Show me your books …

by Henry Farrell on April 17, 2020

was once a demand made by Kieran on Chatroulette (remember Chatroulette?), but is now becoming an amateur spectator sport, as people scope out other people’s bookshelves on Zoom, and some of those other people in turn likely artfully arrange their books so as to present the best possible image of their serious or not-so-serious intellectual life. The Twitter commentary on this Pete Buttigeig bookshelf has already started.

For me, the interesting bit was not the volumes of Dragonball, or the Piketty in and of itself, so much as the way in which Piketty and a few issues of N+1 bracketted a copy of Juan Zarate’s decidedly non-leftwing book on US financial power, Treasury’s War. Perhaps the message that was intended to be conveyed was of how a leftwing attack on the power of capital and global inequality might be organized around the awesome power of the US over the global financial system. Or, perhaps, that’s just me.

Either which way, one way to keep some of us occupied is to scope out each other’s bookshelves. Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all, though I have chosen the bookshelf in our house with the greatest concentration of intellectually ‘serious’ books).

Feel free to snoop, and to disparage my taste. Feel just as free to include links to photos of your own bookshelves in comments (it looks as though img src is disabled in CT comments, but links should work fine).

What are we watching?

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2020

As we are all (or most of us) shut behind our front doors for fear of the plague, and once we’re through with improving ourselves or home-schooling others, what are we watching? I’m always in need of a good recommendation, but happy to share too. At the moment the two drama series that are occupying me are Baron Noir and Babylon Berlin (both series 3 now). I’m guessing, possibly incorrectly, that Baron Noir will be the less familiar of the two to CT readers. It follows the career of socialist mayor Phillipe Rickwaert from the mayor’s job at Dunkerque to the highs and low of national power. Rickwaert is both a Machiavellian tactician (not above dirty tricks and electoral fraud), personally ambitious but also deeply attached to the historic socialist cause. One of the grittiest depictions of how the political sausages get made of recent times. You should start at the beginning with series 1, which is excellent, and persevere through series 2, which gets a bit flabby, since series 3 is again taut, well-plotted and acted. The France of Baron Noir is a parallel one that is just a tiny bit different (the eventual Macron figure is female and the Mélenchon character is vain and narcissistic). Really compelling stuff. Babylon Berlin, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, is a Weimar era detective series in which our heroes Gunther Rath and Charlotte Ritter battle against dark forces. The plot is sometimes incomprehensible, but the depiction of 1920s Berlin is wonderful.

His Dark Materials Trans-Atlantic Book Club

by Maria on April 17, 2020

So, I (presumably) got the thing but of course there is no testing in the UK for people who need it, let alone assorted members of the general public like myself who’d just like to know if they’re through the worst. Then I was great for a couple of days, then really, really not so great, and that not-so-greatness has lingered. Net result; cancelling and foregoing various paid work things, letting people down, and not doing my central ‘life’s work’ things. Which is trying, but I am nonetheless going boing boing boing on middle class lockdown bingo. Growing tomatoes. Returning to piano-playing. Complaining about joggers. Starting and not finishing a potential longread about Parfit, past and future selves and why we ignored the letters from our future that China and Italy were kind enough to despatch. Also, tweeting too goddamn much. Eating too goddamn much. (now the food shortages have eased and I can also leave the house to buy some – I quarantined for 2 weeks, but the UK guidance seems to be only 7 days after first symptoms. In something that lasts a lot longer, that seems wrong?) Also comfort-reading.

I was 1/3 through Anna Burns’ Milkman when we went into lockdown about a week before the UK’s official lockdown. Found almost immediately I couldn’t manage it any more. Then tried Tim Maugham’s near-future post-apocalyptic Infinite Detail. Ha! past self who thought you could still read something like that for general interest! you were so so wrong. I don’t remember why exactly, but my thoughts turned to Northern Lights; specifically the Everyman edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy I bought for Ed to bring on his last tour and which he left at home. (His interest piqued to see me reading ‘his’ book, and read the dedication to him, he then said it was just the book he should have brought but only not having done so does he now understand his former self and how he has changed and really should have?)

Then, out on a neighbourhood walk a couple of weeks ago, I knocked on the door of a friend and retreated back to the footpath. Grey area activity, this, but the conversation was short and no sunbathing took place. My friend and her two children came out and Milo whinnied through the gate to be let in to raid their cat bowl. We ignored him and got quickly to book-chat, HDM, and made a plan for a HDM book club online the following night. Invitations went out. (I am that person who’s refused to use whatsapp since the day facebook bought it, but for work reasons have used zoom for years. there is no security or privacy logic to this.) 7pm the next night, those two kids, my two Washington nephews, two of my sisters, Ed and me all got on zoom for a proper conversation that was Not Work and also not ‘well, nothing much happened today, let me tell you about our new composting methodology’. Best online conversation I have ever, no really ever, been part of.

The kids are alright. They are so incredibly, togetherly alright it’s almost funny. We did it again this week, though connectivity problems meant two of my sisters couldn’t join. But I learnt so much from these people who were born when I was already in my thirties – about gender, race, class, story structure, you name it. It is just such a joy and in a moment where I can’t work, can’t read, can’t write, can just about cook and put up a pea-frame thing in the garden with bamboo and string let’s see if it lasts, this hour a week is an oasis of an almost lost sense of being through not very taxing but nonetheless incredibly nourishing doing. [click to continue…]