Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

Book ‘Em Danno

Since I got tagged by O-Dub, here’s my take on the Summer Reading meme.

1. One book that changed my life:
City of Quartz by Mike Davis

Really, I could fill tens of thousands of blog entries with all the books that have changed my life, starting with Henry and Martha’s Subway Art and Steven Hager’s Hip-Hop and moving on up.

I picked City of Quartz because I might never have gone down the path that led to Can’t Stop Won’t Stop if I hadn’t read this in late 1991/early 1992, just before I moved to LA to enroll in the Asian American Studies program at UCLA. It made it possible for me to understand William Gibson, Compton’s Most Wanted, and social ecology all at once.

As a transforming work in the field of geography, a map of hidden histories, a manual for change, and perhaps most appealing of all to me, a nonfiction noir, City of Quartz taught me that intellectual work could be made accessible, relevant, and if it was really great, perhaps even prophetic. Since that time, I’ve met hundreds of people–from urban planners to gang peacemakers–who have read it and feel exactly the same way I do about it.

(It’s being re-released in a new edition this September. See link above.)

2. One book you have read more than once:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I bet that if you polled our part of the blog universe, this book would probably would be at the top of the first three categories on this list for most of us. I read it in one of my first freshman seminars, and it dropped me off the fence and into anti-apartheid/anti-racist activism. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread it since–the pages are brittle and the binding is pretty worn. Might be time to get another copy.

3. One book you would want on a desert island:
Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

Nothing like Heartbreak Soup, comfort food for los perdidos, to ease the feeling of being stranded. Where are these desert islands anyway? And is there good surfing to be had?

4. One book that made you laugh:
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

I know folks will be running out to see “Idlewild” this weekend. If it’s a fraction as funny as Mumbo Jumbo it could be a masterpiece. Mumbo Jumbo had that promethean spirit we ascribe these days to hip-hop’s old school, just like the Jes Grew virus that drives the narrative, and in fact, I think the emerging hip-hop literature comes back down to this book. But it’s also a really nuanced, coded novel, another book that repays multiple reads. It’s like a Richard Pryor or a Ghostface album, actually, where the deeper you go beyond the laughs, the better it gets.

Gotta also mention Lalo Alcaraz’s La Cucaracha, the funniest illegal comic strip in the world, and anything by Keith Knight.

5. One book that made you cry:
American Purgatorio by John Haskell

A novel about one modern man’s descent into a living hell after the death of his wife. The book begins in a clinical and tic-ridden kind of voice, but it’s soon apparent that there’s something very wrong with the narrator. I didn’t weep so much as I felt really melancholy for a long time after reading this.

6. One book that you wish you had written:
The Retreat From Race by Dana Takagi and Bitter Fruit by Claire Jean Kim

I never could have written these books. Both are by brilliant scholars who confronted and explained some of the most vexing, perplexing issues I have ever encountered. In both cases, I was too young and too close to understand what was really going on. Professor Takagi and Professor Kim’s books sorted it all out for me.

Dana’s book did a post-mortem on the late-80s Asian American fair college admissions movement that I was deeply involved in, and it turned out to be a prophetic look at the death of affirmative action. As progressive Asian Americans we wanted to fight discrimination in admissions to elite universities and, more importantly, to throw into question the entire false idea of meritocracy. But we unwittingly set in motion right-wing forces who eventually were able to destroy affirmative action. Now, the meritocracy myth is stronger than ever. We won the battle, and lost the war.

Professor Kim’s book took a hard look at Black-Asian relations through the lens of the Flatbush boycott. She went back to the scene and interviewed all the principals involved–including Sonny Carson, the late father of Professor X and a central activist in Brooklyn’s Black Power Movement. Many progressives of color–Black and Asian both–distanced themselves or denounced Carson during the 80s, but Claire refused to be intellectually dishonest, and so comes out with a portrait of the boycott that’s incredibly balanced and only reinforces the tragedy of the failure of the Third World progressive movement.

I think both these books remain undersung classics of ethnic studies, but that would lead me into talking my disillusionment with ethnic studies, and that’s another long thread for another time.

7. One book you wish you had never written:

I’ve only written one book so far and I’m not that mad at it!

8. One book you are currently reading:
River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

The San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit has been called a next-gen Joan Didion, except to me she doesn’t have any of the upper-class baggage (book critics may call it familiarity, I call it baggage…), and is decidedly and passionately progressive, never choosing to hide behind a mask of irony or detachment, a problem I sometimes have with Didion.

I first encountered her writing in Hollow City, an angry look at the Mission District and San Francisco and probably the best book on gentrification to come out of the millennial boom/bust, and again with this widely circulated essay on the anti-war movement, the basis for a book on activism called Hope In The Dark. River of Shadows came out in between and is just awe-inspiring.

It has been described as the story of a photographer (Eadward Muybridge) and a railroad robber baron (Leland Stanford) and how they came together to form the technological breakthroughs that led to both Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

But it’s so much more than that–it’s a history of the gold rush and the railroads, San Francisco and immigration, the Chinese and the city authorities, the Indian Wars in the Northern California lavabeds, the mythification of Yosemite Valley and the destruction of its indigenous people, the beginnings of photography, the beginnings of cinema, the relationship between art, capital, and science, the spread of realism and impressionism, modernity, speed, and a million other things. It answers questions I didn’t even know I had.

It’s weird to read a book on 19th century history and finish feeling you understand older obsessions such as DJ Spooky’s Rhythm Science, Christopher Doyle or videos like this (Orbital’s “The Box” dir. Jes Benstock and Luke Losey 1996) in a new way. Plus, it’s written with the elegance and resonance of poetry.

(Postscript…Lourdes happened to rent Xiao Jiang’s movie “Electric Shadows” this weekend, and it’s really interesting to watch with the book. It kind of extends the River of Shadows narrative into modernist and then communist China. It’s also a classic bittersweet Chinese tragedy with a weepy ending.)

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Taylor Branch’s MLK books and Robert Caro’s LBJ books

If I can ever get myself a month of nothing to do and no money to have to make, I’m gonna read all 70,000 pages of these books, I swear.

10. Who I tagged:
Julianne (you still out there?), SFJ, Joe Twist, Forward Ever.

posted by @ 4:23 am | 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Book ‘Em Danno”

  1. Akio says:

    Hmm. I’m adding City of Quartz to my want-list. I’ve lived in Mirror City for 18 out of 21, and anything that sheds more light on it…

  2. Blackmail says:

    When I read Claire Jean Kim’s article “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans” back in grad school, it was revelatory! Have you ever read any of Adolph Reed’s stuff? He introduced me to her work and his own work on Chicago has been an inspiration.

    I’d recommend Tom Sugrue on post-war Detroit, if you’re not familiar with him. Oh and Thomas Hanchett’s book on Charlotte was awesome too.

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