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Pandemic Book Reviews

Wed, Jul 15, 2020

updated Mon, Jul 20, 2020

pandemic book reviews: 2x translated literature, 2x technology studies Hi everyone! I read some books on an e-reader, and I enjoyed it!

Here are some reviews, by review I mostly mean using quotes to illustrate the main idea and highlights.

The first two books are literature in English translation (from Archipelago Books, who gave away ebook editions of some of their titles in May).

The second two books are non-fiction, and critique the role of technology in society.

Private Life

Josep Maria de Sagarra. Private Life. Translated by Mary Ann Newman, 2015 [1932]. https://archipelagobooks.org/book/private-life/.

Discovering this translation from the Catalan, and furthermore a novel of Barcelona, I was intrigued; and subsequently not disappointed. This book describes the diverging attitudes and lives of several generations connected to the upper class, during a transition from dictatorship to republic. It does so with considerable prosaic flair and eye for the louche.

The book’s main theme is the decadence of the noble families:

The pride of the Lloberolas lay in the fact that both their doctor and their priest were like those linen underpants that Don Tomàs’s mother used to cut out and sew: solid, invulnerable underpants, insured against splitting and laundering. It was because they wore this kind of underpants that the Lloberolas held themselves to be superior to the rest of the Barcelona gentry.

The novel is full of comic comparisons and nearly purple prose such as these:

Conxa had the aura of a lazy pearl, but not without her moments of malaise.

He had a red and white spotted cow who listened to his speeches on the grandeur and decadence of human vanity as she munched on the grass.

The Comtessa de Sallent herself, despite proceeding directly from a lateral branch of the Cardonas, looked and dressed like a chestnut vendor and spoke a Castilian studded with as many hard, greasy expressions as lardons on a Lenten flatbread.

But besides that, we are treated to ample trash Barcelona:

The staircase smelled of chicken wings, garbage cans, and the cheap local cigarillos known as caliquenyos. It was an odor peculiar to some apartment houses in the Barcelona Eixample, which everyone puts up with and whose source no one can determine. Residents are subjected to it five or six times a day, and they complain to the concierge, who complains to the manager, but no one does anything about it. And alongside the natural whiff of the house there is a whiff of whining, ill humor, rancor, and feeble protest. Sometimes the smell comes from the laundry room; sometimes from the apartment of a German man who deals in drugs or specialized straps, and the smell coming from the German man’s apartment mingles with a repugnant codfish boiling in the concierge’s house. At that point, the chemical reaction in the entryway is reminiscent of the beard of the knights who traveled to the Holy Land or the nightgown of the paramour of an ancient king of Castile. Occasionally the smell proceeds from the souls of the ladies on the first floor, which are completely dead, and give off an odor of dead soul that not even carrion crows would have anything to do with.

About the origins of the nobles’ estate, body horror:

THE ENTRYWAY WAS probably right there: natural stone, no paint, no plaster, no mixtures. The ashlars must have come from the Gusi quarry, or maybe even farther away. The blocks of stone were lashed with straps to the backs of the very hairy men who transported them. The backs and the kidneys of those men must have made a cracking sound, like a snapping tendon, with every step they took. They would stop only to breathe and to scratch the hair on their chests. Between the hairs there was sand and clay and crushed fleabane leaves and maybe a grasshopper scraping at their nipples with the saw of its legs. As they flicked the grasshopper off with a fingernail, and wiped the sweat from their eyes, they would feel a prick on their thighs, and it would be a boxwood goad with an iron spike that had no other purpose than to poke men’s thighs. It was wielded by a long, lean man with bad lungs. From time to time those pricks sliced through the flesh and did real harm. At night some of the thighs slashed by the boxwood goad would swell up terribly, and the wounded man would get dry mouth and see red lights flashing, and begin to wail. The other men who were packed in beside him, sleeping flesh against flesh under a big overhang on top of a couple of blades of straw and nothing more, would land a good punch on him and the wound would swell even more. The following day they would find him dead and no one would take the trouble to bury him. They had too much work hauling ashlars. They would toss his body out in back, probably in Mr. Domingo’s gully. There he would be eaten by ants, praying mantises, beetles and earwigs. Herons would take a little taste and no more. Herons built their nests in that wasteland, which at the time was full of black pines.

Sagarra zooms out to a meta view of his novel:

When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on, the events begin to seem more and more extraordinary, and the characters take on a chiaroscuro effect without grays, and the melodrama builds, most people reading the novel will think it’s a bunch of lies, and that such things are impossible in real life. And the truth is exactly the opposite: if you just wrote down the characters and the ‘permutations’ you can find in a city like ours – right here in Barcelona – and even within our own circle, you would be called an idiot.

Highly recommended.


Georg Büchner. Lenz. Translated by Richard Sieburth, 2004 [1839]. https://archipelagobooks.org/book/lenz/

A strange text mixing fiction and fact (verbatim from a journalistic account of pastor and philanthopist J. F. Oberlin) from a period of mental illness in the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. He was a writer in the Sturm and Drang movement, and erstwhile friend to Goethe.

Besides the accounts of his behavior, Büchner simulates Lenz’s mania as he hikes:

Only sometimes when the storms tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and then approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he should draw the storm into himself, contain everything within himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain; or he would remain still and lay his head upon the moss and half-close his eyes and then everything receded from him, the earth withdrew beneath him, it became as tiny as a wandering star and dipped into a rushing stream whose clear waters flowed beneath him. But these were only moments, and then he got up, calm, steady, quiet, as if a shadow play had passed before him, he had no memory of anything.

This edition contains both the German and English translations of the novella and supporting texts. Short but curious.

The next two books converge, in that they are both critiques of society driven by technocrats and technology.

The Amateur

Andy Merrifield. The Amateur: The Pleasures of Doing What You Love, 2018. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2765-the-amateur

Oh, was this a title for me! This is relatively light book that blends the author’s experiences with literature and real-life activism and politics, but it also presents an interesting dichotomy between professional and amateur classes, and ultimately tries to promote a positive model of engaged amateurism.

(This book got the least just review. Will try to return to it.)

For literary examples, there are extracts from Dostoevsky and Baudelaire. Effective amateur activism is personified in Jane Jacobs.

The argument is that professional classes are subject to capture, and resistant to change. (The theme of data-driven and AI methods in reproducing inequality is becoming more pertinent.)

One early think-tank solution to welfare policy was applied in fiscally strapped New York. In the 1970s, New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay hired the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica-based think tank, to assess how money could be saved from the city’s fire department (FDNY). RAND computer analysts set about modelling city-wide fire patterns to help efficiently reorganise FDNY firehouses, reallocating public resources according to these patterns. This budget-trimming programme became part of a wider Federal policy known as ‘Planned Shrinkage’: the purposeful running-down of blighted neighbourhoods seen as no longer economically ‘viable’. ‘Shrinkage’ was code for elimination, for the deliberate destruction of ‘bad’ communities across America – the problematic neighbourhoods that were a drain on public finances.

As well, the professional layer obscures decision making processes, besides having different commitments than the general public:

One is specialisation, an increasing technical formalism, a loss of sight ‘of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge; as a result you can’t view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories and methodologies.’

which leads to the essential contributions of amateurs:

This highlighted for me two central pillars of intellectual amateurism: a sensibility to de-professionalise reality, and a political allegiance to ordinary folk.

They express concerns professionals don’t consider, don’t care about, often won’t acknowledge.

It is hard to summarize the contents of this, but it is recommended.

The Real World of Technology

Franklin, Ursula M. The Real World of Technology (CBC Massey Lectures Series) Revised Edition. 2nd edition. House of Anansi Press, 1999.

This was a book version of a series of lectures (1989) made by Ursula Franklin, critiquing the role of technology in society.

Technology is defined here simply as “ways of doing something”. When put this way, the fads and fashions, the contingency of technological growth, even the cultural particularness (“a German way of knitting”), that pervade it seem to make sense.

As an introduction, there is a clear metaphor for the way we live in technology:

Technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house.

She coins the central dichotomy of the book, that of prescriptive vs. holistic technologies.

The opposite is specialization by process; this I call prescriptive technology. It is based on a quite different division of labour. Here, the making or doing of something is broken down into clearly identifiable steps. Each step is carried out by a separate worker, or group of workers, who need to be familiar only with the skills of performing that one step. This is what is normally meant by “division of labour”

In contrast to what happens in holistic technologies, the potter who made molds in a Chinese bronze foundry had little latitude for judgement. He had to perform to narrow prescriptions. The work had to be right — or else. And what is right is laid down beforehand, by others.

It is characteristic of prescriptive technologies that they require external management, control, and planning.

The way of doing something can be “holistic” when the doer is in control of the work process.

Whereas the division of labor and prescriptive processes bring to mind Marx’s theory of alienation (i.e. workers can’t affort their own product, workers lack the joy/control of completing something, etc…), she suspects something more indirect. She argues that the organization of work along prescriptive lines also imposes social compliance as a side-effect:

When working within such designs, a workforce becomes acculturated into a milieu in which external control and internal compliance are seen as normal and necessary.

While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it.“

Prescriptive technologies extend to unexpected domains (when technology is defined conventially):

The sacred books of most religions lay out the practices of prayer quite precisely, and that laying down of the practice means that other forms of worshipful activities, however deeply they may be felt, cannot be considered legitimate prayer.

In sections that would be at home in The Amateur, she critiques technocratic planning:

The political systems in most of today’s real world of technology are not structured to allow public debate and public input at the point of planning technological enterprises of national scope. And it is public planning that is at issue here.

We have the chilling example of underpasses being designed to exclude bus-riders:

One example may suffice here — it concerns the design of the parkways of New York State and the role of Robert Moses, in charge of much of the public works of New York State between 1930 and the late 1960s. His biographer, Robert A. Caro, refers to the bridges and underpasses of the famed New York State parkways. These bridges and underpasses are quite low, intentionally specified by Moses to allow only private cars to pass. All those who travelled by bus because they were poor or black or both were barred from the use and enjoyment of the parkland and its “public amenities” by the technical design of the bridges. Even at the time of Robert Moses, a political statement of the form “We don’t want them blacks in our parks” would have been unacceptable in New York State. But a technological expression of the same prejudice appeared to be all right. Of course, to the public the intent of the design became evident only after it was executed — and then the bridges were there.

There is a section devoted to the role in women spreading technology:

Standard histories of technology rarely acknowledge the contributions of women to the development and spread of modern technologies.

Let me stress that the operators were not mechanical or electrical links; they were human links.

During this phase, in which various applications of telephone and telegraph communication were developed and tested, the operators were the central participants in the experiments. One could at that time not imagine the telephone working without an operator. The operator’s role was that of an operating and trouble-shooting engineer as well as that of a facilitator.

Once the development and the social integration of the technology had been accomplished to the satisfaction of its promoters, once the infrastructures of needs had been established and alternatives had been eliminated, the technology began to remove the human links.

Furthermore, technologies create a push for their own adoption; and their promotion often takes the guise of amateurship, but the final effect is different than anticipated.

They remind me of nothing so much as the women’s magazines that one used to pick up in great numbers at supermarkets, when fancy kitchen appliances and prepared foods were being introduced. Here too were coupons and free gifts, recipe exchanges and user-proven tips for shortcuts or special effects.

The promotion of industrially processed food was geared to make women accept the new products as a liberating and exciting addition to their lives without worrying about chemical additives or increasing costs. I see a very similar scenario in the promotion of computers for individual use, and I think the pitch is quite deliberate.

The authors of this prognostication evidently assumed that the introduction of the sewing machine would result in more sewing — and easier sewing — by those who had always sewn. They would do the work they had always done in an unchanged setting. Reality turned out to be quite different. With the help of the new machines, sewing came to be done in a factory setting, in sweatshops that exploited the labour of women and particularly the labour of women immigrants.

In a kind of conclusion, she calls for development of social and moral accounting systems:

Needless to say, adequate technologies of social and environmental accounting do not yet exist; they need to be developed and implemented as part of our search for redemptive technologies.

Again, hard to do justice to in description, but it is also recommended.