Italy Calvino: The Complete Cosmicomics 

“I’m currently reading this, which is a book of short stories- cosmicomics- by Italo Calvino. The way he writes set my imagination off; his descriptions and details built up crazy images in my head and I like the short story format a lot – it suits my way of working and my short attention span so he is perfect for the studio as I dart between painting, drawing writing and reading” –Molly Rose Butt

We were peering into this darkness, criss-crossed with voices, when the change took place: the only real, great change I’ve ever happened to witness, and compared to it the rest is nothing.” — from The Complete Cosmicomics

Italo Calvino’s beloved cosmicomics cross planets and traverse galaxies, speed up time or slow it down to the particles of an instant. Through the eyes of an ageless guide named Qfwfq, Calvino explores natural phenomena and tells the story of the origins of the universe. Poignant, fantastical, and wise, these thirty-four dazzling stories — collected here in one definitive anthology — relate complex scientific and mathematical concepts to our everyday world. They are an indelible (and unfailingly delightful) literary achievement.

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Further Reading: 

Invisible Cities (PDF)
Six Memos for the Next Millenium (PDF)
Why Read the Classics (essay)

Additional Resources: 

Gore Vidal on Italo Calvino (video)
Publisher’s Weekly: 10 Best Italo Calvino Books (article)

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Henry Miller: Tropic of Capricorn 

Miller’s sprawling masterpiece was launched by the Obelisk Press, a French publisher of soft pornography as Tropic of Cancer, with a cover by Maurice Girodias, who would later become famous as the leading French publisher of erotic literature. Wrapped in an explicit warning (“Not to be imported into Great Britain or USA”), it set a new gold standard for graphic language and explicit sexuality. From the outset, Miller’s “barbaric yawp” shook US censorship and inflamed American literary sensibility to its core. Tropic would remain banned for a generation, by which time it had become part of postwar cultural folklore, smuggled into the US wrapped in scarves and underwear. Rarely has a book had such thrilling and desperate underground beginnings.

The outsider status of Miller’s novel combined with its subject (life and love at the extremes of existence) recommended the book to writers like Orwell and Beckett. In his essay Inside the Whale (1940), Orwell wrote: “I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory … Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.”

For his part Samuel Beckett described it as “a momentous event in the history of modern writing”. In the US, as an outright challenge to the censor, Edmund Wilson noted that “The tone of the book is undoubtedly low. Tropic of Cancer… is the lowest book of any real literary merit that I ever remember to have read.”

Miller’s vision prevailed, in the end. Finally, in 1961, the year after Lady Chatterley’s Lover secured the right to be published in the UK, Tropic of Cancer triumphed in its battle with the US censor and was published by the Grove Press. The timing of this landmark verdict did not favour the ageing iconoclast. At first, his book was treated as the fruit of Miller’s complex relationship with Anaïs Nin, who was an object of veneration within the American feminist movement. Later, feminists like Kate Millett denounced Miller as a male chauvinist, while Jeanette Winterson asked, perceptively: “Why do men revel in the degradation of women?” This question still hangs over the pages of Tropic like a rebuke, but (with a few misgivings) I’m still going to add it to this series.

The Guardian
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Additional Resources:

The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels: No. 59, Tropic of Capricorn 

Henry Miller: Asleep and Awake, a.k.a. Bathroom Monologues, 1975 (video)
Dinner with Henry Miller, 1979 (video)
The Henry Miller Odyssey, 1969 (video)

Tom McCarthy: Remainder 

An assured work of existential horror from debut novelist McCarthy.
The unnamed narrator begins by explaining that there’s a lot he can’t explain. He cannot, for example, share many details about his accident. That information is subject to a non-disclosure agreement, but it’s also—more vitally—unavailable to him: He can’t remember much about the accident or his life before it. He’s become, very nearly, a blank, and the voice McCarthy conjures for this nonentity is an eerily precise, dumbly eloquent complement to his mental and emotional condition. Contemplating the crumbling plaster spilling out of a jagged hole in a wall, he thinks, “It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s coming out of something.” That imprecision seems sloppy, but it works brilliantly to magnify the narrator’s sense of abjection. The accident, which also wrecked his body, has forced him to relearn rote tasks like walking and eating. He begins to feel disconnected from other people, and he suspects that his life is no longer quite real. He decides to create his own little universe, and the millions of pounds he won in a post-accident settlement make his wishes reality. This project begins fairly innocuously, and although it quickly becomes weirder and more dangerous, McCarthy infuses the story with an uncanny sense of foreboding long before his protagonist decides to recreate a murder scene for his own amusement. It’s tempting to call this a postmodern parable or allegory for a virtual age, but to reduce this novel to the level of the didactic is to overlook its considerable, creepy power.

Kirkus Review

 
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Reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
Additional Resources 

Bomb: Artists in Conversation: Tom McCarthy
Interview Magazine: Tom McCarthy is No Longer a Well Kept Secret
Writers In Motion: Tom McCarthy Interview (video)
Tom McCarthy on Alain Robbie-Grillet (video)
AA School of Architecture: Tom McCarthy Artist Talk (video)
 

Simon Critchley: Memory Theatre 

A French philosopher dies during a savage summer heat wave. Boxes carrying his unpublished miscellany mysteriously appear in Simon Critchley’s office. Rooting through piles of papers, Critchley discovers a brilliant text on the ancient art of memory and a cache of astrological charts predicting the deaths of various philosophers. Among them is a chart for Critchley himself, laying out in great detail the course of his life and eventual demise. Becoming obsessed with the details of his fate, Critchley receives the missing, final box, which contains a maquette of Giulio Camillo’s sixteenth-century Venetian memory theatre, a space supposed to contain the sum of all knowledge. That’s when the hallucinations begin –

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Reviews: 

The Guardian

New York Times
NPR

Additional Resources: 

Author’s Website
Interviews
Simon Critchley and Cornel West in Conversation (video)
Lecture: To Philosophize is to Die (video)
Lecture: Tragedy’s Philosophy (video)

Agnes Martin: Writings

Now in its third printing, this collection of letters, journals, and lectures is the standard collection of writings by the artist. "I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone, will perhaps be serious workers in the art field."–Agnes Martin.

An Excerpt from Beauty is the Mystery of Life:

All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and
celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in
our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die
because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in
the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make. We
respond to life as though it were perfect. When we go into a
forest we do not see the fallen rotting trees. We are inspired
by a multitude of uprising trees. We even hear a silence when it
is not really silent. When we see a newborn baby we say it is
beautiful – perfect.
The goal of life is happiness and to respond to life as though
it were perfect is the way to happiness. It is also the way to
positive artwork.
It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel
responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious
distraction. All your conditioning has been directed toward
intellectual living. This is useless in artwork. All human
knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships,
categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind
that we wish to hold free for inspiration.

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Additional Reading:
Beauty is the Mystery of Life (text)
Perfection is in the mind: An Interview with Agnes Martin (transcript)
Agnes Martin speaks about Emotion and Art- The Guggenheim (transcript)

Video:
Agnes Martin: Tate Shots
Interview with Agnes Martin (1997)
Tate Lecture: Agnes Martin: Innocence the Hardway

Maggie Nelson: The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Writing in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry, Maggie Nelson has emerged as one of our foremost cultural critics with this landmark work about representations of cruelty and violence in art. From Sylvia Plath’s poetry to Francis Bacon’s paintings, from the Saw franchise to Yoko Ono’s performance art, Nelson’s nuanced exploration across the artistic landscape ultimately offers a model of how one might balance strong ethical convictions with an equally strong appreciation for work that tests the limits of taste, taboo, and permissibility.

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Reviews:
New York Times
NPR
JHU Muse
Slate

Additional Resources:
Writing as Performance: Interview with Maggie Nelson
Two Poems by Maggie Nelson

Jean Baudrillard: America


For those looking for a bleak, lyrical and biting summer read.

Where the others spend their time in libraries, I spend mine in the deserts and on the roads." Jean Baudrillard's travel diary of his time in America was first published in 1986 and has been reissued with a new introduction by Geoff Dyer. Written while Reagan was president, Baudrillard's provocative account of this "obsessional society" remains relevant. From the "steepling gentleness" of New York's skyscrapers to the "limitless horizontality" of Los Angeles, he explores this New World, where the carpets have an "orgasmic elasticity" and the people are "like shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave". The crowded cities are "electrifying" and "cinematic", but in the deserts Baudrillard finds a serene emptiness. For all its strangeness, America is "an amazing place". The book is sometimes Delphic ("Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity"), frequently brilliant ("there is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room"), but always original, memorable and even funny: "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."
PD Smith

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PDF (Text Only)

Further Reading:
Selected Writings (PDF)
The System of Objects (PDF)
A Marginal System: Collecting (PDF/Excerpt)
The Conspiracy of Art (PDF)

Franz Kafka: Diaries (1910 – 1923)

Perfect for the upcoming hellscape brought on by August's unrelenting heat, alternates between poignant and hilarious (depending on your state of mind, sense of humor, and whether or not you have air conditioning).

These diaries cover the years 1910 to 1923, the year before Kafka’s death at the age of forty. They provide a penetrating look into life in Prague and into Kafka’s accounts of his dreams, his feelings for the father he worshipped and the woman he could not bring himself to marry, his sense of guilt, and his feelings of being an outcast. They offer an account of a life of almost unbearable intensity.

“In Kafka we have before us the modern mind splendidly trained for the great game of pretending that the world it comprehends in sterilized sobriety is the only and ultimate reality there is—yet a mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham. Thus he knows two things at once, and both with equal assurance: that there is no God, and that there must be a God. It is the perspective of the curse: the intellect dreaming of its dream of absolute freedom, and the soul knowing of its terrible bondage.”
—Erich Heller
 
“It is likely that these journals will be regarded as one of [Kafka’s] major literary works; his life and personality were perfectly suited to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he customarily hid from the world.”
—The New Yorker

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Additional Resources:
The Complete Stories (PDF)
The Metamorphosis (PDF)
The Trial (Ebook)

Paul Auster: City of Glass (New York Trilogy)

In Paul Auster's remarkable ''City of Glass,'' the ostensible mystery drives from the book's odd and often strangely humorous working of the detective novel genre. The real mystery, however, is one of confused character identity, the descent of a writer into a laby-rinth in which fact and fiction become increasingly difficult to separate. The city of the title is New York, the only truly constant character in the book, and it is the fate of this city to be walked through and interpreted by the writer Quinn and the philosopher and former convict Stillman. Quinn has been hired to follow Stillman, to prevent him from murdering his son. In the beginning the city is transparent, a place of light and air in which Quinn can stay outside of his mind's tortured concerns, concentrating on neutral details. Later is is reminiscent of that wasted city in Nathanael West's ''Miss Lonelyhearts,'' a place begging for interpretation and order. Always its reflects Quinn's and Stillman's search for arcane truth or psychological peace. (Excerpt from NYT Review)

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Reviews:
The New Canon (also just a strange website to check out, supposedly cataloguing the new literary canon since 1985)
Shallow Graves: The Novels of Paul Auster (The New Yorker)

Don DeLillo: Point Omega


In the middle of a desert "somewhere south of nowhere" to a forlorn house made of metal and clapboard a secret war advisor has gone in search of space and time. Richard Elster, seventy-three, was a scholar, "an outsider" when he was called to a meeting with government war planners. They asked Elster to conceptualize their efforts to form an intellectual framework for their troop deployments – counterinsurgency orders for rendition. For two years he read their classified documents and attended secret meetings. He was to map the reality these men were trying to create. "Bulk and swagger" he called it. At the end of his service Elster retreats to the desert where he is joined by a filmmaker intent on documenting his experience. Jim Finley wants to make a one-take film, Elster its single character. "Just a man against a wall." The two men sit on the deck drinking and talking. Finley makes the case for his film. Weeks go by. And then Elster's daughter Jessie visits an "otherworldly" woman from New York who dramatically alters the dynamic of the story. When a devastating event follows all the men's talk, the accumulated meaning of conversation and connection is thrown into question. What is left is loss, fierce and incomprehensible

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Reviews:
New York Times Review
The Guardian Review