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What We're Reading: Alex Frank

Tired of reading the same recommended books from the usual sources? Just think of our weekly What We’re Reading column as your non-committal book club with The FADER and some of your favorite bands. For this installment, Alex Frank reviews some of her favorite non-fiction pieces.

Through The Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany: This book is 800 pages. 800 pagesssssssssssss. That’s fucked, even if you have all the time in the world. I remember reading Philip Roth say in an interview that if it takes you longer than two weeks to finish a novel, you haven’t really read the novel since it’s so important that a book is a condensed, impactful experience. Fuck that, I’m on, like, page 40 and it’s been a month. Delany is one of my favorite people alive on the earth, the author of some of the weirdest, kinkiest, most legendary science fiction books ever written (go buy Dhalgren right now!), plus a book called Times Square Red, Times Square Blue about trolling around for quickies in the old New York porn theaters that has done more to shape my understanding of sexual politics than almost anything. But brevity is not his strong suit. He’s written more books than years I’ve had on the planet. And really, if you have that much to say, should you even try to keep things short? The things I write for FADER usually have a 500 word maximum, and I struggle. That’s the difference between me and Samuel R. Delany. Think about that. I went to go see him read from this novel at St. Marks Books a couple of weeks back. He had a grey, aged beard as long as his bibliography, and seemed to enjoy speaking every syllable, as though language was such a joy that it couldn’t even be conceivable to not want to spend your entire day wrestling with it. As though writing all 800 pages was just fun. I watch as much 30 Rock as he writes pages and no one would ever come to a cramped book store in the East Village to see me do that. Sure, it's fun to find time to zone out with tequila soda and Netflix, but when it comes to intellect, I’ll always be the hare and Mr. Delany the tortoise, a man who plays the long, slow game of life but gets to the finish line in fine form. Honest, important work is usually a slog. Me? I’ll be lucky if I even finish this book.

The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman: This is a very good, very sad book about the aftershock of the AIDS crisis in New York. Schulman is a truly gifted thinker and her thesis in this book centers around all of the bad things that have been allowed to flourish since an entire generation of young, creative, gay men were wiped out, namely the corporate gentrification of the neighborhoods in Manhattan that used to teem with gay radicals and artists but are now more likely to house yuppies. It’s not so cut and dry as I’m making it sound, but wherever your politics lie, Schulman's book is a reminder that you need to fight for them everyday if you want to make a difference.

Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama by Kate Betts: I just think Michelle Obama is really important and I really love her and I read everything about her that I can and this book has big glossy pictures.

“Peter Thiel’s Rise to Wealth and Libertarian Futurism” by George Packer, The New Yorker: This article is insane and after I read it, I freaked out and talked about it with everyone I know for, like, two weeks. It’s about Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal who’s become something of a political reactionary and espouses a philosophy that is basically the conservative version of Donna Haraway’s famous book about how technology can aide feminism The Cyborg Manifesto. Thiel believes, essentially, that technology will save us from extinction. For one, he’s funding massive research labs dedicated to increasing the life span of humans. He hopes to live to be 140. He even calls death a problem that can eventually be overcome. But he’s also giving money to all kinds of hokey projects, one in particular that’s stated mission is building small cities on platforms in the ocean that would be outside of governmental law and national borders and could function as their own microstates. This all sounds cool until you realize, as Packer points out at the end of the article, that inherent in Thiel’s grand plans is a scary libertarianism that would mean that, sure, we could increase lifespan and possibly create habitats that won’t be destroyed by global warming, but that since it will all be extra-governmental and not provided by the state, that it will all cost a lot of money, and that essentially, life will not be free. If you want to live, you’ll have to pay. As the earth heats up, poor people will die, but folks that can afford it will have safe zones to go to and in those safe zones, they’ll live for a very long time with costly medications and treatments. And while this all seems very dystopian fiction, it’s hard to feel like it's not more and more the way the world is heading. All I'll say about that is that it just seems so mean spirited. Ignoring the communal bond that we all have with each other, leaving people out in the rain when they need some shelter, is all just mean, the kind of mean that they try to teach you about in kindergarten. If libertarians were in pre-school, refusing to share and cooperate, they'd be put in a timeout. They're just mean! And sometimes Obama seems like he’ll be the last non-Libertarian to ever run the United States. I read yesterday that they’re changing the name of the Atlantic Ave subway station in Brooklyn to Barclay’s Center station since the British bank bought the naming rights. A friend of mine, a native Brooklyner, wanted to cry. Little things add up—Bloomberg outsourced his bike-sharing program to Citibank. A public high school in the Midwest sold the naming rights for their athletic center to a private business. Soon, with the budget crisis in full effect, it looks like the schools themselves will be run privately. And while they tell us this keeps costs down, the world seems more expensive than ever. Packer’s article reminded me that even though I haven’t been desperate yet, one day I’ll need some kind of assistance, too old to do it on my own or stuck in an environmental catastrophe, and if the world keeps going the way it has, I better be able to pay.

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What We're Reading: Alex Frank