I was browsing books in the beautiful bookstore in the former Dominican church in Maastricht last week. Reading the blurbs on the back it hit me how themes in contemporary novels seem so utterly disconnected from the momentous in the now, so very much rooted in the past without making literary sense of the now.

The Dominicanen bookstore Maastricht, photo by Jorge Franganillo, license CC-BY

Post WWII literature in the Netherlands has been dominated by two themes, first processing the impact of the war not just for those who lived it but also those who inherited their parents’ trauma, and second coming to terms with a suffocating strict protestant upbringing in an increasingly secularised world. The latter never appealed to me at all, spending several hundred pages in the tediousness of an environment that had no bearing on my life. The former was of more interest to me, tracing the lines of events then to the present day, the complexity and emotions of the many different layers. Europe’s most historical event in my own adult lifetime was the fall of the iron curtain, with the Berlin wall its evocative symbol, and all it led to, the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and ensuing wars, Eastern European countries joining the EU. But that too is over 30 years ago, and I’ve read the novels that explore the societal and psychological upheaval and consequences for our current lives.

We’re now over a fifth into the 21st century. Yet browsing the new releases table in that Maastricht bookshop you wouldn’t be able to tell, other than by checking the year of release of the books on offer. The majority still is processing, or actually just rehashing, those same themes. At best the ‘protestant coming out and of age’ novels have morphed into more general personal reflection by the author, novel writing in lieu of psychotherapy. It seems to be the result of marketing (this stuff has been selling for well over half a century!) or ‘easiness’ (you can’t go wrong with these themes as an author!), but daring or suprising it isn’t. It all seems to me so exclusively looking backwards to the past, the books my parents generation would have found daring or surprising in the 1960s and 1970s. Standing in that bookstore I also realised how in school we were told that these were ‘the themes that matter’, and that as a consequence there’s a sort of reflex in me when I pick up such a book that it should interest me. It became very tangible to me all of a sudden that what interests me most, and what indeed should interest me, wasn’t presented on that table. The story was in what was missing among the new releases.

Most of what was on offer fully ignores the now, and what might be momentous in the now, let alone trying to make literary sense with it. I long to see more emerging ‘great European novels’ that have the interwoven European society and its complexity center stage, more exploration of the shifting globalisation and geopolitics playing out in communities and invidual’s lives, the next two billion people coming online, the workings of digitisation and data on our lives, and through it all the climate threat. More now and forwards looking, looking towards the horizon from the now, while incorporating what went before. More novels that are, well, novel.

Luckily, there was something on offer along those lines as well. And more easily spotted once I realised what I wanted to filter out.

I think I have adjusted my book choosing filters permanently last week.

The Dominicanen bookstore Maastricht, photo by Bert Kaufmann, license CC-BY

Influencer gets lost in endless scroll, until life events yank her back for at least a while. Lockwood is a poet, and this is her first novel. This book didn’t work for me, though at times it was fun and evocative, I found it failed to pull me in, and lacked structure and narrative. Maybe that was the point, emulating the fragmentation and disjointedness of the timeline of toxic Facebook. Finished it because it was short anyway.

Three years ago I picked up some books when we were staying a few days in Freiburg, Germany, on our way to Switzerland for New Years Eve. I tend to read in the evening in bed before going to sleep and then prefer using an e-reader. Paper books get to be ignored easily. As happened to this one for two years. Early last year however I had my reading moments earlier in the evening.

I then read Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt, or The Capital. Menasse is an Austrian author, whose work I enjoy. I have most of his novels.

Thoroughly enjoyed this book as well, created as an European novel: it is set in Brussels, although the titular capital refers not merely to the seat of the EU civil service, but also to the one forever darkest spot in our European history. A European novel in the sense that it’s playing with the historic layers and multiple meanings present in every piece of this continent as well as in its individual citizens. Usually shaped as contradictions, paradoxes and ironic coincidences, but put together forming an enormous wealth of humanity with its abundant variety, interconnectedness and potential serendipity. It’s a 450 pages sized version of what E and I mean when we say Europe works. I read it in the original German, but there’s an English translation.

(I read this book a year ago, right about when I last posted something in my books feed. Having at some point last year moved all never finished draft posts in my site to these notes, and now since this weekend having a way of easily finding any draft posts as well as posting from my notes directly to my site, this draft was an unlikely yet sudden candidate for posting.)

At over 700 pages another one of Stephenson‘s books asking for a significant amount of time. The last time I read a book by him was almost exactly a year ago*, Fall or Dodge in Hell. This one is all about near future climate urgency responses, where one Texas billionaire takes it upon himself to start doing geo-engineering by launching sulfur into the stratosphere to create a veil, cool the planet and prevent sea level rise. The creation of such facts, and the termination shock tied to abandoning it again before there are more such projects in place, makes it into a new geopolitical reality. That geopolitical reality doesn’t play out in the US but in the Sino-Indian relationship, and the countries making up ‘Netherworld’, all those places around the world that have sealevel rise as an immediate concern. No wonder then that a Dutch royal is one of the characters, making a crashing entrance in Waco, Texas. While the geo-engineering is along the lines of Eliot Peper’s Veil, the various layers of narrative are more along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Nice appearance of the performativity of war. With the geo-engineering backdrop informing the geopolitical narrative lines, it remains a humane and human centered story. It grabbed me quickly, and I enjoyed it a lot.

* This is a first post in the Books section in a year as well, so that previous Stephenson book is almost the previous posting. In between I have been looking at publishing book lists as a way of federating bookshelves. I aim to post more frequently about the books I enjoyed in a few more words than I put in those book lists. Following the book lists will give you a more complete (and timely) overview though.

Today, following a book reference by someone in a discussion thread, I ended up purposefully using the Internet Archive’s book collection for the first time. The book in question was a 1965 UK paperback. The Internet Archive offer several million books from around the world, and my Startpage search for the book led me to their collection. Being logged in with my account (I’m a monthly supporter of the Internet Archive, maybe you want to consider that too), I could hit the ‘borrow’ button and have the scanned and indexed 1965 book before me for an hour. Going through the table of content I quickly found the two things of interest to me, skipped to the two related chapters, read the relevant few pages, and hit the ‘return this book’ button after 10 minutes.

That was very useful. Following up a loose thread of information, finding the source, lift out the few relevant details, make a note of it, connect it to a few existing notes and move on. Useful and a very pleasing process.

I read Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface in the past days. I bought it already late November, directly from the author’s website (I’m trying to avoid buying through Amazon when I can), but read some other books first.

Attack Surface is a fast paced action packed novel, and I enjoyed it a lot. It takes you on a tour of both general and targeted surveillance technology and discusses how and when you can expect to be able to defend yourself against it, and when not. Reading the book was much like being in conversation with Arjen Kamphuis a Dutch it security expert who went missing in Norway two years ago, and like reading the accompanying storyline to Arjen’s 2014 book Infosecurity for Journalists.

Doctorow doesn’t explain technology much in his books, on purpose. He uses his books to make people aware of the names and terms to describe current tech, to ensure they know how to search online for explanations of the technology. On the assumption that the lack of awareness about certain tech, and the social and political implications of that tech, stems from not knowing enough to be able to search for more information. His books fill that gap.

…when I sat down in 2006 to write the first Little Brother book, I realized that facts were now cheap – anything could be discovered with a single search. The thing in short supply now was search terms – knowing what to search for.

For Attack Surface, one reader took this notion to turn it into a ‘Mashapedia‘ (Masha is the book’s protagonist), to provide a chapter by chapter glossary with links to explanations of each technology mentioned.

Doctorow describes himself as a realistic techno-optimist, not a tech-utopian, and I’m in the same position. In the final chapters of the book the characters point out that resisting surveillance tech is not about winning against that tech and permanently becoming immune to surveillance, but to create enough space to win political momentum against surveillance or those who use it. To resist surveillance in order to work political change. This hews close to the type of conversation I had during the Cph150 I had last year.
Around that time I wrote “treating [my work] as a political endeavour in its own right is different. I realise I may be in a place in my work where that deserves to have a much more deliberate role.” Doctorow reminds me to think that through some more, also as it builds on his contribution to the SF writers and economists meet-up late 2019 in Brussels I took part in, and the conversation we had there beforehand.