Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Early 2015 Round-Up: Non-Fiction

These three books have nothing in common except the fact that I've read them all recently. And, perhaps, that I don't have a full post's worth of words to say about any of them.

How to Speak Money

by John Lanchester

Lanchester wrote the excellent I.O.U. in the depths of the financial crisis: he was a novelist working on a book about finance at the time, and his research took on a life of its own and spun off into an independent look at what went wrong and who was responsible. Clearly, he hasn't managed to break away from that world in the few years since. How to Speak Money is primarily a glossary of finance terms for laymen, with a novella-length introduction about how Lanchester fell into this world and how finance people use the words he's about to define for us.

I've been vaguely in the finance world for most of the past decade, in a position not unlike Lanchester's -- looking at that world regularly but not of it. And he's one of the smartest and clearest explainers of that world to the rest of us. He understands not just what's being said, but the buried assumptions in those words, and uses this book to unearth those assumptions and present them clearly. Given what those people did to the world economy, it would be very good if more of us understood what they mean when they talk about their specialty, and if more of us could push back against them the next time their zeal for rent-seeking starts trending towards a global financial catastrophe. So this book should be read as widely as possible.

American Cornball

by Christopher Miller

This great encyclopedic guide -- subtitled "A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny" -- is something I knew I'd want to read the moment I learned it existed, and which I started reading almost as soon as I got a copy for myself. Miller has dug through sixty years or so of cultural detritus, from comic strips to comedy movies to novelty postcards, to examine the things that people in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century thought were funny. Most of those are things we now don't think are all that funny, or funny at all -- so Miller is also building a cultural history of what's acceptable to laugh at, and what kinds of things are funny at different times to different people.

He's a breezy, effortlessly amusing writer with expertise across a broad range of ephemera and junk culture, and particularly strong on early comic strips. (Though I do vaguely remember a few places where I would disagree with him, at least in part.) This is clearly not a book to read straight through -- no encyclopedia is -- but I ran through it quite quickly, over three or four weeks at bedtime -- and enjoyed it thoroughly. If you have any interest in thinking about humor rather than just laughing at things, American Cornball is a great achievement and a milestone in the history of Humor Studies.

The Inner Man: The Life of J. G. Ballard

by John Baxter

We think we know Ballard from his own stories. Not just Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, but all of those Ballardian men over five decades, in the middle of a whirl of charismatic strangers, predatory women, drained swimming pools, low-flying aircraft, feral children, and inexplicable ecological collapses. It's all of a piece, all clearly proceeding from the same small set of obsessions and neuroses, and at least gave us an outline, an absence, into which we could fit the presumed actual man himself.

Baxter, who was a jobbing SF short-story writer in '60s London alongside a young Ballard before wandering off to write mostly biographies of film directors, tries to fill in that absence, to show us the actual "inner man" of Ballard. This was doomed to failure, of course -- if even Ballard couldn't manage to explain himself to the world, how could a lesser writer, or any writer outside of that very hermetic head, hope to do so? But, along the way, Baxter tells the story of Ballard's life cleanly and efficiently, and links his private life to his work at the time in a crisp, believable way that doesn't ever rely on that old biographer's crutch, the "he must have" formulation.

Baxter is smart enough to know that there's nothing Ballard "must have" done or thought; his entire career was spent thinking and writing things that shocked and surprised the world. But he's written a quite good conventional biography of a somewhat unconventional man. He doesn't dig into Ballard's sex life as doggedly as one might hope -- there clearly is meat there, but, if the women involved won't talk about it, there's only supposition and hearsay to go on.

There will someday be a great biography of Ballard; he's too interesting and distinctive a writer not to attract that level of attention eventually. This is not that great biography, but no biography emerging soon after its subjects death is that. Baxter has done an excellent job for this generation, and laid the ground work for some inspired writer, in thirty or fifty years, to deeply enter Ballard's mind and give us a clearer picture.

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