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    Book Tour: Circles of Knowledge and Ignorance

    The impossibility of exhausting the best books of 2020, along with the imperative to try.

    By Phil Christman

    December 29, 2020
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    • PastorM

      I would also recommend Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    A professor once showed me a simple diagram that explains how ignorance and knowledge are symbiotic. You start by drawing a line that curves until it has closed itself off into a small circle. The length of that line represents your knowledge. The area inside the circle is your ignorance. Draw another, longer line, one that closes into a bigger circle. Your knowledge has increased, but meanwhile so has your ignorance.

    I think my professor was saying something more interesting than “as you learn more things, you realize how many more things there are to know,” that somehow the universe of the knowable changes as we make our pitiable advances on it. Certainly, as you learn more, the number of things you’re mistaken about increases, because there is always so much slippage as world meets mind, so many too-hasty translations. To learn is to misunderstand. And when you learn a thing, it becomes your problem; having misunderstood it a bit, in the act of learning it, you now owe it a second, better effort.

    The book column, as a literary form, has always appealed to me both as a writer and as a reader. Partly that’s just because we tend to respond to any form that we happen to have seen done well. (I still think of that golden year when Guy Davenport would review several new books in each issue of Harpers, or Zadie Smith’s tenure with the same column.) But I also love the idea of keeping up. Life overwhelms, there is too much to think about, I’ll never know what I need to know when I need to have known it, but if someone just paid me to read all the important books for a year and then to offer readers a little précis of the experience, why, that would be something. One item could be crossed off the list. One tab could be safely closed.

    As you learn more, the number of things you’re mistaken about increases, because there is always so much slippage as world meets mind.

    Of course it doesn’t work out like that. The number of new and reissued books I began or read in full this year was genuinely stupid. Many of them I haven’t thought of since. I could have spent that time learning how to skin a deer or fix a faucet or build a barricade. And yet I am achingly conscious of what’s not here. I had, for example, the warmest intentions toward the field of economics, and yet I didn’t finish Capital and Ideology, or From Here to Equality. I didn’t get all the way through the Wanda Coleman collected-poems anthology, or the Paul Valery one. That book about the Hapburgs looked interesting. There are probably some fine books about current events that I skipped on the suspicion that any such work from a major publisher is a limited hangout. And then there are the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns, the small-press geniuses and self-published masterworks that I won’t even know about for years, or ever. Or consider the subjects that I don’t understand well enough to competently review books about them (some would say, no doubt, that that’s every subject). Consider, too, that I’m stuck only really knowing one language, at least for now.

    And even as I send this off, the books keep coming! I barely finished Danielle Evans’s story collection in time to fit it in here. The second volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology appeared in November, while a small press I admire issued a brick of a book, a study of Uwe Johnson, on December 3. My friends, if your book came out in winter, and it’s 700 pages long, or it’s a Systematic Anything – to me, it came out next year. I am but one man; my ignorance grows vaster and more trackless. A number of new and reissued books from 2020 glimmer on its horizon, even as they add to its size.

    Faulkner said that The Sound and the Fury consists of four failed efforts to tell the same story. The finest new novel I read this year, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, exists in the same sort of relationship to its three predecessors, Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014), as do the four sections of Faulkner’s great novel: each time we get a little closer to understanding the two wanderers, Lila Ames and Jack Boughton, who so dominate the attention of the narrator of Gilead, the elderly pastor John Ames. Jack in particular has always presented a paradox: enormously destructive in his impact on others, but gentle, overwhelmed, and hapless in his affect. Robinson manages in this book to make as much sense of Jack as one can make of any person. In doing so, she both improves upon, and in some ways improves, the previous books. The very form of the Iowa Tetralogy, as of Faulkner’s novel, encodes the least bad way of relating to one’s own history: to continually re-understand it.

    The heroine of Danielle Evans’s novella The Office of Historical Corrections – collected along with several (mostly excellent) short stories of Evans’s in a volume by that title – is a person who re-understands history for a living. She’s part of a team of historians who go about the country armed with portable printers, posting small corrections to statues, plaques, and monuments that misrepresent history. On a trip to Wisconsin, she discovers some things about a local family that certain members of it are murderously desperate not to know. Evans’s wit, vision, and insight remain as strong as in her first collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010), but her ability to construct convincingly surprising plots, to make the stories as alive as the characters are, has only improved.

    History also haunts the characters in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, a (graphically violent and upsetting, caveat lector) horror novel written in a pinballing Pynchonian style. Specifically, they are haunted by their own youthful killing of sacred elk. Jones understands two important things about horror: one, that it lingers most powerfully in those stories where we actually care about the people getting dismembered, or even those who do the dismembering – ancient curses can make a person do funny things. Two, that the characters should struggle at least as hard as the reader does to understand the rules of the horror they’re trapped in, the history-nightmare from which they’re trying to awake.

    By knowing nothing about these lives, we choose to keep the line of our knowledge short, the circle of our ignorance so cramped as to kill.

    Alex Ross’s Wagnerism confronts the nightmare that is Richard Wagner – an inexpugnably canonical artist, influential on basically everything, who was also a grandiose anti-Semite. But from Wagner’s legacy, Ross has fashioned a generous, inclusive, and inviting book, one that takes us from the salons of Paris to the office of W.E.B. Du Bois, pausing along the way to consider anarchists, feminists, Zionists, gay liberationists, and Star Wars. The book models a way of dealing with flawed artistic legacies (those being the only sort available) that doesn’t entail lying: either about the flaws, or about the artistry.

    These days, of course, one mostly feels haunted by the future. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future, flawed novel that it is, mounts a serious and well-researched attempt at illuminating one possible pathway through the next several decades of climate change, which makes it one of the most useful and important books of the year. It tells the story of an NGO that is desperately trying to keep the rise in global temperature under two degrees Celsius. Robinson has done his homework – climatological, but also statistical, economic, historical, political, philosophical – and so every question about climate change that keeps me up at night gets turned, in this book, into a dramatic scene or dialogue. What’s going to happen when a poor country decides to try geoengineering? (It’s a matter of time.) Do we all have to go vegan? (Maybe.) Are the glaciers just doomed? (There might be fixes, but don’t count your chickens till they’re hatched.) If I only used my fair share of the world’s resources, would I have to be smelly and miserable? (Probably not; it depends how soon we all start.) Slapdash in places and overlong, the book is nevertheless a one-stop-shop for laypeople who want to think about how to address climate change.

    This list overlooks all the books that I have already considered in this column: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Marie NDiaye’s That Time of Year (translated by Jordan Stump), Jacques Ellul’s Apocalypse (translated by Jacob Marques Rollison), Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland, Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, Jill Lepore’s If Then, Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays, Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, L.M. Sacasas’s The Frailest Thing, Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain, Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, Caleb Crain’s Overthrow, Adam Roberts’s H.G. Wells: A Literary Life, Jenny Offill’s Weather, and the Library of America’s American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. Consider all of them recommended. I’m also skipping some 2020 books that I hope to deal with in future columns: Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus, and reissues of works by William Melvin Kelley and Madeline Gins.

    Some other 2020 books that I admired, but that could not be neatly folded into a column: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, George Scialabba’s How To Be Depressed, Etel Adnan’s Shifting the Silence, Percival Everett’s Telephone, Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas in Michael Hofmann’s new translation, Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas in Margaret Jull Costa’s and Robin Patterson’s new translation, Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal, Roberto Calasso’s The Celestial Hunter translated by Richard Dixon, Pankaj Mishra’s Bland Fanatics, Abram Van Engen’s City On a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, Scott Beauchamp’s Did You Kill Anyone?, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Mark Fisher’s Post-Capitalist Desire, Willie James Jennings’s After Whiteness, Bruce Wagner’s The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories (not a product tie-in but a collection of simultaneously scurrilous and compassionate Hollywood-set novellas, available both as book and PDF), Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (trigger warning!), and Joseph Masco’s The Nuclear Borderlands, Second Edition. Also, you should read William Gaddis’s just-reissued The Recognitions and JR if you haven’t before, and don’t give up on JR till you’ve tried the audiobook.

    Since I try to avoid gross conflicts of interest here, I have not named any books by the delightful people at Belt, who in April published my own book, Midwest Futures – it’s a small press and I’ve met and adore a lot of these folks. Consider all their works enthusiastically recommended, too. The same consideration has kept me from talking up any Plough books.

    More importantly, I can’t name my wife, Ashley Lucas’s, book Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration, even though it’s my favorite book of the year. The great director Peter Sellars also thinks it’s a masterpiece, and he’s not her husband. (An excerpt appeared in Plough.) It’s a book about a lot of things, but one of the things it’s about is the large number of people living and changing and growing and dying in America’s prisons, unbeknownst to far too many of the rest of us, who are all too willing to collude in the carceral system’s pretense that it is a place where people can be safely locked away and forgotten. This is immoral – and the immorality of it has been brought home during this year’s pandemic, in which prisoners have died in hecatombs. It is also a form of chosen ignorance. By knowing nothing about these lives, we choose to keep the line of our knowledge short, the circle of our ignorance so cramped as to kill.

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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