The Brainsturbator 2011 Reading List
“We find our friends in dead libraries.” - Rohit Gupta
2011 was actually a rough year for me and the printed word. Most of the books I picked up were hardcover editions that made loud, satisfying sounds when I pitched them against the fucking wall. Needless to say, I had a lot of other stuff going on at the time and none of it matters today.
I did, however, manage to recover something absurdly appropriate as an opening ritual for Brainsturbator’s 2012 season. I found a real deal lost reading list that I laid out on January 17th, 2011 and immediately forgot about. I found it an a notebook I brought back to Vermont this summer and I have been ordering books from it ever since. It turned out to be an excellent roadmap and it feels like I’m catching up on a year that never was.
Spies for Hire - Timothy Shorrock.
This is the best book I’ve read in 2012 so far. May we all write good enough to transcend our own opinions, right? Shorrock manages to do that here. I especially appreciate the fact he’s not afraid to let details slow down and tangle up the narrative. I’m not being facetious: I appreciate anyone willing to err on the side of their reader’s intelligence and interest. So while Shorrock plays the outraged outsider throughout this book, the amount of operational details he manages to piece together from the inadvertently public domain marketing material that major defense & intelligence contractors distribute at trade shows and online amounts to a counter-intelligence detective story. The picture that emerges is surprising at every turn.
Despite all the footnotes, though, Spies of Hire is ultimately incomplete, just the visible surface of a covert empire. It’s a page-turner and it covers a ton of ground, but it’s my first pick because of how much it leaves you to think about. Recent updates: The Ruling Class of US Intelligence is an eye-opener. If you dig that, order this book. I’m currently on my second slow read—taking notes on lunch break to productively avoid bonding with my co-workers. My hardcover is caked in coffee and minestrone and I will pass it on soon.
War is a Force that Gives us Meaning - Chris Hedges.
Chronologically, this was the first book on the list I read and it hit me hard. It’s short but I spent about two weeks digesting it chapter by chapter and spending (way too much) time thinking about how much experience Hedge was trying to communicate, here. I’ll be honest with you: no. I won’t even pretend I really understand what Hedges was trying to get across, but I’m still thinking about it months later and there were other side effects, too. It puts his recent rant about the Black Bloc in a very different perspective. The writing is stripped down and superb, it reminded me of Jerzy Kosinski at many points. He confines lyrical insight to terse, concise wire reporting. Total economy. This is not something I’d put on a list of best anything because it’s got nothing to do with good. This book is necessary. Definitely read this. Chew it over.
The Cult of Information - Theodore Roszak.
This had nothing to do with my lost list. I found The Cult of Information in a basement book sale I recently wandered into. This being Vermont, they were selling hardcovers for a whopping ten cents so I wound up emptying out my backpack of spare clothing and vaguely vegan leftovers to accommodate about two dozen books. You know, priorities.
This was the best of the batch, and way ahead of it’s curve. Recent critics of techno-progress like Evgeny Morozov and Nick Carr were scooped by Roszak, word for word and far further besides, back in 1986. He recognized that “computer literacy” was horseshit, that Silicon Valley’s charitable habit of donating computers to schools was intended to acclimate future consumers, that online communication would enable and accelerate state and corporate surveillance, and most of all, that “tech jobs” was empty hype and the digital, globalized future was a non-stop race to the bottom the American workforce could not win in any sense. That’s the first two chapters. I’ve been re-reading off and on ever since I finished it, and of course this is far from perfect stuff. He is ultimately a grumpy old guy, but it’s great writing and time has only strengthened Roszak’s case.
The Big Test - Nicholas Lehman.
This wasn’t as broad or deep as I hoped it would be, but Lehman is such a dedicated writer I still enjoyed this. The subject of American schooling and standardized testing has been an abiding weirdo interest of mine, and what this meaty book does is fully illustrate one single lineage in the quasi-Eugenic movement to engineer a meritocracy to rule the world...or at least, you know, get into Harvard. It is a careful and honest accounting of the lives and legacies of very odd & remarkable men. As both psychology and history, this was a real contribution to my education and I’m grateful that I gave it a chance.
I also sat down and read “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by the great teacher John Taylor Gatto, and I think these books complement each other perfectly. Lehman is far more sympathetic in his treatment of the architects of American education, and Gatto paints a bigger picture with darker details. Having read all of Gatto’s work, I found “Weapons of Mass Instruction” to be his most refined presentation.
Into the Buzzsaw, Kristina Borjesson.
Wow. I put off buying this for years, on the hipster rationale that I was already so jaded and, like, informed that I didn’t have to even read it. Isn’t all this shit on the Internet? Answer: Hell no, no it is not. This is a selection of essays by journalists, editors and producers who tried to cover stories that involved national security interests and marched “into the buzzsaw” of disinformation.
Most of the accounts here are first-person narratives of professional journalists who got their lives changed by pursuing the wrong story. There are also several outstanding historical chapters, and strangely optimistic manifesto from the strangely named Carl Idsvoog. Overall, by far one of the best books on the subject of American media control. Remember the formula: deny, distract, demean, deceive, and divide. If you’re interested in more operational details, check out the Psychological Operations Reading List. There are many similar recommendations there.
The Sensations of Tone—Hermann Helmholtz
What a beautiful and strange book! This was on backorder for so long I completely forgot having even known about it, so when it arrived I puzzled over it like a chimp fumbles with alien technology. It stands as an artifact from simpler and more certain times, and certainly, much has been improved in terms of equations and conceptual clarity since this was published back in, you know, 1877. Helmholtz was obsessively thorough and the result is a music theory textbook written by a physicist fixated on psychoacoustics, and grounding the pure tonal theory in actual human hearing and perception. Truly one of a kind, and so comprehensive I’ll be reading it for years.
Also: Wombat Radio, an ongoing guitar-centric, piano-fetish, Afro-everything, just plain good music project. Dig it.
Factories of Death - Sheldon H. Harris.
Exactly as cheerful, inspiring and heroic as it sounds. My decision to finally order this morbid classic was undertaken very late at night, somewhat under the influence of Victory’s perfect Imperial Stout, the Storm King. It is a thick, heavy brew that tastes insanely rich and delicious, and generally results in better decisions than Factories of Death.
Still, I read compulsively so I had to devote a few days to actually digesting this, for the same reason Mallory had beef with Everest. While it could be merely lurid or outraged or clinical, Harris is a surprisingly excellent writer, eloquent in a distinctly East Coast academia way. It’s just over 200 pages, rigorously documented, and offers a dark window into the world of compartmentalized paranoia. Josef Mengele became a household name, Ishii Shiro became a classified secret. Obviously the experiments described here are basically the real world basis for all contemporary atrocity horror movies, but I’m glad I read it because the scope of this book is considerably broader than the gruesome details. The ultimate implications about the origins of US covert biological warfare fit a consistent pattern, from United States vs. Reynolds to the Glomar Response. Q: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
I am primarily interested in logistics, even when it’s grim material like this, and Harris is a meticulous student of both bureaucracy and coverups. If that sounds boring to you, by all means, skip this. You can get caught up on this subject like so: Unit 731 ==> Shiro Ishii ==> Fort Detrick ==> Building 470 ==> LOL WHOOPS ==> OH NOES DON’T LOOK ==> DID IT AGAIN YO.
Also, don’t watch Men Behind the Sun—nobody should ever make that mistake. I will do ads on TV for the rest of my life if it keeps even one person from accidentally watching that shit. Don’t watch it.
- 2012 Reading List: Year of the Jellyfish
- The Brainsturbator 2011 Reading List
- The 2010 Brainsturbator Reading List
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