The era of the book is coming to a close. No one knows the day or hour, but inventor Ray Kurzweil says it will be soon. The fate of the book is merely a detail in the sweeping vision of Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking), but it is exemplary: Just as humans are transcending through biotechnology the limitations of their bodies, so the husk of the book will be shed to make its kernel digitally available.
The transition will not be painless, Kurzweil concedes. He frankly acknowledges the flaws of what he calls “false pretenders,” the first wave of electronic books, which offer extraordinary glimpses of the wonders to come—think of the CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary or the vast digital library of patristic texts—but which still lack “the superb visual characteristics of paper and ink.”
And the scale of the great conversion is daunting: “There are major efforts under way to scan and digitize print materials, but it will be a long time before the electronic databases have a comparable wealth of material.” Meaning that we shouldn’t expect an eye-friendly, read-in-bed, digital version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Kurzweil remains confident that all obstacles can be overcome: “Everything—including physical products, once nanotechnology-based manufacturing becomes a reality in about twenty years—is becoming information,” and much of what we take for granted about the world and our place in it will be spectacularly disconfirmed.
Funny how all the most widely trumpeted book-writing prophets of the year want to open our eyes to a reality obscured by the quotidian hustle-and-bustle. But where Kurzweil, a techno-utopian St. Paul, speaks of humans transcending biology—“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”—most of our Jeremiahs see instead a hubris in our global civilization that is certain to lead to destruction unless we repent and change our ways.
A book published on the cusp of 2005 set the tone for the year: Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking), which enjoyed a long run on bestseller lists. “It is probably the most important book you will ever read,” said Science magazine’s reviewer. Diamond suggests that the collapse of earlier societies in diverse times and places—the Maya, the Anasazi, Norse Greenland, and Easter Island are among his admonitory case studies—illumines our situation today. Either we face squarely the urgent environmental crisis—so his argument goes—or acquiesce to catastrophic failure. (A word to the wise: the Norse settlers on Greenland squandered precious resources on building churches, and look what happened to them. Enough said?)
Remember the Wired magazine cover-story of a few years back, “The Long Boom?” James Howard Kunstler, whose earlier book The Geography of Nowhere is essential reading for students of suburban sprawl, counters with The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (Atlantic Monthly Press). But Kunstler’s forecast is as much wish-fulfillment as dire prophecy. The future he sees resembles America’s past. Yes, living in a time of dwindling oil production will take its toll, but local economies will reassert themselves—“a pattern of small towns surrounded by productive farmland” —and we will go back to the horse. Meanwhile, the dreaded suburbs will be depopulated. You can practically hear Kunstler smacking his lips in satisfaction at the image of those soulless enclaves abandoned and settling into decay. No more sprawl!
It’s not clear how serious Kunstler is about his predictions, even as he embarks on another scolding of feckless optimists, but—based on his writing—he would make a lively guest. If you’re planning a dinner party, you might invite him along with Paul S. Martin, whose Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (California) advocates “resurrection ecology.” As Martin observes, “the human species has a profound interest in and attachment to large animals.” To the extent that the species which once roamed America are extinct, he adds, we might consider suitable substitutes, such as “the browsing black and the grass-eating white rhinoceros,” not to mention “free-ranging elephant herds.” I for one think it’s a splendid idea, though Martin is certainly right to caution that “restoration of our large native carnivores would be more controversial.” And if your idea of a good dinner party is one that produces fireworks, add Michael Crichton to the guest-list—his State of Fear (HarperCollins) is a wickedly satirical nose-thumbing at the scientific consensus on global warming and at fear-mongering in general—along with Peter Huber, author of The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic).
In enumerating “converging catastrophes” Kunstler devotes only a few of his pages to epidemic disease, but others have not been so stinting. See for example Mike Davis’ The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (New Press). You won’t be surprised to learn that the villain-in-chief is George W. Bush. Then there are the tales of disasters past, such as Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great Earthquake of 1906 (HarperCollins) and Jay Feldman’s When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes (Free Press).
Lee Clarke, meanwhile, wants us to spend more time considering what-ifs that are admittedly improbable but that could happen—an asteroid striking the Earth, for instance. In Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination (Chicago), Clarke argues that risk-assessment policymaking is based too heavily on probabilistic thinking and not enough on possibilistic thinking. After all, Clarke reminds us, unlikely events occur every day, and, viewed with sufficient detachment (say, from the perspective of a professor of disaster studies), catastrophes are normal.
What about man-made catastrophes, such as Darfur, documented in War and Faith in Sudan (Eerdmans) by Gabriel Meyer with photos by James Nicholls, and Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, by Gerard Prunier (Cornell)? These too are “normal” from a certain point of view.
If you want a meatier historical account of predictive thinking with a narrower focus and considerably more depth than Clarke’s approach allows, there’s Katharine Anderson’s Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (Chicago), which touches on some of the theological issues raised by prediction. And if Katrina and Rita are still on your mind, the book you want is Kerry Emanuel’s Divine Winds: The History and Science of Hurricanes (Oxford), which I wish some of the pundits had read. About the connection of global warming to increased frequency and increased intensity of hurricanes, Emanuel says there’s no evidence either way yet on frequency, while current estimates suggest that “hurricane potential intensity increases by about 5 mph for each 1°F increase of tropical sea surface temperature,” a measured assessment hardly commensurate with the inferences made in many articles post-Katrina.
Read enough of these books and you’re likely to be more impressed by human vulnerability than by the godlike powers Kurzweil sees within our reach. Certainly it seems prudent to do what we can to reduce human impact on global warming, for example, without the quasi-religious fervor that animates so many discussions of this subject—in other words, to plan as best as we can for as many contingencies as we can reasonably handle, and to repose our ultimate trust in God.
Most of the books published in the United States in 2005, of course, proceeded on the assumption that the world as we know it is not about to undergo radical change—at least not until next Tuesday. Each year features improbable clusters of books, the most striking of which in 2005 comprised no fewer than four books devoted to bees and honey: Hattie Ellis’ Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee (Harmony); Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey—The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World (Free Press); Tammy Horn’s Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (Kentucky); and Stephen Buchmann’s Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind (Bantam). The genre that has already produced histories of salt, and the mirror, and the color blue—and, in 2005, A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage (Walker)—has clearly run amok. Still, such is the appeal of the subject, I parted with these books reluctantly (dutifully dispatching them to a reviewer for the magazine I edit), and I hope to catch up with them next summer, not least to learn how the honeybee shaped a nation.
With the bees come the birds and their songs: Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (Houghton Mifflin); David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic); and Don Stap’s Birdsong: A Natural History (Scribner). Kroodsma’s book has a CD enclosed, while it’s possible to order a CD that Rothenberg produced with the same title as his book. The three books complement one another nicely. Kroodsma is an ornithologist who has devoted decades to the subject. His knowledge is awe-inspiring, his passion winsome, his minute observation obsessive, well-nigh crazed. Rothenberg, a wide-ranging philosopher, is the most interesting writer of the three but also—on occasion—the most irritating. (If you like this book, you might want to check out Rothenberg’s Sudden Music: Improvisation, Sound, Nature, published in 2002 by University of Georgia Press with an accompanying CD.) Stap is the most straightforward—and he says a good deal about Kroodsma, so his may be the one to start with.
If you become besotted with the subject and three books just aren’t enough, there’s Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, edited by Peter Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn (Elsevier), from 2004, with two accompanying CDs. Like Kroodsma, Marler (his senior) is a major figure in the field; he appears in Stap’s narrative as well. Some of the essays are tedious, at least for an amateur reader; others are more rewarding. Warning: All of the books except Stap’s include sonograms and in some cases other diagrams, tables, etc. I found the sonograms mostly frustrating (no doubt due to my ignorance and obtuseness). If I am going to get much from them, it will have to be on another reading. But all four books have plenty to offer, even for the ordinary bird-lover.
Why do birds sing? For all kinds of reasons, exhaustively elaborated in these volumes, but finally for a reason that transcends reason.
Years ago in Pasadena, my friend Bill Tunilla and I would while away hours in his bookstore, The House of Fiction, making up reading lists for seminars we’d like to take in an imaginary university. I have such a list in mind right now, consisting of three books. The first is Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans), a continuation of the magisterial “political theology” he began a decade ago with The Desire of the Nations. The second is Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath (Soft Skull), a brilliant account of liberal interventionism ranging from 1968 to 2005. And last, the joker in the deck, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (Simon & Schuster), the most undernoticed book I’ve read this year, which deals with psychic spies and others in the American military over the last twenty-five years who have, shall we say, thought outside the box. (I’d describe Ronson’s book as “the most underrated,” but not many people have bothered to rate it one way or another.) All I want is to read these books in the company of an excellent professor and some interesting people with no patience for banalities or cant.
Impatience verging on contempt—impatience that flatters itself—is a temptation, I know, that increases with age, and I find myself having to resist it now and then. But sometimes impatience is justified. I find it harder and harder to read memoirs these days, and I don’t think the fault is all mine. I’m weary of the stratagems, weary too of the sheer detritus of all these lives.
Some, though, slip through my defenses: for instance, the poet W.S. Merwin’s Summer Doorways (Shoemaker & Hoard), about his travels as a young man in Europe, which I picked up because I so much enjoyed his earlier book in the same vein, The Mays of Ventadorn (National Geographic Directions). The novelist David Plante’s American Ghosts (Beacon), about his estrangement from and tentative reconciliation with his French Catholic origins. The novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf).
But clearly the most powerful memoir I read this year, and her strongest book in years, was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf), about her coming to terms with the fatal heart attack of her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, and the mysterious illness of their daughter, Quintana, who died a few weeks before the book was published this fall. At the book’s core is a recurring motif, a credo, a statement of anti-faith: “No eye was on the sparrow.” Against this I set the memory of my mother and grandmother in church, singing a duet: “His eye is on the sparrow.” As Pascal says, we make our wager.
Not a memoir but a series of meditations occasioned by everyday joys and sorrows, Fae Malania’s The Quantity of a Hazelnut (Seabury) was first published by Knopf in the 1960s. Long out of print and forgotten, it was brought back to view thanks to the novelist Marly Youmans, who became acquainted with the octogenarian Malania in Cooperstown, New York. One of my favorite books of the year, it’s also a lovely object, as a good book should be, a nice size to slip into a coat pocket for the train.
A while back I attended a conference at which several speakers explained why no one is doing apologetics these days. It had something to do with our postmodern condition. I was puzzled, since it has seemed to me that apologetics is flourishing, and in many different varieties. If I were returning to that conference today, I’d take along copies of four books: Avery Dulles’ History of Apologetics (Ignatius), Debra Rienstra’s So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Jossey-Bass), Eric Mextaxas’ Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About God (But Were Afraid to Ask) (Waterbrook), and Nathan L. K. Bierma’s Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next (P&R). I might also take a copy of Bruce Hindmarsh’s The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford) for a conversation about what has changed (and what hasn’t) between the period of Hindmarsh’s study and now—although with the stipulation that no one can use the word “postmodern.”
Years ago, I studied literature with the intensity of a medieval commentator bent over the sacred text. This was at the very end of Literary Criticism, just before Theory began to take over. A review by Guy Davenport around 1970—in National Review, perhaps?—introduced me to one of the twentieth century’s great critics, the Russian Viktor Shklovsky, for whom the label “critic” is as inadequate as it is for Davenport’s friend Hugh Kenner. I was soon to meet Shklovsky again in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s extraordinary memoirs. And I read everything by him that was translated into English as it appeared.
It was Shklovsky’s ironic fate to become known to a generation of American students via a couple of often-anthologized essays as a founder of Formalism and hence a precursor of Theory. Others soon surpassed him in that ill-fitting guise. Now, after a long hiatus, Shklovsky’s faithful translator, Richard Sheldon, has rendered another volume: Knight’s Move (Dalkey Archive), a book from which English readers have known only scattered quotations over the years.
Also salvaged from the vaults is Czeslaw Milosz’s Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine. And speaking of Polish writers, Yale University Press is continuing with their splendid project to make the works of Witold Gombrowicz accessible in good translations. The latest book to appear is the eerie novel Cosmos. The version I first read in English years ago was a translation of a French translation. (That was in a more innocent age, when Gombrowicz had a whiff of the transgressive and was published by Grove Press.) This new edition is translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt, who earlier did a new translation of Ferdydurke in the Yale series.
There is still some literary criticism being written, against all odds, and some of it is worth reading, such as Helen Vendler’s Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Princeton) and Roberto Calasso’s K. (Knopf), a reading of Kafka (especially The Castle) that will send you back to his books with fresh eyes. And some acute criticism goes on under the rubric of literary biography. By far the best of the year, among those I read or nosed around in—indeed, one of best literary biographies in years—was the novelist Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (Continuum), which tells how a writer took certain fashionably avant-garde notions about fiction to their logical conclusion: suicide, both artistic and personal. Also on the year’s shortlist I’d put Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work (Knopf), Steven G. Kellman’s Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton), and John Haffenden’s William Empson: Vol. 1, Among the Mandarins (Oxford), the latter verging on hagiography and much too long but indispensable nonetheless, not least for its inadvertent insights into Empson’s hatred of Christianity.
Stacked by my side of the bed are several piles of books, including novels old and new. In the old category, for instance, I have been re-reading Moby-Dick and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy. Thanks to my brother Rick, I have been pleasurably making my way through the thirty mystery novels published by a British writer under the name Andrew Garve between 1950 and 1978. And I’ve been reading the Judge Dee books, a few of which I first encountered in high school.
As for the new, 2005 has been a good year for fiction—witness not only the bedside stacks but books heaped in my “study” nearby, and downstairs, and in every available place. The Albanian Ismail Kadare returns with another uncanny fable, The Successor (Arcade). Ignore the polemics about the degree of his complicity with the Hoxha regime. Read the book. If you like it, there are many more to look forward to. The perverse intelligence of the Spanish novelist Javier Marias is again on display in Your Face Tomorrow (New Directions), the first part of a two-part work called Fever and Spear. For audacity and imaginative reach, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (Viking) may be the most impressive fiction of the year that I’ve seen, a massive volume of linked stories moving back and forth between Russia and Germany and centered largely on World War II.
T.C. Boyle’s collection of stories, Tooth and Claw (Viking), shows that his hand has lost none of its cunning. He remains at his best in the short story. And speaking of stories, Michael Chabon edited this year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin) and supplied an introduction. A new novel by Chabon is due in the spring of 2006. And then there is The Dreams, by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz (American University in Cairo). Each very brief “story” relates a dream. If you described the book to me, I would be sure to say that it sounded awful. In fact, I found it absorbing.
The fantastically prolific Alexander McCall Smith produced another charming chronicle of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (Pantheon), and the second entry in The Sunday Philosophy Club, Friends, Lovers, and Chocolate (Pantheon), which is better than its dreadfully twee title might suggest. (McCall’s third series is not my cup of tea.) I feared that The Murder Room might be Adam Dalgliesh’s—and P. D. James’—last case. But James, now well into her eighties, has brought Dalgliesh back for another turn in The Lighthouse (Knopf). Likewise William F. Buckley Jr., with Last Call for Blackford Oakes (Harcourt). Both are of excellent vintage.
Among younger writers, I was glad to see Rebecca Pawel’s Watcher in the Pines (Soho), the third entry in her series set in Spain during and after the Civil War. And among those new to me, I was struck particularly by Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders (MacAdam/Cage). The author is a professor of mathematics in Argentina.
Notable reissues include a series of novels from Loyola Press, headed by Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, and two Peter DeVries’ titles: The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Toward Kalamazoo (Chicago).
You may have been wondering about Almonds to Zhoof (Triquarterly/Northwestern), which turns out to be the title of Richard Stern’s collected stories. The protagonist of Stern’s story “Packages”—who closely resembles the author himself—travels from Chicago to New York for his mother’s memorial service.
An out-of-town friend has offered the use of his apartment. After the service, when the narrator returns to the apartment with the “package” of his mother’s ashes, wrapped in brown paper, he notices the trash ready for collection lining the street. No one else is around. He leaves the package in a carton, goes to the door of the apartment, returns to the street and covers the package with a newspaper, heads to the apartment again, changes his mind again, and returns to the street yet again. He unwraps the package and tries to open the “silvery can,” without success. He puts it back in the carton, covers it with newspaper again, and adds “a plastic sack of rinds and fish bones.”
Much of the rest of this short story consists of memories of the protagonist’s mother and father at the end of their lives, especially of his mother—his exasperation mingled with grudging affection. At the end, carries on a one-sided conversation with her:
And: why not?
You were a child of the city. Born here, your mother born here. If I could have pried it open, I would have spread you in Central Park. But this way is better than a drawer in that Westchester mausoleum. Foolish, garish anteroom to no house. Egyptian stupidity.
And it was the practical thing to do.
Wasn’t it, Mother?
Richard Stern is a marvelous writer. His books have traveled with me on many moves, making the cut when others had to be left behind. But when I read this story again, for the first time since it appeared in a 1980 collection, I felt a chilling sadness. Anteroom to no house. So don’t be a chump. Toss the can in the trash. Cover with a plastic sack of rinds and fish bones. Why not?
Is something more going on? Does the narrator protest too much, perhaps because he knows what he did was wrong? And at the end, he is talking to his mother. So one question leads to another, and the books of one year to the books of the next.
Or is it, as Kurzweil imagines, to next year’s digital texts—and beyond texts, to our own transformation into pure information? For now we read through a monitor darkly, but one day we shall read face to face.
John Wilson is the editor of Books and Culture, a bimonthly review, and the author of The Best Christian Writing of 2006 (Jossey-Bass).