The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Month: March, 2017

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.