Tuesday, February 12

reading: astounding

With the full subtitle, it’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee. I mentioned this one a bit over a year ago. While the author’s preoccupations and tastes aren’t always mine, his blog continued to offer up a lot of fascinating material over the last year, and the book is such an obvious fit for my interests that I both gave and received a copy of the hardcover for Christmas.

Literary and musical biographies have been a disproportionate part of my reading in adulthood, despite the genre usually leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Writers, like musicians, are often difficult figures even when presented charitably, and it seems to be the rare biographer who inhabits that space between character assassination and outright hagiography. I think Nevala-Lee manages in an interesting way here, though it probably helps that I’m going in expecting to actively dislike some of these people and already have complicated feelings about the rest.

Last year in January I tried to summarize my reading for 2017 and wound up concluding:

Because really what I read in 2017, in most of the last several years, was the internet. Not even, in any real sense that registers, individual documents hosted on the network, or the work of authors I can clearly identify. Just the endless scroll.

The internet: A tide of incoherent technical documentation, error logs, seething sociopolitical rage, ideological agitation and condemnation (somewhere between authentic and engineered/rehearsed, on some spectrum it is no longer possible for me to easily parse), clickbait, reaction, comment vitriol, disinformation, machine-generated pseudojournalism, notification spam, marketing, infographical non-info, hot-take product, autoplaying video, and generalized memetic spew.

I could have written the same thing today, I think. Maybe with the difference that I’ve retreated even further from the general stream of clickbait and commentary, and post almost nowhere in public. Which in turn leads to reading less of the stuff that people post about in endless, saturated loops of indignation and competitive meta-analysis.

The general sense that the news is bad and getting worse has only grown stronger, and click-mongering hyperbole aside I think that reflects an underlying reality which is in fact pretty fucking grim. Somehow though, paying the growing hum of the looming abyss less mind has left me, bit by bit, feeling a little more able to deal with the grimness itself.