Pin It

Book Review 

by Marty Demarest

A good encyclopedia should do two things: feed our needs for both information and imagination. We should be able to lose ourselves in something that we didn't know before we picked up that book. And we should start to connect what we know with what we've read.

William Vollmann, the contemporary novelist, has decided to give us an encyclopedia of violence. He's called the seven-volume work -- decades in the making -- Rising Up and Rising Down. It's been published, against probability, by McSweeney's Press, in a hardcover boxed set that is torn apart by the weight of the books. Clearly, we're dealing with an obsessive project.

His first volume begins with "Three Meditations on Death." Here, Vollmann details his own confrontation with violence, and the light that illuminates it: mortality. He then goes on to offer a frank personal introduction to the work. "Putting aside any notion that the world is becoming a better place was neither easy nor pleasant for me," he writes.

The world, as he goes on to detail it, is pretty bad. Vollmann has assembled a good record of our crimes. The seven volumes use sources as diverse as Jesus Christ, the Marquis de Sade, and Animal Liberation Front member "Virginia" to give us stories that Vollmann examines for the clues and qualities of violence.

From this, Vollmann derives his "Moral Calculus," which is the part of the book that may go on to have lasting impact. The topics of this guide include things like "What Factors Need To Be Considered in Judging Any Violent Act?" and "Maxims for Murderers." That last category contains this piece of wisdom: "The Klansman's Maxim: If I believe your race or culture threatens mine, I have the right first to threaten you back, then to remove your threat by violence." Contemporary American politicians couldn't have said it better.

Yet despite indulging in the temptation to judge his subjects, Vollmann remains a reliable guide. We certainly can't ask for an encyclopedist of a topic as dark as violence to be absolutely objective. But most of his editorializing comes from evocative and compelling descriptions of what historical events must have been like, because, as he writes, "I figured that if my theorizing were wrong or unpalatable, the reader might at least have some moments of pleasure." Pleasure, certainly, in reading something this audacious and chilling.

Publication date: 02/19/04

  • Pin It

Latest in News

  • Odds And Ends
  • Odds And Ends

    Idaho lawmakers are pulled in lots of directions; plus, SPD weighs a "culture audit"
    • Mar 25, 2015
  • Four Days A Week
  • Four Days A Week

    Idaho schools that dropped one day a week from their schedule are saving a little money — but at what cost?
    • Mar 25, 2015
  • A County Ombudsman?
  • A County Ombudsman?

    Weighing the costs and benefits of oversight at the Spokane County Sheriff's Office
    • Mar 25, 2015
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Today | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed | Thu | Fri
Opening Day for Trails

Opening Day for Trails @ Spokane

Sat., March 28

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Marty Demarest

  • The Cowboy's Cowboy
  • The Cowboy's Cowboy

    A Canadian sings about the life —  not just the lifestyle — of the new West
    • May 15, 2013
  • Completing the Trilogy
  • Completing the Trilogy

    Mass Effect has finally arrived
    • May 23, 2012
  • Minecraft
  • Minecraft

    Adventure and survival too often give way to mindless crafts in this building-block simulator.
    • Feb 8, 2012
  • More »

Most Commented On

  • Why Idaho kids don't go to college

    And what that means for the Gem State
    • Mar 4, 2015
  • New Blood

    Candidates are launching bids for Spokane City Council and could bring big changes to city government
    • Mar 18, 2015
  • More »

Top Tags in
News & Comment




Publisher's Note

long reads

© 2015 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation