[NetBehaviour] Reviews of Numerous Wonderful Books

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Sun Nov 19 05:30:18 CET 2006




Reviews of Numerous Wonderful Books

I haven't done these in a while; I'm fairly behind schedule. But there are
so many exciting things, new and used, that I feel the need to begin, even
if the reviews are encapsulated.

1 Prevention of Railroad Accidents or Safety in Railroading, George
Bradshaw, 1912. This is a small semi-paperback, profusely illustrated.
There are sections on how to move explosives and warnings about not
climbing on the front of a locomotive while it's moving towards you.
"Don't try to open knuckles as cars are about to come together." This
curious work opens a whole new world of course. Look for it!

2 The Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodaical Gems, Thomas and Pavitt,
1914. This is a wonder; there are ten plates plus one colored plate,
covering gnosticism, Egypt, India, the Koran, and so forth. A lengthly
section deals with the mystic qualities of gems. I believe this has been
reprinted..

3 The Ochre Robe, an autobiography, Agehananda Bharati. This is a troub-
ling book by an Austrian who wrote the brilliant The Tantric Tradition.
Bharati was somewhat of a follower of Bose; his account is oddly harsh,
"no-nonsense," and thereby wonderful. Bharati was an expert, among other
things, on Wittgenstein and the British philosophical tradition; his use
of language is precise. I can recommend both of these books without hes-
itation; The Tantric Tradition for example has an important section on
intentional language. (1970-80)

4 Selected Writings, Walter Benjamin, edited by Jennings, Eiland, and
Smith, Harvard, 2005 paperback, five volumes from the original hardcover
four. All I can say is Wow! These are absolutely amazing. I've been
working on a theory of "defuge" - the roots are here. There's enough to
keep cyberspatial theorists busy for years. The entries range from frag-
ment to extended essay, and there are probably a couple of hundred of
them. This, along with the full Arcades, has to be one of the monumental
philosophical/literary works of our time.

5 HTML & XHTML, The Definitive Guide, 6th edition, Musciano and Kennedy,
O'Reilly, 2007. I love this book (I received a review copy); I've used the
previous editions as well. It is intelligent, packed with information,
clear, and prescriptive; I can't recommend a better book for Web authors.
Everything from CSS and XML through URLs is clarified. Even if you only
use GUI editing software for Webpages, this gives you useful information
on what goes on "under the hood" - information that allows you to tweak
pages any way you want. There's a useful webpage for the book as well. The
book is also "Safari Enabled" - which allows you to access it entirely on
the Web for a fee. I used Safari for a while but realized I prefer my
books next to me; not everything has to be on the screen, not even texts
about online organization.

6 Death Scenes, A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook, Katherine Dunn, text;
edited by Sean Tejaratchi, Feral, 1996. I hadn't seen this before; it's
hard to look at. Bodies are blown apart, dismembered, hung, torn apart,
shot, knifed, and so forth. The detective is Jack Huddleston, who worked
in LA from the 20s to the 50s. Dunn's essay frames the material. The book
exposes one beyond CSI coolness; it's difficult to view without becoming
involved; instead of desensitization, one becomes aware, to a very raw
degree, of humanity's propensity towards violence and annihilation.
There's no way to "bypass" the images. I'd recommend this to everyone,
although one might have nightmares for days after.

7 Pancoast's Tokology and Ladies' Medical Guide, A Complete Instructor in
all the Delicate and Wonderful Matters Pertaining to Women, 1901-03, with
"many illustrations," by S. Pancoast M. D., enlarged and revised by Wesley
Cook. There's a description of plates - and the plates aren't there. There
are other plates that aren't listed. The text sometimes leaves the page
altogether due to printing errors, and the result is something like John
Furnival's concrete poetry. The text is also wonderful; testes, but not
the penis, are described; there are images of anomalies of the vagina, but
none of the "normal" vagina; images of deformed and joined babies
accompany the section on ("normal") childbirth, and the authors on one
hand applaud the emancipation of women and on the other decry suffrage.
What comes through with all of this is the incredible frailty of child-
birth at the time - so much could and did go wrong, as well as a medical
habitus that can report cases from 1650 or so as if they were relevant and
accurate in the early 20th-century. The book in other words is a pastiche
of anecdote and "strict" medical knowledge; it's troubling on all levels.

8 Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, reprinted numerous times from
1896, by George Gould and Walter Pyle. My edition is two volumes from
1937. This work, composed largely of anecdotes, many of which are
illustrated, is a guide to the monstrous; the images are in extremism. The
result is a semiotics of the plasticity of the human form; the stories
read something like Stekel or Ellis in tone. I think of this as an antique
cabinet of wonders, of course. One of the directions emphasized by many of
the older books above is the relative lack of structural principles; rumor
and exaggeration from the Greeks onward characterize a kind of fascinating
pseudo-science; the greater or more exaggerated the transformation, the
more it holds our interest.

9 The Baburnama, Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, Thackston, 2002.
The emperor Babur, 1483-1530, wrote this personal chronicle of ethnog-
raphy, poetics, brutality and war. As the back cover says, this is "the
first autobiography in Islamic literature". The text is wonder to read out
of order; I found myself uninterested in the historical aspects, but very
interested in the description, for example, of Kabul. The introduction is
by Rushdie. I highly recommend this; it's like nothing I've ever read
before.

10 The History of Humayun, Humayun-Nama by Gul-Baden Begam, translated by
Beveridge, first published 1902. Gul-Baden Begam is Babur's daughter; this
account reveals a great deal about a mystic palace, weddings, court life,
and battles, from the viewpoint of an Islamic woman. I personally found
this the more interesting of the texts, but very different; the two should
be read together.

11 The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453, edited Cyril Mango, Toronto,
1986. Wonderful accounts of the building of St Sophia among other things.
I knew nothing about these texts, which are arranged thematically and
chronologically; there's a mystical account of the construction which is
quite beautiful. The book is texts only; there are no illustrations.

12 Ancient China's Technology and Science, "Compiled by the Institute of
the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences," Beijing,
1983. The sections on mathematics, the south-pointing chariot and odometer
are of great interest. There is a description of the abacus as well as
counting- or mathematical- sticks, which, for me, is quite important; I
wonder if the sticks are related to the Mah Jong counting sticks. In any
case, the sticks are used in quite a different manner than the usual; the
positions determine to some extent their orientation, and the numerical
value is calculated by horizontals and verticals. There's more than a bit
of the old Maoist propaganda here, but the book is invaluable as a
resource.

13 Emotions and Relations, Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe,
Jack Pierson, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, curated F.C. Gundlach, Taschen,
1987. These photographs are friends and worked with and through one
another at times. The images are stark, disturbing, discomfiting no matter
how you try to frame them. In a different way, they remind me of the work
of Araki, who is also a disturbance, Larry Clark, others. When an image
abandons the punctum for a field incapable of recuperation, something
works on the subject in a radically different way. These aren't death
scenes but life scenes that simultaneously refuse, slide easily. I do
recommend the work of these photographers, Araki as well, creepy though he
may be.

14 A New Course in Reading Pali, Entering the Word of the Buddha, James W.
Gair and W.s. Karunatillake, Motilal, 1998-2005, and Introduction to Pali,
2nd edition, A.K. Warder, Pali Text Society, 1984. Thanks to Gabe Gudding
for the first of these, which contains, right from the beginning, texts
from the Canon. The Pali Canon is a large and complex collection of works
that stem from the time of the Buddha; they're the heart of the Theraveda.
Pali is the language of the Buddha as well; the texts that survive are
spiritual. Pali has no endemic, specific alphabet; there are a number in
use, including the Roman. The second book contains a more detailed grammar
as well as an extended Pali-English, English-Pali dictionary. Both are
beautiful; I never will learn Pali (I have no patience for anything,
including myself, at my age), but I begin to understand the grammar, the
"flow" of the language, which is tremendously exciting. I'd recommend the
first of these books primarily, but the second is necessary (I think) as
well.

15 Assyrian Language, Easy Lessons in the Cuneiform Inscriptions, L.W.
King, Routledge, 1901, reprinted by AMS. Cuneiform is impossibly diffi-
cult; I find that this book, although antiquated and quite possibly
incorrect, gives a good introduction to the syllabic aspects of the
script. It's a way in. Assyrian is related of course to Babylonian,
Akkadian, Hebrew, Arabic; it's semitic (and therefore fun!). This book has
proved far more useful than I thought it would. The book goes well with
Beginner's Assyrian, D.G. Lyon, reprinted by Hippocrene.

16. Fijian Grammar, G.B. Milner, Government Press, Fiji, 1972. I'm
fascinated by Hawaiian, Tahitian, Fijian. This is a somewhat complete
grammar; the author immediately departs from western categorizations,
using instead bases, common, particles, voice, etc. The bases and
particles are of particular interest, since they seem to point the way
towards another non-Indo-European semantics of great interest. This is one
of the most interesting language texts I've seen.

17 A Cultural History of Tibet, David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson,
Shambhala, 1968. As with almost all the other books mentioned here, I have
no idea whether or not this is considered "accurate" by today's standards.
I wish I had known about this book earlier; it clarifies the country (at
least for me), provides somewhat of a foundation for thinking through all
those texts and practices in translation. There it is, at the beginning
and end of my library. Recommended as essential.

18 Nonduality, A Study in Comparative Philosophy, David Loy, 1988. Yes,
this is also recommended, also provides a path of thinking; western
references include Derrida; Buddhism, Vedanta, the Bhagavad-Gita, etc. are
covered in detail. I found the work illuminating; nonduality is opened and
released.

19 Field Theory in Social Science, Selected Theoretical Papers, Kurt
Lewin, Harpers, 1951. Mix with Lacan; Lewin developed a topological field
theory of personal and psychological processes; there are numerous
examples (with, I believe, dubious mathematical formulas) throughout. One
can go from here to Lacan to Sokal (who I think should be given a bit more
credence than he is). On the other hand, the topological tools and notion
of a field are quite useful; dynamic group processes, for example, are
analyzed in detail.

20 Revolt, She Said, Julia Kristeva, Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series.
Semiotext(e) is the Museum of Modern Art for theorists; it's simultan-
eously hip and canonical; the Semiotext(e) seal of approval extends far
beyond the size of the paperbacks. Be that as it may, Baudrilliard aside,
this is a great book, particularly for those who love Kristeva (as I do).
There are three interviews, the longest by Philippe Petit; one should
definitely read this, but not as an introduction to Kristeva - instead, a
kind of summing up, metacommentary, analysis.

21 Counter Daemons, Robert O. Harrison, Litmus Press, 2006, and Elemental
Song, Robert O. Harrison, <Answer>, 2006. Harrison sent me these books. I
thought they'd be problematic (he mentioned connection with computers).
This worried me. Instead, they're two of the most brilliant books of
poetry I've read, period. I hope to review them at greater length later.
Counter Daemons reflects both daemons in unix/linux and Socrates' daemon.
The "I" is insistent all the way through. Computer ideas are used beneath
the surface; they don't dominate, they're not codework, not subtext.
They're the dark matter of the writing. They suffuse the surface which is
the depth; they're not beneath it. The "I" reminds me (everything reminds
me of everything, apologies) of Nicanor Parra's Individual. It's demiurge,
Vedic. In Elemental Song, the stanzas are unrhymed triplets. There is an
"a" that begins the first five; there's a relation with the longer work. I
want to mention these because everyone should buy them. They're two of the
few books of writing I can carry around; they have that intimacy. The
cover of CD is by Brenda Iijima, one of the best I've seen.

22 Mary Magdalen, The Essential History, Susan Haskins, 2005. This is just
a terrific book to delve into. MM refuses framework, seeps; there is
little to go on historically. Sexuality is there from the beginning, as
perhaps are penitence and leadership. My Nikuko was partly based on MM; I
think she figures through the Preraphaelites and the Victorian in general.
In any case this is thoroughly researched stunning book that goes to the
heart of western culture.

23 The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas, Library of Wales, 1946-2006. These
three novelettes lie between Proust and P.D. James; the back cover insists
Thomas Hardy and Damon Runyon. I want to recommend the depths of these;
there is coal everywhere in the townscape, and the violence combined with
almost feudal conditions resonates with the coal regions of Pennsylvania
and West Virginia. I'm mesmerized by the stories (still haven't read the
third).

24 The Talmud, The Steinsaltz Edition, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Random
House, 1989. The Talmud and its hermeneutics are useful and originary for
textual analysis that mixes surface and depth inextricably. I want to
mention in particular A Reference Guide, which accompanies the Tractates.
There are sections on The Essential Nature of the Talmud, Aramaic, The
Book, Talmudic Terminology, Talmudic Hermeneutics, Halakhic Concepts and
Terms, etc. Some of the concepts defined and discussed: "There is no
absolute chronological order in the Torah." "If it does not refer to..."
"The verse speaks about the present." "Revealing something." This can
usefully be read in conjunction with Marc-Atain Ouaknin's The Burnt Book,
Reading the Talmud, perhaps the best book I've read on hermeneutics and
the phenomenology of the text.

25 Tumult on the Mountains, Lumbering in West Virginia, 1770-1920, Roy B.
Clarkson, first published 1964. I recommend this to anyone interested in
forestry and its environmental impact; almost all the old (first growth)
forest in West Virginia has disappeared. I never realized either the
extent of the damage or the density of the original forests; they remind
me of the old growth on Victoria Island. The Appalachians were almost
tropical; now almost all of this is lost, and the rest is disappearing
with the advent of mountain-topping. It's horrible; the Appalachians
constitute literally one of the thickest and most variegated ecosystems in
the world; as with the tropics, it's disappearing fast. The book is mainly
revealing photographs; there's a great deal on logging locomotives which
operated on somewhat different principles than the usual engines.

26 Hesiod's Theogony, translated and edited by Richard S. Caldwell, Focus
Classical Library, 1987. Caldwell makes sense of the genealogy; that alone
should give him a Pulitzer. The commentary is lengthy and excellent; if
you're interested in the text, this will be of great use.

27 The Complete Kama Sutra, Alain Danielou, Park Street, 1994. The KS is
one of the most and worst translated Sanskrit texts. This is an excellent
one (as far as I can tell), with two commentaries, one traditional and one
more or less modern. Because it's complete, there are sections on morals,
economics, conduct, and so forth, in relation to sexuality and mores. It's
far more interesting than the abbreviated versions.

28 Technological note again: I've been working with PAL cameras, both in
Europe and the US, and find them so far superior to NTSC that the con-
version and difficulty (in the US) is worth it. The reds stay red; they're
not mixed in with the luminance, and don't blur. The additional lines make
for a much sharper picture, somewhat close to HD. These cameras are more
than sufficient for anything online, relatively inexpensive, and a joy to
operate.

29, 30, 31, ... I wish I could read more, could go on! I'd like to cover,
in depth, the work of Joe Amato and the post-Yasusada work of Kent
Johnson. Amato's Virga Under is wonderful; I've been reading it on and
off, but not enough to do anything but recommend it. The same goes for
Kent Johnson's eloquent Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. ... I've mentioned
Marguerite Young before; at this point I think I have all of her work here
- do check it out, give it time, delve into it; it's worth it. ... And I
think I've mentioned Paul Young's The Cinema Dreams its Rivals, Media
Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet, which covers the interrelation-
ships between film and video/cyberspace/radio and so forth; film is one of
the most inert, "insoluble" media - the others are aerial, virtual, always
already elsewhere. The interconnections among all of these reveal a lot
about our culture. ... Just found, literally on the sidewalk, Donald E.
Knuth's The TEXbook - TEX is a markup language developed by this famous
programmer, and this book, from 1984-86 is a complete guide to it. There
are a lot of escape keys and backslashings; the description is worth
reading even if one doesn't employ TEX. ... In French: Dictionnaire de la
prehistoire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Quadrige, Presses Universitaires de
France, 1988-97 - a beautiful book for delving into the (roughly) current
state of research in the field; there are probably thousands of sites
listed. ... Les Guerres de Demain, Pascal Boniface, Seuil, 2001 - so many
ways to die, so many types of war, we're always under the gun. I've been
reading this on and off; it's not fun - it's eerie. ... La Suisse de la
formation des Alpes a la quete du futur, pub Migros 1975 - I'd been
looking for a book dealing with the political/cultural/geographic/histor-
ical/etc. background to Switzerland; this seemed the best, in spite of its
age. It was 5 fr for 700 pages! Something to read on the plane trip back.
- English again: poems for teeth, Richard Loranger, We Press, 2005 - a
wonderful book of poetry (pardon the use of the same superlatives over and
over again) dealing with... teeth and their condition; it's oddly uncom-
fortable to read, and I hope to get to this later. Each tooth has a
section and a description - "Tooth of Memory" for example. I recommend
this not only for its oddness, but for that very discomfort; teeth are an
aporia of the body-bone itself, this is sensed throughout the book. -
Finally, why not end on The Ladies' Home Journal Treasury, edited by John
Mason Brown, Simon and Schuster, 1956? The writers include Eugene Field,
Helen Keller, John Steinbeck, Bill Malden, Ethel Waters, Marianne Moore,
Daphne du Maurier, Vachel Lindsay, and Jerome K. Jerome. There are full-
color illustrations from covers, advertisements, and page layouts. Really
recommended; it's a great view of America from, say, 1883 on.

== I offer no apologies for this close to endless listing (providing one
is doing modular arithmetic!); all of the above are useful and exciting.
I've been reading like a fiend, trying to keep up; so many of these back-
ground my own writing (which admittedly is a poor excuse, but ah well...)
- do check them out!

- Alan





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