2020 in Books

2020 in Books

As in 2018 and 2019, I logged the books I read. Here's the 2020 list, with some brief comments at the bottom of the post.

  1. Ghost Wall — Sarah Moss | 1.3
  2. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything — Graham Harman | 1.9
  3. Taking Control of 1Password — Joe Kissell | 1.11
  4. Don’t Call Us Dead — Danez Smith | 1.14
  5. Why Poetry — Matthew Zapruder | 1.16
  6. Semiosis — Sue Burke | 1.22
  7. Of Hospitality — Jacques Derrida & Anne Dufourmantelle (Trans. Rachel Bowlby) | 1.22
  8. Lost Hills — Lee Goldberg | 1.28
  9. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running — Haruki Murakami (Trans. Philip Gabriel) | 2.1
  10. The River Twice — Kathleen Graber | 2.4
  11. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy — W.P. Kinsella | 2.17
  12. Departure, Arrival, Return: Becoming and the Crisis of Subjectivity (Master’s Thesis) — Jeroen Kortekaas | 2.19
  13. Missing Person — Patrick Modiano (Trans. Daniel Weissbort) | 2.24
  14. The Problem with Everything — Meghan Daum | 2.25
  15. Bilder Deiner Großen Liebe — Wolfgang Herrndorf | 2.27
  16. The Air Raid Killer — Frank Goldammer (Trans. Steve Anderson) | 2.28
  17. True — Karl Taro Greenfeld | 3.1
  18. The Body — Jenny Boully | 3.7
  19. The Rise of Superman — Steven Kotler | 3.7
  20. Lost in Arcadia — Sean Gandert | 3.13
  21. It’s Kind of a Funny Story — Ned Vizzini | 3.14
  22. The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things — Courtney Elizabeth Mauk | 3.16
  23. No Fixed Abode — Marc Augé (Trans. Chris Turner) | 3.19
  24. Shine of the Ever — Claire Rudy Foster | 3.22
  25. The Five Senses — Michel Serres (Trans. M. Sankey & P. Cowley) | 3.23
  26. The Great Passage — Shion Miura (Trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter) | 3.24
  27. Sweet Days of Discipline — Fleur Jaeggy (Trans. Tim Parks) | 3.25
  28. Memoir American — Benjamin Hollander | 3.26
  29. Make Your Bed — William McRaven | 3.27
  30. Emma — Jane Austen | 3.28
  31. The Body Artist — Don DeLillo | 3.29
  32. Questions of Travel — Elizabeth Bishop | 3.30
  33. Creditocracy — Andrew Ross | 4.2
  34. A Fist or a Heart — Kristín Eiríksdóttir (Trans. Larissa Kyzer) | 4.5
  35. Negative Capability — Walter Jackson Bate | 4.10
  36. Until the Debt is Paid — Alexander Hartung (Trans. Steve Anderson) | 4.12
  37. Finding Ultra — Rich Roll | 4.14
  38. A Change of Time — Ida Jessen (Trans. Martin Aitken) | 4.17
  39. Be With — Forrest Gander | 4.18
  40. Acid for the Children — Flea | 4.18
  41. Finish — Jon Acuff | 4.23
  42. The Emigrants — W.G. Sebald (Trans. Michael Hulse) | 4.23
  43. Joyland — Stephen King | 4.26
  44. The Sweet Indifference of the World — Peter Stamm (Trans. Michael Hofmann) | 4.26
  45. The Witches are Coming — Lindy West | 4.28
  46. Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology — Tom Sparrow | 4.30
  47. Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — Rachel Cusk | 5.1
  48. The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems — Charles Simic | 5.3
  49. How to Do Nothing — Jenny Odell | 5.5
  50. A Dream in Polar Fog — Yuri Rytkheu (Trans. IlonaYazhbin Chavasse) | 5.10
  51. Totality and Infinity — Emmanuel Levinas (Trans. Alphonso Lingis) | 5.12
  52. Prince of Thorns — Mark Lawrence | 5.13
  53. The Back Chamber — Donald Hall | 5.17
  54. Changing Planes — Ursula K. LeGuin | 5.17
  55. The Living Mountain — Nan Shepherd | 5.18
  56. The Friend — Sigrid Nunez | 5.22
  57. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli (Trans. Christina MacSweeney) | 5.22
  58. The Happy Runner — David Roche & Megan Roche | 5.24
  59. Dept. of Speculation — Jenny Offill | 5.24
  60. King of Thorns — Mark Lawrence | 5.26
  61. Betwixt and Between — Jenny Boully | 5.26
  62. The View from Flyover Country — Sarah Kendzior | 5.28
  63. The Man Who Saw Everything — Deborah Levy | 5.28
  64. The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath | 6.7
  65. A New Selected Poems — Galway Kinnell | 6.8
  66. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World — Stephanie Springgay & Sarah Truman | 6.11
  67. Schadenfreude: A Love Story — Rebecca Schuman | 6.16
  68. Mean — Myriam Gurba | 6.16
  69. Interpreter of Maladies — Jhumpa Lahiri | 6.19
  70. Wuthering Heights — Emily Brontë | 6.27
  71. Consider This — Chuck Palahniuk | 6.28
  72. Just Kids — Patti Smith | 7.1
  73. Old Mr. Flood — Joseph Mitchell | 7.1
  74. Suttree — Cormac McCarthy | 7.3
  75. Redshirts — John Scalzi | 7.3
  76. My Year of Rest and Relaxation — Ottessa Moshfegh | 7.7
  77. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime — Bruno Latour (Trans. Catherine Porter) | 7.9
  78. The Sellout — Paul Beatty | 7.9
  79. Walk on the Beach: Things from the Sea, Volume 1 — Maggie Williams & Karen Overbey | 7.10
  80. Troubling Love — Elena Ferrante (Trans. Ann Goldstein) | 7.12
  81. Theory is Like a Surging Sea — Michael Munro | 7.13
  82. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches — Tyler Kepner | 7.14
  83. Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen — J.K. Rowling (Trans. Klaus Fritz) | 7.14
  84. My Year of Running Dangerously — Tom Foreman | 7.21
  85. All Days Are Night — Peter Stamm (Trans. Michael Hofmann) | 7.22
  86. The Southpaw — Mark Harris | 7.27
  87. A Very Punchable Face — Colin Jost | 7.28
  88. Cosmos — Witold Gombrowicz (Trans. Danuta Borchardt) | 7.31
  89. Failure is an Option — H. Jon Benjamin | 8.2
  90. Love — Roddy Doyle | 8.5
  91. The Vixen — W.S. Merwin | 8.5
  92. Hollow Kingdom — Kira Jane Buxton | 8.7
  93. Exit West — Mohsin Hamid | 8.13
  94. October — China Miéville | 8.16
  95. The Leaving of Things — Jay Antani | 8.26
  96. And Their Children After Them — Nicolas Mathieu (Trans. William Rodarmor) | 8.29
  97. Emperor of Thorns — Mark Lawrence | 9.2
  98. My Vanishing Country — Bakari Sellers | 9.5
  99. Hiding in Plain Sight — Sarah Kendzior | 9.11
  100. No Country for Old Men — Cormac McCarthy | 9.12
  101. The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion | 9.13
  102. Everything is Fucked — Mark Manson | 9.20
  103. Autumn — Ali Smith | 9.21
  104. Cherry — Nico Walker | 9.24
  105. Der Fotograf von Mauthausen — Salva Rubio, Pedro J. Colombo, & Aintzane Landa (Übersetzung: Leo Gürtler & Milena Merkac) | 9.26
  106. Topics of Conversation — Miranda Popkey | 9.30
  107. Ego is the Enemy — Ryan Holiday | 9.30
  108. How to Pronounce Knife — Souvankham Thammavongsa | 10.5
  109. Dreyer’s English — Benjamin Dreyer | 10.15
  110. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay | 10.15
  111. How to Write a Sentence — Stanley Fish | 10.24
  112. Oliver Twist — Charles Dickens | 10.25
  113. Almost Interesting — David Spade | 11.1
  114. The Witch Elm — Tana French | 11.2
  115. Clap When You Land — Elizabeth Acevedo | 11.4
  116. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne — Sarah Bakewell | 11.6
  117. Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse — Georges Simenon (Trans. Ros Schwartz) | 11.6
  118. I Am The Brother of XX — Fleur Jaeggy (Trans. Gini Alhadeff) | 11.10
  119. The Discomfort of Evening — M.L. Rijneveld (Trans. Michele Hutchison) | 11.24
  120. The Queen’s Gambit — Walter Tevis | 11.27
  121. Momo, oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte — Michael Ende | 11.29
  122. The City We Became — N.K. Jemisin | 11.30
  123. Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes — Shahidha Bari | 11.30
  124. We Germans — Alexander Starritt | 12.1
  125. Nothing to See Here — Kevin Wilson | 12.8
  126. What a Plant Knows — Daniel Chamovitz | 12.11
  127. Little Gods — Meng Jin | 12.14
  128. Sigh, Gone — Phuc Tran | 12.19
  129. The Great Railway Bazaar — Paul Theroux | 12.21
  130. The Unbearable Lightness of Being — Milan Kundera (Trans. Michael Henry Heim) | 12.22
  131. Agency — William Gibson | 12.25
  132. Nutshell — Ian McEwan | 12.26
  133. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects — Jeffrey J. Cohen (Ed.) | 12.30
  134. Age of Legend — Michael J. Sullivan | 12.31
  135. The Plague — Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert) | 12.31

I had hoped to read at least one book in Norwegian this year (Erlend Loe's Naiv. Super.—I read it English in 2019). I didn't get around to it but I'm looking forward to doing so in 2021.

My German reading was kind of plodding along in the winter and spring, but I had a total breakthrough in the fall. I had started Momo earlier in the year, then put it down for a few months. When I picked it up again, I zoomed through it. I'm reading most things now with excellent comprehension. AnkiApp tells me that I've done almost 100,000 reviews of my German vocabulary flashcards, and it was like all that accumulated effort finally just clicked. I think 2021 will be a very good year for reading in German.

I started learning Russian after the fall semester ended, so maybe I'll read my first book in Russian in 2025?

There were some strange resonances between pairs of books, randomly selected and read at the same time. For example, Nunez and Luiselli complemented one another well. Jenny Boully (Betwixt and Between) and Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation) have similar names, similar styles, and similar paragraphing. Each has a chapter on the Voyager records, too. I found one Jenny much more profound than the other.

Here are a few books that stood out, for a variety of reasons:

  • Sweet Days of Discipline — Fleur Jaeggy (Trans. Tim Parks)
    • Jaeggy's prose is sharp and precise and haunting, and Parks's translation is masterful. I don't really recommend books, but if you asked me to identify the one book that was a revelation in 2020, it's this one (which I liked much, much more than Jaeggy's short story collection, which I read later in the year).
  • The Witches are Coming — Lindy West
    • I've been reading and loving Lindy West since she wrote regular columns for The Stranger. This didn't disappoint.
  • Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — Rachel Cusk
    • I guess there's a whole group of literati that positively hates Rachel Cusk. I don't know why, nor do I care. She's one of my favorite contemporary writers.
  • The Friend — Sigrid Nunez
    • One of the most important characters in this book is a dog—need I say more?
  • The Man Who Saw Everything — Deborah Levy
    • Levy's prose is fantastic, and there's some interesting narrative work in this one.
  • The Sellout — Paul Beatty
    • Holy hell this book is a trip.
  • Exit West — Mohsin Hamid
    • I had picked this up and read the first chapter in a bookstore at the end of 2019 but didn't buy it. When I finally read it, I regretted not doing so sooner.
  • Autumn — Ali Smith
    • The first great Brexit novel?
  • Topics of Conversation — Miranda Popkey
    • Popkey builds tension so well that I will probably end up going back to this book several times to see if I can figure out how she does it.
  • The Discomfort of Evening — M.L. Rijneveld (Trans. Michele Hutchison)
    • This is one long punch to the gut, a pain you want to endure.
  • The City We Became — N.K. Jemisin
    • I didn't know anything about this book, and only a little about Jemisin's work. This is a fantastic commentary on America, circa 2016–2020, dressed up as multiversal science fiction.
  • Agency — William Gibson
    • I never realize how badly I need a new Gibson novel in my life until I finally get around to reading a new Gibson novel.
  • Nutshell — Ian McEwan
    • I grabbed this as a Kindle deal because I like McEwan's work. I knew nothing about the book and was blown away when I realized what McEwan was doing here.

I'm looking forward to reading more in 2021!


2019 in Books

2019 in Books

As in 2018, I decided to log books after I finished them. Here are all the books I finished in 2019, with some brief comments after the list.

  1. Dark Matter — Aase Berg (Trans. Johannes Görannson) | 1.1
  2. The Father — Sharon Olds | 1.2
  3. Between the World and Me — Ta-Nehisi Coates | 1.3
  4. Getting Started with German — Wendy Foster | 1.4
  5. The Gold Cell — Sharon Olds | 1.6
  6. The Day of the Locust — Nathaniel West | 1.8
  7. How Emotions are Made — Lisa Feldman Barrett | 1.16
  8. Nightwoods — Charles Frazier | 1.17
  9. A Soccer Life in Shorts — Mark Vincent Lincir | 1.17
  10. How Proust Can Change Your Life — Alain De Botton | 1.20
  11. The Emissary — Yoko Tawada (Trans. Margaret Mitsutani) | 1.22
  12. The Existentialist’s Survival Guide — Gordon Marino | 1.24
  13. The Fall — Albert Camus (Trans. Justin O’Brien) | 1.26
  14. Bluets — Maggie Nelson | 1.26
  15. The Death of Ivan Ilych — Leo Tolstoy (Trans. Aylmer Maude & Louise Maude) | 1.26
  16. Collected Works — Franz Kafka | 1.27
  17. Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants —Mathias Énard (Trans. Charlotte Mandell) | 1.31
  18. Silence: In the Age of Noise — Erling Kagge (Trans. Becky L. Crook) | 2.1
  19. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death — Albert Camus (Trans. Justin O’Brien) | 2.2
  20. Tattoo Street Style — Nicolas Brulez | 2.5
  21. Wobble — Rae Armantrout | 2.8
  22. A River in Darkness — Masaji Ishikawa (Trans. Risa Kobayashi) | 2.8
  23. Speaking German on the Go — Wendy Foster | 2.11
  24. Rimbaud Complete — Arthur Rimbaud (Trans. Wyatt Mason) | 2.13
  25. German Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, 2nd Ed. — Charles James | 2.14
  26. Another Place You’ve Never Been — Rebecca Kauffman | 2.15
  27. The Pale Criminal — Philip Kerr | 2.15
  28. The End of Days — Jenny Erpenbeck (Trans. Susan Bernofsky) | 2.19
  29. Buddhism Plain and Simple — Steve Hagen | 2.20
  30. Bright Dead Things — Ada Limón | 2.26
  31. Still Life with Rhetoric — Laurie Gries | 3.8
  32. Killing Commendatore — Haruki Murakami (Trans. Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen) | 3.9
  33. We The Animals — Justin Torres | 3.12
  34. Against Art — Tomas Espedal (Trans. James Anderson) | 3.15
  35. The Body Multiple — Annemarie Mol | 3.21
  36. Naive. Super — Erland Loe (Trans. Tor Ketil Solberg) | 3.24
  37. The Swing of Things — Linda Keir | 3.27
  38. Francis Ponge — Martin Sorrell | 3.28
  39. Heute ist Der Letzte Tag vom Rest Deines Lebens — Ulli Lust | 3.28
  40. How to Disappear — Akiko Busch | 4.12
  41. Tschick — Wolfgang Herrndorf | 4.15
  42. Against Nature — Tomas Espedal (Trans. James Anderson) | 4.17
  43. So Much Longing in So Little Space — Karl Ove Knausgaard (Trans. Ingvild Burkey) | 4.17
  44. Transit — Rachel Cusk | 4.22
  45. Wait, Blink — Gunnhild Øyehaug (Trans. Kari Dickson) | 4.25
  46. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood — Patrick Modiano (Trans. Euan Cameron) | 4.25
  47. Tramp — Tomas Espedal (Trans. James Anderson) | 5.1
  48. Techne — Kelly Pender | 5.2
  49. Waiting for Godot — Samuel Beckett | 5.7
  50. Auerhaus — Bov Bjerg | 5.8
  51. Walking: One Step at a Time — Erling Kagge (Trans. Becky Crook) | 5.10
  52. Love — Hanne Ørstavik (Trans. Martin Aitkin) | 5.15
  53. alphabet — Inger Christensen (Trans. Susanna Nied) | 5.17
  54. Berlin: Steinerne Stadt — Jason Lutes (Trans. [into German by] Heinrich Anders) | 5.22
  55. Waiting for Fitz — Spencer Hyde | 5.22
  56. The Condition of Secrecy — Inger Christensen (Trans. Susanna Nied) | 5.24
  57. The Good Thief — Marie Howe | 5.26
  58. Inessential Solidarity — Diane Davis | 5.31
  59. The Moneyless Man — Mark Boyle | 6.2
  60. The Art of Fielding — Chad Harbach | 6.3
  61. It — Inger Christensen (Trans. Susanna Nied) | 6.8
  62. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel — Alexander Chee | 6.20
  63. The Philosopher’s Club — Kim Addonizio | 6.28
  64. T. Singer — Dag Solstad (Trans. Tiina Nunnally) | 7.1
  65. Internal Rhetorics — Jean Niencamp | 7.11
  66. Awake — Dorianne Laux | 7.12
  67. Berlin: Bleierne Stadt — Jason Lutes (Trans. [into German by] Heinrich Anders) | 7.15
  68. Paper Girls Book One — Brian K. Vaughn, et al. | 7.20
  69. Goblin Market and Other Poems — Christina Rossetti | 7.23
  70. Lost Time — Józef Czapski (Trans. Eric Karpeles) | 7.26
  71. Living with a SEAL — Jesse Itzler | 7.28
  72. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams — Peter Handke (Trans. Ralph Manheim) | 7.30
  73. Most of What Follows is True — Michael Crummey | 8.2
  74. My Struggle, Book 6 — Karl Ove Knausgård (Trans. Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken) | 8.7
  75. Optic Nerve — María Gainza (Trans. Thomas Bunstead) | 8.14
  76. Paper Girls Book Two — Brian K. Vaughn, et al. | 8.25
  77. Laurus — Eugene Vodolazkin (Trans. Lisa Hayden) | 8.25
  78. Lola Rennt — Tom Tykwer | 8.26
  79. The World Goes On — László Krasznahorkai (Trans. George Szirtes, et al.) | 8.27
  80. Mourning — Eduardo Halfon (Trans. Lisa Dillman & Daniel Hahn) | 8.29
  81. Berlin: Flirrende Stadt — Jason Lutes (Trans. [into German by] Heinrich Anders) | 9.8
  82. In the Distance — Hernan Diaz | 9.12
  83. Endure — Alex Hutchinson | 9.15
  84. The Poetic Species — Edward O. Wilson & Robert Hass | 9.17
  85. Less — Andrew Sean Greer | 9.29
  86. Coming Up for Air — George Orwell | 10.16
  87. The Death of Democracy — Benjamin Carter Hett | 10.23
  88. Tree Leaf Talk — James F. Weiner | 10.29
  89. Too Loud a Solitude — Bohumil Hrabal (Trans. Michael Henry Heim) | 10.30
  90. Out of My Head — Tim Parks | 11.6
  91. The Public Image — Robert Hariman & John Lucaites | 11.11
  92. A Philosophy of Ruin — Nicholas Mancusi | 11.11
  93. In Praise of Shadows — Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Trans. Thomas J, Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker) | 11.14
  94. What Doesn’t Kill Us — Scott Carney | 11.21
  95. Drifting Dragons — Taku Kuwobara | 11.22
  96. The Argonauts — Maggie Nelson | 11.29
  97. Britten and Brülightly — Hannah Berry | 12.5
  98. Can’t Hurt Me — David Goggins | 12.5
  99. Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things — Patrick Meadows | 12.6
  100. Desire — Haruki Murakami (Trans. Jay Rubin, Ted Goossen, & Philip Gabriel) | 12.10
  101. The Door — Margaret Atwood | 12.10
  102. Taking Control of Devonthink 3 — Joe Kissell | 12.11
  103. A Little Book on the Human Shadow — Robert Bly | 12.16
  104. Als Die Nacht Begann — Thomas Fatziner | 12.20
  105. My Life as a Russian Novel — Emmanuel Carrère (Trans. Linda Coverdale) | 12.23
  106. West, West Texas — Tillie Walden (Trans. [into German by] Barbara König) | 12.31

Like last year, I didn't have a reading goal, and the number of books I finished is just the number of books I finished. My book reading slowed down a bit in the summer after I subscribed to the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review.

There were a couple of personal milestones in my reading this year.

First, I read my first "real" book in German—Wolfgang Herrndorf's Tschick, a young adult novel about two teen boys roadtripping through the German countryside. The book has been translated into English (as Why We Took the Car) and was made into a film in Germany. I also read, in German, Bov Bjerg's Auerhaus, Tom Tykwer's Lola Rennt (a book adaptation of the film Run Lola Run), and a handful of graphic novels. I'm still learning, obviously, but it was a major milestone to complete full books in German for the first time.

Second, I read the sixth and final book of Knausgaard's My Struggle opus; I actually put this off for a bit, mainly because I didn't want the experience to end. I read his book on Munch (So Much Longing in So Little Space) when it came out, and I've got A Time for Everything in the queue; after reading the latter, I'll have read all his stand-alone books that have been translated into English. I plan to read, too (in German) "Das Heimatland," which is included in Heimatland, a collection of stories and essays from Norway that hasn't yet been translated into English.

I also read all of Kafka's collected works, and all of Rimbaud's poems, essays, and letters. I continued to read works of contemporary Norwegian literature in translation, and I've been slowly reading important contemporary German authors in translation (e.g., Handke, Erpenbeck, Sebald, etc.). I intentionally read more poetry in 2019 than I did in 2018, and plan to continue doing the same in 2020.

Finally, here are a few books that really resonated with me:

  • Bluets — Maggie Nelson
    • If you haven't already read this, you should. It's incredible.
  • Killing Commendatore — Haruki Murakami
    • Is this Murakami's best novel? For most people, probably not. But if you like Murakami, you'll like this.
  • Against Art — Tomas Espedal
    • Bergeners was in my highlights list last year, but this is probably the most sophisticated and compelling Espedal book that I've read so far. How he does what he does with the narrative threads is mystifying, and I can't really explain it—you just have to read it.
  • Optic Nerve — María Gainza
    • This book embodies all the best qualities of autofiction.
  • Out of My Head — Tim Parks
    • Parks explores the "spread mind theory" of consciousness with his novelist's sensibility.

I'll probably never read another Krasznahorkai novel, mainly because he doesn't seem to believe in paragraph breaks.

Until next year...


2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Two or three years ago I began to note my daily reading (books only) in a moleskine. For 2018, I decided to log books after I finished them. What follows is a list of all the books I finished in 2018.

After the list is a brief commentary and a shorter list of especially resonant works.

  1. Age of Swords — Michael Sullivan | 1.4
  2. A Wizard of Earthsea — Ursula Leguin | 1.11
  3. It’s Not Yet Dark — Simon Fitzmaurice | 1.15
  4. Still Life with Woodpecker — Tom Robbins | 1.22
  5. Fluent in 3 Months — Benny Lewis | 1.27
  6. M Train — Patti Smith | 1.29
  7. Faceless Killers — Henning Mankell | 2.4
  8. Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil — Rüdiger Safranski | 2.6
  9. No Longer Human — Osamu Dazai | 2.7
  10. Writing Tools — Roy Peter Clark | 2.12
  11. Cities of the Plain — Cormac McCarthy | 2.15
  12. Poetry, Language, Thought — Martin Heidegger | 2.23
  13. Steering the Craft — Ursula Leguin | 3.6
  14. Mother of Eden — Chris Beckett | 3.6
  15. Winter — Karl Ove Knausgaard | 3.9
  16. Ahoi Aus Hamburg — Andre Klein | 3.9
  17. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — John Boyne | 3.19
  18. Meeting the Universe Halfway — Karen Barad | 3.29
  19. Wilderness — Lance Weller | 4.5
  20. In Other Words — Jhumpa Lahiri | 4.6
  21. Madame Bovary — Gustave Flaubert | 4.8
  22. Go — Kazuki Kaneshiro | 4.17
  23. The Practice of the Wild — Gary Snyder | 4.28
  24. The 7th Function of Language — Laurent Binet | 4.30
  25. Mythologies — Roland Barthes | 5.7
  26. Asymmetry — Lisa Halliday | 5.8
  27. Religion for Atheists — Alain de Botton | 5.9
  28. Cruel Optimism — Lauren Berlant | 5.12
  29. Elmet — Fiona Mozley | 5.15
  30. The Order of Time — Carlo Rovelli | 5.16
  31. Here — Richard McGuire | 5.16
  32. How to Live in Denmark — Kay Xander Mellish | 5.20
  33. Bullshit Jobs — David Graeber | 6.4
  34. The Promise of Happiness — Sara Ahmed | 6.4
  35. The Ice Swimmer — Kjell Ola Dahl | 6.4
  36. Spring — Karl Ove Knausgaard | 6.12
  37. Anticipate the Coming Reservoir — John Hoppenthaler | 6.12
  38. Fun Home — Alison Bechdel | 6.16
  39. Ask the Dust — John Fante | 6.23
  40. Barbarian Days — William Finnegan | 6.28
  41. Neither Here Nor There — Bill Bryson | 7.6
  42. Arctic Dreams — Barry Lopez | 7.22
  43. One Secret Thing — Sharon Olds | 8.3
  44. My Struggle, Book 5 — Karl Ove Knausgaard | 8.5
  45. With Deer — Aase Berg | 8.6
  46. Keeping an Eye Open — Julian Barnes | 8.7
  47. Lauras Lied — Corbeyran & Thierry Murat | 8.8
  48. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us — Hanif Abdurraqib | 8.12
  49. Call Me By Your Name — André Aciman | 8.12
  50. Proust — Samuel Beckett | 8.13
  51. Sting-Ray Afternoons — Steve Rushin | 8.24
  52. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics — Steven Shaviro | 8.24
  53. The Hobbit — J.R.R. Tolkien | 8.25
  54. Consider the Lobster — D.F. Wallace | 9.4
  55. The Thief’s Journal — Jean Genet | 9.5
  56. Age of War — Michael Sullivan | 9.7
  57. Disquiet — Noah Van Sciver | 9.8
  58. Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov | 9.9
  59. Summer — Karl Ove Knausgaard | 9.14
  60. Blind Spot — Teju Cole | 9.14
  61. The Child in Time — Ian McEwan | 9.15
  62. You’ve Been So Lucky Already — Alethea Black | 9.17
  63. Lives Other Than My Own — Emmanuel Carrère | 9.21
  64. Wait Till Next Year — Doris Kearns Goodwin | 9.23
  65. Sonnets — William Shakespeare | 9.24
  66. Silas Marner — George Eliot | 10.2
  67. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — Annie Dillard | 10.3
  68. Maisie Dobbs — Jacqueline Winspear | 10.14
  69. The Reminders — Val Emmich | 10.18
  70. Inadvertent — Karl Ove Knausgaard | 10.19
  71. Goethe: Life as a Work of Art — Rüdiger Safranski | 10.23
  72. Sapiens — Yuval Noah Harari | 10.25
  73. Devotion — Patti Smith | 10.28
  74. Guardians of the Night — Alan Russell | 10.28
  75. The Voice of Things — Francis Ponge | 10.31
  76. A Girl in the Woods — Aspen Matis | 11.9
  77. Wonder Boys — Michael Chabon | 11.13
  78. David Lynch: The Man from Another Place — Dennis Lim | 11.15
  79. Classical Music — Julian Johnson | 11.20
  80. Faust: A Tragedy, Parts One and Two — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Trans. Martin Greenberg) | 11.25
  81. Embassytown — China Miéville | 11.25
  82. Here in Berlin — Cristina García | 11.26
  83. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself — Young-Ha Kim | 11.27
  84. Notes from Underground — Fyodor Dostoevsky | 11.30
  85. Slaughterhouse Five — Kurt Vonnegut | 12.2
  86. The Power of Language — Francis Ponge (Trans. Serge Gavronsky) | 12.5
  87. The Face in the Frost — John Bellairs | 12.5
  88. Selected Poems — Francis Ponge (Ed. Margaret Guiton) | 12.12
  89. All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy | 12.15
  90. Soap — Francis Ponge (Trans. Lane Dunlop) | 12.17
  91. Visitation — Jenny Erpenbeck (Trans. Susan Bernofsky) | 12.18
  92. The Primal Blueprint — Mark Sisson | 12.19
  93. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig | 12.23
  94. Lock In — John Scalzi | 12.24
  95. Bergeners — Tomas Espedal (Trans. James Anderson) | 12.29
  96. The Art of Living — Epictetus (Ed. Sharon Lebell) | 12.30
  97. Selected Poems & Fragments — Friedrich Hölderlin (Trans. Michael Hamburger; German/English edition) | 12.31
  98. Hunger — Knut Hamsun (Trans. Sverre Lyngstad) | 12.31

I didn't have a reading goal for the year, and the number of books I ended up finishing is just the number of books I finished.

Most often, I read three books concurrently:

  • (a) what is typically (but not exclusively) a non-fiction, general interest book (e.g., Sapiens or Arctic Dreams) or a something for a course I'm developing (e.g., Bullshit Jobs or Writing Tools)
  • (b) a scholarly book (i.e., something directly related to my own research, e.g., Meeting the Universe Halfway or Blind Spot)
  • (c) what is typically (but not exclusively) a work of fiction that I read for fun (e.g., Cities of the Plain, Lock In, Summer)

There is some overlap, and every so often I'll read two books concurrently in any given category. I read mostly on my kindle, and frequently read library books. That's part of the reason why I kept a list in 2018: I was curious about what I actually read since I couldn't look at titles on a bookshelf. It's easy to log a book after finishing, and satisfying in aggregate.

One last note before a brief list of resonant books: if you know the German word that describes the feeling of possibility, hope, joy, and wonder that one has after finishing a book and facing the delectable prospects of immediately selecting a new one, please let me know. (Das Gefühl danach schmökern, bevor weiter schmökern.)

There's something to like in nearly every one of the books on the list, but, for many reasons, some books resonated more than others. There were two books on the list that I absolutely hated, one of which is canonical. I won't call them out beyond that.

So, what do I mean by "resonate"? A book resonates when I am forced to pause, to think, to step back, to wonder. How and where and in what ways a book resonates has much to do with where and how I am at the moment of reading, but this can't be all of it.

Some works resonate because they are different, because they're a doorway opening into an affective charge, into possibility, into change. In a list of almost 100 books, these resonated. I'll try, in a sentence or two, to describe why.

  • M Train — Patti Smith
  • Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil — Rüdiger Safranski
    • Safranski's philosophical biography of the very complicated Heidegger is nearly magisterial, and the English translation by Ewald Osers includes snippets of Heidegger's work that haven't been previously translated.
  • Cities of the Plain — Cormac McCarthy
    • Blood Meridian is easily my favorite McCarthy novel, and one of my favorite books, full stop. I read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing years ago, but realized this year that I had never finished the trilogy. Cities of the Plain might be the best of the three.
  • The 7th Function of Language — Laurent Binet
    • For the right audience, this book is hysterical. I am the right audience.
  • Asymmetry — Lisa Halliday
    • This is now my go-to example for the mantra to "show instead of tell." What Halliday does in the novel's first section—with almost zero exposition—is stunning.
  • My Struggle, Book 5 — Karl Ove Knausgaard
    • It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Knausgaard. The fifth book in his autobiographical novel takes place in Bergen, in the rain, during early adulthood.
  • With Deer — Aase Berg
    • This slim book by the Swedish poet Berg (printed in both Swedish and English) is indescribable. Reading it is like being fully present for every possible thing that happens during your own furious, fever-induced delirium.
  • Blind Spot — Teju Cole
    • Cole's book of photos and accompanying prose poems and meditations is a wonderful exploration of travel, identity, and the everyday.
  • Lives Other Than My Own — Emmanuel Carrère
    • Carrère is often mentioned alongside Knausgaard as an exemplar of contemporary autofiction. I found him to be almost nothing like Knausgaard, and this book was not at all what I expected. And even given all that, this was one of the best books I read in 2018.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — Annie Dillard
    • Dillard, in 1973 and 1974, was doing what I'm trying to do now, in my own work. This is a gorgeous, overflowing ontological meditation.
  • Visitation — Jenny Erpenbeck (Trans. Susan Bernofsky)
    • I'm looking forward to reading this in German, and even better, to reading more of Erpenbeck.
  • Bergeners — Tomas Espedal (Trans. James Anderson)
    • This was a Christmas gift, and I enjoyed nearly every page. As with Erpenbeck, I can't wait to read more of Espedal's work.

Until next year...


What Camera Should I Buy?

What Camera Should I Buy?

tl;dr — This is a long post, so here’s the gist: Cameras don’t really matter, because they all work basically the same way. What, how, and why you make photographs are more meaningful questions to ask when you’re getting serious about photography.

Grab something, anything—even your smartphone—and make photographs deliberately. A deliberative, contemplative, and reflective approach toward the images you make and share is much more important than the camera. This applies to visual researchers, but I’m pretty sure it applies to most image-making scenarios.

Every so often I get an email or message from someone who writes to ask: “What camera should I buy?”

This is a tricky question to answer, and I usually respond with questions of my own: What are you going to photograph? What do you want your camera to do for you? How much can you reasonably spend? Do you care about having multiple lenses? Do you care about how your camera looks, as an object, in addition to how it sees?

I’ve answered the question of “what camera to buy” enough times that it occurred to me to write a post about it. It’s weird that I even get this question, though; I’m nowhere near a professional photographer, nor do I keep up with gear. If you say “I’m thinking about buying X Camera,” it’s quite likely I’ve zero experience with that camera.

I use cameras to make photographs in the processes of conducting research, and in the processes of living everyday life. That said, I have learned a lot about what I want from photography (and cameras are pretty important to photography), so if reading about what I’ve learned is useful to others, then please to enjoy…

Leveling Up as a Photographer

The folks at DigitalRev recently posted a video that pretty well mirrors my own journey as an amateur photographer. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, and well worth five minutes of your time:

Thankfully, I skipped Level 1; I’ve experienced several of the remaining levels to varying extents, though. For example, I did completely geek out on gear (Level 2) before I became a student of photography (Level 3) and embraced the philosophy that a camera should go with one everywhere (Level 4). I dabbled in the hobbyist phase (Level 5), but became bored by message board arguments and the gear pedants and zealots that thrive there as an invasive species (see Level 1).

I’m nowhere near an “Online Legend,” Level 6, though I have had a couple of photos make Flickr’s “Explore” page, including this one, which picked up 300 faves and over 20,000 views in a 24 hour period. That was a trip, since I’m lucky to get 1,000 views and 20 faves on any given Flickr photo. Flickr and Instagram mystify me. Images that I think are well-composed and interesting, such as this one, rarely receive much love. DigitalRev’s take on this is spot on, but I digress…

Obviously, I don’t earn my living as a photographer, so I kind of sidestepped Level 7; like many photographers, amateur and professional, I strive to reach Level 8, in my own way. But it takes a while to figure out what you want from photography. It has taken me the better part of the last 3 or 4 years, shooting and editing almost daily, to kind of be happy with what I’m doing and to get what I want from cameras—to get them to see what I see with my eyes and brain. Your mileage will vary, of course.

So, What Is a Camera, Anyway?

It’s a box with a hole in it. Seriously, that’s it. Every camera, ever, is a box with a hole in it. Despite the dizzying array of dials, buttons, and menu options on contemporary digital cameras, the damn things are just boxes with holes in them. I wish someone explained this to me many years ago.

“Wait a second,” you’re thinking. “Surely it’s more complicated than that.” Well, yes, I need to add one other element: material that’s sensitive to light. The predominant light-sensitive material used in photography for 100 or so years was film. Now, our predominant light-sensitive material is a digital sensor.

So, a camera = box (that shuts out light) + hole + light-sensitive material (film or digital sensor). Really and truly, that’s it. Have you ever heard of a pinhole camera? Box, itty-bitty hole, film.

“Wait a second,” you’re thinking once again. “Surely it’s more complicated than this.” It is more complicated, but not much. The things we add to cameras are simply variations on the theme of box, hole, light-sensitive material.

For example, a lens helps us focus the light that comes through the hole and hits the film or sensor. Blades inside the lens help us control the size of the hole, known as aperture. Controlling the size of the hole lets us adjust to different light sources and intensities, and lets us control what’s in focus and what’s out of focus (known as “depth of field”). A shutter gives us control over how long we allow light to shoot through the hole and reach the light-sensitive material. And something called ISO allows us to choose the sensitivity of the light-sensitive material.

Are these things—lens, aperture, shutter, ISO—very complicated? Not really. The first three are all simply improvements upon characteristics of the hole; ISO is an improvement upon the material where light is written. [1]

In sum, the composition of any given photograph involves light passing through a hole into a light-proof box (that is, the light can’t spill out the sides or back) onto film or a digital sensor. You can make a camera with a roll of film and an Altoids can.

If you already knew all this, then I apologize for making you read the last few paragraphs. I write this because I didn’t know this stuff with this kind of clarity until a couple years ago, even though I’d been making photographs since the early 1980s. In fact, it wasn’t until I started seriously shooting film again, in the spring of 2014, that the simplicity of the technical aspects of photography clicked into place for me.

Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO

This is the stuff to learn, no matter what camera you shoot. What’s the definition of a “user friendly” camera for most people? One that doesn’t make you think about these three things.

But you want to think about these things, because they’re the only things that matter when it comes to the technical side of photography. And once you learn them, they work on any camera. Any camera. Because all cameras work the same way, remember?

Aperture. The aperture is the size of the hole, period. Bigger hole, lower f-stop number; smaller hole, higher f-stop number. F2 means the hole is wide open, while F22 means the hole is really small. Big hole = small focus area. Small hole = everything in focus.

Shutter Speed. Fast shutter speeds freeze movement. Slow shutter speeds blur movement. Want to take a picture of a waterfall? You don’t want to shoot it on automatic mode, with a 1/2000sec shutter speed. Why? Because you’ll get a crappy picture of water frozen in time. Instead, put your camera on the ground or some other stable surface, switch over to “shutter priority mode” and shoot it at 1/2sec or 1 second. Your rocks and trees will be perfectly sharp, but the water will be a smooth, pleasing blur.

ISO. It used to be that you could only control ISO within a very limited range of film sensitivity—between about 50 and 1600 ISO. You selected your ISO when you bought your film, and once that film was in your camera, you were stuck with it. With today’s digital sensors, we can adjust the sensitivity to light (ISO) on the fly, shooting one picture in broad daylight at 100 ISO and the next indoors, in very low light, at 3200 ISO. Because digital cameras are so good with this, you basically almost never need to worry about ISO. It helps to know how it affects your images, though.

Here’s a great little infographic with everything you need to know about how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect your shots. This is the stuff to learn.

Shooting Modes

Pretty much any digital camera you can buy nowadays comes with these basic shooting modes:

  • Automatic: camera controls aperture, shutter speed, and ISO
  • Aperture Priority: you control the aperture (e.g., “I want my background to be blurry, so I’m shooting this at f2”), the camera controls shutter speed and ISO
  • Shutter Priority: you control the shutter speed (e.g., “I want the water in this waterfall to be a silky-smooth blur so I’m shooting this with a 1 second exposure”), the camera controls aperture and ISO
  • Program Mode: basically a fully automatic mode, but with a little more control (e.g., “I don’t want the flash to fire, but I want the camera to figure out everything else”)
  • Manual Mode: fully manual—you choose aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

Most professionals and hobbyists shoot in manual mode, right? Wrong. In my experience, most shoot in aperture or shutter priority mode.

When I’m shooting digital, I’m usually in aperture priority mode. I also have my camera in “Auto ISO” mode. This means that I tell the camera: “shoot between 200 and 3200 ISO, depending on the available light.” (I don’t want it shooting over 3200, because the pictures become grainy in my particular camera—yours may shoot fine up to 6400 or even 12800 ISO).

On the technical side, the only thing I’m thinking about for most everyday shots is the aperture and depth of field—what do I want to get in focus in a given shot? I select the aperture and let the camera figure out shutter speed and ISO. Easy. If I’m shooting something where I either want to freeze movement or show movement, then I’m probably switching over to shutter priority mode.

Put simply, aperture priority and shutter priority modes cover roughly 90% of my digital photography.

If I’m shooting with a flash, or if I’m shooting film, that’s when I’m in manual mode. My film cameras are all fully mechanical—there are no batteries, no electronic components, and so everything is set manually for each exposure.

So, What Camera?

The first thing to consider in any digital camera is whether it has all of the shooting modes I detailed in the previous section. If it meets this very, very basic test, you’re good to go.

The next thing to consider is: fixed lens, or lens system?

I’m not going to delve very far into this at all. But here are some basics:

  • “Kit” lenses—those that come bundled with cameras such as the Nikon D3300 in an Amazon deal—are serviceable, but not great.
  • Zoom lenses, unless very very expensive, tend to be of lower quality than prime lenses.
  • Prime lenses have a fixed focal length—e.g., 50mm.
  • Prime lenses typically have a greater range of aperture options, which gives you more control over the creative and aesthetic aspects of your images.
  • Prime lenses may be extremely expensive, but they are also sometimes super affordable—Canon and Nikon both make stellar 50mm and 35mm lenses for around $200.

That should suffice. Back to the question: fixed lens or lens system?

A fixed lens camera has one lens that cannot be swapped out for another. If you buy such a camera, you’re stuck with that lens. For many digital cameras, that fixed lens is a zoom.

Lens system cameras allow you to purchase the camera body and lenses separately, giving you lots of flexibility and room for growth over time.

I own several fixed lens cameras (one digital and four film), and two lens system cameras (one digital and one film). They’re all great, and all used to make different kinds of images. My fixed lens cameras are much better looking, as objects, than my lens system cameras, which are big, bulky, and kind of awkward.

Right now, I’d say 95% of my photography happens with a fixed lens camera; I pull out the lens system camera for special situations (photographing written artifacts, shooting portraits, etc.). Don’t make anything of this—it’s a personal preference based on the kinds of things I like to shoot and how I like to shoot right now. It will likely change, so this not an evaluation or endorsement of either approach.

What camera should you buy?

At a minimum, one that has the shooting modes above, and one that will serve you in what you want from photographs now and in the near future (2–4 years or so). If an inexpensive digital camera with a good sensor, full shooting modes, and a competent zoom (or prime) lens will serve you well, go for it. If you want to have the option to add lenses and do specialized kinds of shots, go with a lens system camera.

The stuff that follows is more important, though…

What do you want from your photography?

What do you really want to shoot? Landscapes? Slices of everyday life? Your kids? Archival materials? All of the above?

How you answer these questions will in large measure dictate the kind of camera you buy. But really, no one cares about your camera.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become most interested in street photography. This is not the art of making shots of streets, but of simply capturing everyday life, unposed, unscripted, as it happens. It’s really hard to do well for a variety of reasons, but my best street photos have emotion and heart, and they make me really happy when they turn out well.

I could shoot my street photos with my digital lens system camera, but it would be… not exactly joyless, but less joyful. Instead I use a small, fixed lens rangefinder camera, either film or digital. I recently finished a research project using only one of these cameras, and it was very satisfying, both while shooting and during processing. The camera fit the project so well.

The thing is, I didn’t know what I wanted from photography until I’d spent a few months shooting every day.

My advice then, is simply this: Grab something, anything—even your smartphone—and make photographs deliberately. A deliberative, contemplative, and reflective approach toward the images you make and share is much more important than the camera. This applies to visual researchers, but I’m pretty sure it applies to most image-making scenarios.

  1. BTW, improvements to the box are responsible for most of the complexity we feel are part and parcel of digital cameras. But the fact that a very complex computer now sits inside the box doesn’t really change anything about how cameras work.  ↩


Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods

Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods

Just before the Fall, 2015 semester began, I tweeted a link to my Pinboard collection of articles and blog posts related to visual research methods. My message was simple: if you teach visual rhetorics or visual methods, here are hundreds of syllabus-worthy links in one handy place.

But even as I shared that collection of links, I worried about how colleagues in the field might interpret the collection, and whether they would even find use in them. This worry stems from the possible mismatch about what each of us considers to be representative of visual rhetoric. I don’t mean this in some strictly subjective sense, but in the broader sense in which our field’s view of visual rhetorics has congealed and become normative.

Even though I’ve written about the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods in various places, I’m aware that I’ve never made the connections, overlaps, and productive divergences particularly clear in spaces such as Twitter and here, on my blog. My fear is that teachers and scholars who are familiar with (and teach) mainstream approaches to visual rhetorics may be unclear as to how links such as this Slate post about Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese brooms—to take just one recent example—is useful for teaching and exploring visual rhetorics.

In this post, then, I’ll try to clearly and succinctly explain my perspective on the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods for teachers and scholars in rhetoric, writing studies, and related disciplines.

Historical interests in the visual, aural, multimodal, and multisensory aspects of persuasion and composition are by now well established. But our approaches to the visual, in particular, are predominantly reception-oriented. This is no critique, but a statement of fact regarding the scope and methodological focus of most of our field’s formative scholarship on the visual. Research in visual rhetorics overwhelmingly involves analysis of extant images (still and moving) and other extant visual phenomena. Those projects that use images in the processes of empirical research—for example, Cushman (2011) or Wickman (2010)—are outliers rather than evidence for prevalent or even emerging trends.

It may seem as if I am oversimplifying; I am not. The differences really are this simple.

But make no mistake: reception-oriented approaches to visual rhetorics are essential to our (and our students’) understanding of visual phenomena. My own arguments for using visuals in the processes of empirical research of writers and rhetors, I hope, draws from, complements, and extends reception-oriented approaches in different ways, toward different ends. Visual research methods, in other words, are closely parallel to the traditional analyses and subject matter of visual rhetorics.

The great majority of the links posted in my Pinboard collection are selected with my empirical, visuals-made-in-research approach. There are many, many posts highlighting what we might call documentary photography or photojournalism. There are very few posts featuring the work of anyone who might unambiguously be called researchers of writing or rhetoric.

So why did I argue that this collection is useful for teachers and researchers of visual methods and visual rhetorics?

For those interested in making images as part of research in rhetoric and writing (or teaching such approaches), there are hundreds of links that serve as inspiration, that feature compelling and often novel subject matter, that execute common visual methods (though for admittedly different purposes and audiences), and that present challenging or even orthogonal approaches that might help clarify and improve our work.

And for those interested in analyzing extant images from a variety of perspectives, the collection is a treasure trove of opportunity with a decidedly realist bent.

The post I linked to about brooms, for example, is more art photography than photojournalism, but it’s rich with implications for empirical visual researchers and visual rhetoricians.

For visual researchers, the project uses images to: (a) create a typology of like objects and thus a framework for comparison and analysis; (b) to celebrate beauty, craftsmanship, utility, place, and purpose in the everyday; and (c) to explore both situated and comparative experience. I’d be thrilled with any research design exploring writers and rhetors that would help me do so much.

For visual rhetoricians, the project uses images to: (a) foreground the compelling and varied visual aspects of mundane, ready-to-hand materials and objects; (b) to effect a visual typology that demonstrates similarity and difference in designed artifacts; and (c) to foreground work in visual rhetorics by one artist/photographer as a way of speculating on what such visuals do to and for particular audiences.

These analytic axes are off the top of my head, and as you’ll note, there is plenty of productive similarity across lists. Savvy teachers of visual rhetorics could come up with any number of alternative approaches to this example. Good examples, such as this one, will explore both visual methods and visual rhetorics in tandem.

In sum, visual rhetorics and visual methods are complementary approaches to our field’s study of visual composition and persuasion. Many of the links in my Pinboard collection may not appear to be firmly within the traditional realms of visual rhetoric, but I hope to have shown how nearly all of these examples could be productively examined from both perspectives.


Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods

Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods

In Academic Writing as a Social Practice, Linda Brodkey (1987) argued that composition studies needed a new cultural conception of composing, one that reimagined the tired trope of the alienated and anguished writer who writes alone. In a chapter titled “Picturing Writing,” Brodkey relies heavily on visual metaphors; she passionately argued that we need new pictures of writers and composing practices in their rich, socially situated complexity. She asked readers to re-see writing, to consider alternative viewpoints, and in the process, to break away from popular perceptions of composing, particularly because such perceptions obviate new, different, or even challenging perspectives about writing (58).

More recently, Jody Shipka (2011) draws on Brodkey to suggest that one charge of contemporary composition research is to foreground and make more visible the circulatory processes of composing and textual distribution (38). In response to these and similar exigencies, I compose with photography as one way in which to see writing anew—a method for re-seeing the complexity of composing processes by literally and systematically picturing writers and writing.

As a qualitative researcher focused on the activities, objects, and environments of composing, I conduct ethnographies and case studies of writers in everyday life—from academe and industry to religious practice and social gaming. In these studies, I use traditional fieldwork methods such as semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and artifact collection and analysis. In my early fieldwork, I often used photography and videography as well, mainly as means of augmenting observational fieldnotes and capturing informal talk, gestures, and spatial and material arrangements.

A few years ago, however, I realized that my use of visual fieldwork methods, while beneficial, was also somewhat facile in its execution. I learned that over the last four decades, social scientists have explored the nuances of visual methods in studies of social life (see, for example, Pink, 2007; Spencer, 2011; and Pinney, 2011), of which writing is, of course, an inescapable mediator. The subfields of visual anthropology and visual sociology have enriched my understanding and use of visual methods in fieldwork. These approaches have developed in parallel to our own field’s explorations of visual rhetorics, resulting in complementary empirical perspectives on visuality and visibility.

Writing in the world: a tiny geocache container and scroll for logging visits.

More recently, therefore, I have adapted approaches from visual anthropology and visual sociology to the study of writers and their composing practices and environments. Doing so has resulted in many trials and errors, but the struggle has been rewarding: I have learned to use visual methods to explore, analyze, and present the rich materiality of everyday composing practices, and in the process, to formulate new pictures of writers and writing that may be generative for participants and composition researchers alike. More important, by using visual methods in field studies I have been able to create new forms of material engagement with participants about the role of composing in their learning, work, and play.

While critics such as Susan Sontag (1977) have suggested that photography results in the distancing of photographic subjects from photographers, I have found opposite to be true: Visual methods of fieldwork result in qualitatively different forms of intersubjective understanding between researchers and participants. Composing with photography throughout fieldwork can help researchers of writing move beyond mere tautological illustration; by using visual methods, researchers may document and engage simultaneously.

More important, participants may see their own composing environments, tools, and practices in new ways, from different perspectives. A technique known as photo-elicitation uses fieldwork photographs as pivots for better understanding participant practice. For example, by photographically demonstrating a writer’s well-maintained mise en place, the researcher may help make the familiar strange for a participant, and through discussion, develop new insights about their composing practices.

In a similar way, visual methods may result in presentations of experience that are more hyaline and evocative than traditional forms of reporting. Qualitative data is notoriously dense, and for readers, the mass of fieldwork supporting ethnographies and case studies is often opaque. In addition, traditional methods of collection and representation are necessarily sequential; observational fieldnotes, for example, may miss crucial details of actual practice—movements, tools, arrangements, or cross-talk that may meaningfully mediate composing.

A software studio’s whiteboard is a collaborative space for composing and ideation.

Photographs offer simultaneous renderings of practice, what Flusser (2002) terms surfaces rather than lines. A traditional ethnographer detailing the complex, collaborative work pictured above must transform the simultaneously visible surface of a software studio’s whiteboard into a linear representation of activity. A visual ethnographer, however, can present that visible surface in its full complexity; when coupled with an analytic narrative that details punctuated development, a more hyaline rendering of complex composing practices emerges.

Qualitative research is characteristically ideographic; indeed, visual methods foreground the situated materiality of composing practices. This is a key strength of visual methods as I practice them in studies of writers and writing: the ability to document and collaboratively explore particular systemic contexts and the ways in which artifact assemblages participate in composing processes.

However, in developing new pictures of writers and writing, visual methods have the potential to be nomothetic in the aggregate. Because visual methods may be more hyaline—presenting richer data than traditional methods alone—they carry the potential for fruitful cross-case comparisons of composing practices. Imagine, for a moment, systematically composed and collected photographs of 20,000 first year writers’ typical composing environments and the resulting wealth of both particular (ideographic) and tendential (nomothetic) pictures of writing that might emerge from careful analysis.

Visual methods in empirical studies of writing carry the potential to further develop and realize Brodkey’s argument for re-seeing our object of study, and more important, the people who write. Barthes (1981) argued that “the camera can be an instrument of deep meaning, connecting the scene to the viewer and the viewer to existence” (131). With visual methods, writing researchers can reframe cultural conceptions of where, how, why, and with whom people write in their everyday lives.


Gonzo Academicus

Gonzo Academicus

Justine Bateman—actress, entrepreneur, mother of two, and media consultant—enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA in the fall of 2012, at the age of 46.

She maintains a Tumblr about the ups and downs of her experience called Get a College Life, and she has inspired many others who have enrolled in college at “nontraditional” ages. The blog is continually engaging, and I love when she posts the hand written cheat sheets created by her and her peers.

About a month ago, she posted about one of the most bewildering aspects of navigating a typical undergraduate curriculum: general education requirements. I vividly recall my confusion at the need to map compulsory subject areas to the many course options available when I was an undergrad at Oregon. And one of the compulsory general education courses over which students typically have little choice is first-year writing.

Bateman’s argument makes sense. She wrote:

“Also, just found out that I have to take these ridiculous GEs I was trying to get out of. I petitioned to substitute these very topic-similar upper division classes I’d already taken for these basic, lower division classes and they refused. I really don’t see the academic logic. If I’ve taken the more advanced versions of the classes they want me to take and I received A’s in those classes, doesn’t that give weight to the argument to use them as replacements?”

Many schools will substitute courses, but many schools also have a general education credit hour requirement that must be fulfilled in order to graduate (and the logics are often rooted in accreditation and administrative concerns). More important, where it might not matter if one took Anthropology 212 instead of Sociology 103 in order to check off the “social sciences” box of the general ed. curriculum, there’s typically little leeway when it comes to the writing requirement.

After a couple weeks, Bateman once again expressed her frustration with general ed, and with the writing requirement in particular:

“Already set for next quarter. Italian, Business Law, and Computer Organization (CS33 - Machine Language). (And a required english composition class they’re forcing me to take. Really?)”

I admit, I had three nearly simultaneous reactions when I read this post: (a) a defensive response rooted in my own attachment to writing as a worthwhile academic pursuit; (b) a sympathetic response rooted in my own desire to navigate both undergraduate and graduate curricula as quickly as possible while minimizing time and effort spent on subjects for which I had no investment; and (c) a thought experiment response rooted in a desire to push back against (a) and (b): what if taking the class improved one’s writing, regardless of their circumstances?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in the last six months or so. Like many of my peers in academe, I’ve always been “good at” writing. But then again, I mostly write for academic audiences, and academic writing is regularly critiqued for being obtuse, jargon-filled, overly hedged, and generally esoteric.

Picture a continuum where, on one end is the argumentative acumen of a gifted third grader and on the other is Susan Sontag and John McPhee (or whomever you’d like to substitute for these masterful non-fiction writers). If I’m being honest, my prose is much, much closer to the gifted third grader than it is Sontag and McPhee.

The reality is that I still have so much to learn about writing, and about being a better writer. And I get paid to study writing. As I thought more about Bateman’s predicament within the context of my own ability as a writer, I started to think about my own need to continually learn and improve.

A few months ago I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and realized that I’d gotten into lots of bad habits. I also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say (a common FYC text). I learned much from all three books, but my overriding realization was that I still have a long way to go as a writer.

Let me put this another way: I am a writing professor, but I bet I’d learn quite a lot about writing if I enrolled in a first-year writing course with an open and earnest comportment to learn and improve.

Revisiting core concepts and diligently practicing my chops would surely contribute to my learning. But I’d argue that some of the most innovative teaching in our field occurs in the first year course, where bright graduate students and non-tenured faculty are continually reimagining what the course can and should do. As professors, we often learn from our graduate students in the seminars we lead; I bet we’d learn much from them as our teachers, too.

So I started to think about a kind of gonzo academicism (for lack of better term). What if we know-it-all types (the finger is squarely pointed at myself) took an FYC course?

Better yet, what if 10 writing professors at various stages in their careers and at various kinds of institutions enrolled in FYC courses for one semester at their schools and then contributed to a group blog about their experiences?

I can’t imagine that this would be a bad thing for our understanding of pedagogy and curricula in our respective institutions. And I’m willing to bet that our prose would improve. Wouldn’t we learn to be better writers, and to sympathize with our students and FYC instructors? How could we not?

A writing professor taking a first year writing course may well be different than an anthropology professor taking Anthro 101. I see this as a strength of our field. We can always improve our writing. We can learn from people along the continuum. We never stop learning how to write.

(Bateman, meanwhile, seems to be liking her writing instructor so far.)


Shanghai Street Food

Shanghai Street Food

During the summer, when I told people that I was going to (or recently returned from) Shanghai, I was often immediately asked about food, and sometimes specifically about street food.

If you know much about me, then you know that I’m a food utilitarian. I eat for calories. I simply don’t care much about food beyond sustenance. This does not mean that I don’t enjoy food; I do. I enjoy the things I eat every day so much that I eat almost the same things, every day. But I am no foodie.

I will try almost anything, and Shanghai presented many opportunities for new culinary experiences. About the only thing I had that was challenging was stinky tofu during breakfast. Served cold, this everyday snack actually smelled fine to me—and was quite wonderful when it hit my tastebuds. On it’s way down my esophagus, however, it exploded in a kind of fermented, spicy, heartburny miasma. Despite that, I’d probably try it again…

As it turned out, just outside the West Gate of the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University, about a 1.5 mile walk from where I stayed and taught, is Jufengyuan Road, and area that Shanghaiist calls one of Shanghai’s street food meccas. I came to know this area well, visiting daily.

As the Shanghaiist post notes,

The actual Jufengyuan strip isn’t even the main attraction with its fruit wagons, skewer carts, etc. The real deal begins at the alleyway just right of the bridge connecting Shanghai Uni’s west entrance to Jufengyuan Lu - identifiable by the covered picnic tables, shrouds of steam, and scraping of woks. Here, you’ll find fried noodles and rice galore, shawarma, skewers, Chinese breakfast crepes aka jianbing , fried chicken, and our favorite, big Xinjiang skewers with ribs, chicken legs, and other animal parts spitted on medieval-looking metal swords.

This area is amazing. The smells, the open flames, the masses of people moving about carrying xialongbao and sizzling chicken and steaming soups—it’s essentially what I envisioned when conjuring the phrase “Shanghai street food,” and it was incredible that I was within walking distance for two weeks. And while I came to appreciate one stall’s very spicy noodles, I was much more interested in simply being there than in sampling all of the food on offer—the street food scene along Jufengyuan Lu was atmospheric, enveloping, all-encompassing.

At this point, I want to write a few words about my experiences with street photography in Shanghai before I share some photos of the street food scene…

I never felt unsafe during my brief time in Shanghai, even though I stumbled into areas of the city where tourists and laowai are rarely seen. However, there were a couple encounters that I’d describe as “dicey,” and each involved my use of a camera at the time.

I’m fairly conspicuous as a street photographer; I love to shoot in low light and at night, and I’m a stickler for sharpness and legibility. This means that I typically stand out—with a big Manfrotto tripod, a Nikon D7000, a wireless shutter release, and a tendency to shoot low angle, wide frame shots. In other words, people can easily see what I’m doing, and in the process, they may become curious, shy, amused, etc.

This shot, for example, was taken in front of about 25 scooter taxis and their drivers—to the left of frame, and behind the camera—all facing me as I set up, and all watching me with interest. This was photography in front of an audience, and after I made a couple of acceptable shots, I moved along the crowd, showing everyone the resulting images. It was both odd and fun.

But I take few “candid” or furtive street shots. If you see close-up, legible images of people in my street photographs, there’s a very, very strong chance that I asked for permission before shooting. So, in touristy areas like The Bund, nobody cared about my photographic activities. But in a locals area like Jufengyuan Lu, as an obvious laowai with a camera and tripod, I stuck out.

On several occasions in Shanghai, therefore, my conspicuousness was potentially positive or negative (for me, and others). Folks often would set up behind me—squatting down or leaning over my shoulder—as I framed a shot on my tripod, essentially trying to see what I was photographing. When I noticed this, I’d show people my shot, so they could see my results. Then we’d exchange thumbs up or down signs, smiles, shrugs, or frowns depending on what people thought of a given photo.

But on a couple of occasions, people were visibly upset by something I’d done with my camera. The diciest situation occurred just after I’d shot this photo, one of my favorites from the trip:

To the left of the frame, Jufengyuan Road moves out into the distance—a pedestrian, bike, and scooter thoroughfare with major chains (Wal-Mart, KFC), local shops, banks, apartments, etc. Just to the right of the frame is the entrance to the street food mecca.

For me, this fruit stand is visually lovely. I’d purchased cantaloupe skewers here on a couple occasions, and at night, it makes a fantastic photographic subject.

I shot this in the street, about 20–30 feet away from the stand. My tripod was low, the camera perhaps 30 inches above the ground. The woman working the stand moved in and out of frame as I was setting up the shot, and my intention was simply to capture her movement—a blur in the long exposure. In other words, I was shooting the scene—the well-lit stand, the movement of people nearby, the colorful fruit—rather than a portrait.

A man—probably in his 40s or so, shirtless (it was hot and humid), and a bit bigger in stature than I—set up behind me as I framed the shot, clearly skeptical and uneasy. After shooting it, I turned to him, gesturing back toward the camera, indicating as best as I could that I wanted him to look.

Finally, I picked up my camera and held the shot up for him to see. He was pissed. I’m not at all sure why, but he started screaming at me there in the street. He’s yelling in Chinese, I’m offering in English to delete the image, and no one nearby was able to mediate. Finally, he gave me a dismissive wave and I headed off down the street, quickly, hearing a few farewell yells, without taking another shot.

I feel bad, as I clearly did something to cause offense. But I also couldn’t tell if this was the kind of man who often yells at people on Jufengyuan Road. Because of this ambivalence, I kept the photo.

The rest of the photos were shot in the alley, with permission. I returned another night to shoot these, but I was still skittish; I ended up shooting far less here than I would have liked.

This photo is the poorest of the bunch, but it gives a sense of the stalls in the alley. From this view, I am about 2/3 of the way down the alley, so we’re seeing only the final few stalls along the vanishing point. To the right of frame are tables and many, many patrons enjoying their food.

At this stall, a family—a grandmother, son, daughter (or daughter-in-law), and grandchild—were very accommodating, and they really liked the shot after I showed it to them. The huge wok and open flame caught my eye, but I’m really pleased with the little details here—the shovel in the bottom left, the dividing paneling, the electrical sockets and peeling paint. A perfect environment for street food!

This image is intentionally dark; to the left of frame, a line stretched easily twenty people deep. The single bulb illuminating the workspace caught my eye.

Finally, a couple of the few food close-ups I shot, before and after.


Three Ontological Provocations

Three Ontological Provocations

I was invited to give an Ignite presentation at SIGDOC 2013.

This was my first try at giving a presentation in this format, and I must say, it's much more enjoyable than the typical academic talk.

All of the photos here are from my ongoing fieldwork exploring the geocaching community. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this talk!


Shanghai Graffiti

Shanghai Graffiti

I have a few more posts from my summer teaching in Shanghai on the horizon, including today’s on graffiti and stencil art.

I spent much of my time on the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University; I learned quickly, thanks to some impressive heat and humidity, that there were areas of campus that remain shaded throughout the day. For example, many of the main instructional buildings had bicycle garages at the ground floor, like this one:

The walk to my classroom was about a mile or so, and I covered most of it by moving through the bicycle garages of a row of instructional buildings. And since I spent a fair amount of time there, I noticed some interesting stencil graffiti, which I couldn’t help but photograph.

Overall, however, there were few examples of graffiti that I saw during my two weeks in Shanghai. It's a big city, though, and I saw only a fraction of it!