Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 in Reading

I didn't read a lot of fiction this year. Nothing like last couple of years when I discovered Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Alberto Moravia, Italo Svevo and others for the first time. (Last year's list here.) I spent more time reading non-fiction and even there, mostly essays and fragments, the most provocative and disturbing of which was "Modernity and the Holocaust" by Polish-British sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. After this I tried reading his other works on consumerism and modern societies and found similar provocative insights. Basically he explains how the scientific-technocratic-instrumentalist worldview which defines our modern world poses grave problems to an ethical life though he ultimately, like most philosophers, is better at diagnosis than at treatment. One of his essays is titled "Does Ethics have a chance in a world of consumers?" He is quite pessimistic about it. I have probably become oversensitive to the whole issue now. I just bristle when I see the language of science, technology or economics being applied in the domain of personal human affairs. I am looking forward to exploring more in this direction, specially the work of Jurgen Habermas.

I also spent a lot of time this year struggling with Heidegger's philosophy though without much success. Still from whatever I read and understood, he had me convinced that the story of (so-called) human civilization was actually a story of decline and disaster and that we all have probably come to this earth a few thousand years too late. I didn't understand his ideas about the various modes of being, authenticity etc totally but they kept moving around in my head for most of the year. His essays on the origins of the work of art and on technology were also provocative and in fact startling (and it is true for his other writings as well) in the sense that it showed me the nature of the process of thinking itself rather than just the result of some thought. George Steiner's short monograph on Heidegger was specially brilliant.

The three best books of fiction I read this year were all from Latin America. The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis was without any doubt the most entertaining book I read the whole year. Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo was a strange, evocative and densely layered ghost story which stayed with me for a long time. Senselessness by Carlos Moya was no less strange. It kept me thinking about what to really make of it.

The most disappointing book of the year for me was Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. I had wanted to read it for such a long time but found it tame and boring. A slog through and through, absolutely contrary to its reputation. I was also extremely annoyed by Cultural Amnesia, the essay collection by Clive James. Sartre was an idiot. Neruda was a fascist. Brecht was a moron. And on and on. It had me actually depressed realizing that just reading a lot and having an opinion on everything doesn't make you wise, interesting or open to different ways of looking at the world and yourself. A great lesson to learn, specially for bloggers.


Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften said...

You should read Gonçalo M. Tavares. I'd write more about him, if I wasn't in such a hurry. Indian editor TransBooks has published some of his Neighbourhood stories but far more interesting are the still to be translated Kingdom novels (Jerusalem is the third one and is to be published by the same editor). Check him out.

Alok said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I had seen it on the three percent site. Will keep it in mind.