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a blog about books and their desire to be loved

Category: Book Reviews

Listening to Good Writing: The Case of Zinsser and This American Life

We can love a book for so many reasons, but one of them, maybe the essential one, is good writing. But good writing does not necessarily have to be printed in a book, and it does not even need to be read. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, an acclaimed book that was mentioned in an earlier post, has come to learn this truth at the age of 90. The New York Times recently published an article about Zinsser, whose eyesight has now been significantly damaged from glaucoma. Although no longer able to read himself, Zinsser now meets writers in one-on-one sessions in order to listen to works in progress. Read the rest of this entry »

Reasons to Read The Works of Lewis Mumford

To me, Lewis Mumford is a lot like Stefan Zweig. When he was alive, Stefan Zweig was one of the most popular German language writers–his amazing autobiography, The World Of Yesterday, reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century European literature. Today, Zweig is relatively unknown. He is certainly not remembered and admired in the same way as Hermann Hesse, Gunter Grass or Thomas Mann (yes, a Nobel Prize is the common denominator of their lasting fame). Lewis Mumford, when he was alive, was prolific: he was a columnist for The New Yorker and he wrote over two dozen books, many of which are over four hundred pages in length. Mumford is today, in comparison to Herbert Marcuse and Marshal McLuhan, a lesser known theorist of technology and modern society. Read the rest of this entry »

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004)

cloud

While I don’t always follow it, I have a simple rule when choosing to read an unfamiliar novel. I will read an unfamiliar book if it has been independently recommended by two people. Like all rules, it has an arbitrary quality. Yet, I have to admit, by following this rule, I have had the good fortune of a long streak of good novels.* Read the rest of this entry »

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man


Marcuse

I have read One-Dimensional Man four or five times. My copy is now falling apart. The binding has come undone, the thin layer of plastic on the cover is peeled, and many of its pages have coffee stains.

One-Dimensional Man is certainly Herbert Marcuse’s most popular publication. The cover of my copy boasts of more than 300,000 copies sold, which makes it a huge bestseller in the academic world.

Many would recommend One-Dimensional Man because it provides the best introduction to the critical theory of Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School. I agree, but with a slight amendment. I would recommend this book because it is an introduction that warrants many re-readings. It is incredible how ideas and even sentences of One-Dimensional Man can be clear for the novice yet stimulating for the reader that has returned to it.

One-Dimensional Man is the type of book that makes you wonder why other social philosophers fail to do the same. Many so-called “Introductions to…” can be frustrating because the essence of a philosophy is eviscerated by a type of writing that assumes the book is only good for providing an introduction. At the other end, books for so-called intermediates and experts tend to needlessly alienate everyone else when the complex language of text is superfluous to the meaning of the argument.

Bonus: I recently came across a video with the following description:

Partly figurative, partly abstract, Drux Flux is an animation film of fast-flowing images showing modern people crushed by industry.

Inspired by One-Dimensional Man by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the filmmaker deconstructs industrial scenes and their terrifying geometry to show the inhumanity of progress.

Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (2009)

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When Every Man Dies Alone was recommended to me, I was intrigued for two reasons. First, Hans Fallada had lived a life that was punctuated with one unbelievable moment after another. Every Man Dies Alone was the last punctuation mark; he died shortly after completing the 509 page novel in twenty-four days. Second, this novel was based on a Gestapo case file that was found and then given to Fallada in late 1945. The giver of the file was Johannes Becher, a poet, novelist and friend of Fallada. Becher had come across this particular Gestapo case file because he was, under Soviet administration, researching ways to develop an anti-fascist culture in a Germany that needed to be rebuilt. The contents of the file were about the investigation, arrest and separate confessions of Otto and Elsie Hampel, a working class Berlin couple that had written and distributed hundreds of anti-Nazi postcards from 1941 to 1942. They were tried by the Nazi “People’s Court” and executed in 1943.

Every Man Dies Alone tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel (Fallada’s fictionalization of the Hampels). Yet, contrary to what one might expect of a story about one couple’s resistance in Nazi Germany, the novel is filled with characters that only ever have indirect relationships with the Quangels. In fact, some of these other characters are given so much attention I was, in the early parts of the book, puzzled about how the different pieces would come together.

The Quangels are at the centre, but as the book goes on the reader is witness to a network of relationships. Against my initial hesitations, it is this method of storytelling that makes Every Man Dies Alone such an excellent novel. To explain, let me make the briefest of detours.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a film about two sisters having different psychological reactions to the ending of the world. The behaviour of each sister pushes the viewer to honestly consider how they would behave in the same situation. I say “honestly” because the destruction of the earth is already a popular subject in film, television and books, but it is rarely, to my knowledge, a platform for self-reflection. Most of the time, the world’s end is a cause for adventure, comedy or romance. Life itself will be terminated and characters are never really scared enough, paralyzed enough or anxious enough.

In Melancholia the world’s end is a fact that can consume the human psyche to point to suffocation. Every Man Dies Alone makes me think of this film because both question the resolve of their audience. Von Trier’s film made me embarrassed for my sixteen-year-old self, a pimple-faced kid who would treat the question, “What would you do if the world was ending?” as an opportunity to phantasize, as if the earth’s imminent destruction gave everyone the freedom to do what they wanted. Fallada’s novel made me, an older, ostensibly more politically conscious self, reconsider political resistance.

By building a network of characters, Fallada paints a powerful picture of a society consumed by fear. Fallada jumps to different characters to tell how almost every single postcard dropped by the Quangels is immediately delivered over to the Gestapo. Furthermore, the people that happened to first come across the postcards tell Gestapo inspectors, without any prompting or interrogation, that not only did they not write the cards, they did not even completely read them! Even if each postcard was, at most, composed of three or four phrases, German citizens were averting their eyes as soon as they discovered that what they were holding was anti-Nazi in content.

Every Man Dies Alone deflates the phantasy of political resistance, it makes you honestly wonder what you would do if you were an average German citizen that was unhappy with Hitler’s regime. When Anna Quangel learns about the plan to drop postcards, she is disappointed in her husband:

And what we he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the Fuhrer  and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all. And these cards he wasn’t going to send to particular individuals, or stick on walls like placards, no, he wanted to leave them lying in the stairwells of widely visited buildings, leave them to their fate, without any control over who picked them up, where they might be trampled underfoot, torn up… Everything in her rebelled against this obscure and ignoble form of warfare. She wanted to be active, to do something with results she could see.

But what is active resistance when everyone is made passive from fear? Would you publicly protest without a critical mass? Every Man Dies Alone is an incredible story about an aging couple that, under the circumstances, did what they could to resist a political regime that was agressive, destructive and consumed with hatred.

J. M. Coetzee’s The Age of Iron (1990)

Thucydides wrote of people who made rules and followed them. Going by rule they killed entire classes of enemies without exception. Most of those who died felt, I am sure, that a terrible mistake was being made, that, whatever the rule was, it could not be meant for them. ‘I!—‘: that was their last word as their throats were cut. A word of protest: I, the exception.

Were they exceptions? The truth is, given time to speak, we would all claim to be exceptions. For each of us there is a case to be made. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt.

This is my fourth J. M. Coetzee novel. I am drawn to both the form and content of his writing.

With respect to form, Coetzee is a punchy writer. Sentences are often short and offer little description of the environment the characters find themselves in. There is little to no flowery language or meandering description that can serve as a brief respite from what is tormenting the characters. The rhythm from one sentence to the next is meant to sustain emotional feelings through repeated hits to the mind.

As for content, Coetzee examines social power, particularly as it is expressed in the violence and racism of twentieth-century South Africa. Much like in his other novels, the protagonist of Age of Iron is ineffective in such circumstances, despite having a burning desire to end the suffering. Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor who is dying of cancer, hopes to shatter the rigid, iron-like habits of discrimination and hatred. Unfortunately nobody is willing to listen and her only real companion is a homeless transient named Vercueil, whose only cares are the bottle and getting out of the rain.