10 Books, #7

  1. Taoism: The Parting of the Way, Holmes Welch
    The best introduction to Taoism I’ve found. The author covers the history of Taoism as different streams of philosophy, intertwined schools of practice, philosophy bound by political context, and series of important figures, both semi-legendary and real. Welch does an excellent service of expounding on the philosophy itself, never shying away from the ambiguities, contradictions, and abstractions that other writers seem to hide behind. Taoism is, in its essence, a kind of esoterica, offering even its adherents only a fleeting understanding. That is why it is refreshing to read and think about Taoism from these various angles, including frontally, guided by an unpretentious voice that addresses the whole of the philosophy, including its ineffable incomprehensibilities.

  2. Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, Tim Lehman
    I found this slim volume on the new books shelf at the Sequoya Branch of our terrific Madison Public Library. Even with tons of reading in progress and awaiting, I just could not resist borrowing and reading it. In contrast to the one excellent book I’d read about the Little Big Horn (recommended below), Lehman fills in the political and historical context of Custer’s demise. The author covers both the genesis and scope of the Indian Wars, as well as the curious careers of the surviving principals after the great Dakota victory. He breaks down the actual battle in a page-turning account that makes sense of how the battlefield events actually unfolded for military dummies like me. Or fools like Custer.

  3. Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell
    I read this book about when it came out, back in the mid-1980s. It was the first substantial historical narrative set in the American West that I’d read. I revisited the book after reading the Lehman book. Compared to that one, Connell’s book is more focused on the personalities: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Reno, Benteen, Gall, and others. And of course, Custer himself. The outsized, colorful cast makes for compelling reading, especially when the author is an accomplished storyteller who knows how to build characters.

  4. The Retreat of the Elephants, Mark Elvin
    I traveled with a group of artists to the Lijiang Studio in paradisical Yunnan province in southwestern China in May and early June of 2011. Fittingly, we found this magisterial environmental history of China on their shelf. It is a thick volume—understandable considering the multiple millenia duration covered. Digesting the book would be daunting in any case, but the author’s smart organizational strategy helps. The book is divided into three parts, each taking a different methodological/content foci: Patterns, Particularities, and Perceptions. In China I very often have the strong feeling that the land itself is worn out, simply lived on by humans for too long, and too intensively. I get this feeling in the countryside of Shandong, nevermind considering the paved destruction of the urban transformation. This book puts the present trends into the context of a much longer and deeper process, an important view that the upheavels of our time tend to obscure.

  5. Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory, Peter Hessler
    I have a couple of expat friends who drive cars in China, but most of the ones I know will never consider it. It is too frightening, too stressful. The roads are getting more insane with each passing month, as an overcrowded nation of novice drivers take to the wheel. The first part of this book is about the adventure of driving in China itself, and that is the best section; it is great entertainment, and will ring true to anyone who has spent time in motor vehicles on Chinese roads. The second part is about the author’s rural retreat, which still includes some driving stories. The third part is about the author’s time getting to know a start-up factory in Zhejiang province, in which stories about driving are barely present. That part is more of a standard report on the irregularities, crazy risks, and breakneck pacing of Chinese industrial activity these days. Interesting to those who haven not heard such stories before, but not about driving.

  6. 1936, the spanish revolution, The Ex
    This beautiful little book—about five inches square, hardcover, with two 80mm CDs—contains a wealth of archival photos from the Spanish Revolution, documenting many aspects of social, defense, and economic organization under the anarchist principles of the revolution. The breaking down of the prisons! The voluntary collectivization of the barbers, farmers, food factories, gunsmiths, and public transport! The armouring of seized automobiles for use on the front! Assembling the “new schools,” at last free of nuns and priests as teachers! What the people of Catalonia created in actuality was a different world, and that can never be denied. Sadly, the photo narrative ends with the bloody, violent, and hateful crushing of the revolution by the fascists and the return of the old order. But the spirit could never be killed.

  7. Bold Script Alphabets: 100 Complete Fonts, selected by Dan X. Solo
    This book is one of many compilations of display typefaces Mister Solo did for Dover. I use it for designing stencils or when I need to hand letter some text for a drawing. Solo himself is an intriguing figure. He reportedly made some interesting innovations to the field of type design using film, in between the eras of handsetting and full digital preproduction, building some device he called an “altergraph.” True to the American tradition of typenuts, he is supposedly a rather private and iconoclastic guy, preferring to do his own thing on his own time, sharing his creations through print and published work and allowing very little in the way of personal contact.

  8. After The Revolution: Economic Reconstruction in Spain Today, D.A. de Santillan
    Written in 1936, before the counter-revolution, in this half-polemic and half-economic program the author lays out the challenges and possible structural solutions for a revolutionary economy in Spain, organized along anarchist principles of cooperation and shared labor. The author addresses nearly all sectors of the economy, from textiles to fishing to publishing, at all times keeping mindful of the anticapitalist and anti-statist framework. The particularities of the Spanish context, in terms of resources, population, are always kept in the picture, bringing the reality and the imagined society closer together. De Santillan mostly defers to the workers’ council model, lauds the principle of living earned equally through labor, and bemoans the “idle rich” throughout. That is a term worth resurrecting, no?

  9. We Are Wisconsin, edited by Erica Sagrans
    This title is worth it for the tweets alone. Selected tweets from the first three weeks or so of the Wisconsin Uprising from February-March of 2011 are here reprinted in clusters as an organizing device for the book. They take the reader back to the energy, spirit, emotion, and unpredictability of those days, as no account written but in the moment can. Everybody talks about social media as near real time organizing tools, but here we have them as archive and memory. For that, I now see that tweets and social media posts may be just as important in their afterlives. The book’s longer contributions (still short; most are not much more than a thousand words) are excellent, too.

  10. Modern Abstract Flower Arrangements, Emma Hodkinson Cyphers
    In this book dated 1964 from the home and garden oriented Hearthside Press, the author brings the principles of geometric abstraction to the art of flower arrangement. The aesthetic language achieved is striking. Working in a 3-D medium, the book covers spatial composition, lighting, background, and base. Further, the author breaks down the basic ideas and sources of modernist abstraction in art for the non-art trained homemaker. On this level, the book is interesting as a mid-century document of how highbrow concepts were mediated and delivered to the popular level of housewives, gardeners, and hobbyists through authors of how-to books. Any question about the gendered character of the activity and thus the assumed readership of the book is answered by the dozens of images of examplary arrangements. Every one of them is credited to a woman.


- Dan S. Wang