Overweening Generalist

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Books: Notes on My Better Reading Experiences in 2015

Readers: I have not been doing the OG much over the past year, my previous post being on July 23. The reasons available to my conscious mind are numerous. Do a search for "why I quit blogging" and one of the most-cited reasons is depression. I think I've had some of that, but I guess I internally framed it in other ways: frustration/anger/hopelessness. How does someone make money writing? Where are we going in Unistat, politically? To quote the old Stones song "19th Nervous Breakdown,": "Nothing I do don't seem to work/It only seems to make matters worse. Oh pleeeeeeeze."

But I hang in there. I teach guitar and music theory and love my students and most of 'em love me. I love doing it. I did it a lot in my 20s. Boy, have things changed with the digital world vis a vis music teaching!

Over the last six weeks or so, I realized: well, about five people read this blog (the numbers that Blogger gives you for hourly/daily/weekly/monthly/yearly readership seem infinitely corruptible; never for one second did I believe 683 people had actually read anything from my blog in one day), and when I did write I almost always wrote a "tl/dr" post. Apparently? Anyway, I realized, there was a therapeutic aspect to posting an article/essay/rant/whatever. Even if one person "out there" liked it and never commented, I guess I'm now cool with it. (I imagine that one Ideal Reader of the OG, btw.)

Moreover, I recall one of the writing gurus - fergit which 'um - titled a book Writing To Learn. And I bet it was Zinsser, but I'm too lazy to look it up and it's immaterial anyway: it was a way to learn. That sealed it: I stopped going on. I will go on. I...

So yea: books I read in 2015 that I really really RILLY liked...

Blood and Volts: Edison, Tesla and the Electric Chair, by Th. Metzger (1996)
Metzger's essays first showed on my radar in supplements to the yearly Loompanics catalog. As far as I can tell, he has yet to collect those in a book. He's taught college in upstate NY for awhile and I consider him one of the greats in the so-called "marginals milieu." He writes fiction too. (Check out Big Gurl. ) B&V is a gripping, well-researched and in-your-face look at the early uses of electricity in capital punishment. There are scenes that feel like Wm. S. Burroughs at his most depraved. These were liberals who wanted a more "humane" way to kill people. Because killing is just plain wrong, we're gonna kill ya, in the name of The People. Recent news stories of the "kinder" method of lethal injection and the specific, horrific ways it doesn't work the way rationalists thought it would might prepare you for Metzger's descriptions of the experiences (if you can call them that) of the earliest electric chair recipients. We also get vivid pictures of Edison and Tesla: their personalities and attitudes towards science, business, ethics and fame. Most readers of a blog like this probably already know: the two geniuses couldn't possibly be more different. I love how Metzger depicts late 19th.early 20th century American society and its excited misunderstandings of an emergent electrical world.

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal, by Tom Shroder (2014)
Journalistic, and among a sudden welter of books and articles in major publications about how psychedelics are slowly re-emerging after perhaps the most egregious moral panics of the 20th c. When I took this one home from the library and did a quick thumbing for index, structure, bibliography, style, etc: I was excited to note that a major section of the book was about Rick Doblin and his long strange trip trying to get psychedelic drugs back in the hands of researchers and scientists. And that part of the book delivered, for me: Doblin is one of the names that should be better known among those who consider themselves among what may be termed the psychedelic cognoscenti. But the interwoven story of the Iraq war vet with PTSD, and his treatment: utterly gripping. The descriptions of what this young guy went through gave me a bit of quasi-PTSD, and the only thing that would've alleviated it would be his ability to deal with life effectively after treatment, with a psychedelic drug, under knowledgeable, loving medical care. It worked!

Overall, the gradual acceptance that psychedelic drugs may have profound therapeutic effects seems to me one of the happiest of historical turns for our years, early 21st century. Know Thyself. Set and Setting. Sacrament. The Numinous and healing. A 2011 study revealed that one major psilocybin trip could make a person open-minded to new viewpoints and experiences for life. Let us weigh the pros and cons and the in-betweens?

Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, by Scott Timberg (2015)
I first became aware of Timberg many years ago when I read a feature piece he published in the LA Times, about a ridiculously erudite classical music clerk at Tower Records in West Hollywood, California. This book seems to have grown out of that piece and several others like it: the old business model for writing and performing music, poetry, doing architecture, cultural criticism - most of the creative arts - has changed so radically with the digital revolution that we're suddenly in a winner-take-all situation that seems unsustainable. And how some record store and bookstore clerks had been minor cultural heroes themselves, with tiny cult followings, simply because they knew so much and were tremendous sources for people who are into Their Thing. These clerks and weirdo-experts go away too, when it's all Amazon from here on out. Timberg is wonderful in fleshing out the etiology of all this, and has some compelling suggestions for how we get out of it. This book was written, seemingly, with almost all my friends I've ever had in mind. I do wish Timberg had suggested the Universal Basic Income idea, but you can't have everything...or rather: if you're trying to make a living doing creative work in the Arts, you can barely have anything. This book seems vital for those who have disposable incomes but who are only transiently aware that real people are behind their joyful cultural consumptions. The problem is: if these people thumb the book in a kiosk somewhere, it's likely to look like too much of a bummer, and they won't read it. It seems written for the very class who are suffering under the current dispensation. Timberg loves independent music, writers, weirdo painters, visionary builders. He really knows...more than you do about all these people and how they sought to contribute to culture. The book seems to function as: hey, thanks for reading, and I'm here to tell you I hear you. Maybe things will get better. It's very well-informed, empathetic, but  a bit of a reality sandwich for many of us. Still: I couldn't put it down.

Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science, by Alice Dreger (2015)
This might seem like a weird riff, but right off I'm going to assert readers of Robert Anton Wilson will probably love this book, which I think will prove to be influential in the sociology of science. Especially if those RAW readers liked his The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. (<---of course I'd say this, but one of the great underappreciated books in the sociology of science) Only Dreger is not taking on CSICOP, but liberal academics who attack other scientific researchers for coming up with data, information, journal articles and books that offend - in the widest sense - Political Correctness. I've long been fascinated by the late 1960s-now fallout around the cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who famously studied and wrote an ethnography about the Yanomamo. From there: sociobiology/evolutionary psychology and the raucous campus backlashes from feminists, charges and counter-charges, how knowledges are constituted, the political ramifications of knowledge, the molten topic of what's "human nature," etc. And this is but one tendril in Dreger's story. For me, it's easy to see why the Right attacks science it doesn't like; what I want is a more balanced view: how do liberals react to science they don't like? The stories here are sobering. If you're fascinated by intersex folk and the political in-fighting among transsexuals, between those who brook no dissent from the line that "I was born in the wrong body" and those who changed sexes because they thought it would be exciting and sexy (I'm simplifying), here is a story for you. Or: what if your data shows that rape is not - according to feminist dogma - always and only an act of violence, that there's a sexual attractiveness component to rape? And that this data could be placed within the framework of evolutionary psychology? Even if you're a male feminist/liberal and know your data will cause great anger, do you deserve death threats? To get fired? All of the stories Dreger covers seem to violate this basic sequence: First: do good science and trust in your methods and data and your scientific peers. Second: we hope social justice will occur. If you get these two backwards, you may be in for a world of hurt. A captivating read for me, and Dreger combines her (rough) academic life with a journalistic flair. She's fearless, frank and I love her. Maybe some day I'll meet her.

Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen (2013)
The brainiest and wittiest rock star book I've ever read. One half of Steely Dan, this is a short work in which the latter half Fagen describes in great detail what it's like to do the rock star tour when you're around the age of 60. The road, the dealings with different concert attaches, the poor sleep, whether to sleep on the bus on in your room, etc. And Fagen is cantankerous, if highly literate and funny. You understand why young rock stars trash hotel rooms, overdose, turn in bad performances, and act like ridiculous assholes: constant touring is rough on the nervous system; it tends to drive people nuts. And here's 60 year old Fagen doing it, making the best of it. There are short essays about taking LSD at Bard College, reading science fiction and Korzybski and the Beats, growing up in post-war suburbia, slowly developing musical chops and an esthetic. I hadn't ever heard of the Boswell Sisters, but Fagen sold me. Chevy Chase once played drums in a proto-Steely Dan? Yep. Fagen is, one of my musical gods: I love his composing and piano playing, not to mention that any studio guitarist who played on a Steely Dan record has...unworldly chops. To this day I go ga-ga over any lead break in any SD record. (Jimmy Page said his favorite solo of all time was  "Reelin' In The Years," which was by Elliot Randall; if I were forced to pick one it would be Larry Carlton's first solo in "Kid Charlemagne" which is about Owsley. Carlton's second solo in that song is merely great.) One last tidbit in this capsule quasi-review that kept me thinking for a long time: I have long had a very deep love-hate relationship with television, and Fagen's take on much of his audience addresses this when he uses the term "TV Babies" over and over when sizing up his audience:

"Incidentally, by 'TV Babies' I mean people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principle architect of their souls. I've actually borrowed the term from the film Drugstore Cowboy, in which Matt Dillon, playing a drug addict and dealer, uses it to refer to a younger generation of particularly stupid and vicious dealers who seemed to have no soul at all." (pp.98-99) This seems a pungent articulation for the loyal opposition, if you like what TV has done to you and balk at the idea that it was the "principle architect" of your "soul."

Ahem. Well. I see I've done it again: I meant to write about another 15-20 books, but the word spewage is probably too much for the Busy Person, so I shall quit for the day.

                                          artwork by Bobby Campbell


phodecidus said...

I read every post, many of them I return to re-read and keep up with comments. Please keep it up, for me, if not for anyone else.

michael said...

Hey thanks!

I'm writing for at least two people. That's something.

Except for the fact I'd written down the TV quote from Fagen, all of these books had ben checked out at the public library and read over 4 months ago, so they were all recollected from memory. I've since acquired my own used copy of _Blood and Volts_.

Metzger wrote a piece that I've been looking for and can't find. "Destroy All Goo-Goos" was in a Loompanics catalog one year, and was about how psychotically unhinged American troops were when they invaded the Philippines and just slaughtered and beheaded indiscriminately, with very deep racism and profound stupidity: good ol' Murrkin soldiers of fortune, given carte blanche to let out their murderous Ids.

tony smyth said...

Na ... more people read OG than you think Michael I'm sure. Its ALWAYS really stimulating. Thanks for the book recommends. Will check out Acid Test and Galileos Finger.

Not a great Steely Dan fan myself, but always thought Skunk Baksters (spell?)solo on the intro to Parkers Band, with its brilliant sense of acceleration into the main tune, was very very tasty.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Darned if I don't want to read all of these books now! And I always read every word of your postings.

"And how some record store and bookstore clerks had been minor cultural heroes themselves, with tiny cult followings, simply because they knew so much and were tremendous sources for people who are into Their Thing. These clerks and weirdo-experts go away too, when it's all Amazon from here on out."

Ann Patchett, a novelist who opened a bookstore in Nashville, wrote a piece in the Saturday Wall Street Journal about how independent bookstores are coming back, so maybe it's not all Amazon from here on out. And I do miss those clerks, such as the guy at the classical music store in Tulsa, no longer open, who corrected my pronunciation of "Pierre Boulez." I wish I could talk to him now, when I'm listening to more classical music than I did in my younger years.

But maybe some of those clerks are blogging? Here is my favorite classical music blog:


And I have to admit, I've learned some things from the long reviews that Amazon customers on recordings of some of the more obscure Russian composers I like.

michael said...

@ Tony Smyth: The choice vibes are much appreciated, man.

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter was yet another studio guitar wiz that Becker and Fagen picked. Most people know his solo from "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." He later got top security clearance from the Pentagon to work on missile defense. Not only did he play bass for Jimi Hendrix in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and guitar for the Doobie Bros, he's a "Senior Thinker and Raconteur" for the Florida Machine and Human Cognition. He's quite the conservative, but another rocker "brain" like Tom Scholz of Boston and Brian May of Queen.

michael said...


I read Michael S. Rosenwald's piece in the WAPo recently about used bookstore resurgence. I thought the bit about being in a diverse community of readers and the 4 Ds (Divorce/Downsizing/Death/Departure) being the engine was really interesting.

Here's Scott Timberg's 2003 piece on classical music clerk extraordinaire, Eric Warwick. I later had a brief conversation with Warwick. He was amazing and I hope he's thriving now in whatever he's doing:


Before I forget: a kindly reader of the OG named "Scott" emailed me: He'd found Th. Metzger's "Destroy All Goo-Goos" by using Brewster Kahle's Wayback Machine. (Why didn't I look there?). Here it is, but take a few deep breaths before reading it::


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post as usual. I find it interesting that both of us make our living teaching music theory (along with other teaching) these days. "Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience" as Mr. Melville said. I used to work as a clerk at bookstores and video stores.

I hope you find your notes on I, Wabenzi one of these days.

I found your comments about the good news about research in the early 21st century interesting.

Have you seen "Experimenter"? I found its picture of academic life interesting. David Thomson wrote a great piece on it: http://www.filmcomment.com/article/stanley-milgram-experimenter-michael-almereyda/

Anonymous said...


You are a hero to me. Truly. Keep blogging, and teaching. Yeah, RAW is a lot cooler than you and less verbose but you are in the right vein, prospector. You can play guitar!

RAW would have liked to be able to play Star-Spangled Banner. I imagine.

My satire is greasy shit. But it floats. Locally. Nationally.
I got a mention in The Walrus. Cashin Delaney, remember, I sent you a hush-mail about him?

Poor Cashin was included in a rant about comment-trolling:

"At one point, I became so enraged that I suggested our newspaper create an alter-ego for me (“The Angry Moderator”) who would call out the most idiotic commenters. My boss said no, and was correct to do so. In effect, I was asking to become the ringleader of the anonymous circus."


Poor Cashin got second billing to "Pizza Tongs".
Oh Well. Better than a brick through my window!
(My windows are old. Insurance...???)
Or a shit-bag tied to the door knob. Who wants to read this...Canadians...from SouthPark: The Movie?

Anyway, I know how it is to have a reading addiction. At least you are on good shit.
I understand and respect your active critical awareness while reading and your need to communicate it to those who can benefit. You have a style. Learn to cut. Keep going.
Tom Jackson really enjoys you as much as I do.

I am sure we would have a blast together in person. Or argue. Either way. Happy New Year.
Thanks for blogging. You don't suck.

michael said...

@ Eric: I've misplaced a lot of notes - like the ones when reading Rafi - apparently. I should just re-read the novel. I think around page 200 I realized I wanted to "bone up" (a term that brings out the Beavis and/or Butthead in me) on Gurdjieff.

The relative informality of teaching a one-on-one lesson for an hour with a rock guitarist of some persuasion, ages 13-60-something seems substantially qualitatively different from teaching an entire class...or what I remember as an undergrad Music major. This seems intensified because I'm very biased and vocal toward improvisation as The Goal. Even further out?: after so many years of doing this, I realize most "relative" beginners really do want to learn their favorite songs, so I have to learn tons of songs, mostly by artists/bands I'm not totally in love with. But I do emphasize the theory behind each song and try to do improv ideas off favorite songs. When asked about improv - not often enough - I think I might tend to sound like an eccentric-mystic to people under 40. Who do I have on my side? I'll just take Bach and Coltrane and that's enough for me. Imagination! Dizzying individual/interior freedom! Are many flights and forays dead-ends? Yes, but who cares? Play on!

re: good news about research in early 21st c: yep. This seems almost criminally neglected by the Official Informers. Did you see Robert Sapolsky's response to this year's Edge Q?

It's here:

Just think about how rapidly we came up with a vaccine for Ebola, considering what we were up against. That is AMAZING. (In my opinion)

michael said...

@ Ben Turpin-

Cashin Delaney will not be silenced!

And my gawd yer right: I need to learn to cut.

All good vibes rebound back, enter your pineal gland, and get stored in the Eternal Karma Sex Bang, to which you have a FREE LIFETIME MEMBERSHIP (void where prohibited)

Happy New Year to you to - all yous guys - and Turpin? Thanks for saying I don't suck!

Anonymous said...

You are Welcome! Someone told me the same over the holidays and I felt like paying it forward. It felt good.

Eric Wagner said...

I used to have a bias towards "improvisation as THE GOAL". In recent years I mostly want to tune in to the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven continuum.

I enjoyed the Sapolsky link. Thank you.

Unknown said...


I love that you are blogging again! I need to read that Donald Fagen book.