Reading Highlights of 2013

by tigermanifesto


At the moment, I have read around one fourth of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, on which more in a few days. I assure you, I will have much to say on it, not least in touching on the tedious, pulp-wasting preface Penguin decided to jam between the front cover and the poetry. To invert a phrase coined by pop music reviewer Todd in the Shadows, it has all the flavorlessness of literary criticism without the nourishment. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I bring up Eugene Onegin because it deserves to be mentioned in a summary of my reading this year. It is especially notable because it is the only long form fiction I have read all this year. With the exception of some by-now-forgotten short stories, my reading this year was consumed by theory fermented with philosophy and history. This by no means indicated a lack of passion in my reading; I nearly wept at at a passage in Karl Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital. I managed to get my narrative fix through film and television, but reading Onegin does make me wonder whether forgetting to indulge myself in a few more novels was a mistake. At the same time, I find that the college atmosphere is not conducive to recreational reading.

Reading Highlights of 2013:

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said

An incisive and revealing study into the literature and culture of colonizing societies and how even authors like Jane Austen can be read as complicit in the Rule of Britannia. Though his prose has an appealing tone of righteous indignation, it can be somewhat longwinded as well. The book also puts culture and communication on a pedestal, strangely arguing that the imperialist strain in Western culture ran ahead of political and economic reality rather than intertwining with and justifying imperialism. It’s a valuable but distinctly limited work, one that fed my recent string of graphic novel features.

Deconstruction in a Nutshell by John D. Caputo

Derrida has lost most of his lustre for me after a brief and impassioned flirtation over the spring, but I still fondly recall the long few nights I spent reading this book, which is an attempt by philosopher-theologian-king John D. Caputo to translate (in a nutshell, he so insistently reminds us) “deconstruction” to an English-speaking audience. His style is energetic and his prose rarely overcomplicating what should be left simple. At the very least, after reading the book, I can confirm that deconstruction’s nutshell is as unsteady as it should be, and that I vastly prefer Caputo’s prose to his subject’s.

Writings of Hildegard of Bingen

Letters, morality plays, works on healing and religion–Hildegard was an accomplished scholar, political figure, religious leader, and prophet from the high middle ages. Her writings show her outwardly prostrating herself before male authority figures while claiming to speak with the mouth of God. Always audacious, her commitment to her visions and to the truth make for riveting literature as well as a uniquely compelling historical figure. Like most of the writers on this list, she was also a thoroughgoing troublemaker. I seem to be attracted to such people.

Pining Wind by Zeami

Japanese Noh drama is meant for the stage, but many of them also read rather well, even in translation. Pining Wind is a stirring peace of writing, and though Noh is by nature derivative and laced with obscure references, I quite enjoyed it. I only hope that I will be able to read them in the original language someday.

The dream is gone, without a shadow

night opens into dawn.

It was autumn rain you heard,

but this morning see: 

pining wind alone lingers on

pining wind alone lingers on

The Book of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe was a troublesome one. She stumbled as an independent business owner, but found a later career as a mystic and visionary. She cuts a somewhat fearsome profile, and her quarrels with her husband and gentlemen callers are something to behold. I loved reading this despite it being required for class, and it’s quite an instructive bit of writing for those looking into late medieval society.

Saint Paul and the Foundation of Universalism and Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou

I have some misgivings about Badiou, especially given his affinity for Plato, but this book and the fragments of In Praise of Love that I have read compel me to suspend judgment. While I have been somewhat familiar with the ongoing fascination of atheist political philosophers with Saint Paul, this was the first example of this literature I actually read. Badiou has a spellbinding style in his prose, and his writing about Paul has been helpful in my ongoing process of fashioning and refashioning my views about the Bible. Philosophy for Militants, which is a pocket-sized compilation of three essays on, well, philosophy and militant politics, was my introduction to Badiou, and a fine, cheap volume in which to start reading this French Marxist.

Various Works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The only writing that moved me to tears this year was “Wage Labour and Capital.” Let there be no excuses about clouds of dust in the air or aggressive winter allergies. Whether this is a mark of personal virtue or shortcoming–or lack of sleep–I believe it has at least something to do with the fact that Engels and Marx are brilliant wordworkers. Capable of expositing delicate technical distinctions or stabbing an idea home with a polemical point, they are distinct but often united voices, and critical to my intellectual development in this past year, as well as–I hope–my political future. Let this be the beginning of a long and fruitful reading relationship.

Selected Works Vol. 2 and 3 by Vladimir I. Lenin

If I were giving out awards for the most entertaining writer I discovered in 2013, it would be bestowed on this entombed Bolshevik. Lively and fiery–at the college I attend they would call him “prophetic” if they were to pay him a compliment–he spares no one criticism and manages to make policy documents and political strategy explosive literature. Of course, his theoretical and intellectual achievements are considerable, not to mention his revolutionary credentials, but it should not be overlooked that he is a wonderfully blunt stylist as well, making for engaging as well as informative reading. The first volume will be next spring’s project.

Selected Works Vol. 5 by Mao Zedong

Mao is not the great polemicist or theorist that Lenin is; he has a rather dry and methodical way of breaking down everything he is talking about and arranging every detail until it numbs the mind. That said, it is not for nothing that his writing became required for militants throughout the world–including the West–in the 1960s. I found this historically enlightening and also somewhat infectious; revolutionaries seem to have boundless energy, and it leaks and pours out of their texts. He’s no Lenin, but Mao is still more than just a pretty face.

Political Grace, Lenin, Religion, and Theology and The Earthy Nature of the Bible by Roland Boer

As I have an obsessive interest in both the Bible and Marxism, Roland Boer has felt to me more like a companion or (much cleverer and more handsome) peer than a teacher. That may be because we are both on WordPress , but I digress. Both of these books are excellently written and, like many of the highlights of this year, almost seductive in the way they are written. There truly is something of the erotic in the relationship between words and reader, something I would like to explore more in depth someday. I would recommend all three of these books, especially the book on Lenin and religion, which served as a wonderful companion to reading his Selected Works.

Honourable Mentions:

Rosa Luxembourg, various shorter articles

Epilogue: Worst Books/Reading Experiences Of 2013

Habibi by Craig Thompson and Holy Terror by Frank Miller (and, yes, they belong together)

On Belief by Slavoj Žižek (I’ll read more of his books and see if it makes more sense later)

God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation by Jonathan Wilson (it should be banned)

The Lollards by Richard Rex (not bad so much as misleading)