Non-fiction Reading Highlights 2012

I jumped on the bandwagon that is John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Pulphead". These are rightly considered to be some fucking great essays. I reread some of them recently and was struck by how clean the prose was. Nothing particularly fancy, but it is the authorial stance that is breath-taking. His approaches to his subjects come askance, exposing some unexpected facet of his own life, which oftentimes succeeds in illiminating a shared humanity. In one brilliant biographical essay, Sullivan was able to turn Axl Rose into a tragic figure. In another, he gazes straight into the maelstorm that is Michael Jackson, and manages to hold onto the music as the heroic center of genius. Indeed, the music essays in this book comes as closes to anything in modern journalism to explicate why music is so utterly essential to this modern life.

Like most Australians, I passed through the Australian school system and failed to learn any passable history of our nation of any consequence. I feel some shame in knowing more about the US presedential elections than our own political system. And so, it is with some relief that I read journalist George Megalogenis' rather compact history "The Australian Moment". The Moment which the book refers to was the economic jujitsu move that Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd did on the GFC, which smacked it so hard, that the Australian was able bounce from recession, and off onto the billowing safety of the onrushing Chinese mining boom. But really, the gimmick of the Moment is really just a hook into nothing less than a readable and authoritative history of 20th century Australian politics. It's clearly a labor of love as the source material includes in-depth interviews with all the surviving prime ministers of Australia conducted over many years.

This year I read yet another translation of "Mumon's Gateless Gate" by Koun Yamada, the central book of koans in the Zen canon. My favorite before this was Robert Aitken's folksy American translation, which dissolved a lot of the weird mystical interprations in other translations. What is great about Yamada's version is that it puts in a lot more context of each of the koans so much so that I could figure out some of the more obscure koans that had stumped me on previous translations. Yamada is also much more patient in laying out the logic of each koan. I also got a chance this year of reading different collections of essays by Dogen, the great medieval Japanese Zen master. Dogen is a minefield for the aspiring translator as he is one of the hardest writers to translate in what is an already difficult to translate genre. He invents terms out of whole cloth and is linguistically playful with his explanation of the dharma. With Dogen you can get a precise but pedantic and clumsy translation like Cleary's translation. But you can also get a fluid translation such as Bob Myers' "First Dogen Book". In Myers' translation, he makes many surprising and pleasing word choices that ripple through the whole texts. Getting these just right requires years of study and practice. Without this level of translation, it's very hard to appreciate the true beauty of Dogen's Zen.

Cities are the greatest creation of humanity. Well at least according to some, which include myself, and also P. D. Smith, who has written one of the best books on the city yet "Cities: A Guide for the Urban Age". What is it exactly? It's like a little encyclopedia, a collection of short essays, each devoted to one aspect of the city, or city life. This book has no particular agenda, it just wants to celebrate this most human of inventions and so, the topics range far and wide, from city gates to marathons. Of course, this book would not be noteworthy if not for the quality of the writing. And Smith is incredibly well-read and erudite. His tone is somewhat elegiac and I think this book will stand the test of time, providing as much intellectual sustenance for future lovers of the city.

Peter Watson's "The German Genius" is one very long book. It's dense, and it has nazis in it. Or rather Watson's main contention is that the recent history of nazi Germany has unfortunately obscured the vast intellectual contribution that German culture has made on the modern world. This book aims to demonstrate, and I believe it does so in ample measure, that the culture of the modern world is Germanic in origin. How did a bunch of illiterate barbarians on the edge of the Roman Empire reinvent themselves into the most sophisticated society Europe had ever seen? Watson traces the influence of the Pietist branch of the protestant revolution in the development of German culture, from philology to philosophy, music, science, engineering and the arts. I've studied my fair share of physics and philosophy and I was constantly surprised by just how much Watson had absorbed. His thumbnail sketches of seemingly every significant German intellectual are astonishing. But more importantly I got to see how the development of German ideas went hand-in-hand with the political development of the German political state. What is disturbing though, as highlighted by Watson, is that the heights of German culture developed specifically at the expense of the development of their political system. There was a perverse parasitic relationship between the two, a relationship that would uncoil in the twentieth century in the worst possible book. This is an exhausting book, but the chance to see so many ideas tied together by a sure hand is rare to see indeed, and if you are a lover of the history of ideas, this is an absolute must.

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