Friday, October 22, 1999
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Books I've finished lately

I promised to talk about Roland Barthes's "Empire of Signs", and now that I've finally finished it here I am. I said this about it on

Mind-tickling. Not About Japan. (Four stars)
An interesting, thought-provoking, pre-PostModern piece about sign and symbol, meaning, surface and interior, and all that sort of thing. An exploration of how else a culture might be, riffing off of the West's image of Japan, but not really about Japan at all.

Worth a read. Short and almost mythical. Reminds me somehow of Hesse's "Journey to the East", but probably not for any very good reason.

One large idea that Barthes circles around in the book is that you can have a sign without any representation; a sign that is not a sign of anything. Or at least that you can approach that (or at least that you can write a book about a semi-fictional place where things sometimes approach that).

Now this seems silly on the face of it. A sign is a sign only if it does signify, surely? If the inkmarks on a piece of paper aren't a sign of something else, then they are just atoms, just inkmarks on paper, and they aren't a "sign" in any useful sense.

On the other hand, our notion of "sign" isn't really that simple. If you take a toilet from the bathroom (where it isn't a sign, just a toilet), and put it in a glass case in a museum, it's not just a toilet anymore. Is it a sign? Things behind glass cases in museums are always signs, so of course it is. But is it a sign of anything?

Less bizarrely, non-representational art in general (most music, some sculpture, some painting, even some literature) isn't a sign of anything, but somehow it seems to partake of the universe of signs nonetheless. A string quartet isn't a sign of anything (in particular?), but somehow it's also not just a bunch of vibrations in the air.

The Mona Lisa, or this, or even simple things like this, seem to fall similarly into this odd area. When there are words in them, those words of course signify sounds, and may superficially signify some meaning, but the work as a whole has no obvious reading, nothing to which one can point and say "it means this". And yet there is (or isn't there?) some difference between these things and a single leaf, unphotographed, in a forest, or the support post of a building, or my wallet.

Or maybe what these artists are trying to tell us is that there isn't any such difference. Anyway, read Barthes, as he thinks about this better than I do. He involves things like Zen, and boxes, and eyes, as well as art and silence.

A much worse book: Legal Briefs: Stories by Today's Best Legal Thriller Writers. My diatribe submitted to Amazon just about sums it up:

Don't bother (one star)
Appalling! Abyssmal! The first few stories were so bad that I found myself writing derisive comments in the margins (something I don't generally do). Some of the later stories managed to achieve mediocrity, unremarkableness. But there are no interesting insights into the legal system here, no engrossing courtroom drama, no judicial puzzlers, no treatments of the important legal issues of our time.

The most blameworthy of the stories is a ham-handed political tract, interspersed with awful *poetry* for heaven's sake. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to be caught dead with a book that contains this:

The President had gotten to Jersey Joe.
Harvey'd been betrayed; a very low blow.
He had many years to think about ethics.
The age-old question: was it social or genetics?


I don't know why I bother finishing things like this; is it that I'm hoping against hope that there'll be a good story somewhere near the end, or am I just too compulsive to abandon a book unfinished?

A very good book: A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson. The existing reviews on Amazon seem about right, so I didn't feel obliged to stand up. It's a very good book, short, pithy, and at the same time mind-stretching. (The huge-breasted female vampire on the cover is something of an insult to the character that I imagine it's supposed to represent, but what can you do?)

It reminds me of Titus Groan in having the same sort of relentless dream-logic, things that make no sense on the surface but somehow hang together in a strange but natural alien shape, like a long dream or an old folk-tale. Gad, that's relevant to this "signs that don't signify" idea again, isn't it? Paint me orange and call me a pumpkin.

(On the other hand, it's the opposite of the Groan books in many ways, being modern rather than classical in tone, short and sharp rather than long and sprawling, and so on.) Read it; it's good.

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