What I’m Reading

1. January 2021

I do always enjoy lists of the books people recently read and usually discover one or more interesting titles that I’d like to read myself. Maybe you will too? This is an ongoing list of what I read (and liked) in 2021 so far: Last updated 08.05.21

Recaps This year, I intend to write a summary of everything I read to improve my recollection of it.

Recaps — January

apartamento: an everyday life interiors magazine — issue #25 (Spring/Summer 2020)

apartamento is an interiors magazine focused on depicting the homes of interesting people as they are, rather than the clean, impersonal pictures we are used to seeing on design blogs, Pinterest and Instagram.

My favorite interviews in this issue were with Carlos Matos and Lucas Cantú, founders of Mexican art and architecture studio “Tezontle”, artist and sculptor Thaddeus Mosley and Gabrio Bini, pioneer of natural wine.

Recaps — February

Jane Jacobs — The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a heartfelt but outstandingly rational defense of cities — written by someone who sincerely loves them — against megalomaniac designers clinging to utopian visions of cities that are aesthetically clean, yet bear no resemblance to what actually makes cities attractive in real life. She urges the urban planners of her time to acknowledge cities as complex systems and abuses them of the notion that their simplistic, patronizing schemes have any chance at improving urban life.

I wrote down some further notes on the book in a separate post and added some quotes from Jacobs’ book to my Notes on Complexity.

Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 17 (Herbst 2020)

Pop: Kultur und Kritik” is one of my favorite magazines. It is published twice a year and, unfortunately, is German-language only. It is a cultural studies journal, publishing shorter comments, reflections, and analyses and a few more extended essays on current matters of popular culture. I enjoy it because it is an earnest and academic look at topics that are not often treated with such intellectual rigor, such as TikTok, the latest TV shows, Instagram trends, and emerging micro-genres of music.

I was a bit behind reading this issue — it was published in October 2020, all texts were written in May and July 2020. In this issue, my favorite notes and essays were Thomas Reinhardt’s “Max Weber und der Thermomix”, about the relationship between step-by-step fail-safe cooking instructions and protestant work ethics; Wolfgang Ullrich’s “Kunst für alle – die Vermittlerrolle des Museums” about the conflicting and ever-shifting role of art museums as a mediator (of what to whom?); and Thomas Hecken’s “Pandemie und Exekutive im Fernsehen”, where the author recaps the coverage on Covid-19 in German talk shows throughout the first half of 2020 (based on notes taken through the months). Having read about Covid-19 everywhere for about a year now, I expected to be bored by this last essay. Instead, it was rather interesting to reflect on how this pandemic unfolded because it seems so ubiquitous and self-evident now.

Recaps — April

032c #38 (Winter 2020/2021)

032c is a contemporary culture magazine that covers art, fashion, and politics. Even though I’d heard a lot about it, this was the first issue of the magazine I read. It was a good one to start because it’s the 20-year-anniversary issue, with an interesting recap of the magazine’s history, written by New Models, my favorite aggregator and one of my favorite podcasts.

My other favorite article in the issue was an interview with David Hockney about the number of cigarettes he smokes (many), how much his artworks are worth, and how little he cares. I was also fascinated by an interview with Urs Kienberger, hotelier of “Waldhaus Sils”, a family-owned Swiss hotel, which is famous for having counted Theodor Adorno, Albert Einstein, Joseph Beuys, Max Liebermann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Richter, and other famous artists and writers amongst its regulars.

Recaps — May

Simon Winchester — The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

If you have ever been asked to write a concise definition for, well, anything really, you know what a marvelously tricky task that is. Now imagine having to do it hundreds of thousands of times. Simon Winchester chronicles in vivid detail the 70-year process of creating the Oxford English Dictionary and the achievements of the many people who spent a great deal of their lives working on it.

Two thoughts stuck with me in particular: First, the incredible magnitude of the task, particularly when looking at the lack of communication technology at the time. With volunteers sending in what must have been millions of paper slips with quotations, the mere task of organizing them and finding duplicates is mindblowing. And that would have been only the beginning of a long process. The people who worked on it did it despite what must have seemed like Sisyphean tasks, and painfully slow progress because they truly believed in the greater value of what they were doing. I previously linked to James Somers’ article in which he praises an old edition of Webster’s dictionary for its vivid and idiosyncratic definitions. The strict methodology of the OED is the reason why modern dictionaries aren’t like that. Its rigor and sobriety, grounded in the sense of duty felt by the editors, have changed what we expect from a dictionary. Their determination is admirable.

Second, the obviousness with which we consult dictionaries nowadays. It’s one of these “technologies” whose value seems so self-evident in hindsight, that it’s hard to imagine how long it took for someone to consider writing one. It’s overawing to look around once in a while and consider how many things of this kind are around us every day, to consider the intellectual breakthroughs that we take for granted. It’s almost scary how quickly humans get used to novelties and adjust to a new environment.

Vilém Flusser — Dinge und Undinge: Phänomenologische Skizzen

I always enjoy reading Vilém Flusser’s essays, because you can feel how much fun he had writing them. He plays with language and etymology, taking common words and giving them a new meaning, either by using them in a different context or by relating them to words with the same root word. This is reminiscent of Heidegger’s terminology and I feel like this probably makes it very difficult to read his writing in a language other than German.

In this collection of essays, Flusser starts each one with an observation of a mundane object (wine bottles, streetlights, carpets, etc.) and then develops a far-reaching theory about the nature of perception, culture, and the human condition in general. He follows a train of thought, implying but ignoring side paths, sometimes jumping over a couple of argumentative steps as if he wants to probe what you let him get away with, often ending with a somewhat outrageous thesis. While reading his essays I can’t help but imagine him sitting at his desk with a mischievous smile. In the afterword to a different book of his, he is quoted as reacting to critics accusing him of trying to provoke with audacious theories by saying: “Everything that I say sounds like a philosophical thesis, but like one that is not too well supported. That’s because people never detect the irony behind the statements. I don’t take myself completely seriously, and I also don’t take the problems completely seriously. I intend to provoke, in the true sense of the word — to call forth.”

This is my favorite section in the book, taken from the essay on (empty) wine bottles An English version can be found here, page 113.: “Kultur ist ein Prozeß, welcher, ganz wie im Metabolismusmodell, negativ entropisch Natur informiert und verwertet, also durch Erzeugung in Produkt verwandelt. Ein Teil dieses Produktes wird, ganz wie im Meta­bolis­mus­mo­dell, ver­braucht, des­informiert, entwertet und der Natur zurückgegeben. Ein anderer Teil aber wird, im Gegensatz zum Meta­bolis­mus­modell, nicht verbraucht, sondern zer­brochen, und dieser zerbrochene Teil wird verdrängt und in den Müll geworfen. So daß die Kultur ein Prozeß ist, der kumulativ Natur in Müll verwandelt. […] Manche Produkte bilden Müll, weil sie übermenschlich sind, im Sinn von: für uns unverdaulich, und bleiben im Müll als Zeugnisse davon, daß der Mensch im Erzeugen weniger begrenzt ist als im Verbrauchen. Andere wieder bilden Müll, weil sie antinatürlich sind, im Sinn von: für die Natur unverdaulich, und bleiben im Müll als Zeugnisse davon, daß der Mensch fähig ist, Antinatur zu schaffen. […] Das eben charakterisiert den Müll, daß er weder Wert noch Form hat, wie die Kultur, noch auch wertlos und formlos ist, wie die Natur, welche mindestens in der Tendenz zum Formlosen hinzielt, sondern daß er entwertet und deformiert ist. […] Diese Entwertung und Deformation der Flaschen als Scherben zeigt deutlich, was ‘Verbrauchen’ bedeutet: nämlich den Kulturaspekt am Produkt abnützen, ohne dabei das Produkt als Produkt vernichtet zu haben. […] Natur ist nicht, wie sie sein soll, Kultur ist, wie sie sein soll, Müll ist, wie er nicht sein soll.Flusser, 1993: “Dinge und Undinge”, p. 22 – 23

Jonathan Culler — Barthes: A Very Short Introduction

Currently Reading: Ernst H. Gombrich — The Story of Art

Ernst H. Gombrich’s “The Story of Art”, first published in 1950, is the best-selling art book of all time. It is an approachable summary of art history from ancient Egypt to the modern period in 27 chapters.

I am currently reading my dad’s edition, which he studied thoroughly, with his highlights and notes (and corrections!) from 1982.