Ten Books in Search of a Beach

Let us now praise some archaic objects: namely books. Remark their structure: a sturdy, yet pliant artifact of ancient cultures. How quaint they are. They’re very existence seems a kind of quiet rebellion against the present order of things, against the digitalizing and commodification of words, of knowledge, of poetry, of the real goods, as my Jungian friends say.

Can you imagine a Kindle bookstore? A crowd of virtual people mulling about in virtual lines like automatons, their spines arched in that familiar Kindle stoop, moving from download station to download station, handing their e-readers over to the clerk avatar, saying: can you fill that up with some Peter Linebaugh, Doug Peacock and Kirkpatrick Sale? And please while you’re at it can you re-charge the Chevy Volt?

No, today, I draw your attention to books. Books you can hold, books you can sniff, books you can roll joints on (if people still roll joints), books you can mark-up and dog-ear and sell to a used bookstore in a pinch.

Real books are by virtue of their very existence a subversion of capitalist dogma. God knows the writers and editors here on CounterPunch aren’t making a dime out the production of them. Indeed, the publication of books has been rendered into a charitable enterprise, an adventure in altruism. But books can strike back at the system in other, more direct ways. Books are tangible, solid, weighty objects. You can read them, re-read them, absorb their messages and then, as Edward Abbey once advised, heave them at something big and glassy.

In that spirit, I offer you ten bric-a-bacs in words. Better read them quickly, while there’s still a beach.

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs. Camus by Andy Martin. (Simon & Schuster)

A juicy, acerbically written account of the tempestuous relationship between two of the 20th century’s greatest minds: Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.  In lively, gossipy prose, Martin tracks the two super-stars of French existentialism from their first encounter in cafes of Paris to their covert work in the Resistance and their flame wars on the pages of Combat, Liberation and Les Temps Modernes. Martin recounts the love affairs, pill-popping, intellectual sniping and terminal break-up in a narrative that reads like a comic novel.

Ned Ludd and Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism and the Several Commons of 1811-12 by Peter Linebaugh (PM Press)

A thrilling pamphlet recounting the first great battle against capitalism, a war fought by Yorkshire loom-breakers, Romantic poets (Byron and Shelley, among others) and anti-slave trade dissenters. Writing in white-hot prose, Linebaugh summons to life a truly radical age, when raging against the machine was also a battle for a more utopian future.

The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan by Eric Laursen (AK Press)

Once considered the third rail of America politics, a program beloved by nearly all American citizens left and right, Social Security, the most venerable talisman of New Deal liberalism, now finds itself on the ropes, headed for extinction. How did it come to this? Laursen’s trailblazing book is a magisterial, and massively documented, history of Social Security and the 30-year war waged with obsessive vindictiveness to dismantle it. One of the most important, and urgently needed, books of the last decade.

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog (Ecco)

Herzog’s mesmerizing account of his own maniacal pursuit to make an impossible film, “Fitzcarraldo.” in an even more impossible location: the heart of the Amazonian jungle.  Herzog’s writing is funny, mordant, lyrical, obsessive and surreal. Conquest of the Useless a one of a kind book written by a mad genius.

The Fight for Home: How Parts of New Orleans Came Back by Daniel Wolff (Bloomsbury)

In the horrible wake of Katrina, many of New Orleans’ poorest, and most culturally rich, neighborhoods were left to fend for themselves. Wolff vividly tells the story of how a home-grown movement took root in a nearly annihilated city to reclaim their neighborhoods and lives on their own terms. Amid the pain, poverty and loss, Wolff is able to detect the fragile signs of hope, re-growth and redemption.

Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health by Martha Rosenberg (Prometheus Books)

Born With a Junk Food Deficiency is a savage indictment of the Pharmaceutical-Industrial-Complex, those corporate pushers who have hooked much of the American population on a daily regimen of popping dangerous designer pills, often to treat faux ailments manufactured by the drug makers themselves. More ruthless than any Mexican cartel, the prescription drug industry has corrupted our political institutions, infiltrated our regulatory agencies and bribed the medical establishment to act as dispensers of its high-priced dope, all in the obscene pursuit of mega-profits, consequences be damned. This urgent book should serve as a warning label for an industry that poses a grave threat to the public health.

Desert Reckoning: a Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History by Deanne Stillman (Nation Books)

This a real life desert noir written in prose as taut as Raymond Chandler about a strange murder and chase in the disappearing California outback. Stillman tells the story of Donald Kueck, a former rocket scientist, who turned fled the insidious sprawl of Los Angeles for a hermitic life in the blistering Mojave Desert. Ultimately, Kueck’s life collides fatally with a local sheriff. Stillman’s book reads like a thriller, but it also is a kind of elegy for the end of a way of life in southern California.

Jean-Paul Marat: Tribune of the Revolution by Clifford D. Connor (Pluto Press) 

No figure in the French Revolution—not even Robespierre himself—has been as maligned as Jean-Paul Marat. Enemies of the Revolution (and even some its supporters) have tarred him as a madman, a thief, and a fraud. But now historian Clifford Connor finally resurrects Marat’s role in stoking the fires of a Revolution that would forever alter the European political and social landscape. Marat was a true polymath of the Enlightenment: a doctor, a scientist (Ben Franklin attended one of his lectures on electricity) and inventor, a philosopher, a political theorist and perhaps the fieriest polemicist of the Revolutionary period. In Connor’s grippingly written biography, Marat is revealed as an undaunted champion of poor, the disenfranchised and the enslaved.

The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower by Kenneth Brower. (Heyday Press)

My old friend David Brower would have turned 100 this year. His son Kenneth, a gifted writer, has crafted a unique volume celebrating his father’s unparalleled career as America’s most tenacious and creative environmental activist. Kenneth traces his father’s legacy, from the battles over the Colorado River to the fights to save the California Redwoods, through the eyes of twenty other leading figures of the environmental movement, including Paul Erhlich, Dave Foreman and Randy Hayes.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day. By Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan. (Norton)

In August 2008, eleven mountaineers died on the slopes of K2, the world’s most formidable peak. The press at the time focused on the climbers who lost their lives on that deadly excursion. But Zuckerman and Padoan put the focus on the amazing story of the two sherpas who, against all odds, survived the expedition. This is a harrowing tale of adventure and survival.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Born Under a Bad Sky and the co-editor with Joshua Frank of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle formatHe can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3