The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.


Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.


In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.

What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.

You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.

It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.

There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:

One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.

On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):

I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.

It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.

Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”

A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:

I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.

There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:

They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…

Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.

And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:

In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.

Thirty. Years. Ago.

There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”

This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:

We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.

No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.

And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.

There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.


most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.


weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.


best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.


big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.


August Superlatives

All men this month, or almost all! And almost all pretty heavy—both literally and figuratively. Not quite sure what happened to the idea of “summer reading” being light (not that I actually subscribe to that much anyway). Two Man Booker longlisters this month have given me hope for the prize’s future, and one absolutely dreadful reading experience has resulted in one of my rare negative reviews, which was delightfully good fun to write. One needs reminding, sometimes, of what Hazlitt so rightly called “the pleasures of hating”.

most utterly heart-rending: This would have to be William Golding’s Neanderthal-meets-human novel The Inheritors. The story of one species’ demise and another’s ascent is bound to be at least a little bit moving; this story plants a foot squarely in tragedy. The scene where the last Neanderthal curls up alone by the hearth in the tribal cave and waits to die is one of the saddest images of loneliness I know.

most unabashedly comforting: Pen and Ink, a collection of tattoos and the stories behind them. Isaac Fitzgerald collected and transcribed the stories, while Wendy McNaughton did the drawings (there are no photographs; each tattoo is recreated as it appears on the subject’s body). Some of the stories are sad, some are ridiculous, some are delightful (one of my favorites is Cheryl Strayed’s “divorce tattoo”, which she and her now ex-husband got to commemorate their breakup.)

most thoroughly engrossing world: This is definitely a tie between the Jamaica (and Bronx) of A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, and the eleventh century Lincolnshire of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The former is a novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the subsequent infiltration of the East Coast crack market by Jamaican gangs, written almost entirely in patois, and that vocabulary really gets into your head. If I could count the number of times, over the week I read this, that I nearly muttered “bombocloth” in response to some vexation… The latter is a fictionalization of the English resistance efforts to William the Conqueror, but told through the eyes of an obsessive, reactionary, somewhat megalomaniacal farmer named Buccmaster. Most reviews dwell heavily on its use of a faux Old English; what I found most interesting, by contrast, was the subtle relentlessness with which Kingsnorth destabilizes the reader’s ability to trust Buccmaster as a character. The slow reveal of his past is masterful and creepy as hell.

dishonorable mention: I stopped reading Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I can’t remember the last time I straight up refused to finish a book. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever happened in precisely this way. But the protagonist was an irritating asshole and the book engaged with its genre trappings the way a lot of bad “literary sci fi” does, which is to say that it didn’t engage with them at all, and frankly I would rather reread The Sparrow, which covers much of the same ground with more aplomb, humour and sensitivity.

most frustrated potential: After dropping the Faber like a hot potato, I picked up This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, which is an Orwell/Huxley-esque dystopia (an accurate usage of that word, for once!) about a future Earth that’s run by one ginormous supercomputer, named Unicomp (or Uni for short). There’s a lot of excellent stuff in here: messianic tech-head fantasies, controlling a populace through calculated hormonal alteration, the kind of culture that might exist under a global government (Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, “Wood” and “Wei” are the four major—well, deities is the wrong word; “fucking” isn’t an obscenity, but “fighting” and “hate” are.) But there’s also a curious erasure of women (there are two or three major female characters, but they are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a childlike doormat, and a fuck-up), and a graphic rape scene which left me baffled as to its utility in the actual plot. I didn’t get around to reviewing this in part because I didn’t know what to make of that at all.

most impressive debut: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, has a gravitas to it that is completely belied by its primary-colored dust jacket and its relative slimness. A story about four young brothers in 1990s Nigeria whose bonds are remorselessly torn apart by a madman’s prophecy that the eldest will be killed by one of his brothers, it takes in elements of classical tragedy, as well as being imbued with the rhythms of oral storytelling and possessing a flavor of colonial fable. Its structure is beautifully controlled, its use of flashback elegant and restrained, and its author is only twenty-nine.

most personal: The song “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, but its most famous performance is probably the one on Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album Grace. Subsequently, it’s entered into the cultural bloodstream in a big way. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light, is a history of the song; it was a late Christmas present from Red to me, and it resonated especially deeply because “Hallelujah” is a song that means a lot to me. I still haven’t figured out how to sing it right.

most publicly upsetting: Of all the reviews written of Sara Taylor’s Baileys Prize-longlisted The Shore, no one mentioned how traumatic it was to read. Sexual violence in books isn’t exactly new, and sometimes the impact feels dulled, but one of the scenes in The Shore made me sob openly in a coffee shop. The whole novel was significantly more affecting than I had expected it to be—possibly it’s time for some slightly less heavy books in September?

up next: Further to starting the month with what my mum used to call “a safe book”, I think I’ll pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the Duchess’s birthday present to me. I’m going to Glasgow later in the month, so I’ll need something rather heavier for the plane…perhaps A Suitable Boy will come into its own at last!

The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light

The other day, I was chopping potatoes in the kitchen and singing quietly to myself. (I always seem to sing quietly when indoors; I have an ingrained terror of disturbing the neighbours.) The Chaos came into the kitchen. “What are you singing?” he asked. I was mildly surprised that he didn’t recognize it. “It’s Hallelujah,” I said. He looked blank. “You know, Leonard Cohen wrote it? Later popularised by Jeff Buckley?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure I like it. It sounds like it ought to be a folk tune but isn’t.” He hummed a few bars in a satirically wishy-washy manner. “It’s probably the way I’m singing it,” I said, embarrassed–I had, indeed, been singing it in a low, breathy, absentminded sort of way (bad technique!) “No no,” he said, “I think it’s just the song. It can’t make up its mind.”

That, in a nutshell, is the glory of Hallelujah. It cannot make up its mind. It’s about sex; it’s about God; it’s about longing; it’s about defeat; it’s about love; it’s about how love isn’t always enough. Justin Timberlake, that mighty and perspicacious critic, once said of it that Leonard Cohen never tells you what to feel. He gives you a branching road, and you choose.

For me, also, it’s a personal song, one that means something not merely by virtue of its words and notes but also through the memories I associate with it. It’s a song I used to sing with my friend JonBoy, from home. Our friend Red loves it (she gave me this book.) Once they and two other friends came to stay at my house for a few days just before Christmas. We spent one night doing shots, running outside into freezing air to look at the lunar eclipse—and singing Hallelujah. Later, the Duchess and I worked out some harmonies and used to sing it in our kitchen (again!) at 52 Cowley Road. Heard in this context, it doesn’t just evoke God and sex, but deep friendship, too.

American music journalist Alan Light has written The Holy or the Broken, a history of the song–both its composition and its place in cultural history. Cohen’s writing process for Hallelujah is the sort of thing that ought to be apocryphal and yet is true: it took him fifteen years to settle on the version he finally recorded, during which time he wrote around eighty verses. On the Various Positions record, the track has four. When Jeff Buckley recorded it, he did five, of which only two were also on Cohen’s recording. John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, did the most high-profile pre-Buckley cover, also using those five verses. The words you choose to put in Hallelujah affect the main focus of the song, of course; Cohen’s version generally comes across as spiritual as well as sexual, while Light refers to Buckley’s as being the product of “a sullen, lustful adolescent”. Well, maybe. But it’s also, I think, one of the best performances ever recorded, not just of Hallelujah but of anything. It is beautiful just to hear him exhale at the beginning of the track, and his sustained high note near the end is pure, simmering, impossible, careless, contained power.

I’m not really reviewing the book, am I? Sorry. Light’s good at writing about music. He describes how the song functioned on television shows, in films, and, most interestingly, as a sort of secular American national anthem post-9/11. It became ubiquitous on shows like the X Factor and American Idol, which is both infuriating (Susan Boyle’s rendition is, justly, deemed “atrocious”) and indicative of how widely this song applies, how many people it can mean something to. Light spends perhaps a little too much time quoting–such that it can be difficult to get a feel for his own prose style–but it’s smart quotation, lucid and relevant, and it comes from an impressive body of interview transcripts. The impression that you come away with is that no one entirely understands of what this song’s magic consists. There is the relative simplicity of the chord structure, the fact that singers have historically picked and chosen verses at will (therefore making it infinitely adaptable) and the fact that the lyrics embody the melding of the sacred and the profane, intertwined in ways that many songs attempt and fail at. Hallelujah can be almost all things to almost all people; it’s like Hamlet’s speech, although less precisely about something.

Last night, I made The Chaos listen to Buckley’s rendition twice. He still didn’t like it. He really didn’t like it. He thought its attempt to blend biblical and sexual imagery “hamfisted” and its melody “deeply uncompelling”. It’s just possible, I suppose, that he has a point. But the things he singled out are the very qualities that lend Hallelujah its peculiar majesty:

Unlike the breathtaking precision of some of Cohen’s songs, the lyrics to “Hallelujah” are confusing, slightly out of focus. Perspective shifts between verses. Images from different stories are crosscut, adding up to a mood more than a single coherent narrative. The effect is that…it can be as “religious” a song as you want it to be…An interpretation, by listeners or another artist, can permanently alter the world’s impression of a song…This inherent ambiguity is only heightened for a song like “Hallelujah”.

And as for the melody being simplistic, well, it is. But uncompelling? No. Just deeply, deeply versatile. As Light notes, it’s easy to sing; Cohen’s notoriously gravelly and cumbersome voice can handle it, but it’s open enough to allow for a lusher interpretation: “The song is built on a simple, gentle ascending and descending figure…There’s plenty of room for more gifted singers (Renee Fleming) to explore, but nothing to intimidate a less conventional vocalist (Willie Nelson).” He quotes uke player Jake Shimabukuro, who’s done a cover of the song:

“You can get the same satisfaction singing it alone in your living room as you can onstage in front of an audience… There’s a lot of space for contemplation, a lot of space for whoever wants to be a part of the song. And that’s a very rare thing. A song like ‘Hallelujah’ takes you off the grid.”

Self-aware, perhaps it isn’t. Imperfect? God, yes. But what this song does is to make manifest in the world that thing which we do when we can’t make up our minds either; it mourns, it rejoices, and it surrenders. It throws up its hands and holds out its arms.

Fuck it. Let it go.


March Superlatives

I read six books in March–only half as many as last month–but this was partly because of a heavy work schedule, and partly because I read several long books that took a lot of time but will stay in my head for even longer. Here are this month’s Superlatives: as previously advertised, like your high school “most likely to succeed” categories, but less shit.

all around best: Joint honors go to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hall’s novel is a thoughtful, beautiful, fiercely intelligent exploration of generation, family ties and the connections between humans and the environment we live in. She is the sophisticated, sexy writer I wish I could be. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel is a peerless evocation of pre-WWII England, told through the life stories of a large and typically idiosyncratic upper-middle-class family. Links above are to my reviews of both.

creepiest: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer, the conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy. Better than the second if not quite as good as the first, Acceptance is about learning to die, or learning to change (isn’t it much the same?), as the biologist and Control unravel the secrets of Area X. The three need to be read together, but I thought Acceptance a satisfying ending, despite the many coyly unanswered questions.

The Florida coastline, where the Southern Reach trilogy is set

most oddly anticlimactic: I like this category so much that I’m resurrecting it from February’s Superlatives post. This month, it was Laline Paull’s The Bees which left me cold and bewildered. Why are people so keen on this book? The writing is no more than competent, the structure is chaotic, the plot is guessable from the early pages. It’s not terrible, but why it’s on the Baileys long list and The Wolf Border isn’t is one of those things I’ll never, ever understand, like people who vote Republican.

most due a renaissance a la John Williams’s StonerWithout a doubt, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond. Since it’s published by NYRB, the original publishers of Stoner, it seems possible that such a renaissance could happen again. Schwarz-Bart’s dreamy prose swaddles the story of a Guadeloupean woman and her struggles in life and love. It’s a gorgeous book, and offers no easy platitudes.

most intense: In every way, David van Reybrouck’s doorstop volume Congo: the Epic History of a People. The story he tells, from remote beginnings to Leopold’s annexation of the territory as his personal property to formal colonization by the state of Belgium, through to the granting of independence, the assassinations and incompetence that followed as a consequence of being woefully underprepared, and the culpable negligence of the US, EU and UN in coping with Congolese problems, are all covered in novelistic prose. Some of van Reybrouck’s assertions are, according to my uncle, who works in the now-DRC, “tendentious”, and he glosses over many of the European interventions or lack thereof, clearly uncomfortable apportioning blame. For an overview, though, it’s very informative. I plan to read Blood River and King Leopold’s Ghost as soon as I can, to get a more nuanced (and hopefully less “official”) picture.


up next: The Moon and Sixpence (I’ve been saying this for months) for the Classics Club, and Deep Lane, a new poetry collection by Mark Doty, to review in Quadrapheme. It has the most elegant cover I’ve seen for a long time, even with fuzzy resolution:

February Superlatives

I read eleven books in February, which is pretty decent for someone with a full-time job in the shortest month of the year. As I’m trying to get into writing something, even a small something, about most of the things I read, I thought I’d try this: a sort of mini-awards for all the books I’ve read in each month. It’ll make sense, I promise (/hope). Like high school senior superlatives–most likely to succeed and so on–only less shit.

most oddly anticlimactic: It’s a tie between Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. I wanted so badly to be blown away by both of them. Chandrasekaran was writing on the mismanagement of the initial (2003) US occupation of Iraq, and Baghdad’s Green Zone in particular, while Gay is now more or less the Internet’s foremost feminist, as well as being consulted on virtually every other societal/cultural issue, especially those involving race, gender and sexuality. The books were almost guaranteed to be exceptional, only, with both of them, I kept having an odd “is this it?” feeling halfway through a sentence. Both books, I think, suffered from having started out life as a collection of separate pieces which were then forced together to make a whole. Bad Feminist is still marketed as a collection of separate essays, but no one seems to have sat down with them to work out which bits are repetitive, which are flabby, which aren’t pulling their weight, and so on. It’s a real shame; I’d still like to read Gay’s recent novel, An Untamed State.

most physically nauseating: Far and away, the honour goes to Edward St Aubyn’s short, vicious novel Never Mind. It encompasses one day in the life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, who is on holiday in the South of France with his aristocratic parents, alcoholic doormat Eleanor and sadistic abuser David. If you have ever been in an abusive relationship or know someone who has, do not read this, or read it very carefully; St Aubyn is perfect on the dynamics of domination and control, which, although I admire the technical and emotional skill required, makes the reading experience sickening. I was going to read the three sequels straight afterwards, but just couldn’t face them. Maybe one a month.

most like a ‘90s indie teen movie, only with Mennonites: There can really only be one contender for this: A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews, which is about Nomi Nickel, whose strictly religious upbringing has caused both her mother and sister to rebel and leave, and who is considering doing the same herself. One of the curious things about this book is that nothing really happens in it. It’s all about charting the progression of someone’s mindset from idly thinking about something to being determined to do it, and not in an intense, Macbeth sort of way. But Nomi is a charming protagonist: intelligent, impatient, and kind of just done with everything. Very good.

most unabashedly comforting: A tie, between The Wind In the Willows and Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, both of which I read whilst having a long weekend with my grandparents at their house on the South Downs. The Wind In the Willows basically defines my childhood: there was an animated film made in about 1994, with such voice talent as Alan Bennett (Mole), Michael Palin (Rat), Rik Mayall (Toad) and Michael Gambon (Badger), and I watched that thing hundreds of times. About ninety-six percent of the dialogue and narration is lifted directly from Kenneth Grahame’s original text, so re-reading the book is almost like having a nostalgic audio track of the film in my head. Not to mention that the writing is simply beautiful without ever tipping into sentimentality. God bless the Edwardians. (Adrian Mole is, I should hope, self-explanatory.)

most impressively disturbing: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber. This has also been made into a film, starring Scarlett Johanssen, which I would like to see, although I am a little worried that it will be too violent to enjoy watching much (I’m squeamish about on-screen blood, though reading about it is okay.) It’s a hard book to discuss because there’s a huge spoiler which occurs fairly early on, but I can say that it flips a reader’s idea of “normal” in the way that the best speculative fiction (or indeed any sort of fiction) does, and that I had to lie down for a bit after finishing it.

most ludicrously enjoyable: No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon, which is a novel that partakes very much of the 1066 And All That school of historical interpretation. It reads like what would happen if Terry Pratchett decided to do a mash-up of the life story of Shakespeare. There is an ongoing subplot about a potato, and another, smaller subplot about Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak. Reading this is the very definition of “nerding out”, and it’s great.

Tudor potato

most apt reading for a cough syrup fugue state: Both of the books I’ve been sent for review this month, oddly: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, and The Well, by Catherine Chanter. The Anchoress is about a young woman in thirteenth-century England who decides to become, essentially, a hermit, and the repercussions of her decision; The Well is part murder mystery, part eco-thriller, and part domestic drama. I slightly preferred it, out of the two, although it is slightly longer than it ought to be. Both of these were ideal for sick reading, focusing as they do on altered states of consciousness, memory loss, visions, hallucinations, etc. And I’ll be reviewing them at the end of the month in Shiny New Books!

most straight-up infuriating: Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. This was February’s Classics Club read for me, and it is very racist. Yes, it was written in the seventeenth century, when this sort of thing was par for the course; and yes, it is easy and enjoyable to analyze other elements of the work; and yes, the racism is in part what makes this a valuable window into the development of Western attitudes towards Africans and slavery. But it also makes for rather eyebrow-raising reading. More on that when I post a full Classics Club review, later!