Reading List 2021
Milo, the Cognitive Cat
Even though Milo has gone through some rough patches this last year, including a feline corneal sequestrum, he managed to read a slew of books.
From Lee Child to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Johnny Shaw to James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut to Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger to Octavia E. Butler; he seems to thrive on the diversity of somewhat trashy pulp fiction, somewhat less-trashy pulp fiction, the entertaining, the educational, and the inspirational. That guy. I guess we owe him some more B.F.F. Originals. He meowed me to list some of the highlights below with a paragraph from each. The entire list is now up on my visual art website, too. (Hey Nate, Milo said he’ll be looking at the lists you sent along to check out for 2022!)
Dare I admit it? Dare I confess? America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of super carriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA, a trifecta of letters outdone later only by the quartet of USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many “super” terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfidant but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?
Milo’s first book by this prolific writer—here’s the first paragraph of Telephone:
People, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they look for satisfaction. There is nothing worse, certain painful and deadly diseases notwithstanding, than an unsatisfactory, piss-poor truth, whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept, even embrace, get cozy with. Like thoughts that carry with them a dimension of attendant thoughts, so actions have attendant actions, with unpredicted, unprompted intentions and results, good or bad, and things, things themselves, have attendant things in unforeseen perspectives and dimensions. An unsatisfactory truth? Like Banquo’s ghost, such thoughts sit in the king’s place, literary allusions being all the rage. Such thoughts. It is slavery that inaugurates the path to freedom.
The men hunkered before the fire and extended their hands to its warmth as if the night were cold. Edgewater did not know them but he had seen hundreds like them. He had seen them in beerjoints and cafés on Saturdays and outside locked poolroom doors before daylight, as dispossessed as any tents evicted from their homes. The light flickered about their faces and their hard eyes and there seemed to be an inherent violence to them, arrogance and defiance as much a part of their genetic makeup as the color of eyes and hair. Their eyes were remote and studied and Edgewater wondered idly why all the faces he saw in this vast land seemed to allow for no middle ground between arrogance and servility.
The rise of the individualist resurrected the legitimacy of racism. Western settlers had reinforced racial distinctions rather than abandoning them, and their laws went far beyond the citizenship restrictions based on the 1802 naturalization law. By adopting elaborate laws against racial intermarriage, they advanced the pre-Civil War social categories that had established hierarchical racial lines to prevent the corruption of white blood. And they expanded the list of “races” that must not intermarry with “white” people to include Indians, Chinese, native Hawaiians, and anyone with “negro” blood.
“They don’t clean the bedspreads, Bobby. Seriously, if we had a black light it would look like Jackson Pollock’s drop cloth.”
“This blanket’ll be lucky I don’t give it a disease. Shit’s all bullshit, anyway. Germs aren’t real, man.”
“I don’t even know how to respond to that.” I cracked my beer. “But I assure you that germs are real. Scientists say so.”
“I mean, germs are out there, yeah. They’re things. But they aren’t trying to kill us. They’re being germs, germing around, you know. They’re all over, right? You touch ‘em, breathe ‘em, eat ‘em, all day. We grew up drinking ditch water out of the hose, playing under that crop duster spray–remember that weird, sweet smell?”
“I think that was DDT.”
“Smelled like burnt cabbage-flavored candy. I grew up eating street food in Mexicali. And I’m not talking the good places. I’d eat in the alleys. I can’t digest food unless it has some E. coli in it for flavor. All this nutrition nonsense is horse-shit. There weren’t such thing as antioxidants, electrolytes, or superfoods ten years ago. Now I’m supposed to be afraid to sit on the shitter in park toilets, eat an inorganic apple, and not lie down on a hotel bed. Shit, man, I ain’t the kind of guy that dies of old age. And I’m damn sure that someone else’s dry cum or piss or whatever else is on this blanket ain’t going to kill me.”
“Okay, you’ve convinced me. Lie down on your spermy blanket.” I said.
“You smoke. I could run my tongue across this entire blanket and it wouldn’t do as much bad to my body as one Winston.”
But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan. This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Area, was gilded by novels and adventure stories. John Carter flees the broken Confederacy for Mars. We are not supposed to ask what, precisely, he was running from. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm”––a mantra for the Dreamers if there ever was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer that chokes Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
Here is what I’d like you to know; In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor––it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random mangling, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible––that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
“Look,” Early said, “in case the first possibility is true, let’s not talk about her at all. Let’s say,” he stuck out his bottom lip, “there’s a castle. And a king is in the castle. And he’s an ass, because, well, kings are asses. Takes too much in tribute. The other knights and noblemen hate him. They say, This fella is getting rich off our fields and the tribute we get from the peasants. They scheme and plot and one day they slit his throat. Replace him with a new king. But pretty soon the noblemen say, Well, goddamn, the new king is as shitty as the last greedy son of a bitch. So they whack his head off, too, and put in a new greedy king. Kings killing kings. You know what that’s called?”
Rye shook his head.
“Shakespeare,” Early said. “Now let’s say you’re on the other side of the moat, and you got these peasants watching one rich king bump off another rich king, thinking, Wait, this ain’t changing anything.” He gestured at Gurley. “They gather behind some charming rebel who leads the peasants in revolt, and they behead all the shitty knights and princes and noblemen.”
Rye just shrugged.
“Here is my point–the peasants own the castle now, and they become the greedy sons of bitches. It’s all the same. What I’m saying is maybe the king ain’t the problem, Maybe what it is”–Early took another pull from the flask–“is time to blow up the whole goddamn castle.”
It is the individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion let alone elucidation , of any conundrum - that is, any reality - so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality... whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
The White man's unadmitted - and apparently to him, unspeakable - private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of the suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller's cheques, visits surreptitiously after dark.
‘I suppose the greatest advantage I have had over other people who have wanted to do what I can do is that I really had no education at all, and am free of the illusions and commonplace values that education brings. I don’t speak against education; for most people it is a necessity; but if you’re going to be a genius you should try to either to avoid education entirely, or else work hard to get rid of any you’ve been given. Education is for commonplace people and it fortifies their commonplaceness. Makes them useful, of course, in an ordinary sort of way.
The very fabric that once defined the mountains fragmented and was replaced with outsiders who built second and third homes on the ridge lines and drove the property values so high that what few locals were left couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on their land.
Of course there were the drugs. There was the decade of meth, the transition to pain pills and needles, and that wasn’t a mountain problem so much as an American problem. That was the escapist cure for systemic poverty, the result of putting profit margins ahead of people for two hundred years. And when it all boiled down, that was the root cause of it all.
It wasn’t just a matter of economics. It wasn’t the drugs. It was an abandonment of values. It was trading hard work for convenience. It was marking the nearest Starbucks as a place more important than the front porch.