feeling with an emotional toughness and political edge that reminds me of Joan Didion at the height of her powers—a connection amplified by their shared trajectories as daughters of California who began their careers as journalists in New York.
Another nonfiction work I have been enjoying this year is Amanda Sewell’s biography of Wendy Carlos. And as the year ends. I am diving into David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, which I hope will provide fresh perspectives on what alternatives early human societies can show us to the Anthropocene civilization we have inherited.
Among the science fictions that I dug this year was Accelerate, the debut novel of Brendan C. Byrne, a pulp fiction for smart people that couples the energy of vintage cyberpunk and road trip movies with sharp criticism of techno-capitalist culture. And I found myself re-reading Eleanor Arnason’s amazing "Mammoths of the Great Plains," the title piece in her collection that’s part of the consistently excellent Outspoken Authors series edited by Terry Bisson for PM Press. I just pre-ordered two of the newest volumes in that series from two other favorite SF writers: Eileen Gunn’s Night Shift and Vandana Singh’s Utopias of the Third Kind.
I did make it to one movie in an actual theater this summer, in that brief window between vaccines and Delta, which was a blast, even though it was a Boss Baby sequel chosen by our two-year-old daughter, who also mostly dictates what is played on the television we finally introduced into our home to help us endure pandemic with a toddler. We worked hard to find alternatives to Disney princesses,and discovered some good ones, notably Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. After bedtime, my wife and I binged 80s and 90s pop, I watched a few stupid superhero movies, and I enjoyed most of Peter Jackson’s digitally enhanced work sessions with the Fab Four. But the best TV I found was trawling nerdy corners of YouTube, like Anthony Wilks’ documentary about Hobsbawm from LRB, The Consolations of History, which shows how personal history can yield radical insight into how history works. That union of the personal and the political also charged the best bit of TV I found this year: Hannah Arendt’s 1964 interview with Gunter Gaus on the German television program Zur Person. The combination of the high-contrast black and white, the thick clouds of cigarette smoke from both interviewer and subject, and the heady German-language conversation give the talking heads an arty expressionist edge. But it is the things they say that really grip you, especially when Arendt talks about the exact moment when she knew where things were going as the Nazis took power. Useful viewing for anyone trying to get a better bead on the trajectory of our own dark century, and even more powerful after reading Jenny Turner’s review at LRB of Samantha Rose Hill’s new biography of Arendt and learning of the intense misogyny she endured from her contemporaries like Isaiah Berlin and Walter Laqueur as she built her career.
Right before Thanksgiving I got an email (also from the LRB) that asked the same question that had been driving much of my reading for the year: Where are the ecoterrorists? I clicked through to find Adam Tooze’s “Ecological Leninism,” an essay that considers the radical writings of climate activist Andreas Malm and “the bridge between our reality and that of the revolutionaries of a century ago.” It’s a fascinating and important perspective, even if, as Tooze notes, it can just as easily be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns.” But as I walked past the fresh tags announcing the October death of Chairman Gonzalo, and saw “RevComs” starting to populate my Instagram feed, I got to wondering what unevenly distributed futures this pandemic has incubated. Ideologies of peasant revolution aren’t a bad fit for a world ruled by technobarons like Elon Musk, who is building his new robot car and space colonization outposts in this neighborhood of what he probably doesn’t know used to be plantations.