Eric Ravilious, Cuckmere Haven (1939)
Thinking about what I might write about here yesterday, it occurred to me that, despite the fact that reading takes up a fairly large proportion of my time, I’d never used this space all that much to talk about the different books that I enjoy. I think that part of that absence is probably about the fact that writing about reading used to count as (academic) work for me. And perhaps part of it, too, is that I considered the miscellaneous stuff that I read as being of (at best) tangential relevance to a crafting and knitting blog. But this space is really about so much more than knitting . . . so here’s the first of what may turn out to be a series of posts about the books I’ve read this week.
Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head (1939)
First up, a book I finished in the middle of this week but have been reading since mid-March: Six Facets of Light by Ann Wroe. I bought this book after hearing Wroe a couple of months ago on Private Passions, finding what she had to say really interesting, and realising that I had never (consciously) read a word she’d written. Wroe makes her living as the obituaries editor of The Economist, but is also (I’ve discovered) an extraordinarily fine essayist, writing prose that’s like glass, precise and luminous. Six Facets of Light is a book that’s quite hard to categorise or pin down (much like Wroe herself, I imagine): a lyrical and poetic exploration of the very particular kind of light that characterises her beloved home landscape (the South Downs) and a wide-ranging journey through ideas of light in general, drawing together examples from her favourite authors and artists.
Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant (1939)
If you enjoy the work of Eric Ravilious or Gerard Manley Hopkins (as I certainly do) then I’m sure you’ll love this book. Each chapter was for me a delicious thought-provoking feast, which I chewed over and savoured – marking several passages (about Turner’s yellows; about Newton; about the moon) which I felt Tom (another light-focused thinker) might later enjoy. My landscape and my light is very different from Ann Wroe’s – both in the material sense (facing north and west rather than south and east) and the spiritual sense (I don’t share the specifically Anglican bent of her aesthetics), but reading this book was like being washed and immersed in light and colour, while taking a long walk with a friendly and erudite companion. Highly recommended.
Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape (1939)
Next up, an ascerbic and timely piece of anti-capitalist polemic, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7. Last year I read several books by Italian theorist, Bifo Beradi, in one of which (I can’t now recall the title) he cited Crary’s work proposing sleep as a kind of final affront to late capitalism’s demands of perpetual presence and attention. I’m quite interested in sleep from a personal perspective – neurological fatigue can still floor me now more than 10 years after my stroke, and regulated sleep is also a really important tool in managing psychological issues like my bipolar. Perhaps because of my personal experiences of sleep, then, I also find myself increasingly interested in the idea or practice of sleep from a political perspective: sleep is, on the one hand, an expanse of wonderfully unproductive time from which it has remained difficult for capitalism to extract value, and, on the other hand, sleep is a universal need that is part of what makes us humans human (or perhaps, more accurately, animal). The fact that sleep might now be regarded as “the only remaining barrier, the only enduring natural condition that capitalism cannot eliminate” is basically what Crary’s book’s about. I found it an exhilarating read, and devoured it at a sitting – it’s a book that left me with lots to ponder (as well as things with which to take issue).
Crary rails against how the “demand for mandatory 24/7 visual content [has] effectively become a new form of institutional super-ego” in which “individual acts of vision are unendingly solicited for conversion into information that will both enhance technologies of control and be a form of surplus value in a marketplace based on the accumulation of data on user behaviour.” While such channellings of Foucault via Frederic Jameson might seem familiar (if, like me, you read a lot of this kind of stuff), Crary’s account of the cultural effects of being perpetually glued to screens or social media often strikes a distinctively compelling note, perhaps particularly in the light of the understandable reactions of so many of us to the current global situation:
“24/7 steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose. . . . it is like a state of emergency, when a bank of floodlights are suddenly switched on in the middle of the night, seemingly as a response to some extreme circumstance, but which never get turned off and become domesticated into a permanent condition. The planet becomes re-imagined as a non-stop work site or an always-open shopping mall of infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions. Sleeplessness is the state in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources.”
I enjoyed (if enjoyment is the word) the earlier chapters of this book the most. As someone who knows something about eighteenth-century British art, I was less convinced by Crary’s readings of the work of Joseph Wright of Derby, and as someone who suffers from both, by his rather casual and thoughtless appropriation of the terminology of psychological disorder and neurological disability into his own discursive framework (describing our contemporary malaise as ‘autistic’ or ‘bipolar’ seems to be a disturbingly common trend in contemporary political and theoretical writing). But the big question Crary’s book asks is undoubtedly important, viz: “how existing technical capabilities and premises could be deployed in the service of human and social needs rather than the requirements of capital and empire.”
This is indeed a big question – and one that’s becoming increasingly urgent, not only against a backdrop of global environmental concerns, but in terms of the control of unelected corporations (as well as elected governments) of our data and behaviour – an issue that will assume much greater urgency, as we ‘consent’ to unprecedented access to private information about our health, psychology, and physical movements and location – including the tracking of our eye movements on surveillance-capitalist platforms like Zoom – a nifty panoptical feature that enables our bosses and supervisors to check we are all paying enough attention.
A cheerier, and much more restorative read is Kyo Maclear’s Birds, Art, Life, Death: A Year of Observation . I read a lot of nature writing, and I’ve been really interested in how that genre has begun to intersect with biography and autobiography for a few years now. Writing about birds as a way of writing about one’s inner life is a sort sub-genre of that sub-genre, which seems to have assumed renewed popularity since the publication of Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. Now, I rather enjoyed H is for Hawk, but I know that isn’t the case for everyone, and I recall a conversation with a literary agent who, when the subject of this book came up rolled her eyes at me and said in rather pointed terms that she felt it was “just too much.” This lead to a really interesting discussion about good editing, and the levels of emotional detachment that were probably necessary for good autobiographical writing. For me, there’s an overlapping ethical debate, too, about the “uses” of birds or nature in the service of the restoration of one’s ego, and these questions are always at the back of my mind while enjoying, as I do, a fairly large number of recently published books about nature and the outdoors.
If you were feeling particularly grumpy or misanthropic while reading Maclear, you could certainly make an argument about the questionable use of birds to restore a troubled or damaged self, but that would be a narrow and mean interpretation of what’s a really charming book. There aren’t many contemporary authors who manage to be funny and self-deprecating while covering the difficult subject of their own grief and anxiety, but Maclear does this with appealing lightness of touch. The daughter of a Japanese mother and an English father, Maclear has spent most of her life in Toronto, the city where she discovers birds and birdwatching over the course of a year with the help of a local musician, in whose birding steps she follows. While this is certainly a book about finding the wonder in watching birds, it’s also got a lot to say about ideas of the everyday and ordinary, about urban life and nature in the city (an interesting and important topic), about the ways that writers wrestle to find meaning in their writing, and about parenting and parenthood.
The book’s closing chapters – in which Maclear counters Bertolt Bercht’s To Those Born Later with the words of Adrienne Rich’s What Kind of Times are These – really floored me (do go and read both poems if you have the time). I also learned unusual facts about John Cage’s mushroom obsession.
I’ve not provided any direct links to the books I’ve read this week, as I’d encourage you to seek them out from your local independent bookseller (many of whom are adeptly adapting their operations for online sales) or to buy them directly (when possible) from the publisher. Publishing and bookselling are just two of the important cultural industries who really need our support right now!
Ann Wroe, Six Facets of Light (Vintage, 2016)
Jonathan Crary, 24/7 (Verso, 2014) (can be bought directly from the publisher )
Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life, Death (Published in Canada by Doubleday; in the US by Scribner and in the UK by 4th Estate, 2017).