What I’ve Been Reading
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 a list of the books I read (and liked) in 2021, with a short summary for each.
- apartamento: an everyday life interiors magazine — issue #25 (Spring/Summer 2020) (§)
- Jane Jacobs — The Death and Life of Great American Cities (§)
- Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 17 (Herbst 2020) (§)
- 032c #38 (Winter 2020/2021) (§)
- Simon Winchester — The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (§)
- Vilém Flusser — Dinge und Undinge: Phänomenologische Skizzen (§)
- Jonathan Culler — Barthes: A Very Short Introduction (§)
- Joseph Rosa — Louis I. Kahn (§)
- Gilbert Lupfer, Paul Sigel — Walter Gropius (§)
- David Graeber — The Utopia of Rules. On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy [Reread, first read in 2017] (§)
- Heino Engel — Measure and Construction of the Japanese House (§)
- Charlie Porter — What Artists Wear (§)
- Bee Wilson — Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (§)
- Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 18 (Frühling 2021) (§)
- Wolfram Eilenberger — Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy (1919 – 1929) (§) My favorite book of the year!
- Simon Winchester — Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (§)
- Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 19 (Herbst 2021) (§)
- Steve Bruce — Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (§)
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.
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 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 by observing 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
I first remember reading about Roland Barthes in the Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism I read a few years back. Since then, I stumbled upon his name a lot in various books and magazines I read, so I wanted to take a closer look at his work. Barthes is a man of fragments, both in his philosophy and in his interests. Culler succeeds in giving a general overview of his ideas by dedicating a chapter to each of his many preoccupations. I was particularly interested in Barthes’ more accessible work as a mythologist — For Barthes, a myth is a delusion to be exposed. That which “goes without saying”, the ideological implications of what seems, or is supposed to seem, natural should be deconstructed and analyzed. —, semiologist, and structuralist, but his work as a literary historian, critic, and writer did not fully open up for me.
Joseph Rosa — Louis I. Kahn
First of all, I have to reiterate my love for Taschen’s Basic Art Series. I doubt there are any other books in this price range (about 12€ right now) with these production values. Not only is the typography of the highest quality, but there is also a considerable amount of amazing details carried throughout the entire series: the architect’s signature on the half-title, a sketch above the imprint, and in the back of the book a tabular timeline of the architect’s life and a map showing the location of all the project’s mentioned in the book. All this frames the core of the book, which always consists of a general introduction to the architect’s life, which is a couple of pages long, followed by about 15 projects discussed in more detail. For each project, there are photographs, plans, and sketches, along with a well-writer text discussing the project’s specifics and its role in the architect’s œuvre.
No architect can rebuild a cathedral of another epoch embodying the desires, the aspirations, the love and hate of the people whose heritage it became. Therefore the images we have before us of monumental structures of the past cannot live again with the same intensity and meaning. Their faithful duplication is unreconcilable. But we dare not discard the lessons these buildings teach for they have the common characteristics of greatness upon which the buildings of our future must, in one sense or another, rely. Louis I. Kahn on Monumentality
Before reading the book the only thing I knew about Kahn, other than having seen pictures of a few of his buildings, was that he was one of the few modern architects that came away favorably in Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”. What I found particularly interesting about him is that it wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he started to produce work of great impact. While I am somewhat indifferent about his practice of cutting out geometrical shapes to give rhythm to facades and can not quite get myself excited by his love for repetition, it is his masterful use of materials that amazes me the most. The way the textures of brick, Béton brut, and wood are put either into the sole focus or combined in a careful manner is astonishing. This sensitivity is what gives him the ability to move beyond the International Style and transcend classic modernism without falling into the frivolity of Venturi’s postmodernism.
His monumental buildings in India and Pakistan also speak to me much more than Le Corbusier’s work in India and show how he was better adept at solving problems of scale.
Gilbert Lupfer, Paul Sigel — Walter Gropius
I’m mostly familiar with Gropius as an educator and with his role in the Bauhaus, apart from very few often-cited examples of his work — the great Bauhaus building obviously, the Fagus Factory, the Masters’ Houses in Dessau. I really wanted to learn more about his work as an architect and this book was a great introduction. My favorite house of his was actually a very special one: it’s the residence he built for himself in Massachusetts in 1938. It is a break from his otherwise so formalistic and rigid buildings and seems much more human. He switched the building material and used wood-frame construction and redwood boards (painted white), typical for the region.
What stuck on my mind were the ubiquitous descriptions of functional deficiencies in many of Gropius’ buildings: Leaky roofs, bad insulation, insufficient heating, mold. This is by no means exceptional for the buildings of a modernist architect: The most infamous example is Le Corbusier’s renowned “Villa Savoy”, which was so uncomfortable, leaky and damp that its owners didn’t want to spend their time there. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” is also moldy and crumbling The owner called it “a seven-bucket building” due to its leaks, and nicknamed it “Rising Mildew”.. And I have quoted criticism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “Farnsworth House” before — the owner even sued him. I would love to better understand how much of this was just due to the general standards of building at the time, how much due to budget constraints, and how much actually to problems in their designs — it is a heated debate and both defenders and critics of modernist architecture seem to jump to conclusions rather quickly.
Recaps — July
David Graeber — The Utopia of Rules. On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
[I started writing a longer review of this book, because it always was my favorite book of Graeber’s, but rereading it I felt a bit disappointed, particularly with the second essay. However I didn’t finish writing the review and I don’t know if I will.]
Heino Engel — Measure and Construction of the Japanese House
“Measure and Construction of the Japanese House” is an excerpt from Heino Engel’s much more extensive book “The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture”, which is out of print and only available at outrageous prices. “Measure and Construction” — which was just republished and is widely available — contains the two most interesting chapters on the design methods and structural construction of traditional Japanese houses. It is a fascinating read and I wrote about my favorite facts in this article. I published is a while ago after reading some parts of the book, but have now completed after finishing the book.
Recaps — August
Charlie Porter — What Artists Wear
“What Artists Wear” is a fun and light read and it was the perfekt book for my vacation! Charlie Porter explores the role of clothing as signifier and dives into its aesthetic, cultural and social meaning. I especially enjoyed the more general sections on tailoring, workwear and denim, which dive into their historic development and how they got their contemporary roles. Porter has a particularly keen eye for the power structures represented by clothing and how artists try to break them. On the down side there are some sections where this bool feels a bit like a listicle, where Porter searched for “Artists wearing Denim” and just goes through each example he could find, writing a couple of sentences about each one and maybe adding an artist’s commentary sent in via email. But overall it is a nice read with an interesting perspective on artists from the past century and contemporary ones.
Recaps — September
Bee Wilson — Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
As might be obvious from this list of books I read, one of my favorite genre of non-fiction is books is “journalist does deep dive on a topic and writes book filled with fun-facts about it”. “Consider the Fork” is such a book, filled with very interesting facts and stories about the technology of cooking and eating. Wilson looks at the historical development pots and pans, knives, eating instruments, heating devices, measuring, food preservation and so on. I enjoyed the book because sits right in the middle between food and design — two of my passions!
This is the most mind-blowing fun fact I learned: It was long thought that the human overbite (having your top teeth in front of your bottom teeth) developed around the widespread adoption of agriculture and the change of the human died towards grains thousands of years ago. But when Charles Loring Brace created a database of human teeth throughout history he noticed that the overbite only began to appear in Europe only in the late 18th century, starting with ‘high status individuals’, then spreading to common people. Around this time there was no significant change in diet — but in table manners: This is the time when table knifes became common, and people started using knife and fork to eat, rather than just biting off from large chunks of food. Isn’t it incredible to think that this aspect of our anatomy which we take for granted changed so significantly only around 200 years ago? The theory has its critics of course, but it became much more likely when Brace started to add teethmarks from skeletons from China to his database and noticed that there, the change happened about 1000 years earlier — around the time when eating with chopsticks became common! Wilson writes: “We generally think that our bodies are fundamental and unchanging, whereas such things as table manners are superficial: we might change our manners from time to time, but we can’t be changed by them. Brace turned this on its head. Our supposedly normal and natural overbite — this seemingly basic aspect of modern human anatomy — is actually a product of how we behave at the table.”
Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 18 (Frühling 2021)
Once again I fell a bit behind with reading “Pop”, as this issue of the magazine came out in spring. I was taken by surprise when several of the articles discussed the attack on the Capitol as a current event — was it really January 6th this year? It feels like it was ages ago, which can be either a good sign (restitution of decency in American politics) or a bad one (hush-up of a failed coup). Other than that most of the articles were nice to read, but didn’t stay in my mind for long. One made me reconsider how I think about the use of Autotune as a stylistic device: After more than two decades it might be time to stop thinking about it as a fad and consider that it may establish itself as a separate entity in music, much like distorted electric guitars are more than an effect. They didn’t replace acoustic guitars, but became a separate, new instrument that is just as legitimate.
I enjoyed the longer essay that analyzed how the much discussed documentary “The Social Dilemma” makes use of the same methods it critiques: liberally blending scientifically proven facts, “common-sense”, whistleblower testimonial (where the whistleblowers only stand to profit from speaking out), lone-hero narratives and fictional storylines, and thereby stretching the definition of “documentary”. Don’t get me wrong — seriously analyzing and critiquing the impact social media has on our behavior and society is incredibly important, but manipulating people into believing your point may not be the best way to do it.
Recaps — November
Wolfram Eilenberger — Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy (1919 – 1929)
Part shared biography, part introduction to their major works and ways of thinking this book is able to capture the Zeitgeist of the decade after the First World War (and the lead-up to the accession to power of the Nazis) by closely following the lives of these four German-language philosophers: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger. Each wrote breakthrough works in continental philosophy. Eilenberger is an amazing writer and is able to work out the unities and parallels in their respective approaches as well as the differences between their stances. I particularly enjoyed learning their differing perspectives regarding the role that language and symbols play in human cognition and culture.
Simon Winchester — Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
I have always been fascinated by the “built world” — that’s the reason I became a designer in the first place. I wanted to understand how things that are seemingly consummate and neat are created. Things that don’t even seem to have been “made”, that have nothing of the unevenness or slight deformities that anything hand-made has. (I don’t just mean that in the sense of physical things, but also metaphorically. For example I became fascinated with the processes of professional movie making as a teenager for this reason.) A question I often thought about was: How does precision get started? How do you make the first step on which all others are built, when you find yourself in this irregular world? That’s why I enjoyed the first few chapters of this book the most, which seek to answer this question.
It turns out there are two things which are most important to get started with precision: A perfectly flat surface plate, from which all things are measured, and the most consistent screws you can make, which are used for measuring.
To create a perfectly flat surface plate you take three approximately flat surfaces, and rub them together in pairs, with engineer’s blue in between them, which shows you the high points, that you can then correct. By continuously comparing three plates, instead of just two, to each other, you can make sure that no two of them seem perfectly flat but aren’t because they just cancel out each other’s high points. Surprisingly, the most precise tool to correct the high points is a hand scraper.
To create a consistent screw, you need a screw-cutting lathe. The more precise the lead screw of the lathe, the more precise screws you can cut. So you start by manually creating the best screw you can, then measure it and correct is as best as is possible. You then take the most precise turns that this screw has and use them again and again, to create a new screw (which is now as precise in its entire length as the most precise part of your first screw was). You then repeat this process over and over, each screw becoming more precise than the one before.
The chapters of the book that describe the breakthroughs that enabled the industrial revolution follow the lives of John Wilkinson, Joseph Bramah, Henry Maudslay and Joseph Whitworth, who all made significant contributions to these innovations. They all had a great impact on the development of machine tools. The book also drives home the point how revolutionary the idea of interchangeable parts really was. It feels so obvious and even natural today, but it was anything but that, and extremely hard to achieve.
Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 19 (Herbst 2021)
Usually I enjoy the shorter articles a bit more than the longer essays in “Pop”, but this time it were the two essays which were the most interesting reads. One was about the 20th-century conductor Herbert von Karajan and the way his style relates to post-war Germany. It included a particularly insightful review of current literature on the role of classical music in Nazi Germany, which I knew little about. The second essay discussed the complex practice of quotation in Lana del Rey’s Œuvre.
Recaps — December
Steve Bruce — Sociology: A Very Short Introduction
Without going into to many individual theories, this book offers a nice introduction to how sociologist think about culture and roles within it: it helps narrow the infinite possibilities of actions humans have to enable us to live our lives without becoming paralyzed by the amount of choices we’d have to make.
It also explains the idea of the social construction of reality and rebuts some of the typical objections — I think it is easier to think about this when you take writing as an example: Writing is obviously a human invention (it is constructed) but it none the less real — written language has an enormous effect on all of our lives and pretending it does not exist does not make it go away. Lastly it is social: because it is constructed in can be changed, but to change it a consensus between a significant part of its users needs to emerge. You alone cannot decide to invent a new letter and start using it, unless you convince others to use the letter too. The same thoughts can be applied to more things than seem obvious “Things that people imagine, provided they are imagined by large enough numbers of people, can have an enduring and even oppressive reality undistinguishable from the objective world.” [p. 26] — which means that most of what we consider to be reality can be changed (“designed”). This realization is at the same time liberating and frightening.
The book also offers a nice overview into how the world became “modern” from a sociological perspective. I enjoy thinking about this topic, because the traces of the social world before it started becoming functionally differentiated are still all around us, something I talked about last year when I thought about the history and shifting social role of porcelain. It is helpful to recognize and question them.