A selective résumé

SB

I picked up this great story about a Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer from Facebook (thanks Sue), who has posted his CV of Failures. It’s an idea prompted by Melanie Stefan. I have to admit that I have been thinking along these lines recently, not because I’m overcome by a great sense of failure, or an urge to ‘fail better’ even, but just because I have got to that stage of life where it occurs to me that the things I work on, research, and publish about don’t quite ‘scan’ directly from a linear set of projects funded, grants awarded, previous books written,. They only really make sense in relation also to the shadow world of failed bids, rejected papers, cancelled courses. I’ve reflected on this sort of thing before, provoked by Ivan Vladislavic’s lovely idea of a loss library. As for a CV of my own failures, well, that would be too long.

 

2014 Top Ten: Fun Books

IMG_2978Sometimes, in addition to the books I read for work, I also read things for less instrumental reasons, almost for pleasure, although the boundary is a bit fuzzy (in both directions). This is a list not so much of ‘best books’ of the year, more a list of the books associated with my favourite book-buying/book-reading experiences of the year.

1). Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacationbecause this is the kind of holiday I would like to take.

2). Let’s Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson, which is the best, and probably only, book about Celine Dion I am ever going to read.

3). Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavicmy favourite writer-whose-books-you-can-only-seem-to-buy-in-South-Africa.

4). The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005-09, by Robert Forster. I bought this for a couple of quid in Bristol, not knowing that he wrote music criticism, and discovered some new things to listen to as a result; I almost cried when reading his appreciation of co-Go Between, Grant McLennan.

5). James Salter’s Last Nightshort stories, no sentence of which can be read quickly, really good for reading in the bath.

6). Michael Tomasky’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, my first e-book, I read this in one sitting on a flight to New York city. There were not screaming crowds awaiting my arrival.

7). Gideon Haigh’s Ashes to Ashes. I have come to dislike most things about cricket, leaving one or two pleasures at the edges, like Mike Selvey in The Guardian, and Vic Marks on the radio, and Gideon Haigh; this is really only a collection of his daily newspaper columns of the 10 Ashes Tests of 2013-2014.

8). The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, by Robert Caro. This is a cheat, since I haven’t actually read all three of these this year, but I have been dipping in and out of each one, having read the fourth volume a couple of Christmas’s ago, and then seeing Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way in March. The Bluecoat second-hand bookshop in Liverpool has had these three volumes sitting around for years, so I finally succumbed and got the lot for £20, a bargain).

9). The Portlandia Cook Book. I’ll give this a try, but nothing with pickles.

10). Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre. I read this in two sittings, to and from Disneyland Paris on Eurostar, which seems appropriate in all sorts of ways.

My Loss Library

RPostI mentioned way back now, before Christmas, a book that I picked up when I was in Bloemfontein, The Loss Library and other unfinished stories, a collection by Ivan Vladislavic about “stories I imagined but could not write or started to write but not finish” – stories from which characters wandered off into other stories, or from which episodes escaped to turn up in other novels. Of course, by writing a book about these ‘failures’ and false starts, Vladislavic has managed at least in part to cash-out the original intuitions behind these characters, episodes, and plot-lines, if only at a tangent to his original intentions.

I have been confronted with my own loss library, of sorts, in the last couple of weeks, as I have been going through piles of paper in boxes and draws as I prepare for an office move. I have been doing quite a good job of throwing lots of paper out – unread photocopied journal articles on topics I once imagined I might need to know about for imagined projects which now, at this juncture in life, I am confidently able to say that I will never get around to even starting. And then there are the remnants of projects started but never finished, of half-written papers, of book proposals not picked-up by publishers, of unsuccessful research grant bids.

– There are my first, unsuccessful bids for ESRC funding (on publishing and global culture, on food and media), and failed bids for research in South Africa (on media and understandings of crime and violence, for example).

– There are uncompleted grant proposals (on notions of European identity in city of culture programmes, the trace of a year-long conversation with Denise Meredyth about governmentality and cultural policy.

Scan 130690012-15– There are unwritten papers, on the ‘sexing’ of communications technologies in First Amendment jurisprudence, an idea developed during a summer spent in the Law School library at Ohio State in 1998; notes and drafts of a paper on the ‘normalization’ of apartheid in academic debates about South African democratization in the mid-1990s, fragments of lunch-time conversations with Kevin Cox that same summer; drafts of a jointly authored paper with Peris Jones on the strange career of BopTV, the television station of the ‘independent’ homeland of Bophuthatswana, which survived until the late 1990s, and which we thought could serve as an interesting entry-point to think about the politics of regionalism after the end of apartheid.

– There are notes of some initial research at the BBC archives at Caversham, in Reading (I didn’t like the idea of travelling too far to an archive), on the role of Lord Reith in the early history of South African broadcasting (Reith travelled to South Africa in 1934, to advise on the setting-up of a broadcasting service which would enhance the development of ‘the Union’ (Reith’s diaries from this trip consist mainly of griping about the quality of the service he experienced on his travels).

None of these projects are completely off the wall, in retrospect: they seem to be examples of me working out ideas about media, South Africa, democracy, cultural policy, Foucault, textual publics, that sort of thing, the sorts of things I did (and sometimes still do) worry about and have worked on through other projects. There does seem to be a strain of my former self trying to find ways of writing in a more sustained way about popular culture, which perhaps I have never quite found the courage to do. Maybe that’s what one should do on a blog?

If piles of paper and files of unfulfilled projects are part of my ‘extended mind’, or the ‘prosthesis’ of my own ‘individuation’ (depending on what theory you favour), then what will happen to me if I throw out these traces of ambition and failure?

Browsing as ethnography?

Does book-browsing in a foreign country count as a way of doing ethnography of the public intellectual culture of that place? I like to think so. Bloemfontein, where I have been spending this week at a workshop, and doing other bits and bobs, has a decent range of bookshops – at least two branches of Exclusive Books, the nation-wide bookstore, but also a good University-related Protea bookstore. There are a lot more Afrikaans-language books here than in Durban, where I have spent most of my time in South African before now, not surprisingly (including a Christian family bookstore called CUM books, believe it or not). The politics of Afrikaner identity is very much alive a live issue in the Free State, it seems.

Anyway, on my observation, there are a few publishing trends which seem interesting. One is the blossoming of SA-based and authored crime fiction – although more interesting, I think, is the work of Lauren Beukes, who writes sci-fi, of a sort, but really dystopic urban noir about South African cities the day after tomorrow – I am half way through Moxyland,  based in a near-future Cape Town, and have Zoo City, about Johannesburg, packed in the bag to take home.

There are also a lot of books about contemporary ANC politics, more than there were a decade ago or less even, some of them histories or biographies, and an interesting series of short books on current hot topics published by Jacana press, as well as lots of things about ANC politics right now, a month or so away from the big Indaba to be held here in Mangaung, where the conflicts about the Zuma leadership will be settled, one way or the other.

If I were here longer, I’d be reading all these – South African TV is designed to encourage reading. But I’m here just for a fleeting visit, enough only to start the newly published biography of JM Coetzee (600 pages, and he doesn’t write a novel ’til 200+ pages in – and nor had he led an exciting life before that), and the ever wonderful Ivan Vladislavic’s short collection The Loss Library, about writing-projects imagined and/or started but never completed – a topic close to my own heart.