What our writers are reading

December 21, 2011

NONFICTION

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years
David Graeber
Melville House; 544 pp.

"If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt." If Occupy Wall Street has a philosophical inspiration, it is the unlikely anarchist-anthropologist David Graeber, whose brilliantly sprawling history, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been among the most-cited books online this fall. Debt traces the development of "debt" from a benign condition of basic sociality—hey, thanks man, I owe you one—to an increasingly malignant mechanism for global immiseration and social control that crowds out all other possibilities for social organization and collective life. While the debt relationship is now so naturalized that it is difficult for modern Westerners to imagine a world without lenders and debtors—a world in which human beings have relations with each other that aren't all reducible to monetary exchange—Graeber demonstrates credit institutions in fact have a history that might have been (and might still be, and in many places on Earth are already) otherwise.

Most crucially for Occupy, Graeber explains how over the hyperextension of the debt relationship through the persistent shifting of risk from lenders onto debtors has tended to destabilize societies throughout history, requiring periodic "debt jubilees" at moments of social-economic crisis to wipe the slates clean. These jubilees were frequently the consequence of peasant rebellions—of which, perhaps, Occupy Wall Street and its anti-bank, anti-debt activism could just be the latest instance. —Gerry Canavan

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Why the West Rules—For Now
Ian Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 750 pp.

In his sweeping new book, the archaeologist and historian Ian Morris attempts nothing less than to pin down the whole shape of human history in order to understand how the West came to "rule"—the term is mordantly ironic—and what might happen next. He does this via a social development index of his own devising, which is careful not to measure anything as subjective as, say, quality of arts. Reading this index like an ancient Chinese king reading the cracks in an oracle bone, he navigates between faintly racist long-term lock-in theories and faintly daffy short-term accident theories of Western development to say, roughly, "It's the geography, stupid." Climate and resources are the prime movers of cultural progress—though progress can turn back its own tide with the new problems it creates. The braid of history, with various cultures playing a game of developmental leapfrog, predicts the West's inevitable decline. For Western triumphalists, the book will have a lonesome Ozymandian flavor: "Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!" But Morris' crisp, witty, anecdotal style is a pleasure, though readers more interested in the general thrust of the argument than knowing precisely when domesticated millet first appeared in various regions may do some skimming. —Brian Howe

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Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood 1979–1983
Edited by Kevin Avery
Continuum; 288 pp.

Hey, you wanna get close to a motion-picture icon for a number of years? Here's what you do: Interview said icon for a magazine cover story that you'll never write. That appears to be what Paul Nelson did as he spent several years interviewing Clint Eastwood for a Rolling Stone cover story that he never got around to writing. (Apparently, Nelson had some serious OCD issues that hobbled his writing.)

Nelson, a famed rock critic and Rolling Stone editor who passed away in 2006, had tapes upon tapes of lost Eastwood interviews that Nelson biographer Kevin Avery (the just-released Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson) edited and compiled for your reading pleasure. In his talks with Eastwood, it's clear that the obviously star-struck Nelson adored Eastwood not only as an actor but also as a filmmaker, which was virtually unprecedented at the time. Keep in mind these interviews were done during an era when Eastwood was still seen as a squinting, gun-toting, action antihero, not as the revered, Oscar-winning director that he is today.

The bulk of the conversations have Eastwood dishing about his lean and economical method of filmmaking—something he picked up from his days working with genre guys Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. But Eastwood also lets his cineaste side shine, copping to his appreciation for the films of Bergman (his earlier work, of course), Kurosawa, even Woody Allen.

Reading these interviews almost makes you feel sorry for Nelson, who never had the chance to be the first to herald Eastwood as the auteur he would eventually become. Fortunately, Conversations With Clint shows that he was, at least, the first to recognize it. —Craig D. Lindsey

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt
Norton; 356 pp.

It's surprisingly easy to look back upon your life to find moments when a random event or insignificant choice determined the path you're on today. Grabbing a different seat in the auditorium in your Psychology 101 class might have meant never meeting your eventual spouse or bringing your kids into the world. National Book Award winner Stephen Greenblatt applies this kind of hindsight to Western history itself in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Greenblatt marvels at how, in 1471, book hunter Poggio Bracciolini reclaimed Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things"—which he claims sparked the Renaissance, as well as scads of other earth-shaking concepts such as evolution and Jeffersonian democracy—from dusty obscurity after the manuscript was lost for more than a millennium. Greenblatt, a Harvard scholar, reduces Lucretius to its basic tenets and shows how the Roman's concept of the swerve resolves nature, religion and free will in 7,400 lines of blank hexameter. Quantum physics, chaos theory, genetic mutation and even the inclusion of the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence are attributed as Lucretian swerves. Although the mawkishness meter is dialed a little high on Greenblatt's prose, his book makes a great gift for the casual intellectual, especially when combined with a copy of the Lucretius, which is a potentially life-changing read. —Chris Vitiello

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Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography
Errol Morris
Penguin Press; 310 pp.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris possesses a wonderfully eccentric and obsessive mind. He's a better filmmaker than writer (arguably among the most innovative auteurs to work in nonfiction), but what saves this treatise on photography from being overly pedantic is his willingness to explore tangents and linger over salient details. Some are humorous. But many more are chilling—like the photograph of leg irons and hobbling chains used to torture orphans of the American Civil War. When Morris floats the specter of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat over Abu Ghraib, the reader's blood runs cold.

Morris remains a hard-core skeptic, a self-proclaimed "secular anti-humanist." Here his thoughts are pointed: Photographs generally offer more questions than answers. And what seems obvious at a glance dissolves when rigorously investigated.

One case study, the "Cheshire Cat"—an outgrowth of Morris' research on the Abu Ghraib photographs for his film Standard Operating Procedure—delves into the meaning of the "thumbs-up" photo of Sabrina Harman. (The photograph, one of the most notorious of the scandal, showed a smiling U.S. soldier mugging above a dead Iraqi "detainee.") We learn that Harman's smile is a "social smile" and doesn't signal genuine enjoyment. Considering this, along with other evidence, a contrary assessment of Harman emerges to counter the misleading first impression left by the infamous photograph. Believing Is Seeing contextualizes this misconception and situates it within the history of photography. —Douglas Vuncannon

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Blue Nights
Joan Didion
Knopf; 208 pp.

Joan Didion's Blue Nights is an account of frailty—but not of whom you might expect. An unhappy sequel to Didion's best-selling grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about her husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden death (and, more deeply, its aftermath), Blue Nights mourns another lost loved one. Less than two years after Dunne died, the couple's adopted daughter, Quintana, succumbed at age 39 to acute pancreatitis following long and complicated illnesses, both physical and psychological.

Yet the frailty here is not that of Quintana, whose precocity, intrepidity and "quicksilver changes of mood" make her a powerful yet elusive figure in Blue Nights. The frailty is Didion's: her need for Quintana, her parental regrets, her ailments, anxieties and immense grief. But worst among the frailties, as for most writers, is Didion's ebbing confidence in her own prose, which "no longer comes easily to me," she confesses.

Blue Nights demonstrates Didion's struggle with words, a mortal one for a writer whose most famous line is "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Her composed, astringent voice is among the most iconic in American literature, and Blue Nights could only be her book. Yet her trademark anaphoristic rhetoric, intricate syntax and terse lyricism often become "mudgy" (a word coined by Quintana). Didion, like an unreliable narrator of her own life, repeats and contradicts and misrepresents herself; loses the thread, loses her memory, even indulges a deliberately digressive anecdote "just to prove ... that my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story." Blue Nights not only describes the frailty. It is the frailty. Yet there is shrewd dexterity in Didion's elision of the irony that the 75-year-old ironist has outlived her husband, her daughter and many other intimates who appear in Blue Nights and have since passed—and Blue Nights is, despite its difficulties, an irresistibly readable book. Are Joan Didion and her writing not quite so frail, after all? —Adam Sobsey

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