The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Changing My Mind

by Zadie Smith.

This series of essays is cobbled together from a number of projects Zadie Smith has done. They are loosely grouped into themes, the themes loosely group into a book, but more I found it just a dipping into Zadie Smith’s mind, which is my favorite thing about essays. She writes about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, about movies, about Middlemarch and Kafka and E. M. Forster, about Barthes v Nabokov, about Zora Neale Hurston, on Hepburn and the Oscars and her father and David Foster Wallace.

The stories about her father, especially on how her interviewing of her father about WWII was so clearly about her and not him, how she used his stories in White Teeth, to learn more about Zadie Smith’s history and see how it trickled into her writing was interesting and rewarding from a writer’s perspective. I want to dig into some of these essays again, the personal ones, to learn a little more about the craft of those essays.

I also want to reread her essay on Wallace, who I love, such that I can better articulate what I love about him. First, though, I think I need to read Brief Interviews, the Wallace book of short stories she talks about.

Overall a good read with some essays I want to return to.

The Technology of Orgasm

By Rachel P. Maines.

Maines starting doing research on the vibrator in the 80s, primary source research in which she collected advertisements, found original vibrator models, and poured through medical literature, and I agree that it seems absurd that no one should have done so before her. In the introduction she recounts the various polarizing responses from the academic and medical community to her research, which also investigated the medicalization of female sexuality via the medical “condition” hysteria. One of my favorites is how IEEE thought her article on the vibrator was a joke:

Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator, Rachel Maines, ‘Technology and Society’, IEEE 1989

“The Technical Advisory Board (TAB) of IEEE was threatening to withdraw the publication charter of ‘Technology and Society’ on the grounds that since there couldn’t possibly be anyone named Rachel Maines who had actually written this article, it must be some sort of elaborate practical joke on the part of the co-editors. … As one TAB member expressed it, ‘It read like a parody of an IEEE article. It contained dozens and dozens of obsolete references.'”

The book, too, is fairly academic. However, I was hoping the focus would be more on the vibrator itself. Instead, about half the book is about hysteria and the medical literature around it. To be fair, this is fascinating, the way that society was so invested in the androcentric view of sexuality that sexual intercourse was essentially the only “real” sexual act, which produced problems for women given that they rarely achieve orgasm through intercourse alone. In various studies, even in the early 1900s, when most women (generally some 60% or more) did not orgasm through intercourse, those women were removed from the study given that they were outside the norm. Never mind the fact that 60% is clearly a majority. But this had been the Western tradition since Aristotle: women did not enjoy penetration that much, which meant there was something wrong with them, not something wrong with the sexual act.

“Ninetheenth-century physicians noted that their hysterical and neurasthenic women patients experienced traditional androcentric intercourse mainly as a disappointment.”

Earlier, though, physicians would treat hysteria, which was a kind of catch-all disease for women being sexual or rowdy, with massage of the genitals. This was not something the physicians liked to do because it was difficult and tiresome, though it was also extremely profitable as these women often were never fully “cured” but required repeated treatment.

“Since no penetration was involved, believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during treatment.”

The invention of the vibrator not only was generally more effective (and faster) than manual massage, it eased the labor on the physicians. The problem was when they became small and cheap enough to be sold to women directly. In the 1920s vibrators made it to the porn scene and soon hysteria would become an obsolete medical invention.

However, we’re still dealing with the repercussions of centuries of belief that women must also find the peak or best or only real sexual act to be penetration. Given that it is the center of conception, and that we still don’t understand the biological underpinnings of female orgasm, I can appreciate the confusion. However, the data simply does not pan out: in every case in history, most women did not achieve orgasm through penetration alone.

Still, I wanted the book to get a little more detailed on the mechanics of the various vibrator inventions. But maybe what I need is a book on the vibrator written by an engineer, not a historian.



If on a winter’s night a traveler

By Italo Calvino.

Although this book was at times slow, I loved the ending and had no regrets struggling through to the end.

Calvino oscillates between the story of the Reader, excited to start a new book but continually interrupted by increasingly absurd events, and the books the Reader begins to read. It is a strangely cyclic story that would be reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s strange recursions if the writing style weren’t completely different, more old world and straightforward. (Though it’s translated from Italian, so who knows what is lost.)

There are even some moments in which Calvino explores computers and how they can reduce books to word frequencies; there is a character who believes this is more useful and time efficient than reading the book at all. At one point a book is translated into frequencies and then the computer code is lost, the book, too, lost as the computer can no longer translate it back into its original form.

This is a book that could use another read, the content fascinating and whirlwind, though the style of the book was not quite gripping enough for me.

Crystallizing Public Opinion

By Edward Bernays.

Sandra lent me this book for my birthday. She said it’s interesting but, given the current political climate, depressing. I did not find it too depressing.

This book was written in 1937, before Bernays was as famous as he is today, though he was plenty famous at the time. The introduction, by Stuart Ewen, is fascinating in itself. Ewen met Bernays shortly before Bernays died. Bernays brainstorms with Ewen how he would make a book Ewen had recently written become a success; Ewen thinks perhaps Bernays put in a good word for his book as events played out similar to how Bernays envisioned them, though he has never been sure. Ewen also comments on how Bernays’ wife did much of Bernays work, though Bernays admits to never attributing it to her because it was unthinkable at the time that a woman could do such good work.

Bernays has the idea the public need to be guided from above, that the government is responsible for swaying public opinion. He oscillates between respect and disrespect for the average person. On one hand, they are to trotted along, on the other, they are complex and individual and this needs to be appreciated (in order to trot them along.)

Plenty of the book is examples of how public opinion was changed. Bernays was responsible for allowing women to smoke — a sign of freedom and equality, although in fact he was trying to improve tobacco sales. He came up with the idea of improving the sales of bacon by having newspapers report on how physicians believed a heavier breakfast was good for the health. His ideas are all incredibly simple and yet amazing inventive and powerful. Much of it has to do with pulling in third parties or tangential ideas. A hotel is grappling with a rumor that it is shutting down, so he suggests publicly renewing the contract of a well-respected, leading employee.

A lot of it revolves on how to best use newspapers and the importance of the newspaper as a tool. I suspect much of that has changed now that there are so many more options for newspaper, that they are figuring out a new business model, and there are many more options for news outside of newspapers. Bernays had it easier. Though I suspect he would find trolls genius.

Some quotes I took down:

“If we look back upon the developments of some such thing as the steam engine, we cannot fail to be struck by the extreme obviousness of each advance, and how obstinately it was refused a assimilation until the machine almost invented itself.”

“All papers feature big news. When there is no big news, real editing is needed to select the real news from the semi news. What you read on dull news days is what fixes your opinion of your country and of your compatriots. It is from the non-sensational news that you see the world and assess, rightly or wrongly, the true value of persons and events.

“Propaganda is a purposeful, directed effort to overcome censorship – the censorship of the group mind and the herd reaction. The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts.

“Few people are life members of one group and of one group only. The ordinary person is a very temporary member of a great number of groups. This is one of the most powerful forces making for progress in society because it makes for a receptivity and open-mindedness. The modification which results from the inconstancy of individual commitments may be accelerated and directed by conscious effort.”

“Abstract discussions and heavy fact are the groundwork of his involved theory, or analysis, but they cannot be given to the public until they are simplified and dramatized. The refinements of reason and the shading of emotion cannot reach a considerable public.

Wasting Time on the Internet

By Kenneth Goldsmith.

I stumbled across this book in Kinokuniya across from Town Hall in Sydney. It has an adorable picture of a cat on its cover and I picked it up, jokingly suggesting to Silas this is a book for him. But in the first pages Goldsmith won me over with his detailed description of a moment in which he wastes time on the internet and then questions what about those activities were wasteful, reflects on his experience as a poet to suggest that all this wasted time can result in strong human connections that he doesn’t see as worthless.

I bought it for myself.

Goldsmith actually spends much time on conceptual art and how the internet interacts with it, can be its subject, at times appears to be a precise reflection of earlier surrealist conceptual art movements except we the average users are mostly not artists, which was sometimes the point of the art. But I wanted him to reflect more on how the internet can connect us, why it is okay to miss a sunset to text with your friend, how browsing Facebook can be taken as productive, or in what ways the experiences in his class Wasting Time on the Internet became intensely intimate. There were parts of this, but I wanted more.

My Struggle, Book 1

By Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I was unsure what an autobiographical novel would be. I’ve decided it’s when you want to write a novel but it ends up just being about your life.

My Struggle starts with Knausgaard musing about death in perhaps current times. He also muses about raising his children. But we quickly cut back to an experience of his as a young child that focuses a lot on his tense relationship with his father. The majority of the book ends up being about his experience as a teenager and again his father features heavily, often as a background figure. Towards the end of the book, Knuasgaard mostly relives the experience of his father dying when he is in adulthood.

Knausgaard is a master of weaving together his memories, going into a memory from a memory, often pages long, and then coming back out again, like coming up for air. It’s strangely addicting, though the book has no strong narrative arc to speak of there is the theme of his father and of coming of age and how those two intertwine. Mostly, though, the book seems to me to be about how our extensive details impact these tiny moments, that these tiny moments in our life cannot be understood without tracking through the past. For instance, in moments he spends with his brother while dealing with their father’s death, Knausgaard takes on a whirlwind tour of his relationship with his brother, which despite being 300 pages into the book we have yet to really delve into. This tour then ends by returning on the original scene of a particular moment in dealing with their father’s death, that moment now laden with much more meaning.

The writing is plain, the kind that gets out of the way; it’s so good I don’t notice it.

I’m intrigued to read more of the books, mostly to see what he does with them. Are they mostly themed? Which other parts of his life does he explore? Is the idea to explore them all?

The Unwinding

By George Packer.

The Unwinding was an undertaking. I requested it from the library shortly after Trump won on Nov 8th; it was recommended reading by some left-wing news site for understanding what is going on in this country. Then it sat on my desk for a week or two while I finished up Future Sex. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was one of those books I requested on a whim, by some random recommendation, and generally it’s 50/50 whether or not I actually like it. I knew it was nonfiction and about the United States.

When I got to it I was immediately struck by how literary it was. The Unwinding is really a series of stories of people. Some of the people are regular people who we keep going back to, starting with their family history from before WWI and following them through childhood in the mid-1900s and seeing them grow up and into 2015. Some of the people are famous, they get these one chapter character sketches that try to set them in time and cultural trends. The book is chronological, sections representing years, but it does not feel like a history book or even a political book. It feels like a postmodern novel.

Packer follows a woman growing up in ruined old industrial towns and a man from an old farming family, a southern man who goes on to work for Biden in the White House and then a lobbying firm and then back to Congress, many more people from various parts of the country and livelihoods, Packer looks at towns where the steel mills closed, at the housing bubble developing in Tampa, at Occupy Wall Street. It’s a harrowing look at the country — it’s called ‘The Unwinding’ after all — but it’s also incredibly personal and real.

Almost every chapter I came out angry, aware, uncertain: I didn’t really understand the housing bubble, I didn’t really understand Obama, I didn’t really understand steel mills or farming but I got a little bit closer. It struck me that very few people seemed like bad people (perhaps the only exception is Newt Gringrich!) and yet the country unraveled anyway. Still I found glimmers of optimism: the community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio trying to make the city right again after the steel mills left, the rural south entrepreneur championing biofuel, the Washington aide trying to put bankers in jail. There are so many people in the country trying to be the best they can be and do the best they can do. I have to believe we have what it takes.

Future Sex

By Emily Witt.

I enjoyed this book, though it stopped short of what I had hoped. It didn’t feel quite personal enough. Though I was not looking for a memoir, I was looking for something that would resonate experientially and Witt sometimes felt too detached to pull me into her experience of casual sex in her thirties, the sight of marriage and children recessing away into the distance. Maybe when I say this it comes off as depressing: when she says it it comes off as depressing, though I don’t think it need be. (What do I know?) I wanted her to be more happy but generally I wanted her to be more close. Intimate.

Still, I enjoyed the retrospective on Free Love and her experiments with porn and internet sex and live shows. I think we need more books like this.

Listen, Liberal

By Thomas Frank.

The 2016 USA presidential election has made me much more interested in politics. I moved to the US in 2006 at the age of 15. I was apolitical and the election of Obama made that an easy stance to keep. However, with the election of Trump I suddenly feel like politics are something I need to pay attention to. So I’ve been reading.

I don’t think Listen, Liberal is an amazing book, (it’s been rightly called polemic, as opposed to informative,) but for someone with a poor grasp on recent US history I found it helpful. Frank’s basic tenant is that the Democrats have lost their interest in the working class and replaced it with an interest in the professional class. This means their policy decisions tend to be bad for the working class. There are a couple of interesting ideas within this framework: Professionals, especially those coming from a working class background, think that the best way to improve the plight of the working class is to give them more education, i.e. that way they can become professionals. Wall Street is filled with professionals, so courting professionals is essentially courting Wall Street.

It was a great reminder of all the shit Bill Clinton did which I would not consider liberal or progressive at all: repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, enacting ‘three strikes’ prison laws, repealing welfare programs.

What frustrated me about this book is that Frank complains and complains about the policy and ideology of the Democrats but never gives much sense of what would be better. When he complains that the Democrats haven’t brought jobs back to the working class, my immediate question is ‘How can we do that?’ and he doesn’t even bother to try. I don’t think he ever intended it to be a book that dialogued with policy. He just wants to point out flaws in the Democrats, which he does well. Definitely not the end of my edification.

Catching the Big Fish

By David Lynch.

My friend Sean lent me this book after I visited him in Brooklyn, NY shortly after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. I thought it would be primarily about Transcendental Meditation. I knew of David Lynch’s films but I had never seen anyway. Shortly after starting the book it became clear that it was mostly about David Lynch as a person, for people who love his movies and want to understand their creator. Having never seen him movies, this made the book feel little sparse. I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing style and his commentary felt empty to me.

I also didn’t like how he tried to justify his experiences with meditation by saying physicists had discovered the Unified Theory and therefore science was catching up to meditation. This just makes no sense to me. A unified theory is just a theory of fundamental forces in the universe, plus we have yet to agree on one, and a theory is just a posit of how the world might work, so I don’t understand what that has to do with humans being able to control their mental state.

Given all this it wasn’t a bad read. I like the metaphor of having to go into deep waters to catch big fish (in which the fish are your artist ideas). Shortly after finishing it I watched Blue Velvet, one of Lynch’s movies, which I found incredibly disturbing, though also very good.