16.15, Thursday 2 Jun 2005

Tom Coates passed me the music baton. I got about halfway through writing some answers, but it wasn't terribly illuminating so I stopped. But now I am going to answer the questions, only, inspired by LaughingMeme's post, I'll do it about books.

Books owned I have about 11m of books in this house. That's about 155 on the shelf I keep close to hand (the books I refer to most, have borrowed, are on the stack, recipe books). 195 are on the dining room shelves (fiction, lots of scifi, books I don't refer to as much). 40 in the office (technical manuals), by the bed, or otherwise around the house. Oh, and 3 in my bag.

My books are shelved according to where I expect them to be, and by serendipity. The principle is that I should be able to look along a shelf, get the idea that that run of books is mainly on such-and-such a topic, or by such-and-such an author, then have another book come to mind--and it's right there, next on the shelf. Then look to the shelf immediately below and find a book I'd forgotten about but it very appropriate (shelving is two dimensional). Those times when you have a book in hand, flick through it, think of another book, find that and look at it, then put the two on the shelf next to each other: Imagine that for all my books. Some books are landmarks. They have distinctive spines, or I look at them a lot so I always know where they are. I can then string books between two landmarks so they don't get lost. Also, books I want to look at or be reminded of are at eye height. Authors are separated to encourage browsing, or placed together to provide a stable anchor. Because I'm the only person who uses my shelves, it all works: my internal associations combine with the physicality and the associations that spring on you when you look. Lots of pleasant surprises. Two examples right now: Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica and Remaking History are separated by Niall Ferguson's Virtual History. The Glass Bead Game (Hermann Hesse) is next to The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin); both are directly above The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn), which begins a shelf that continues: Labyrinths (Borges, twice); Sophie's World (Jostein Gardner); then two by Michel Houellebecq (Atomised, Platform).

Last book bought Yesterday I picked up two books from Borders: Mr Palomar, Italo Calvino (I just finished rereading Cosmicomics and T-Zero, which I hadn't realised had influenced my own writing at the time of last reading so much), and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (thanks to an unattributed recommendation in my notebook--I flick through it looking for must-get notes whenever I'm in a bookshop). Fiction is pretty unusual for me. I've gotten out of the habit of reading fiction. I read scifi, which is fun like pudding. But literature all too often feels contrived to me now. Goddamn, I think, if your story was any good you wouldn't need to use fancy narrative to trick me into thinking in a particular way. I don't get this feeling from Calvino, Vonnegut, Coupland or Mitchell (or even David Markson's Reader's Block). Their quirks of language are the story. But some other books (no names) make me cross. Before that, I bought Future Interaction Design, a collection of papers on CHI with a sprinkling of ubicomp and cognitive ergonomics.

Last book I read Apart from the Calvino ones, I've not had much success with books recently. I've had a two or three year reading spree, most of that on London transport. Now I work from home and my reading time is suffering. So apart from the books in my bag, I'm also halfway through Norman Potter, What is a designer, and a couple more which are easier to dip into. The last book I actually finished was probably Robert Graves' translation of The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam, which was astounding: Never renounce love-songs, or lawns, or kisses/ Until your clay lies mixed with elder clay. I take the impression that this isn't someone just working their way through mortality fears, but is someone wiser and more subtle than I can really see, and the simple words carry much meaning.

5 books that mean a lot to me Number one. My journey into thinking (and introduction to both cybernetics and anthropology) started with Gregory Bateson's collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. I bought that book on a recommendation (by AnthroBlog), and it sat in a heap for the best part of a year. Eventually I opened it and found a different way of seeing the world... and also discovered that I could read these kind of books. After that I was catching up: Kuhn, Feyeraband (which provides the foundation for what I think the third wave of computer programming is), Ong, McLuhan, Lakoff. I read De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, then his Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy, and those launched me into number two: Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus.

I ate that book in a weekend at my mother's house, half the time reading, and the other half staring out of the window, digesting and laughing. I had to stop every couple of paragraphs out of surprise. It's a funny book and it hit me like a train. I felt like I'd gone to the centre of the earth, and had a homecoming to a home I didn't know I'd had. It expressed everything I thought but didn't know how to say, and explained the world I'd grown up in. I'm still understanding it, and every time I open it there's more there. Last year, somebody told me that people either read ATP or Hoffstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. Literary types the former, geeks the latter. I'd say I'm a geek, but I read most of GEB and didn't get much out of it. ATP, on the other hand, had me ecstatic from the first mention of Bateson (on page iv), ready for revolution with the last few paragraphs at the end of the first chapter on rhizomes (here as pdf), and kept me hung off every page until I got to the punchline: Mechanosphere. Recently, Dan asked why isn't it A Thousand Plateaux? I was hoping it was because plateaus was not a noun but a verb, and the title indicated it was a multiplicity, condensing. Nick S said I should email Brian Massumi, the translator, who replied that his translation of the title was probably meant to reinforce that translation introduced novelty (hence, a strongly Anglicised "plateaus" rather than the French). That'll do me (I was excited enough to get a reply). But then, in the introduction to ATP, I found a footnote, and the footnote referred to D&G talking explicitly about the word-concept "plateau," and how it was taken from Bateson, and in particular an essay on Balinese culture in Steps (p113 in my edition) where Bateson sets up the plateau as-opposed-to the climax. Aha, so my first two books loop together! Very satisfying.

Before I move on, I recommend How We Became Posthuman (N Katherine Hayles) and Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America (Steve Joshua Heims), both on cybernetics and the people who assembled it. Both mind expanding for the ideas, and because we should know our history. Other recent books in a similar vein include Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Hoffmeyer) and Lefebvre, Love and Struggle by Rob Shields. If I'd been near cobblestones during the time I was reading Shields' book, London would be in uprising right now. I'm going to miss out so many worthy books - including all the brain books I read during and after writing Mind Hacks - and Floridi, Jared Diamond and more. Ask me another week, and I'll have lengthy stories about every one of them.

Number three: It has to be Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home. (I think it may have been part of recommendations by Cory Doctorow when I asked for a couple of scifi books that would throw light on how people put together language, but now I'm not so sure. At the same time, he definitely recommended Kelly Link's collection, Stranger Things Happen, which is tremendous, and Susan Elgin's Native Tongue.) I didn't make the connection about the author, and had somehow never read any Le Guin before and was blown away. The village with the hinge marks the whole book I think. She's internalised a fundamentally different way of seeing, and channelled it into text. I've written about this before, so to repeat: In 4000 AD when the Great American Empire has come and gone, when the world revolves around the gleaming spires of Patagonia, Philistines that they are, no culture of their own, miserable engineers obsessed with glitter, the legends and metaphors will be pilfered from the last civilisation, as Rome did from the Greeks, which means the stories they'll hold closest to their hearts will be the ones from California. The tribes, the coyote, the Pacific; the origins and the unfoldings. These won't be the original, Native American, those stories of the coyote, no, they'll be the stories being written now, an oral/literate synthesis that understands the nature of myth and the depth of symbols, stories of journeys not ends. They'll be the stories of Ursula Le Guin in Always Coming Home.

Le Guin has an art of seeing the universal in the specific, and can tell wider, more feathered, careful, colossal truths than should really be possible, by getting more and more specific. Changing Planes is glorious. The Birthday of the World is magical, especially Paradises Lost, which is beautiful: all about insides and outsides and time, I read it on a solitary 4 day train ride across America, sitting in my chair. The journey is the destination.

(At this point I can't believe how much scifi I'm dismissing because I'm not going to have any Greg Egan in my list (Diaspora in particular had me agape for a weekend), or Stapledon or any of the rest.)

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, is my number four. Foucault's Pendulum was the first really good, hard book I read, at 14, recommended by my cousin, Arif. I got 80 pages in the first time I tried, then had another run and couldn't put it down. My launch onto the web was with a game (written in Perl) called Dirk, the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, a kind of collaborative six-degrees toy which anyone could contribute too (that's why this domain is interconnected.org). The idea wasn't from Douglas Adams, although the name was: the idea was from Foucault's Pendulum: a program for the automatic combination of ideas and the linking of anything to anything else by spurious leap and metaphor. I used to play a card game with my sister, when I was younger. We'd deal a hand each, put the rest of the deck between us, turn the top card on the deck face up, and begin. The winner was the person to blag a plausible reason why they'd won, making moves that could possibly be in a card game. Great fun. Truth is a matter of plausibility, and that's another reference to the book, the term "historical fact" and the name of my other main internet domain. Foucault's Pendulum, in other words, comes back to me without me realising, and seeded much of the way I think at a fairly early age.

I love books that allow you to look into them and read as much as you want from the text, because you know the authors have either thought enough to make that worthwhile, or are so totally there that the book is a reflection of their thoughts, and you can read ideas they never realised they'd included. Calvino's like that, Borges too, and Houellebecq (do read Atomised). David Mitchell (Number Nine Dream. His words set up tensions in your head that pull the story along and inflect the narrative pages and pages later. It's all about the end) too, all to greater or lesser extents. David Markson's Reader's Block stands out in this category (my review), and Vonnegut more so. I avoided Vonnegut for so long, thinking that an author recommended so many times would be no good. His books are already rhythmic, full of harmonics of uncertainty, hints and allegations. The harmonies are set up across his entire body of work too, and you begin to see statements of intent made good in two or three books time, or evolutions of his philosophy. It culminates in Timequake which, next to Hocus Pocus, is a staggering, emotionally draining book. (While I'm on books like this, I have to mention Q, by Luther Blissett, which is about the early Protestant church, anabaptists and Catholics, but is really about money, and the tides inside social systems, and is very contemporary indeed).

Last I have to choose a book which I can't really describe but which is a dense pleasure to read: An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin. This was recommended to me by Tom Stafford, before we wrote together. It's kind of history, and kind of about people, and kind of stuffed full of fact and wisdom in a way that makes it totally contextualised in a way that Reader's Block really isn't. It's beautiful because it's story-telling, and it's fun because like so many books I like it's a fluid, stream of consciousness telling that doesn't impose limits on what I, the reader, should think is important or not. Everything is important (this is Vonnegut, too), everything is, or can be, connected. It's the source for the quote at the beginning of Mind Hacks, the quote that Tom used on me that made me want to pick it up: What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time. Often, when I'm reading, I turn the corner over when I reach pages that have lines that arrest me like that. An Intimate History was so total and immersive that I knew the only way to experience it was to take it cover to cover, and to never dive in. I refused to turn a single corner over.

I've left out so much.

As a treat, here are the 5 songs (okay, 6) I would have chosen had this response been about music: 1. Time to Move On, Tom Petty (my first red wine, my soundtrack to Thursday nights in Goblets with jazz, Dave B, and an otherwise empty bar), or Gracelands, Paul Simon, which I loved as a tiny kid, rediscovered at a party years later, and still gets me with the lyrics and the key change near the end. 2. Feb. 4 '99 (For All Those Killed By Cops), Mike Ladd. My god, the lyrics. It's all confused and beautiful. 3. The 6 Million Dollar Sandwich, The Dead Texan, which reintroduced me to ambient, and introduced me to ambient drone, thank you BBC Radio & Music Interactive. Glorious, filling, drowning music. 4. Via Con Me, Paolo Conte. Chips, chips. Not only is Conte a fantastic, dirty, hilarious singer, I spent most of a year at university shouting chips, chips with Vic. 5. Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, Harry Nilsson. This is a motto I can live by: Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming.

I'd like to see the answers to these same book questions from everyone I know (when I go to conferences, I try to instigate a "three books" game. Not favourites, not recommendations, but everyone should write down three books for everyone else to see). But I'm intrigued at what people would say (again, I don't like keeping this to 5): Anne Galloway, Matt Jones, Peter Lindberg, Anno Mitchell, Nick Sweeney. Give me roots, give me stories. (And, given the lack of weblogs, give it by email?)

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