I did not finish one book this past year that was actually published in 2018, but I at least started a couple: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson and Provocations by Camille Paglia — two essay collections that I also gifted and recommended after only reading JBP’s first rule on good-postured lobsters and Paglia’s provocative (ha ha) introduction. Perhaps after I finish these books in 2019, you’ll see them on my “The Ten Best Books I Read in 2019” list. Because that’s how this list works: I rank the best books that I read during the past year, not necessarily those published during that time. (Although, one book leaked into this year. Oops.)
According to the Pew Research Center, the average American reads twelve books annually with the median American reading only four books per year. Maintaining that twelve annual average from age 18 to 80 nets a total 744 books read during adulthood; and I’m generously including the technically adult 18-25 age range, despite the idiotic thinking that still predominates this life-stage, especially for those who forestall adulthood another four to five years by attending college. (This demographic includes me.) Even voracious, precocious readers’ overall book count is frustratingly short relative to the grand scale of great literature. And so for all the desperate, decaying, flesh-bound readers out there, here are a few timeless books that have nothing to do with 2018 but are still worth your limited, dwindling time.
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia (1990)
I started AMERICAN VULGARIA in spring 2017, yet only began reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae in June of 2018. For roughly a year, AMERICAN VULGARIA only existed in its name. Not until I picked up Sexual Personae did I begin to clarify my vision and mission statement for AMERICAN VULGARIA.
Here is a rough template of Sexual Personae‘s worldview: Nature preceded any notion of God, which is “the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms” against the barbarity of nature. To avoid despair, we pretend that nature is benevolent. Art ranges from the Apollonian, a beautifying paradigm that masks nature’s brutality, to the Dionysian, a celebratory submission to nature’s dehumanizing flux and flow. (Think Jordan B. Peterson’s order vs. chaos.) Society is an Apollonian defense against nature. Dionysian sex and eroticism intersect nature and culture. Rousseau created the modern progressive, who pits benign nature against corrupt society. As such, the Rousseau-inspired liberal humanists wrongfully attribute misbehavior (e.g., rape) to social conditioning (e.g., rape culture). The Marquis de Sade countered Rousseau by rightfully identifying the sadomasochism inherent in nature, and thus inherent in human sexuality. “Sex is the point of contact between man and nature,” Paglia says; “where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges.” In observing and ordering the cyclic brutality of nature, art criminally explores the primitive, pagan violence in nature otherwise shunned by society.
Art is full of vulgar expression and experience. Paglia mirrors “foulmouthed” art with her intelligent, vulgar language — e.g., “The Dionysian is no picnic.” Her slang-filled intellectualism does what the high-academic, pretentious, obscurantist professors fail to do: it teaches. Paglia makes high-art as approachable and appealing as pornography, liberating art from the lifeless clutches of neurotic, Foucault-fellating academics.
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray had his poisonous yellow book to lead him astray. Mine is yellow and purple with a green spine.
Favorite Quote: “Freud notes that Medusa turns men to stone because, at first sight, a boy thinks female genitals a wound, from which the penis has been cut. They are indeed a wound, but it is the infant who has been cut away, by violence: the umbilical is the hawser sawed through by a social rescue party. Sexual necessity drives man back to that bloody scene, but he cannot approach it without tremors of apprehension. These he conceals by euphemisms of love and beauty. However, the less well-bred he is — that is, the less socialized — the sharper his sense of the animality of sex and the grosser his language. The foulmouthed roughneck is produced not by society’s sexism but by society’s absence. For nature is the most foulmouthed of us all.”
The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (1951)
A short, pithy book detailing the nature of mass movements, The True Believer by Eric Hoffer sat on my shelf for over a year, radiating vibrant red energy that I finally absorbed in late-2018.
With no particular doctrine or movement in mind, Eric Hoffer offers an almost clinical analysis on mass movements in general, defining a “mass movement” as any interchangeable collection of frustrated individuals yearning for change. The most effective mass movements — be they revolutionary, religious, racial, national, etc. — deprecate the present, glorify the past, and promise a holy, utopic tomorrow. Hoffer’s thesis: “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of actions”; and once a mass movement achieves a functional democracy — i.e., one that prioritizes the individual over identity — the rabid collective dissolves into a stable society of individuals. Mass movements that pursue an obscure, unattainable “holy cause” — be it towards some wholly holy afterlife, a perfectly equal communist society, or a pure Nazi master race — are the most dangerous, as they’re the most delusional.
In post-2016 America, our mass movements predominantly split between the Left’s elitist-endorsed “woke” anti-fascist camp and the Right’s populist-powered “Red-pilled” MAGA faction. Older generations might remember when populism represented an anti-establishment Left-wing agenda while the Right-wing seemingly protected the interests of big business corporate elites. Yet, the Hoffer worldview rightfully observes that the pendulum not only swings from Left to Right, Right to Left, but also from the individual to the collective, and vice versa. As Walter White states in the first season of Breaking Bad, the only constant is change; it’s back-and-forth “solution, dissolution, just over and over and over.
Favorite Quote: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abé (1962)
I began 2018 with Japanese author Kobo Abé, starting with The Face of Another. I also read The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man, the former for its reputation and the latter because Metal Gear. All I enjoyed, yet my favorite of the three: The Woman in the Dunes.
Ostensibly, the story is about Jumpei Niki, an entomologist schoolteacher who loses himself in the dunes in search of an alluring sand beetle. Instead, what he finds is an alluring woman, who sees in Jumpei a new life partner to help her withstand the ever-shrinking sandpit enclosing her tiny shack. Like Abé’s other stories, The Woman in the Dunes unfolds psychologically and scientifically. Although the story borders on fantasy, Abé tells it with logical precision, substituting the usual didactic, fairy-tale amber with microscopic, text-book analyses of insects and sand particles. Attempting to outsmart the dunes, Jumpei mentally graphs his intellectual, educated understanding on the elusive, chaotic sands. When his intellect fails, Jumpei goes brute-force aggressive. This is the masculine mind frantically (and absurdly) asserting itself in the smothering womb-tomb of the dune-woman. It’s a hardcore Freudian nightmare: man finds sex and death in the same hole.
Abduction, seduction, exhibitionary rape — much happens in the sandpit. And, yet, despite (or because of) the violent tension between Jumpei and the woman, the story is compellingly erotic, fleshing out — page-by-page — the complex, dynamic, S&M, pain-pleasure union between man and woman. One moment I hope for Jumpei’s freedom, the next I wish he’d submit to the woman; and other times they seem hopelessly dysfunctional.
But overall: I LIKE IT, LIKE IT.
Favorite Quote: “What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (1974)
One day I was having a nice morning, handling my freelance assignments and enjoying a coffee at Clyde Coffee in Missoula when I spontaneously decided to Google and read the “Columbine shooters’ diaries”. From there I connected the shooters to Charles Manson and the band Nine Inch Nails, who recorded their masterpiece album The Downward Spiral at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Manson’s followers killed Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, and her beautiful friends. My happy morning devolved into a deep, dark thought process (still ongoing) on the back-and-forth influence between art and violence in America. (Remember that Manson articulated his diabolical “helter skelter” plot through the Bible and the Beatles’ White Album.) Soon after reading those diaries, I walked to Shakespeare & Co. down the street to order Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which I finished midway through this month (January 2019).
Since starting Helter Skelter, I’ve become that weird guy who inappropriately introduces Manson into every conversation, even when talking with strangers. My interest in Manson and his Family spark two fears still associated with his name:
Fear #1. That any interest in Manson might extend his corruptive influence on the youth of America from beyond the grave.
Fear #2. That blaming Manson, or Manson-inspired art (e.g., Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails — though NIN’s Trent Reznor denies Manson as an inspiration), for others’ violence might wrongfully justify art censorship.
Reading Helter Skelter at least partially dispels the first fear: the trial psychologists concluded that Manson did not corrupt innocent youth. His followers who killed already had it in them to kill. In writing a firsthand account on the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who demonstrated Manson and the Family’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, reveals — detail by detail — how it’s paradoxically possible that both Manson and his followers were simultaneously guilty: Manson for influencing his followers to murder, his followers for murdering on their own accord.
It’s a puzzling paradox, one that I’d argue remains a problem in post-Columbine America. As a proponent of free speech and expression (and both a Beatles and Nine Inch Nails fan), I often wonder if an escalation in artistic freedom should come with an escalation in artistic responsibility; and how, if at all, artistic responsibility may be implemented without resorting to censorship. These are the questions rooted in my anxiety of influence.
Favorite Quote: “Nothing seemed to faze them. They smiled almost continuously, no matter what was said. For them all the questions had been answered. There was no need to search any more, because they had found the truth. And their truth was ‘Charlie is love.'”
Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)
The audience is willing to suspend disbelief to a point. Even in fantasy and science fiction, the fantastical must be buoyed by some center of reality. For Philip K. Dick, reality isn’t real — and if it were, how would you know? — and so PKD renders belief as something almost entirely irrelevant, at least to his novel Ubik. In absence of belief, the characters — and the audience — are left with faith, namely faith in the omnipresent, omnipotent Ubik, which takes the form of seemingly trivial, commercialized products; e.g., Ubik spray cans, Ubik coffee, Ubik shaving razors — all of which are only safe “when taken as directed.” With so many reality-bending sci-fi elements at play, it’s impossible to discern red-herrings from any conclusive idea of what’s going on. Following a deathly accident on the moon, a crew of anti-psi agents wake up in a bizarro, time-slipping reality in which the crew members progressively shrivel and die unless they consume any varying form of Ubik. Sheer consciousness struggles for survival in Ubik’s structure-decaying world.
“Ontology, simulacra and hyperreality” — admittedly, the untethered “nothing is real” subject matter of this novel reeks of dead-end postmodern meaninglessness, which is why, upon first finishing the book, I dismissively tossed it aside, completely unwilling to waste any time disentangling PKD’s labrynth of nothing. And, yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until, soon enough, the wallpaper-peeling world of Ubik projected onto my own — for better or worse. Much of Ubik resonates with our heavily commercialized unreality. I see in the book characters’ absurd faith in Ubik’s miraculous anti-aging properties our same subliminal search for God in store-lit barcodes and moisturizing creams. Similar to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or DeLillo’s White Noise, PKD’s Ubik sympathizes with the postwar consumer’s search for meaning in an atomically fragmented, mass-mediated world without: A) feigning an air of unearned superiority or mockery, or B) taking itself too seriously.
Counter to the deeply cynical postwar deconstructionist worldview that treated all of human experience as a pathetic struggle for meaningless fragments of language, like children fighting over toy alphabet blocks, the search for Ubik is only a power-grab on the surface. Below the surface, we see a deeper search for God, for an eternal truth greater than the facts laid bare before us. We see our species’ blind faith in believing that the atom can be unsplit, that the Big Bang can be undone, that Humpty-Dumpty can be made whole again — that we’re all not already dead.
Favorite Quote: “Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.”
Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg (2008)
Memoir, creative non-fiction — Her Last Death centers on the presumably true story of Susanna Sonnenberg’s traumatic relationship with her promiscuous, self-absorbed, coke-addicted mother. Introducing Susanna to sex and drugs at a young age, Susanna’s mother plays the “cool mom” to a childhood-destroying extreme. And I call the story “presumably true” due to the book’s Author’s Note, which admits:
In the interests of the narrative, I have conflated or changed some events and dialogue, and created occasional composites.
Even without the Author’s Note, the perfectly paced dialogue and narrative progression reveal Susanna’s authorial manipulation. Fact-based reality does not follow neatly successive plot lines, nor does memory accurately recall grade school conversations word-for-word. Yet, accurate or not, Susanna owns her story with her exceptional writing. Likewise, Susanna also owns her misdeeds without shifting blame, despite the obvious parallels between adult Susanna and her mother. Sex, drugs, abortions — Her Last Death enters dicey territories from Lolitaesque hebephilia to adulterous hanky-panky to rampant, whorish nihilism, much of which is sure to offend readers’ sensibilities. In closely detailing her sexual history, she’s neither self-pitying nor apologetic; nor does she sensationalize scenes for added shock value. Her writing allows the story to shock organically.
Favorite Quote: “They inserted me into the sex scene they’d thought up and, I suddenly understood, played before. They didn’t look for me, just reached, their hands laced together, trying to stroke some part of me. I was exhausted, and I waited on the bit of bed that was left until they’d finished.”
The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus (~458 BC)
After finishing “Pagan Beauty”, the fourth chapter of Sexual Personae, I decided I’d read every great work covered by Paglia in between every chapter of her great book. I started with Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, ordered Euripides’ Medea and Bacchus, as well as Sophocles’ Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Electra, then abandoned this plan after finishing the sixth chapter on Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. At some point I figured it’d be nice to actually finish Paglia’s goddamn book before 2030, so I set Euripides, Spencer, Shakespeare, Sade, Goethe, etc. aside for later. Maybe you’ll see them on my best of 2019 list, maybe.
The Oresteia splits into three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — respectively, here are three very brief synopses on the trilogy:
- Queen Clytemnestra revenge-kills King Agamemnon.
- Son Orestes revenge-kills mother Clytemnestra.
- Defendant Orestes stands on trial for matricide.
Does Orestes’ vengeance for his father, the king, exonerate the murder of his mother, the queen? Matriarch or patriarch — which parent deserves supreme legal protection in the eyes of the first conceptual jury in Western history? To quell the play’s revenge cycle between man and woman, Aeschylus optimistically supplants eye-for-an-eye justice with court-ordered forgiveness, redirecting primal, furious vengeance towards civilized, constructive vigilance; which, I hear, Euripides violently mocks in his heretically skeptical plays.
Favorite Quote: “As virtue’s door unsealed / Is never sealed again, / So, though all streams should yield / Their purity to swell one cleansing flood, / Their force must fail, their power to purge be vain / For hands that bear the stain / Of unrequited blood.”
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski (1993)
The Last Wish is both highly derivative and sexually charged, as Geralt, the witcher hero of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short story collection, plows through familiar fairytale scenarios (à la Shrek) and lusty female humans, elves, druids, etc. across the Northern Kingdoms (à la The Game of Thrones). However, The Last Wish escapes awful, derivative, amateur nerd-book territory with Geralt’s surprisingly nuanced, complex, fair-minded psychology.
Half-human, half-mutant, Geralt straddles the line between human and monster as a monster-slaying witcher. He works as a sort of mercenary janitor, cleaning the monstrous refuse that accumulates as a byproduct of the town-citizens’ sins. Geralt’s intensely secular, pagan worldview ironically contrasts with his Christ-like role as persecuted savior: the towns protected by Geralt ostracize their savior for his dirty hands, even though the dirt originally spewed from their own filthy, immoral asses. (E.g., in “The Lesser Evil” short story, Geralt fulfills a contract to an unethical sorcerer by killing a female assassin who previously escaped the sorcerer’s lab to free herself from his excruciating experiments, and upon Geralt’s bloody fulfillment of the sorcerer’s contract the witcher earns the infamous moniker “Butcher of Blaviken” while the townspeople pelt rocks at him.) The Witcher video game series explores this “hero we need, not want” theme further in the games’ morally ambiguous plot-lines, a massive improvement over the brain-dead BioWare “press this button to be good guy” morality system.
Favorite Quote: “People… like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)
The late-60’s hippie counterculture crash-landed with the Manson murders in 1969, yet Joan Didion observed the hippie’s decadent downward spiral as early as 1967 at the heart of the movement: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” — referencing the final lines from W.B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming”, Joan Didion’s titular essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (from her essay collection by the same name) remains one of my favorite works of long-form journalism. Intimate, subjective reporting — Didion substitutes traditional fact-based journalism with a more literary truth-telling style, resorting to a loose, fragmented essay format to reflect the atomized chaos of SF’s hippie-mania.
In each essay, it’s her probing, piercing eyes that stand out in her writing; the same eyes captured in the pictures above. Didion and her words never blink, even when they look inward. In her essay “On Self-Respect” Didion says, “To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.” As demonstrated by Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir, Didion’s vision of self-respect is not self-love but self-ownership, even and especially for one’s mess-ups. Take notes, journalists.
Favorite Quote: “Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.”
The Hour of the Star or Adaptation of a Novella or Existential Crisis or An Exercise in Abjection or The Real or The Essence or Something Else or The Past Three Years or The Present Future or Stream-of-Consciousness Brain Vomit or Intellectual Inquiry or Creative Outpouring or Who Am I? by Clarice Lispector (1977)
I’ll end on a book I didn’t actually read in 2018, at least from start to finish. I actually read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star on the tail-end of 2017; yet, I’ve since reread passages from this short metafictional novel so many times that I may as well have read it another four or five times in 2018. I love this book to the point of envy. It’s the book I wish I had written.
I’ll do my best to explain how The Hour of the Star works (because it doesn’t “work” like an ordinary book). The book’s main character, Macabea, is a poor, pathetic, talent-less, naive girl with shriveled ovaries. She’s also presented as the fictional invention of the book’s narrator, an affluent male writer who tells Macabea’s story blindly — that is to say: Macabea’s creator writes her story without consciously knowing her story beforehand. We follow Macabea alongside the narrator, who intersperses the narrative with his personal commentary. Through the creative writing process, the narrator transforms a primordial idea — or nameless inspiration — into a breathing girl with a name and a history, unearthing Macabea by lending her a linguistic reality. Or rather: unreality — these words are fiction, after all. In fact, all words, no matter how truthful, are fiction.
By exposing the metafictional narrative framework of Macabea’s story, Lispector subliminally adds herself to the metafiction: the author creates the narrator who creates the main character. Nothing is real; yet Lispector packs so much beauty and meaning and truth into her fiction, aggressively confronting the reader with the mystical experience inherent in art.
One of Lispector’s alternative titles for The Hour of the Star asks, “Who am I?” — and just as art exists chiefly for its own sake, requiring no additional justification, it’s sufficient for the creator to answer: “I am.”
Favorite Quote: “First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask herself ‘Who am I?’, she would fall flat on her face. For the question ‘Who am I?’ creates a need. And how does one satisfy that need? To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.”