One Year of Apposition
Reflections on Writing
A Brief History of Apposition
Apposition is just over a year old now. This blog grew out of a series of reviews I wrote at an old job, where we had Slack channels for discussing books and movies.
I fleshed out some of the better reviews and put them on Goodreads. Goodreads is a weirdly old-fashioned website. It is slow and clunky, but its members find each other in a rather organic way, driven by personal curiosity and love of books, rather than algorithmic nudges. But I wanted to share writings that were about more than just books, so I started Apposition.
That was during the height of New Zealand’s Delta outbreak, when everyone had to work from home. I was a programmer, and working from home was already normal to me, but I didn't really like my job. It often felt like I’d be doing nothing for days—even weeks—at a time, held up by managers that made decisions too late about projects that always wound up cancelled.
Work felt pointless. I began to read and write on the job. When we were able to go back into the office, I’d sometimes go in and stay late so I could print out books on the work printers after everyone else had gone home. Most of the time though, I worked from home. If I had nothing particularly important to do, I would spend the entire day reading and writing.
This is how my most read piece, about Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society, was written. I did almost nothing except work on it for about two or three days. The fact I could get away with this—disappearing for half a week without anyone noticing or caring—seemed like confirmation that my job was pointless. It was especially unfair that I got paid good money to do it, given how those around me were out of work because of Covid.
Thoughts on Book Reviews
The term “book review” makes the writer sound like some kind of professional taste-maker whose preferences I ought to respect. I don’t think of the posts on Apposition as reviews. Nor are they summaries. They are, in the broadest sense, attempts to order responses and impressions I’ve had from books I’ve read.
Apposition tries to be a place for slow, thoughtful reflections on books. While I hope to impart something of the book under consideration—its content, writing style, and ideas—I try to never say that you should or should not read a book. Only you can determine that for yourself. All I can convey is what you might get out of reading a particular book.
If a book review has ever made you curious, you should really go out and read that book. It is more important to cultivate your own personal judgement than to fill your head up with information about books. That can only happen in a quiet space alone with the book, away from the hypergraphic literati that would interpose themselves between you and its words.
In Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Naugham, the narrator, William Ashenden, remarks:
Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it… that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian’s Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world which has most pure beauty, is to go and look at it. (123).
I always try to give direct quotes from the books I discuss. If I think the writing is messy or awkward or moving or informative, I try to find passages which show that. I think this is the only way to really convey the style of a particular book. Far too few book reviews attempt this.
Style is important for non-fiction too. We often see non-fiction in purely instrumental terms: we read the book in order to learn something, but if there were a better way to learn that thing, we would just go do that instead of reading it. On this view, words are mere vessels of thought, carriers of information. They are invisible at best, eloquent distractions at worst.
Because language shapes the way we apprehend thought, it can distort, conceal, and reveal. It may be simple, but it is never transparent; reading, like writing, is an active process, a conscious searching for something which lies under the surface. The style of a piece of writing—regardless of its aims or its relation to factuality—guides us, and the manner of this guiding is just as important as what we are sent towards. Jacques Barzun puts it thus: “Depth, surface, unity, technique are not mere aspects of an unchanging core of thought. They are the incarnations of thought itself.” (37)
Apposition has no particular kaupapa. But I do avoid some things.
I generally avoid “hot” political topics and current events. Those things whirl around in our heads too fast for honest reflection, and there is enough of them already. Apposition tries to be slow media.
I also avoid anything which has the form or appearance of viral media: clickbait titles, cross-posting, hot-takes, dichotomous thinking. Sometimes I re-write passages to make them less salacious. Recently, Substack suggested that I write a post sharing other Substacks which I’m subscribed to. Those writers would get a notification, and we would have an opportunity to network our audiences. Nope. Not gonna do it.
There’s a certain dignity and power in obscurity. When my most popular post—the one about The Burnout Society—got around 25,000 views. My articles usually get around 50-100 views, so this was a mind-boggling number. Wow! All those people liked my article!
Though it felt nice in the moment, I could already grasp how chasing that sense of validation could easily distort you into writing for an imagined audience of clicks and eyeballs and expectations, each leading you away from your own internal sense of how things are. Your writing should not hold you hostage.
In Gerald Murnane’s fiction, obscurity allows space for a sense of wonder and possibility as yet unencumbered by the intrusion of the real world. The nameless narrator of The Plains makes this realisation when he reflects on the failure of his movie about Australia’s interior:
How might a man reorder his conduct if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others? And what could a man not accomplish, freed from any obligation to search for so-called truths apart from those demonstrated by his search for a truth peculiar to him?
In other words, Apposition will remain slow, ponderous, poncy, and wordy—just as most blogs tend to be. It will always be written for a presumed audience of one (myself).
For those who have read or supported Apposition, or had any kind of reaction to anything I wrote, or given me encouragement or feedback over the last year—thank you. I love you all, and hope you enjoy what’s to come.