Currently Reading: Power and Totalitarianism

People! Anyone out there ever clear their to-read pile? Anyone with the Jedi-level focus and self-control it would take to actually READ all the to-be-reads? And doing that before buying more also-to-be-reads?

Not me. Since last year’s reckoning I’ve managed to read 16 of the 31 To-Reads. In that time I’ve *only* added an extra three dozen or so titles to the pile. Pretty restrained. Though not counting 40 or so e-books picked up in Humble Bundles.

And the ‘Now Reading’ stack stands just two books high, fewer than usual. Both of them are new acquisitions, but you know what? That’s FINE.

First, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which kinda demands to be read in the current global political climate, before either (a) everything somehow rights itself phew close shave! or (b) it’s too fucking late. I’m still in the early third of the first third, dealing with the development of anti-semitism, but by god it’s hard to go a page without underlining a huge chunk as being tremendously relevant to 2017:

Totalitarian politics – far from being simply anti-semitic or racist or imperialist or communist – use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value – the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflicts between Jews and their neighbours – have all but disappeared.

– Preface to Part One, page xviii


On a lighter note, but no less timely, Naomi Aldeman’s The Power is a spectacular and surging speculative fiction. What if women were suddenly the ones who had the upper hand, physically? If girls could threaten the lives of boys and men as easily as boys and men threaten the lives of women now, every day, all around the world.

Only 75 pages in, it’s already gripping, imaginative, funny and wise. And what a conceit! Suddenly the world discovers that girls and young women have started to access the ‘skein’, a hitherto undiscovered organ that enables them to discharge electrical shocks. The phenomen is sketched convincingly enough when it needs to be scientific, but it draws real force from its symbolism and allusion.

As a male reader, this brings the same queasy recognition that #metoo does: I knew it was this bad, and yet – shamefully – I didn’t realise how all pervasive it was, just how bad ‘this bad’ really was. Even at the start of the novel, the shifting balances of power are shocking, in their relevance to the world as it is – yet this is made entertaining in Alderman’s observational brilliance and the sheer deliciousness of the irony.

I’ve no idea where this story is going, but I’ve been sold on it since the first chapter. Absolutely fantastic stuff.

The older To-Reads will understand. Their time will come.


But Books

We all remember our first mp3 player. The giddy joy of having days, months, years-worth of music at our fingertips. The delight at being able to ditch those overpriced CDs. The acceptable trade-off with sound quality.

As a music fan, that trade-off didn’t bother me much. The pros of convenience and accessibility far outweighed a dip in sound quality that was barely noticeable to anyone except audiophiles. Like I say: music fan, not stereo equipment fan. Yes, vinyl sounds warm. It’s lovely. It’s still not as good as live music. And it’s 100% non-portable.

Likewise with movies and TV. Seeing a film in the cinema is one thing. Watching a DVD is… well, who misses navigating through piracy warnings and over-elaborate DVD menus, anyways? Why not fire up iTunes or Netflix or Hulu and have a leisurely browse to see what takes your fancy at any particular fickle moment.

But books. Hmm. The original physical entertainment medium. The smell of the pages, the crack of the spine, the feel of the paper under your fingers. And perhaps more importantly than anything, the look of all those spines stuffed to bursting on the bookshelf.

It was obvious that this couldn’t last. That books would go the way of music and movies. It’s strange, in fact, that mp3s and DVDRips took off before e-books. Shouldn’t written text be the *easiest* thing to reproduce?

Though I’d had no problem with the death (ok, mortal wounding) of physical recorded music (what a weird idea that is anyways), I expected to have more of a problem switching from paper books to phantom illusory binary code in the ether e-books.

Or as I’ll refer to them from hereon, “books”. It’s not like hardback books and paperbacks had to be permanently welded to their individuating designations now, is it?

Because what isn’t to love about a book that you can read on a tablet, then pick up on your phone, when you’re stuck at the town hall? Isn’t it great that while reading Vlad Nabokov or dear Billy Self, you can highlight that wonderfully erudite and oh-so-fucking-abstruse word and look up what it means? That might be my favourite thing about (e)books – it’s so much less jarring that having to mark your page, pick up a dictionary, leaf through to the right word, get distracted by a rude word, put the dictionary down, pick up your book, drop your bookmark, swear, find the last page you definitely remember having read… you get the point.

Highlighting text, multiple bookmarks, searching for phrases or character names: all these things are now ridiculously easy and all-but-idiot-proof. Highlighting in particular – when I do that to physical books, I’m aware of how irreversible the process is, how I’m intruding on the reading experience for anyone else that picks it up later.

Yes, there are still questions to be ironed out. The expense of an e-reader in the first place. DRM, and the inability to lend of store-bought books. The business models of Amazon and Apple, and the ramifications for authors. But books are books, whether they’re burnt onto bark or broken down into bits and bytes.