In late 2011 I decided to comb through the unread sections of my library in alphabetical order. It was a silly, semi-self-destructive idea, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.
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KATHY ACKER, DON QUIXOTE (1986)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I pitched a directed studies in postmodernism as an undergrad, bought the entire reading list, then forgot to actually go through with it.
THOUGHTS: Hmph. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given my exasperation with basically all things punk (best summed up here). Acker’s gender-bending take on DQ is all raw nerves and crypto-literary knot-tying, though I will grant swapping the hero’s cause of madness from reading romances to getting an abortion is deeply, precisely unsettling. The rest of it is postmodern in the most perfunctory, theory-drenched, reader-phobic sense of the term; any salient points about male control dynamics are lost in a cauldron of alphabet soup containing only the letters F-U-C-K-Y-O-U. (Yes, it comes with extra Us.) Maybe it was useful in 1986. Now, it’s unreadable. Ironic, too, that punk literature’s few remaining boosters are all ivory-towered academics. I gave this book two days to make its case. I can’t give it any more.
KEEP OR SELL: Sell.
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HENRY ADAMS, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS (1918)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I read “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in university, and another 495 pages of the same seemed like a good idea in 2006.
THOUGHTS: When you read a milkshake-thick memoir by a man whose direct lineage includes two American presidents, the last thing you expect to find is… a kindred spirit. And yet that’s exactly what happened to me. Adams frames his life story as an ongoing search for education in any form, told in the third person—but all he comes up against is skepticism, doubt, and contradiction. Finally! We all understand, at best, 0.01% of the world; why doesn’t that bother anyone else? Sure, Adams starts to lose me when the book suddenly leaps 20 years ahead—during which he completely skips over his marriage, not to mention his wife’s suicide (a total dick move, any way you slice it)—but at least it’s anchored by “Dynamo,” still one of the best pieces of big-picture religio-historical writing I’ve ever read. Positing the electric generator as faith-powered successor to the Virgin Mary, it may very well contain the key to the 20th century. As I understand it, anyway. But what do I know?
KEEP OR SELL: Keep.