Robert Adams – Why People Photograph

Robert Adams - Why People PhotographRobert Adams – Why People Photograph (mp3)

Blimey this is good. Sparkling critical writing – lent to me by my friend Dualtagh Herr. And wrestling throughout with the big question for critics: does writing about art diminish it? The book’s assembled from essays and reviews published all over the place and it makes such beautiful use of the photographs themselves. Adams reminds me why I became a photographer (I am, still, at least nominally a photographer – and I do have a degree in the subject FFS). Buy Why People Photograph from Amazon.

John Szarkowski – The Idea of Louis Sullivan

John Szarkowski - The Idea of Louis SullivanJohn Szarkowski – The Idea of Louis Sullivan (mp3)

Slash Reading’s first coffee table book. And what a book. In 1954, John Szarkoswski won a Guggenheim award. He was a thirty-ish photographer and art historian who went on to become the most important man in photography and essentially define the canon of art photography as curator of MOMA‘s photography collection. In later life he was grand and kind of terrifying and become a hate figure for the generation of conceptualists and radicals and punks he refused to exhibit.

Anyway, back then, he used the Guggenheim money to create this wonderful monograph on Louis Sullivan, the architect who shaped the early highrise skyline of Chicago and essentially invented the steel-framed skyscraper. He was an equally scary individual and a man of of strong opinions who inspired generations of architects (Frank Lloyd-Wright was a pupil). It’s a gorgeous book, principally because of Szarkowski’s fastidiously-composed large-format photographs, reproduced in this edition as duotones.

Szarkowski writes impeccably but for this entry I’ve read a couple of incendiary paragraphs from Sullivan’s own ‘Kindergarten Chats’, quoted in the book.

You can still buy this 2000 hardback edition of The Idea of Louis Sullivan on Amazon and it’s pretty cheap too – a lot less than I paid for it back then (there’s the recent history of the book trade in a nutshell for you). One seller on Amazon also has a copy of the original 1956 edition which must be a thing of beauty in itself.

Roland Barthes – Empire of Signs: the stationery store

Roland Barthes - Empire of SignsRoland Barthes – Empire of Signs (mp3)

This is beautiful, enduring stuff. Unlike, I feel obliged to assert, most of the other structuralists and post-structuralists whose work I soaked up as an eager photography student in the eighties (my fellow students will laugh at my use of the word ‘eager’. Let them). Barthes was a kind of poet and the writings collected for Empire of Signs are dazzling. Also a kind of model for the generations of less poetic, wise-guy anthropo-journalists that have followed (visit city, draw ambitious conclusions from observations of what’s on the telly in the hotel, write an article for a Sunday supplement). And there’s a bit about felt-tip pens.

There are some nice second-hand copies of this edition of Empire of Signs on Amazon.

Karlheinz Stockhausen – Towards a Cosmic Music

Towards a Cosmic Music - Karlheinz StockhausenTowards a Cosmic Music – Karlheinz Stockhausen (mp3)

Twentieth Century music’s grandest fruitcake, Stockhausen was a fascinating figure: miles out of the musical mainstream but not a member of the avant-garde elite either.

He acquired a cult of adoring disciples (plenty of apostates too) apparently by strength of personality alone. He’s my favourite kind of creative person – an almost perfect maverick who required nobody’s approval. His performances were often quasi-religious occasions, often very long, usually hugely inaccessible, sometimes scored for eccentric instruments (including a quartet of helicopters). He influenced the generation of European electronic musicians that emerged in the 1970s and his influence doesn’t seem to be fading, even after his death.

This book collects writings from unorthodox sources and contains his responses to surveys, magazine interviews, speeches and letters. It’s thrilling stuff but it’s out of print and the secondhand editions on Amazon start at £72.00! You might want to buy Towards a Cosmic Music anyway, of course.

John McNeil – Something New Under the Sun

John McNeil - Something New Under the SunJohn McNeil – Something New Under the Sun (mp3)

Subtitled, ‘an environmental history of the twentieth century’, this is rip-roaring stuff. Astonishing breadth of research – from rivers in the Urals to freon production in India via the contribution of lead additives to the success of World War II fighters (lead added to fuel reduces ‘knocking’, permits higher compression ratios and greater power output, hence… the Spitfire). A hugely entertaining read that translates the whole of twentieth century history into a narrative of environmental change, loss and – occasionally – recovery. An example of the kind of imaginative, integrative hard graft that makes a great, influential non-fiction work. Buy Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the World in the 20th Century, why don’t you?

Christopher Headington – Peter Pears

book cover - Christopher Headington - Peter PearsChristopher Headington – Peter Pears (mp3)

From an affectionate official biography: a vivid snapshot of the lives of the Soviet cultural elite in the mid-Sixties from a visit Pears and Britten made in 1966.

Buy Peter Pears: A Biography from Amazon.

Walter Benjamin – One-way Street

book cover - Walter Benjamin - One-way StreetWalter Benjamin – One-way Street (mp3)

This is a section from the essay One-way Street from the collection of the same name. You’ll remember another essay from this book: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but this one’s just as startling. Benjamin’s language is difficult. Even J.A. Underwood’s modern translation can’t find a way to unwind those impenetrable, multi-clause sentences. But the relevance of his insights is unarguable. Our global financial crisis seems like a period of instability but it might be the new normal.

Buy One-Way Street and Other Writings (Penguin Modern Classics) from Amazon. There’s a Kindle edition too.

Evan Eisenberg – The Recording Angel

Evan Eisenberg - The Recording AngelEvan Eisenberg – The Recording Angel (mp3)

Eisenberg’s a clever and funny writer of features for The Atlantic and The New Yorker. His book is not a history – its an eccentric, anecdotal excursion into the psychology, economics and aesthetics of recorded music and what’s fascinating is that it barely grazes the digital era and serves as a reminder that making a permanent record of the experience of music was awkward and controversial long before the CD and the MP3.

You can buy this edition or an updated 2005 edition from Amazon.

David Crystal – Language and the Internet

David Crystal - Language and the InternetDavid Crystal – Language and the Internet (mp3)

Crystal is a language genius and a brilliant communicator – there are enough books about language written or edited by him on my shelves to make a decent season in their own right and he’s always on the radio and TV talking the absolutists and the pedants down off their high ledges.

He’s the sanest voice on language change you’ll hear in our fevered, technology-obsessed culture. This 2001 book wasn’t the first book about language on the Internet but it was a landmark because it was the first to take the emerging language of the net seriously as an object of study and as a real-world phenomenon – one that would affect us all. Buy the 2006 edition of Language and the Internet at Amazon.

Neal Stephenson – In the Beginning Was the Command Line

Neil Stephenson - In the Beginning was the Command LineNeal Stephenson – In The Beginning Was The Command Line (mp3)

Hymn of praise and potted history, Stephenson’s lovely little book is about the pre-history of our present computerphilia. Buy it In the Beginning… Was the Command Line from Amazon.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales
This work by Steve Bowbrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales.