Monday, August 4

reading

I keep starting books I know I’m probably never going to finish.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz: I appreciate the author’s work in general — I think she writes intelligent stuff that doesn’t posture too much. This is a pretty good entry in the pop science field, which is a genre constellation I’ve always had kind of a shaky, occasionally-too-credulous relationship with.1 It’s what I’ll call a thesis book, the kind where you know the author is ostensibly staking territory around some kind of claim, here conveniently stated in the title. I don’t know how well it makes the argument, or for that matter how hard it tries, but the first 40 or 50 pages' stage-setting descriptions of earlier mass extinctions make for good reading.

A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger: Late Medieval whodunnit with a bunch of characters recognizable from history & lit classes. Kind of grimdark but believable, for historical fiction with a mystery slant. I find myself in that familiar place of liking characters and not really being sure I want to find out what happens to them.

Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, by Carolyn Renée Dupont. I saw this mentioned somewhere and figured I’d give it a shot. I can’t remember whether this one was a dissertation, but it feels like dissertations I’ve read. There’s obviously a ton of reading behind it, it hits the era from an angle I haven’t heard much about, and it changes my understanding of religion in the US. On the other hand, it does that history book thing where it has a lot of samey many-claused declarative sentences. I’m not sure I’ll pick it back up, but this is good material the same way Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right was good material: It situates some things and ideas I didn’t know needed situating.

I think I’m making my peace with leaving books unfinished. I’d rather read haphazardly than not at all.

meta-reading

I’ve just realized that, though I didn’t plan on letting the Kindle change me, I’ve started to treat Amazon as this kind of parallel slow web made out of e-books.

HAND 1: I think the web should out of logical necessity expand to include every book ever written publically that we can possibly digitize, and I like having some mechanism of compensating authors and publishers for their labor.

HAND 2: But, in no particular order: Libraries are a more civilized slow web. Rent-seeking by a single unchecked actor strikes me as way worse than certain kinds of inefficiency (like, say, bookstores). Amazon is ambiguously evil.2 It’s probably just about as terrifying that a single corporation is exercising such leverage over the ecosystem of long-form written culture as it is that Google & Facebook are eating the public web and extruding something straight out of the pipedreams of 1990s cable company executives.

1 I want to apologize to anyone who encountered me at any time during that whole regrettably drawn-out Steven Pinker phase. Especially if you are anyone I dated or wrote a paper for.

2 I'm working on a theoretical scale here. It goes: Unambiguously evil, ambiguously evil, ambiguous, ambiguously good, unambiguously good. It's kind of fuzzy; my thought is that it's more about the admixture of possibility than it is about absolute magnitude. The _how evil_ part is a separate axis. Nazis, the GOP, and David Brooks are all unambiguously evil, for example, even though the Nazis were obviously worse than Republicans most of the time and David Brooks is just some educated-sounding doorknob with an inexplicable full-time gig in the national political discourse. Paper documents are good because they've sustained civilization for centuries, but ambiguous for pretty much the same reason.

Under examination, Amazon seems to ride the evil side of the spectrum pretty hard: It's not so much a business as it's a kind of meta-technology for subsuming the infrastructure of the economy and ruthlessly exploiting the falling value of labor. Amazon is like if the falling rate of profit woke up one day and just decided to embody itself as this giant fucking company. Capitalism made manifest with a stupid logo and a web site that everybody uses while feeling pretty good about not going to Wal-Mart.

But of course the fact that Amazon is a technology fascinates as much as it inspires dread. Within its strange umbrella there is a good deal of competent engineering, and much of its suffocating reach is built on the way it extends the leverage of all that infrastructure to end-users and suppliers alike. There's a contradiction here, there's the possibility of gain, there's a vast set of lessons about a particular technological culture. So: Ambiguity.