Saturday, March 04, 2006

Nightstand roundup

What's been occupying me lately...

records: got snowed under with promos from a friend of mine, but the one that hit the ipod first and stuck is The Celluloid Years, a pretty wide ranging collection of tracks from an early hip hop label. It's got Futura 2000 doing a track with The Clash (maybe not the smartest thing they ever did), several good mixes of Wild Style by Time Zone, and some African/French flavored stuff by Manu Dibango that I really like. Also, I'm still listening to the latest Boards of Canada record, The Campfire Headphase, but the one that caught me off guard is Blockhead's record from late last year, Downtown Science. It's instrumental hip-hop of a sort I didn't realize you could really even make anymore due to licensing restrictions. Artful, complicated, hummable and delicate, while never letting you forget that it's hip hop record. Of course you may start to wonder what that really means. Anyway, apparently the genius is from downtown NYC. I liked the first record, but the new one is a huge step forward. I've also been totally grooving on Konono No.1 - Congotronics.


It's funny how you sometimes aren't ready for a book, but if you come back to it later, it all makes sense. In my quest to keep my personal library under control I read and re-read my books over and over again (New York apartments & all that; even now in Jersey City there just aren't that many bookshelves).

One book I tried to read a few years ago was Umberto Eco's In Search of the Perfect Language, which I found pretty dry. But I kept the damn thing, and returned to it a few weeks ago. It turns out that reading Neil Stephenson's Quicksilver trilogy was a pretty excellent introduction to the central idea of this book of Eco's. Several of the scientists Stephenson fictionalizes spent significant amounts of their lives working on this idea of a perfect, pre-Babel type language, which would have a perfect 1:1 correspondence with the real world. Many of them felt that if you could figure out the language, then merely constructing new sentences in that tongue would generate new truths, philosophical and otherwise. Eco devotes chapters (which each feel very much like a self-contained lecture) to Kaballism, Dante, Wilkins, Leibniz, Dalgarno and the evolution Esperanto. This was totally fascinating stuff to me.

I also just found my way through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was extremely fun. It's always nice to read things that are understated and a bit snarky, and this book fits the bill. As many others have noted, it's sort of a bizarre mix between a slightly Tolkienesque world and a Jane Austen novel, and while that could certainly be a recipe for an astonishingly boring and really long book, it isn't. It's a completely fascinating alternate world that Susanna Clarke has constructed, with a gigantic adventure story at it's heart. I suppose there are all sorts of things to draw out of the book, but I think one of the most fascinating things to me was the use of the idea that a country has particular place in history that's special. In this alternate history, England is a place where magic had been quite common, and it seems that it wasn't in other places. There's never really any specific explanation as to why this might be, but it makes for a very interesting read.

And another thing: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Fabulous. Read it before, I'll end up reading it again. If you have any record you consider even slightly "dance music", reading this book will explain a million things to you about why those records are the way they are. Starting with fundamentals - the evolving role of the dj during radio's early days, and following the development of the dj's role from various US cities to England , the Carribean and back to the States, it's a superfun collection of stories, some from names you know already, and many from names you don't know. It's the best kind of history; uncovering details about things we take for granted.

Early report on my latest acquisition is that Droidworks is pretty good, though perhaps obsessively thorough. It's the story of how George Lucas changed modern cinema. It's not any obvious thing, either...the book methodically plots the courses Lucas and his buddy Francis Coppola took to get in to the 'industry',and what they then did to set themselves free of it. This one seems to be written as a college textbook maybe; it's footnoted like crazy. I like it a lot because it's the story of people making a series of practical decisions to achieve their vision.


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