Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real

From The New York Times:

Mind Marriage counselors have couples role-play, each one taking the other spouse’s part. Psychologists have rapists and other criminals describe their crime from the point of view of the victim. Like novelists or moviemakers, their purpose is to transport people, mentally, into the mind of another. Now, neuroscientists have shown that they can make this experience physical, creating a “body swapping” illusion that could have a profound effect on a range of therapeutic techniques. At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience last month, Swedish researchers presented evidence that the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own.

“You can see the possibilities, putting a male in a female body, young in old, white in black and vice versa,” said Dr. Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who with his colleague Valeria Petkova described the work to other scientists at the meeting. Their full study is to appear online this week in the journal PLoS One. .The technique is simple. A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body.

More here.

Kuwaiti Entrepreneur Hopes to Create the Next Pokémon

Margaret Coker in the Wall Street Journal:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 02 09.24 Two years ago, Naif Al Mutawa started up his own comic-book series, spurred by the dearth of Arabic-language children's books in the Middle East.

Now, the 37-year-old Kuwaiti entrepreneur and his small company, backed by Islamic-compliant private investors, are lining up deals that could help him build a children's-entertainment powerhouse in the Arab world.

“I'm hoping that it will be the next Pokémon,” Mr. Mutawa says, referring to the Japanese characters that created a sensation in the 1990s as they cropped up on trading cards, television, electronic games and elsewhere.

On Monday, Mr. Mutawa announced a co-production deal with Endemol International, the global media-production company, to develop and distribute an animated TV series based on his comic-book franchise “The 99,” which is popular in the Middle East and South Asia. Financial terms weren't disclosed, but the Dutch company's chief executive said each side would contribute “respectable” sums of cash.

More here.


Matthew Alexander in the Washington Post:

Abu_ghraib I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I'm still alarmed about that today.

I'm not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me — both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work.

More here.

New 3QD columnists will be announced on December 8th

101054 Hello,

A few people have asked when the new columnists will be announced. Sorry for the delay, but we received more than 80 submissions, almost all of which are very good, and some quite lengthy. Each of the daily editors has been reading all the essays, so it has taken a little longer than we initially thought it would, but we have a shortlist now.

Because of the number of good submissions, we have decided to take more than three people on, but haven't decided on exactly how many yet. We are very excited and thankful to everyone who sent something in.

All best,


An American Brownie in Barcelona

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain for a symposium hosted by the Libraries of Barcelona. Aptly titled Reading to Travel, Traveling to Read (link to the site here), it was comprised of three days of discussions amongst a broad panel of writers that included Marianne Pearl (wife of slain journalist Danny Pearl, foreign correspondent and author of A Mighty Heart), Clea Koff (forensic anthropologist for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, and author of The Bone Woman), and Chris Stewart (former Genesis drummer and author of Driving Over Lemons). The conversations—translated, UN-style, into French, English, Spanish and Catalan—were divided into roughly a dozen general topics, among them “Living to Travel,” “Ways of Spreading Passion for Travel,” and “Traveling as a Form of Creation.” My assigned topic, shared with Spanish fellow-author Anna Tortajada, was “Traveling as Research.”

As a writer who’s worked mostly with foreign subjects, settings and characters, I found much to ponder in these quadralingual chats. One comment stood out for me in particular: French writer and professor Jean Soublin was recounting how he’d once traveled to study the music indigenous to different nations. “Of course, one couldn’t do that today,” he added. “Now, everyone listens to the same thing.”

The conversation didn’t extend to whether or not this was a good thing, though M. Soublin’s tone (and Gallic shrug) suggested the former. Still, as I explored Barcelona over the next few days, the thought lingered: Has globalization really changed the experience of travel? And is it always and necessarily for the worse?

For a number of reasons, the question was of particular interest at this moment in my life. I’d spent the last ten years on a novel studying the clash and merge of Western and Eastern politics and art, and had just launched into another examining the delicate cultural and political give-and-take in a Tokyo under American occupation. However, in all those years–years marked by the explosion of the internet and noisy, ongoing construction of the “Global Village”–I hadn’t actually left home. At least, not counting Canada (and who really counts Canada?). After spending most of my twenties abroad ( Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Italy) the triple-punch of poverty, grad school and new motherhood had kept me firmly tethered to Brooklyn. This– my first trip to Spain—was also my first abroad since a Tuscan honeymoon in 1998.

And while I certainly didn’t feel like I was home–or even in Canada–being abroad felt markedly different than I had remembered. It wasn’t just that music had changed, though it’s certainly true that every kiosk I passed seemed to spew the same, vague variety of World Pop. It was that Spain—or at least, the part of Spain near my hotel–seemed far more accessible; more familiar, than I’d expected. On my first sojourn down Carrer Rossello, I almost felt like I was on Madison Avenue. Sleek flagship stores—Chanel, Burberry, Prada, H&M—lined the well-kept sidewalks. Well-dressed women with small dogs abounded.

Through a combination of slow English and bad Italian, I found my way to Circuit City and purchased an electrical adaptor in the credit-card line. I found a SIMs card for my cellphone at a nearby Nokia store, and called home to wish my daughters good morning. I used the restroom at Burger King, paused (from habit) at a Starbucks but then retired to what seemed a more Spanish-style café. In retrospect, however, it was not so very unlike my favorite coffeespot in Cobble Hill, though the music wasn’t as good and half the customers were smoking. Still, the people—a mix of smartly-dressed professionals, foreign visitors, students and artsy types—felt familiar too.

After coffee, I went back to my hotel to change, then hopped on the subway for that night’s installment of “Traveling to Read.” Apart from trying to walk through the wrong turnstile at Diagonal station, I made it to the Library without incident, listened with interest to Ms. Pearl and M. Soublin, and afterwards had a terrific—if very late–dinner with them, symposium organizers and some other panelists. All-in-all, it struck me as an entirely easy and pleasant day–if not an exceptionally distinctive one. It certainly stood in stark contrast to my introduction to Kyoto, my first foreign city, and one in which I’d spent my sophomore year on homestay.

Stumbling through the old capital’s broad avenues, quiet shrines and shopping malls, I remember remembering Roland Barthe’s musings on travel in Empire of Signs. This situation (he’d written) is the very one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning, lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void

And for me Japan was–at least at first—quite a shock. From food to fashion to the crisp cadence of the language; to the very posture and pace of the pedestrians, nothing–quite simply, nothing—felt familiar. For the first time in my life I felt fully an outsider, completely other; almost entirely without cultural or linguistic foothold. The simplest tasks—withdrawing money, finding the bathroom; using the bathroom (all those appliances! All those chirping automations!), making a phone call—seemed vast challenges. Even streetsign English (Fried chicken-drinks here; please remove shoes before being entered) felt like an entirely new language.

At that point, too—before cell phones; before internet; before the translation of hit pop songs into fifteen or more languages—home felt very, very overseas. Connecting with loved ones required lots of coins (Visa being a relatively new phenomenon there and then), a working payphone, and successful negotiation through polite-but-rapid Japanese operator instructions that were interspersed with cryptic-sounding clicks and beeps. Meals, for their part, could feel like an episode out of Fear Factor (“Do you know what this is?!” my homestay father would crow gleefully). And after dinner, all those bizarre TV reality shows!…

It can of course be argued (though I’m sure Europeans would rather not) that European and American cultures simply aren’t all that different; or at least, that they’re far more similar than are American and Asian cultures. And yet arriving in Italy four years later for another year abroad, I remember feeling almost as alienated there as I’d felt in those first weeks in Kyoto: Disconcerted by a foreign language. Confused by the lack of sugar substitutes. Caught off-guard when life shut down for siesta.

Now, twenty-odd years later here I was in Barcelona—phoning home while ambling down the Calle Escudellers. Shopping international franchises, and being offered not only Visa and Mastercard but the choice of paying in dollars or Euros. Logging into Facebook on the computer in the hotel lobby to find that the previous user had just been on Facebook, Spain. It certainly felt like globalization had sanded down some of the differences between our two cultures. But did that mean it was stripping away culture itself? Was the whole world, in fact, becoming like the fictional city of Trude, in Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”: This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels… Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.

Certainly, many Barcelonians with whom I spoke seemed to feel the same ennui as Calvino’s Marco Polo. At our symposium dinner, I had listened (at least, as much as my Italianized Spanish would permit) as city natives in our group bewailed the erosion of their Catalan culture. Friend and fellow writer James Canon, who’d just moved to the city, told of signs on La Rambla telling tourists to go home. (“Did they feel the same way about the Moors?” I asked, having just been informed that Spanish remains heavily Arabic-influenced. “I’m sure they did,” he said.)

And yet, as my visit continued throughout the week, I found myself wondering whether the ongoing construction of the Worldwide Village doesn’t cut both ways; whether, in fact, globalization actually eliminates cultural difference so much as provides tools to understand, even transcend, those differences. It may be crassly American of me, but seeing a Starbucks on La Rambla didn’t really detract from my overall pleasure in Spain—any more than the sushi shops on Calles Moles did. They all simply felt like part of a growing international lexicon that the U.S., Japan and Spain now shared, along with the rest of the world. In some ways—I’ll admit it—such sights were even oddly comforting; familiar signposts that seemed to remind us that while there was much to be learned from our differences, there was also something to be learned from our similar tastes.

I felt the same way chatting at the H&M sales rack with Spanish teens; commenting—in imperfect versions of one another’s language–on a cute style, a great price, the wait for a changing room. Or admiring—along with a multinational group of passersbys–Gaudi’s Casa Batllo on Passeig de Gracia. I felt it exclaiming over a Barbie doll I found in a toyshop, dressed not in cheesy lame an intricate, handmade Catalan costume that had clearly taken weeks (if not months) of loving care to create. And I felt it, finally, on my last night in Barcelona, spent listening to Spanish guitar at the Basilica del Pi.

It was a breathtaking performance of works by Albeniz, Tarrega and Sors. The audience clearly spoke at least a dozen different languages, though most were stunned (as was I) into silence; and the fluent arpeggios of the guitarist were occasionally underscored by the drunken songs of English footballers outside. For me, though, the night was magic; and no less Spanish for all the international ambience.

Later I ended up at Neri Restaurant on Calle Sant Sever, tucked away in the medieval alleyways of the Barri Gotic. The music there was less indigenously Spanish–a mellow blend of American alternative and Samba–and the food a fabulous fusion of Continental and Catalan. After my main course the waitress gave me a free glass of Spanish champagne to go with the night’s special dessert, which she announced with a flourish: American Brownie ala Mode.

“Don’t worry,” she added, seeing my bemused expression. “It’s all Spanish chocolate. And it’s delicious.”

And despite the title, it was.

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s other writing for 3QD can be seen here, and her own website is here.

Monday Poem

Image_autumn_leaves Kneedeep as Leaves
Jim Culleny

Today, in a java shop
among caffeinators, wired, I
received a poem from a friend
whom I've known since
it didn't seem important
to understand friendship

But now I do
and appreciate his calling me
into the world of this poem
(which is not his, but his
anyway because
he saw some truth in it
and supposed that
I might see it too)

With thanks I add it to
other truths that have blown against my door
now piled kneedeep as leaves,
but less brittle, in fall


Interpretations: Maurizio Cattelan, Daddy Daddy (2008)

(Interpretations is a new, occasional series of reflections on artworks, films, songs, signs, artifacts, and other items by Asad Raza and other contributors.)

Picture 1In Maurizio Cattelan's Daddy Daddy, Pinocchio has met his end, floating face-down in the Guggenheim's fountain–presumably having jumped, fell, or been pushed off the ramparts of the museum's ascending spiral ramp. There is no clear cause, just a result: this body, the record of a dismal yet laughable turn of events, the death of a lovable Disney character. The sculpture is site-specific: for its memorable visual joke to work, it depends on the airy grandeur of Lloyd Wright's atrium. You have to be able to look up and see the many places from which a person, or a puppet, could fall. By imagining this disastrous outcome, the piece transforms the museum's spatial splendor into a droll vertigo. (Photo: The Guggenheim Museum.)

Blackly comic in tone, Daddy Daddy recalls the scenarios of many previous works by Cattelan. As with his stuffed squirrel suicide, posed face-down at a kitchen table with revolver in hand (Bidibidobidiboo, 1996), a cute character suitable for children meets an untimely end. Cattelan once displayed a rope made of bedsheets tied togther leading from the window to the ground below, having first used it to climb out of the gallery; Daddy Daddy also posits a hero paralyzed by the fear of inauthenticity (“Am I a real boy?”). Cattelan's work Now (2004), a life-size sculpture of a saintly, barefoot John F. Kennedy in a coffin, symbolizes a loss of hope and a sense of rightness with the world. In Untitled (2007), a horse is suspended in a sort of anti-majesty, its head having disappeared into the wall. Each of these works performs the characteristic Cattelan gesture: staging a climactic punch-line to a narrative of futility.

The use of Pinocchio is appropriate in another sense as well: Cattelan often represents himself mock-heroically as a liar and a thief. For an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1996 he stole the contents of another gallery and installed them in his own, entitling the piece Another Fucking Readymade. On the night before an opening of his in 1992, he went to the police falsely claiming his non-existent work had been stolen, then displayed the police report in the gallery. What better surrogate for himself in his work than the Italian boy-puppet, caught lying in a vain attempt to fit in and prove he belongs, that's he's a real boy? Daddy Daddy is a concise, witty summation of an anxious, futile desperation to succeed and belong.

In addition to these more obvious ways that Daddy Daddy represents a continuation of themes in Cattelan's work, there is another form of continuity operating here. This has to do with Pinocchio's being a puppet. Cattelan's sculptures are very frequently stuffed bodies of one kind or another. Many of his works include them in their most conventional form, taxidermized animals. Even works containing no mammalian forms, however, make reference to the stuffed body, as when he packed the rubble left by a terrorist bombing into large shipping bags (Lullaby, 1994)–a kind of macabre taxidermy that filled a soft container with fragmented detritus. Cattelan seems always drawn to depicting organic bodies as hollow containers, stuffed rather than living objects. The cartoon, which is our first point of reference for Pinocchio, is merely an extreme example this: a body delineated by an outline, but with no real interior.

There is, of course, a link between the Cattelan's narratives of demise and failure and his use of taxidermic or obviously cartoonish bodies to express them: both are ways of questioning holistic understandings of human identity. These hollow shapes disrupt a naturalized sense of ourselves as organic beings. They cast our psychological interiors as mere stuffing. And I think this literal emptying-out of the category of being touches something quite deep within the contemporary idea of what it means to be a person. The ideal of secular modernity is meritocracy: the goal of personhood is to travel upwards, achieving and accomplishing as much as one can without unfair impediment. Yet the meritocratic model renders social life as a competition for high status, which, by definition, remains scarce and graspable by only a few. An ideal meritocracy, then, must leave most of its constituents in the depressing position of having achieved second-rate status–a depression only made more acute in cases of fair and just competition.

A further contradiction of the logic of meritocracy is that it rewards those who most fully internalize the fear of being second-rate: temperamental insecurity and anxiety about accomplishment, that is, are the motivating forces of the high achiever. This is also true of Daddy Daddy. Far from being the record of Cattelan's failure to thrive, it is the latest example of a great success: the achievement of extremely high status in the art world, which allows him to display his work in high-status cultural institutions. Thus Daddy Daddy is pleasing and surprising because it is redolent of the absurdity of contemporary life, which often allocates its greatest rewards to those who are most anxiously unable to be content with them–a situation Daddy Daddy comes close to parodying, with its transformation of angst into comedy.

As a consolation for the bleakness of professionalized social life, Cattelan offers his own example. As he has said of his vocation as an artist, “this is the one profession where I can be a little bit stupid and people will say, 'Thank you, thank you for being so stupid!'” This statement updates the familiar nineteenth-century concept of the aesthetic field as the opposite of the ruthlessness of the market. Art, in this understanding, is not a utopian alternative. It is an adjacent, but equally competitive, field to the professions–but one which values rather than represses reflections on the nature of “the game.” In keeping with this paradox, Cattelan is the ultimate professional unprofessional: he is unconcerned to demonstrate mastery of craft, except the twin crafts of directing fabricators to realize his ideas and eliciting support from curators and collaborators. His work, a series of sculptural vignettes or gestures, expresses not a poetics of mastery, but a comedics of failure. “Laughter is the whole of wisdom,” goes a line by the satirical novelist James Hamilton-Paterson. Cattelan's work tends to confirm this.

That City on a Hill: Books of the Year

By PD Smith

Big bamboo December has a way of creeping up on you. It seems just a few weeks since summer was here and Abbas was making hay in the Alps.

2008 has been a year of fear and hope. Mighty financial institutions have collapsed overnight and America has elected its first African-American President. Apparently, Reinhold Niebuhr and Nietzsche are among Barack Obama’s favorite authors, although I can’t imagine he has had much time for reading this year. Which is a pity as there have been some great non-fiction titles published in 2008.

For me one of the most memorable was Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf (published in the UK this year by Icon). It’s an enthralling celebration of the science and “complex beauty of the reading process”. In evolutionary terms, reading is a recently acquired cultural invention that uses existing brain structures for a radically new skill. Unlike vision or speech, there is no direct genetic programme passing reading on to future generations. It is an unnatural process that has to be learnt by each individual.

As director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, Wolf works with readers of all ages, but particularly those with dyslexia, a condition that proves “our brains were never wired to read”. Wolf therefore has much of practical value to say about why some people have difficulty reading and how to overcome this. Reading stories to pre-school children is crucial, she says, as it encourages the formation of circuits in the brain, as well as imparting essential information about fighting dragons and marrying princes.

Wolf's story of the development of the reading brain covers many fields, from linguistics, archaeology and education to history, literature and neuroscience. In particular, she highlights the brain's astonishing plasticity, its “protean capacity” to reorganise itself to learn new skills. According to Wolf, we are all born with the “capacity to change what is given to us by nature.” Right from the cradle we are “genetically poised for breakthroughs”. She memorably paraphrases Darwin: “biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go ‘beyond the information given’ to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful”.

For thousands of years, the process of engaging with texts has enriched us, both existentially and – as Wolf's remarkable book shows – biologically. Different languages put their own unique stamp on the brain, creating distinctive brain networks. Reading Chinese requires a different set of neuronal connections from those needed to read English. As the writer Joseph Epstein has said, “we are what we read”. Doctors treating a bilingual person who developed alexia (inability to read) after a stroke found astonishing evidence of this. Although he could no longer read English, the patient was still able to read Chinese.

China 2008 was unquestionably China’s year. From terrible earthquakes to space walks and, of course, the Olympics, China was rarely out of the headlines. Out of this year’s red tide of titles about this endlessly fascinating country, I found two particularly memorable: China: A-Z, by Kai Strittmatter (Haus) and China: Empire of Living Symbols, by Cecilia Lindqvist (Da Capo). Both use language as a springboard to explore Chinese culture and history.

For Strittmatter, a German correspondent in Beijing for 10 years, China is “a land of contradictions”. (This reminds me of Bohr’s delightful comment: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”) After spending two decades in a Maoist labour camp, author Zhang Xianliang says: “it’s because China is a mystery, that it's so dear to me”. He is now a member of the Communist party and a successful businessman. Bend, adapt and move on seems to be the lesson here. Perhaps the Chinese have learnt this philosophy from one of their most beautiful plants – bamboo.

“No plant moves me as profoundly as bamboo,” writes Lindqvist, “most of all the sound of its thin, dry leaves as they rustle in the wind.” I agree completely. One of the first things we did in our garden was plant bamboo. I can see it now from my desk, swaying sensuously. In storms it can be blown almost flat but the next day it is upright again. According to Lindqvist, the resilience of this wonderful grass taught the Chinese a powerful lesson about how to face difficulties: “Bend, adapt, of course, but never abandon ideals. Never be defeated. Other winds will blow, all in good time.”

There are, of course, many Chinas – it is a vast continent unified by a common language, standardised as far back as 221 BC. In Strittmatter’s “pocket dictionary” of Chinese culture, it is “the magic of the characters themselves” that tells the story of this paradoxical land. An entry in his book about the family (jia) highlights the importance of the Confucian virtue of service. For the Chinese that means “sometimes serving the state, generally the family, and always the parents”. In a discussion of chopsticks (kuai zi) he notes drily, and entirely accurately, that they are primarily an “instrument for measuring a foreigner's ability to integrate”. From gan bei (cheers) to why xiao zi (petty bourgeois) was once an insult but is now cool (ku), this is a delightfully witty and insightful guide to today's China.

Lindqvist’s remarkable study broke new ground when it was first published in Sweden nearly twenty years ago. Reissued this year, her book explores the origins of modern Chinese writing in pictures and objects over 3,000 years old, such as oracle bones. An art historian who spent her life studying Chinese culture, Lindqvist weaves archaeological evidence of the earliest Chinese characters together with the country's history to demonstrate China's unique cultural continuity. It's believed written language arose first in Mesopotamia, although Wolf cites recent evidence that suggests Egyptian hieroglyphs may be older than even Sumerian cuneiform writing. No one uses either today, but modern Chinese script is recognisably similar to the earliest forms of writing in the region. China “is a continuation in direct lineal descent from the culture that arose in the long valley of the Yellow River during the 5th millennium before the beginning of our calendar.”

Lindqvist shows how the oldest characters are representational (“man” depicts a person in profile and dates back to the earliest oracle bones) and these remain part of today's language. In this beautifully written and illustrated book, language and images come together to tell a common story about the rootedness of the modern script in the ancient signs. Drawing on her long experience of the country – its sights, sounds and tastes (including a few recipes, such as pork with bamboo, onions and dried mushrooms) – Lindqvist creates an evocative and compelling celebration of language as a carrier of culture.

Another book that memorably explored our love affair with language this year was Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between, edited by Carole Burns (Norton) As a non-fiction writer, I have immense admiration for what novelists do with language. It seems to me fiction is a kind of alchemy, a mix of science and magic, fact and poetry. Attempts to explain this process often fall flat. But not Burns’ book. She interviews 43 authors about the writing life, from the nuts and bolts of fiction (how to breathe life into a character) to more general comments on inspiration and influences. AS Byatt starts her novels with a “block of colour” (“Babel Tower is black and red, because of blood and destruction”). For Paul Auster the story comes first: “I find the book in the process of writing it”.

All agree on one thing: writing and rewriting is never easy. Joyce Carol Oates finds the first draft the hardest: it's “like hacking one's way through a thick jungle with something like a butter knife”. Richard Bausch recalls how he wrote an entire 800-page novel before deciding it was really a short story. The process of cutting it down to size was, he says, like passing a kidney stone. Ouch. “Everyone goes a little mad as a writer”, says Alison Smith, and most interviewees agree. Even Martin Amis admits to the occasional “crazy-scientist cackle” while writing.

I sympathise. After finishing my last book (it took over three years), I just wanted to lie in a dark room and listen to soothing music. But I guess all writers are suckers for punishment – I’ve just started researching a new book: a cultural history of cities. It’s a fascinating time to be writing about urban history – this year we officially became an urban species with more people living in cities than in rural areas. There are of course many wonderful books about urban history. John Reader’s excellent Cities (2004) for one, and Peter Hall’s masterly Cities in Civilization (1998) which focuses on cities as centres of innovation and creativity. Interestingly, Hall only mentions China a few times in 1169 pages – a sign, perhaps, of how fast the world is changing and the astonishing rate of urbanisation in recent years. By 2020, there will be ten cities with more than twenty million citizens, gargantuan cities such as Jakarta, Delhi, Mexico City, São Paulo, New York, and Tokyo.

As it turns out, 2008 has been a vintage year for urban studies. Gail Fenske’s beautifully illustrated biography of the Woolworth Building, The Skyscraper and the City (Chicago), is one of my favourites. It is a superb study of the New York skyscraper that became emblematic of the world’s first signature skyline. Cass Gilbert’s inspiring cathedral to commerce opened in 1913. This Gothic spire offered New Yorkers passing by on the sidewalk “an experience of sheer vertical ascent unrivalled by the taller but stepped-back skyscrapers of the 1920s”. Fenske tells the fascinating story of this building’s inspiration, design, construction and its place in the city that has come to define the modern metropolis. The pinnacled tower no longer dominates New York’s vertiginous skyline but it remains a monument to the soaring ambition of its owner and architect, as well as to human aspiration and the desire to conquer vertical space.

On brick lane Once it was London that broke all urban records, from size to pollution. On Brick Lane by Rachel Lichtenstein (out in paperback from Penguin in the UK) is a wonderfully evocative and personal portrait of a part of the East End of London that has been home to successive waves of immigrants. Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane, is where Bram Stoker’s Dracula slept in a coffin of Transylvanian earth. In the seventeenth century the Huguenots arrived, later there were Jews from Eastern Europe (including Lichtenstein’s own grandparents) and now it is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community. An artist, Lichtenstein has lived and worked in Brick Lane since the 1990s. She evocatively weaves together her own experiences with those of her family and interviews with former and current residents, ranging from a Bangladeshi schoolgirl (“Brick Lane is like a part of Bangladesh”), to the footloose London author Iain Sinclair, who used to work in the 300-year-old Truman brewery, and the poet Stephen Watts, who tells her: “There is a tidal wave of sound and memory rushing down that street.”

The “sensory encounter” with cities is the subject of Dell Upton’s Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic, published this year by Yale. The stench and cacophony of early nineteenth-century American cities must have been terrible, judging from Upton’s impressive research. Using travel journals, diaries, and letters he shows how the “insistent and importunate sights, sounds and smells surpassed anything previously known in the new nation”. To read his book is to be immersed in the sensations of the city.

In New York, “public porkers” roamed the streets up until the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, horses, cattle, and goats shared the city with their two-legged owners. Most American cities had no drainage systems and rubbish was thrown out into the street forming a putrefying heap known as “corporation pie”, until scavengers hired by the city disposed of it. Upton argues convincingly that the experience of living in noisy, stinking antebellum cities spurred a reformist desire in many urban communities to realize the ideal of a shining city upon a hill: “The relics of civilized life that bombarded the senses, and the mixed throngs that crowded the streets of antebellum cities, were the crucible within which city dwellers formed a sense of what it meant to be a citizen of a republican city.”

Of course, building Utopia is easier said than done, as Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella show in Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century (MIT). Modernist reformers embraced technological solutions to solve nineteenth-century urban problems such as congestion, pollution and disease. From Ebenezer Howard’s seminal notion of the “Garden City” in the 1890s, to the new urbanist Celebration in Florida in the 1990s, Kargon and Molella argue that the techno-city was a bold social experiment, but one that in the end was doomed to failure. For despite using the latest technology, at the heart of these ideal cities was a nostalgic yearning for small-town life. What the authors term “techno-nostalgia” created a fatal fault line running through the techno-city: “the machine in the garden is a seductive dream, but a problematic reality”.

Kargon and Molella also discuss Oak Ridge in East Tennessee, a once secret city created as part of the Manhattan Project. The plan for this techno-city was inspired by the same nostalgic yearning for an idealized garden city, with tree-lined streets and “organic clusters” of houses. There is, however, a shocking irony about the fact that the people who lived in this utopian city were building a superweapon designed for one purpose – to annihilate cities.

The nuclear age is the subject of Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger’s entertaining and informative A Nuclear Family Vacation : Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Bloomsbury). Where are you going for your holidays next year? How about the Semipalatinsk Test Site in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan? It is, apparently, a bona fide tourist destination. But remember to pack your Geiger counter and iodine tablets. As Hodge and Weinberger discover, the site is still highly radioactive. Most of the cold war scientists who lived in the nearby secret nuclear city of Kurchatov have now returned to Russia, but some technicians remain. Asked about the measures they took to protect themselves from radioactivity, one replies dryly: “Before every test, we drank grain alcohol.”

Hodge and Weinberger are a husband-and-wife team of defense reporters turned nuclear tourists. As the title suggests, the authors did indeed visit many of the places during their holidays: everywhere from Iran's Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, which supplies material to the top-secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, to the Nevada Test Site (a “sandbox for nuclear weapons designers”), and the Cheyenne Mountain bunker (“the ultimate cold war retreat”). In Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were designed, the authors noticed that the scientists sometimes had pictures of their favorite nuclear tests hanging above their desks and could describe, “in loving detail, the very personal reasons for their choices”. One scientist even named his son after the 1952 Ivy Mike H-bomb test. But Los Alamos hasn't designed a new nuke since the 1980s, and has become little more than a “repair shop for nuclear weapons”. The scientists are not happy: “the mood at the lab hovered somewhere between depression and despair”.

Revealingly, although Hodge and Weinberger interviewed many politicians and scientists, they failed to find anyone who could say what the purpose of the nuclear arsenal is now. The nuclear weapons industry, costing billions of dollars a year, is an enterprise that has “lost its way”. Their important conclusion is that it is time for the US to think the unthinkable and “explore practical options for eliminating the nuclear arsenal”.

Cans Festival 2008 small No doubt that’s a policy Noam Chomsky would support. In Interventions, which appeared in the UK in paperback this year, he notes that the US spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Another shocking fact: apparently the essays in this collection by one of today’s leading public intellectuals have been published in newspapers all around the world, but were largely ignored in the US. (Sounds like an opportunity for 3QD…)

According to Chomsky, the tacit assumption guiding all US foreign policy is now “we own the world, so what does it matter what others think?”. From Iraq and the war on terror, to Iran's nuclear ambitions and US support for Israel, he accuses Washington of accelerating the race to destruction. Hopefully, America will soon be turning over a new leaf under President Obama. Lead me to that radiant city upon a hill…

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Read more of PD Smith's work at Kafka's mouse.