Imaginary Text

In Search of Lost Time

by Marcel Proust. Penguin Classics 2002 (various translators)
Swann’s Way – May 2023
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower – June 2023
The Guermantes Way – July 2023
Sodom & Gomorrah – Aug/Sept 2023
The Prisoner – Oct 2023
The Fugitive – Nov 2023
Time Regained – Dec 2023

How to even begin to represent the experience of reading this in its totality, an experience which—quite by design on Proust’s part—is akin to having lived parts of his life? I will offer a few, meagre thoughts: first, that this book is so many different things, that it defies simple characterization or categorization. Second, that its sheer length (over 3000 pages) has the amazing effect of giving the reader a sense of nostalgia for the earlier volumes; had it been shorter, I don’t think this could have worked. Proust’s presentation of the workings of “memory” are complex and subtle such that I wouldn’t want to suggest that the reader’s experience of memory in reading the book operates on anything like that level, but it is still somehow part of the reader’s experience: when, for instance, in volume 7 Proust reveals his recollections of things from volume 1, the effect is, well, deep. Third, the language and style in this book is such that one simply cannot skim, let alone read quickly. I knew this going in, but having finished now, I have gone back to volume 1 to re-read again, even more carefully, knowing that nothing is in that first volume by accident; everything has echoes that ripple out in the later volumes. To say nothing of the often mellifluous and rhythmic flow of the prose, easy enough for an eager reader to underestimate at first. I have also, since finishing, read a couple of critical works (Eve Kossofsky Sedgwick; Gilles Deleuze) which are somewhat helpful in pulling Proust’s themes (and method) into sharper focus but ultimately have the effect of showing up what a better job Proust has done in showing them to us as opposed to someone else merely telling. And of course this is 5 stars.

How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World

by Deb Chachra. Riverhead 2023
5 stars - Oct 2023

James ridiculed the “boring” title of this book, but boy, is this book ever not boring! This is a stunning tour de force, written by an engineering professor, about the layers of consideration that underpin infrastructure (her major examples are electricity, water, and communications, but it’s not limited to those). Chachra starts simple, with the idea of technical ‘elegance,’ but then adds layers of complexity chapter by chapter: costs, politics and governance, inclusion and exclusion, sustainability, climate change, and what she sees as an encouraging future, given (or despite) all of that. She makes the case that infrastructure is all about that collective good, and one of its simplest messages is that the idea of going ‘off grid’ utterly misses the point. Chachra wants us to be better infrastructure citizens (and also to electrify everything). It is a wonderful companion piece to Hágglund, covering a different perspective but actually making some of the same points. This is an explicitly hopeful and brave book. I rarely think that a book should be read by “everyone” but this one qualifies for that in my mind. Read it!

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

by Martin Hägglund. Anchor 2019
4 stars - Oct 2023

My friend Jean Eric recommended this, and it’s really, really good. This is a serious, extended attempt to make a proper philosophical account of secularism and its implications, especially for care, relationships, politics, and economics. The first half of the book deals with “faith.” Running through such thinkers as C.S. Lewis, Augustine, and Kierkegaard, Hägglund makes the case that faith in a transcendent eternal reality doesn’t make any sense (nor do stoicism not Buddhism), and that commitment to our finite and worldly existence (“this life”) is what’s most interesting in these otherwise religious thinkers anyway. The second half is mostly a reading of Marx and an argument for “democratic socialism” (distinct from “social democracy”). He spends quite a while on the Marxist critique of capitalism: not that it contains the seeds of its own revolution but that its internal contradictions doom us to a shitty existence. His case for democratic socialism is mostly based on that, and is largely theoretical (hence 4 stars instead of 5). Overall, this is very well written, thoroughly thought through, and a huge wealth of organized scholarship and thinking. And, my appreciation of it was enhanced by reading Chachra (see above) next.


by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. D&Q 2023
5 stars - Sept 2023

This latest Tamaki graphic novel is just sublime. This is comics as high art form, in which the storytelling balance, between text (dialogue) and drawing is so beautifully handled: the lion’s share is really the artwork, which is subtly tri-chromatic and is allowed to take flights of fancy where the words cannot go. The story, of three young women on a trip to NYC and the tangles in their relationships to one another, is terrific on its own, but its the way the Tamakis convey mood and feel that makes this so awesome.

Abolitionist Intimacies

by El Jones. Fernwood 2022
5 stars - Sept 2023

This is a stunningly warm, angry, complex book about compassion for prisoners of all kinds. It doesn’t present itself as an argument for prison/police abolition per se, although it does provide that in passing, in places; rather this is a grounded, highly specific set of stories about one woman’s multi-year project of being a Halifax-based advocate, support, and caregiver to prisoners, ex-prisoners, deportees, their families and loved ones. Jones is an academic, but while some small parts of this book read like (and are drawn from) her more formal writings on the prison experience, the writing in this slim volume spans multiple genres, from anecdote to personal essay to poetry. It is deeply personal and deeply human, grappling with the yawning gap between what people like to think prisons do for society and the actual experience of living in them, coping with them, navigating their obnoxious bureaucracies, and, importantly, living beyond incarceration. I laughed, I cried, and I learned a lot from this book.

On the Digital Humanities: Essays and Provocations

by Stephen Ramsay. Minnesota 2023
4 stars - Aug 2023

This is a wide-ranging collection of Ramsay’s talks and writings over the years, and if I had to squish it down to an oversimplification, I’d say they represented a self-portrait of the author and his approach to DH. Some of this is of the ‘personal essay’ sort, and those parts are interesting, to me at least, in fleshing out who is Stephen Ramsay. There are parts of this book that are brilliant and incisive too, and make arguments that are bigger than this collection. The second chapter, “Data and Interpretation” is extremely rich, elaborating a way of understanding the relationship between texts and the data we make of them, and the necessarily entangled interpretations that come from both. The chapter on “DH and its Disconnects” engages with the seeming difficulty of simultaneously doing DH and critique the political-economic conditions of its existence, and here Ramsay makes an attempt at making sense that is at once personal and erudite. In the chapter, “As We May Not Think,” he makes a description/justification of the humanities that, drawing explicitly from Matthew Arnold’s famous lines about ‘Culture,’ posits the humanities as the solution to the troubles posed by the “unexamined life” – which strikes me as somewhat icky, as if the “examined” life were somehow larger than or independent of the media and specific cultural forms that humanistic inquiry has always been about. But food for thought, certainly, and a rewarding read cover to cover.

The Conjure-Man Dies

by Rudolph Fisher. HarperCollins 2017 [1932]
4 stars - Jul 2023

This – billed as the first ever detective novel by a black author – was written by Rudolph Fisher, one of the bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance. It is a first-rate mystery novel, with colourful and wily characters, a twisty-turny whodunnit plot, and a brilliant investigator (actually a pair of them). Aparently this is a hidden gem, forgotten for decades and then republished recently. Kelly found this at City Lights while browsing for Black novels. The ending (as with so many novels, and hence not 5 stars) is a bit disappointing, but the build, and the characterization, is amazing. Parts of this are written in Black dialect, but not filtered through decades of dumb TV shows.

A Reed Shaken by the Wind

by Gavin Maxwell. Longmans 1959
3.5 stars - Jul 2023

This is the story that precedes Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (see Mar 2015), covering his trip to the Mesopotamian Marshes that led to him taking home a pet otter from the area. As with the later book, this goes somewhere completely different partway through. The first two thirds are very much a typical travelogue, about his encounter with the Ma’dan people who live(d) in the marshes of southern Iraq, his difficulty with both the physical landscape and the linguistic gulf between him and everyone around him, but also his amazement at the surprising beauty of it all in spite of its seeming bleak monotony. Toward the end though it becomes very much about his relationship to animals – and his sentimentality/compassion in contrast to the local peoples – which culminated with him aquiring an otter which shortly dies (the one he takes to Scotland is a second otter from the region). This doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the narrative at all, unless we read the first two thirds of the book as really about him even though they are presented in a fairly bland observational tone. It’s not as successful a blend as Ring of Bright Water despite the similar structural weirdness.

Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm

by Dan Charnas. MCD (FSG) 2022
4 stars - Mar 2023

At 500 pages, this is too long by half. The gory details of Dilla’s life are interesting, but perhaps not at this level of detail. I did learn a lot from this book, though… Charnas’ painstaking approach to explaining absolutely everything does provide a lot of value. He goes back and forth between explaining what’s going on in the music production and history and what went on in Dilla’s sad life story, so you get a fair bit of both. I could have stood a bit less of the latter; I feel like I know this guy too well now, which is probably not a bad thing in the long run, but it did make it a bit of a slog. Charnas has produced no less than TEN Spotify playlists to accompany this; again, a painstaking approach, and a truly excellent introduction to Dilla’s contributions and legacy.

Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier

by Wallace Stegner. Penguin 1963
5 stars - Feb 2023

I had read Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety many years ago, so I already knew what a talent Stegner is. I chanced upon this volume at the Paper Hound, and when I saw that it was about the author’s childhood in the Cypress Hills, I picked it up, as my Dad’s background isn’t too far off in time or space. Thinking that it might tell me a bit about my roots, the book turns out in large part to be about the difficulty of connecting to your roots in place, within the settler/frontier context, with its relentless mythology of progress and rapid erasure of the past. Stegner, himself utterly ignorant as a child of any knowledge of Indigenous peoples, finds later in life that the Cypress Hills were a central nexus point in the Plains Indian wars, the American extermination and exile of so many western tribes, and the establishment of the NW Mounted Police. He traces the history forward, too, to the region’s failed prospects as a cattle-ranching area and as a wheat-producing region, concluding the the promises of the dream of westward expansion faltered some significant distance east of this weather-beaten land. Extremely rich.