Corduroy Books

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Tag: Perfecting Sound Forever

Three New Ones

by Weston Cutter

(before anything else: this came up this wknd at the Rumpus. Anyway)

Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley

I feel terrible for now having gone far too long without shouting about this book. I’ve yapped before about two other books which are up the same alley as this: there’s Something in the Air by Marc Fisher, which is a history of radio, and there’s Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner, which is a history of recorded music. I’m not sure if there’s any obvious or overt way these three books overlap—they’re microhistories, sure, and written by guys, but past that I’m not sure. But here’s the deal: Exploding the Phone is sas good a book of nonfiction you’ll read this year, and you need to read the thing as soon as you possibly can. In the most basic way, it’s a history of phone phreaking (if you know what a blue box is, or know anything about Cap’n Crunch, you needed this book yesterday). In a far more fleshed-out and interesting way, it’s a book about the invention of a system (the phone system, specifically) and the people who came in after the system was made and were interested in the system—in understanding it more fully, finding its strengths and weaknesses, etc.

Phone phreaking was the precursor to computer hacking, in its way: when phone systems ran on analog carrier systems, the system ran on sounds, on actual tones, and some people were keenly, deeply intruiged by the fact that there were specific combinations of tones that allowed their users to make free long-distance telephone calls—which, certainly, was a huge deal (I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a time of $.25/minute long-distance charges, and the height of phreaking was earlier, when prices were even crazier). And sure, of course: objectively phone phreakers were breaking the law, and were stealing from Ma Bell. But the thing that’s most engaging and wonderful about Lapsley’s book (which, let’s note, features a foreward from Woz of Apple, a phreaker himself with his pal SJobs) is how it highlights the sort of exploratory pleasure that actuall drove phone phreaking: most of the young men who actually were interested in it and who got involved were interested in phreaking more as an untellectual pursuit, interested in the challenge of the thing.

If you’re lucky, you have friends like that—friends who are enamored of systems and want to know more about it. One of my close friends—the first person I recommended this book to—works IT, and he *loved* this book—because, ultimately, whatever poking around he’s done online, perfectly legal or otherwise, has been animated by insatiable curiousity. It’s easy to make scary books and movies about black hat hackers who rob folks blind, and it’s easy to dismiss all those acts as crimes when we only consider them in such contexts; the panties get harder to bunch when we all realize that some folks who are testing the bounds of security are driven by curiousity, by the same engineer’s what-if that drove, well, folks like Steve Jobs. Who knows. Maybe that’s not the case, and maybe Exploding the Phone is just a real sweet almost halcyon book about the good old days before digital and everything else, when technological crimes were almost aw-shucksishly quaint. I’d like however to posit though that the book’s a gigantic grinning what if, a thick, riveting read that should, if you’re doing it right, reconfigure whatever certainties you think you’ve got about those folks benignly fascinated by systems. This is as close to a necessary book as I can imagine this year.

The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach

I teach poetry every semester, and one of the hardest things to do, semester-in, semester-out, is walking through a poem’s moves. I don’t know the terms everybody else uses for this act, but all it means is to go very very slowly through a poem trying to note all it’s doing (with language, image, meaning, etc). The reason it’s so hard to do a walk-through with a class is both 1) sure, poetry’s sort of hard, but more significantly 2) most folks have never ever come across a decent walk-through of a poem before. Most of us have not spent all that much time or energy keeping our ear very close to a poem, for pages and pages of thinking and consideration. What’s hard about that work, of course, is simply this: attention. In fact, almost *anything* is easier than trying to sit quietly and think/work/walk through a poem.

All of which is preamble to say: James Longenbach’s The Virtues of Poetry is glorious and beautiful and is the smartest book I know of which tries to apply itself to walking through some poems. Here’s how good Longenbach is: I don’t like Ashbery. Don’t get his work, don’t care for it, have read lots of it. Longenbach’s chapters on the man are the first things I’ve read that’ve made understanding Ashbery even seem like something worth attempting. More than that: Longenbach, throughout The Virtues of Poetry, helps slot individual poems in a larger context of the development of poetry, a gift to the reader almost inestimably large. It’s a colossal book—get this now. For real. Also, this review at the Sycamore Review is far better than this one I just did.

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

This came out too long ago now (January)—surely you’ve made up your mind. Maybe you haven’t. If you haven’t: get and read this fucking book. Please note that this is the most balanced and level-headed and generous assessment of a consistently controversial *thing* I could imagine: read the book as balm for yr own curiousity about Scientology, fine, but also read it to be amazed by the breadth of Lawrence Wright’s soul, basically, and how he can (I think) present a monumentally human and humane picture of an organization lots of us don’t know all that much about. It’s a stunner. But, again: you should’ve gotten it in January.

Missed in 09 No 1 + 2

by Weston Cutter

Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner.

This book wasn’t so much missed as almost sort of kept hidden + clutched. Do you remember how you felt about Marc Fisher’s incredible Something in the Air? That feeling one gets about books one enjoys more than is probably entirely healthy (for instance, see this recent NYTimes article)? This was how I ended up feeling about Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, which I got in like June of last year and here it is, February, and I’m only now letting the cat out of the bag (and I’m not the only one: check out the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award)(Also: big ups to Graywolf, and to their Corduroy-loved authors [Eula Biss, D. A. Powell, Stephen Burt] who got nods).

Here’s a potential theory: the big nonfiction doorstopping jobbies that are best and most fun to read are those whcih delicately and awesome balance the system being examined along with the personal stories that’ve attented to that system. So, in Fisher’s Something in the Air, it’s just as important that we understand how radio worked and spread as it is that we know what classic movie Jean Shepard wrote; or, in Finkel’s ever-astonishing The Good Soldiers, we’re given an equally clear view and glimpse of the steps and manuevers that keeps the soldiers in Iraq as we’re given of the soldiers themselves.

And so in a book like Perfecting Sound Forever, it’s equally critical that the reader understands the development of, say, the current sound of radio (maxed-out sound, insanely loud) as it is that we hear about, say, Edison and his opinions about cylinders vs. records. And we do get those stories, and a massive handful of other ones. We’re treated to the perhaps quackish guy who believes that digital music actually physically impairs and sickens its listeners (there’s a 99% chance you’re listening to digital music now, if you’re listening to musc), and to the dudes who ran the boards at the mastering studios when albums were still being made as coherent and cohesive things (think 1970’s-1980’s), and to an audiophile whose love of perfect fidelity has no dollar-amount limit.

There’s that word: fidelity, a word that’s been bastardized and manipulated for ages by the audio industry but which, in fact, just means “faithful to the original.” The other word that’s worth thinking lots and hard about re: audio? Analog. As much as this book exactly follows its subtitle (An Aural History of Recorded Music), Milner, with as light a touch as the real masters of this sort of thing (think McPhee), builds the story of recorded music’s history in a way that maximally allows and reveals the philosophical underpinnings which animate the machinery. That bit before, about Edison and cylinders vs. records? That was about his philosophy of which way recorded sound should go. That dude who’s pissed about digital music? Same thing.

That’s what’s easy to forget and what Milner does such a good job of making everyone remember: it’s not just by chance or automatic that we’re listening to mp3s, or before that CDs, or before that tapes, or before that records (the book to read about that sort of understanding and awareness is also Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget). The stuff we use, the stuff around us, ends up there by someone’s choice and hard work and (usually) unbelievably bull-headed stubbornness.

I know of no other book in which someone can learn so much so quickly and easily about such an interesting topic. I’m not kidding: this is not just one of last year’s best books, but one of the best books for this whole time period.

Unrest by Joanna Rawson

Oh Lord, what a book. Let me first let my colors be fully seen: I dig the hell out of lots of contemporary poetry, and the poet I care most about, or at least whose work I find most interesting and challenging and functionally useful and cool, is Jorie Graham (esp. her Never, which I’m hoping will, as time passes, be recognized as the masterwork it is). Why Graham? At least a few reasons. First, her lines are longer and more strangely-muscled than those of just about any other practicing poet. Don’t get me wrong: I dig the hell out of Zapruder and OKDavid and Jennifer Boyden and Hicok and etc., but by and large those folks aren’t writing serpentine lines that stretch and break and selectively cancel in quiet ways. Also: Graham’s the poet I know of who is most directly challenging/questioning ideas and notions of the author/reader split, and who is sometimes challenging those ideas and notions in terms of god and humans (which relationship, we all know, isn’t wildly different from an author/reader relationship). Anyway, there’s plenty more to say about that, but this isn’t about Graham.

What this is about is Joanna Rawson, whose Unrest is the book of poems I read last which, honestly, probably stuck with me more than any other. And I mean “stuck with” pretty literally: there are bees in this book, specifically a moment in which a whole swarm of bees swarms a common public item (I’m not gonna rob the joy—read the book), and, since August, every time I’ve seen that common public item, I’ve thought of bees. I’m not kidding.

But it’s more than that she’s written a book that sticks: like CD Wright, Joanna Rawson’s writing poems that seem out to shake the reader, out to at least force the reader to acknowledge that, yes, there’s a war going on, and that we presently live in a world in which one person’s ease is dependent on (at least) one other person’s suffering. In the stunningly gorgeous boot-kick of a poem “Kill-Box,” the narrator balances descriptions of her garden with the story of immigrants dying in a box car. For 10 pages you’re rapt, and let me here say, if Rawson ever trawls the web for comments: you’re a master, and this poem will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best poems from this time period.

What’s delicate and incredibly hard about what balancing social injustice issues with art is that, well…think of soy burgers. You want two things—the structure/shape/norms of one thing but with the benefit of another. How often do soy burgers taste good? Exactly. That’s about how often social justice poems work out. Which makes Rawson’s achievement all the more impressive: page after page she does this, lays down achingly beautiful art which has, at its heart, a dead-serious and steely-eyed consciousness.

It’s an incredible book, and, thankfully for all of us, books don’t expire. It came out in September 2009; if you get it today, you’re not even half a year late. Get to work.


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