I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last two weeks!
I started by reading Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (2018), the second book in the Murderbot Diaries. (I read the first one a few weeks ago). This adventure sees the titular Murderbot exploring a mystery from its past while also trying to keep a group of young researchers from getting themselves killed. As with the first book, the actual plot of the novella, which is sort of standard sci-fi thriller material, is not really the point. The delight in the series so far is in watching Murderbot try to move through the world without appearing too scary or too human. I did particularly like the spaceship AI that Murderbot befriends early in the story. Wells has a gift for writing sentient AI in ways that feels consistent and compelling rather than just rehashes of lazy tropes.
I don’t otherwise have anything too terribly clever to say about Artificial Condition — it’s more Murderbot, and is therefore enjoyable.
From that I moved to Why I Write, by George Orwell (published 2007, from essays published in the ’30s and ’40s). This is a small collection of four Orwell essays: Why I Write, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, A Hanging, and Politics and the English Language, of which the titular essay is actually the least interesting.
Much of the pagecount is dedicated to The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), which is about why the United Kingdom will not be able to win World War 2 unless it becomes a socialist society. The first half of the essay is Orwell’s attempt to define the English character, and the second argues that this character can nevertheless be turned towards a popular revolution and a move towards socialism. Given that that’s not how it went down, I’d be curious to see if Orwell ever wrote a postmortem.
I enjoyed reading this for its own sake: Orwell was good at words, and his depiction of the English character is frequently funny, if nothing else:
“During the war of 1914-18 the English working class were in contact with foreigners to an extent that is rarely possible. The sole result was that they brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired. In four years on French soil they did not even acquire a liking for wine. . . . At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”
But I think the biggest thing I took away from this book is a reminder that history is not, in fact, predetermined. There are always a number of possible futures available, and even the sharpest among us can’t predict what’s going to happen next.
Third, I read God Lives in St. Petersburg, by Tom Bissell (2005), a collection of short stories, mostly about Americans living in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. Bissell himself lived in Uzbekistan for a time while he served in the Peace Corps, and returned some years later to write a piece about the Aral Sea. I’ve previously read the book he wrote about that experience, Chasing the Sea (2003).
Bissell’s a very good writer, but he’s better at nonfiction than fiction. Most of these stories are, though certainly not bad, fairly boilerplate stuff. Three of the stories might be summarized as “American Journalist is in This Godforsaken Place Because of a Death Wish,” “American Man Feels Emasculated by Russian Man,” and “American Has Lots of Inappropriate Sex With the Locals, Which He Feels Bad About,” and none of those surprised me at any point. The best of them, Aral, was loosely adapted into the movie Salt and Fire, directed by Werner Herzog, but I haven’t seen that and can’t comment on the adaptation. (The Wikipedia page suggests Salt and Fire takes place in Bolivia, not Uzbekistan, so I suspect it’s a very loose adaptation indeed).
Bissell is most annoying as an essayist when he’s trying to seem worldweary and cool rather than just honestly describing the things he sees, and that tendency is clearly displayed in these stories. The worst story is the one written from the perspective of a spoiled and sybaritic ambassador’s son who gets into trouble in a nameless Central Asian capital. I can’t speak to Bissell’s actual life (and I suppose I should note that he once wrote a good essay about playing lots of Grand Theft Auto while addicted to cocaine) but I found his portrayal of a party boy to be not only trite and boring, but also unconvincing.
Fourth, I finished listening to The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), as read by Andy Serkis for the 2020 audiobook.
I always feel funny when talking about Tolkien in public, because both “Tolkien is very good” and “Tolkien is bad” are very boring opinions to have in public. Tolkien is still ludicrously popular, such that most people probably like him, but it’s also very fashionable to publicly hate Tolkien. I certainly can argue about Tolkien all day (and through the night, and into the next) if called upon to do so, but I feel like everyone is just rehashing the same five arguments over and over again, and it all turns into more about signaling in the culture wars than actual literary analysis.
So I don’t have anything too terribly witty to say here, other than that I liked The Hobbit, and I liked Andy Serkis’s performance, though I wish he didn’t try to sing the songs.
Fifth, I finally finished Reform or Revolution, by Rosa Luxemburg (published 2006, from essays throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries). This book is 230 pages long, and I struggled with it for months.
It’s not really all that difficult, but the essays and pamphlets collected in it were all written with an audience of early 1900s German socialists in mind, such that Luxemburg (reasonably enough) assumes that her reader is very familiar with recent events and with the general tenor of late 19th- and early 20th- century German politics. I, unfortunately, am almost completely unfamiliar with late 19th- and early 20th-century German politics, so I struggled to understand the context of almost every phrase.
The title essay is particularly rough, as it’s essentially one long response to a book written by some other guy from a different political faction. Much of it is thus very specific and of no interest whatsoever to somebody trying to learn about socialist politics or philosophy in general. But the general thesis she comes away with in that essay also comes through in the rest — generally, socialists must not be seduced by Parliamentary goals and simple reforms, and must remember that the ultimate goal, of socialist revolution, will not occur in the Houses of Parliament, but on the streets.
Most fascinating to me is a pair of essays, Leninism or Marxism (1904) and The Russian Revolution (1918), where she contemporaneously both praises and castigates Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Much like with the Orwell essays above, these are fascinating to read with the benefit of hindsight. So she says:
“Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trostky and all the other comrades have given in good measure . . . . Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution, it was also the salvation of the honor of international Socialism.”
But she also attacks (both before and after the Revolution) Lenin’s tendency towards authoritarianism, and his willingness to destroy any sense of democracy in service of revolutionary goals:
“But Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of Socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of Socialist dictators.”
Current Progress: 12/104, or 11.5%.
Current average pagecount: 254.58.
*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.