Max Fenton is stalwart of and evangelist for all sorts of reading and writing experiences, both on and off screen (particularly A Book Apart and Reading.am). He is also the online editor of The Believer magazine – a literary vehicle for very long essays and book reviews, a length absolutely justified by the overwhelming goodness of the content.
With this is mind, his shortlist of literary cornerstones was never going to be a simple compilation – especially if you peruse his ongoing bibliography – but that said, it’s a great quintuplet of poetry and alternative titles from known authors, contemporary writers with a tech and design bent and a few honorary bedside book mentions…
Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project
Walter Benjamin died in 1940, leaving behind an unfinished collection of notes and quotations about nostalgia, technology, and cultural transformation which were more recently assembled as The Arcades Project. An ur-text of posthumously arranged notes and quotations, The Arcades Project reads like a Borgesian music box; between an idea and the publishable form it might have become.
Having only discovered this book last year, I’ve ruminated on converting the text into a website or database: something searchable and open to re-organization, citation, and group annotation. In the meantime, I’ve carried this massive book around for months, opening at random and making tally marks on the corner of each page I read.
Nick Harkaway: The Blind Giant
The author of Gone Away World and Angelmaker has penned a sane analysis of living with technology. Beginning with an unpacking of common utopian/dystopian myths, Harkaway plots a rational middle road: technology as an amplifier of human behaviour.
In contrast to Arcades, which is massive and unavailable electronically, The Blind Giant suffered something of a publishing snafu. Though a book of timely non-fiction about digital life, it had a substantial delay before publication in the US. Up until now, I still haven’t seen a copy in an American bookshop. Instead, I first pirated (and then bought) a Kindle version, which I’ve been reading on both my phone and kindle device. Oddly enough, the omnipresence of the text on my person has given me opportunity to read this book in some odd and textually serendipitous places.
Frank Chimero The Shape of Design
After a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Frank Chimero spent 14 months writing, designing, illustrating, and publishing the Shape of Design to fill the need for Rilke-like advice to the many makers of things. It’s difficult to overstate the joy of meeting and befriending Frank this past year, but that was matched by the exhilaration in reading his fantastic essay, which exceeded my highest expectations.
The physical object is immaculately crafted, as are the electronic versions. The full text is even available online as an open website.
John Berger: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
I’d been told to read John Berger, and had meant to read John Berger, but not until a summer afternoon in a sweet Brooklyn bookstore did I find this tiny text buried among the art books.
It’s hard to gauge whether this is an essay, a poem, a letter, or a dream, but sentences like “The opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate.” swung me by the arm. My best guess is that this text was a rumination—later in the British author’s life—on a century of war and upheaval.
Jack Gilbert: Collected Poems
Jack Gilbert stands out as my north star and source of inspiration. Something of a reclusive genius, his flight from early fame birthed the shockingly precise collection The Great Fires. Published a decade later, the subsequent Refusing Heaven shattered everything I thought I knew about style. “I say courage is not the abnormal. / Not the marvellous act. … / but the evident conclusion of being.” What can be said about Gilbert, the great poet of Pittsburgh, that he doesn’t say better?
The publication in 2012 of Collected Poems has finally brought back into print his two earliest books, Monolithos and Views of Jeopardy, along with those above and his 2009 The Dance Most of All. A bittersweet collection whose slight size disguises a half-century of arrows shot perfectly straight.
I’d be remiss without mentioning these few other books by my bedside:
– Rebecca Solnit: River of Shadows
– Sheila Heti: The Chairs are Where the People Go
– Wendy Walker: My Man & Other Critical Fictions
– Henry Wessells: Another Green World
– Chris Alexander: A Timeless Way of Building
– Adam Levin: The Instructions
– Desmond Morris: Animalwatching