Sometime back in February, I was lobbying one of my managers about transitioning to full-time remote. When I’m not gracing you with my meandering opinions, I copywrite for a small business-to-business firm in Evanston, which, coming from where I live on the South Side of Chicago, is something like going from Long Island to Manhattan every day. I’m sure people do it, but it’s excruciating. Considering that I write my home office off on my taxes, I’ve never considered working from home a hindrance, but the firm harbored a patrician conceit of employees “just working better at the office,” and held firm.
Then someone in our office building caught the novel coronavirus, which I had just read about in Bloomberg for work, and the CEO sent out a company-wide memo alerting staff that he was shutting down the office for 30 days. The end-of-March return date turned into the end of April, then May, then whenever there is a widespread vaccine available. And here I am: stumbled upon what I’d asked for in the first place through the bittersweet parameters of a pandemic.
My bar is stocked more than it would be under normal circumstances, and I get packages delivered for things that I’d rather pick up in person, but for the most part I’ve avoided all the crazes—sourdough baking, puzzles, gardening, and now Chess, apparently. (Shouts to The Queen’s Gambit.) On paper, I was primarily grateful for the time. Three hours round trip on the El every day was wearing on me more than I thought. Being at home would give me the opportunity to make some improvements on my apartment, or catch up on projects that I’d been putting off.
Boy did that turn out to be a con. The company I work for is more benevolent than most, but bosses are gonna do what bosses are gonna do, which is saddle employees with work to make sure they are staying productive. On the one hand, it’s impossible to make the case that centralized offices are better when output is skyrocketing while people are at home in their pajamas. But on the other: the days have grown longer, my work-life balance is shot, and it’s increasingly difficult to put up the pretense that my day job is distinctly different from this “other” me. I’ve taken to leaving my work laptop in my kitchen, so as not to corrupt all my other writing, which I do in the office. Closer to the coffee but worse on my back. No roses without thorns.
Anyway, just a roundabout way of saying that, as far as books are concerned, my numbers are down. But, as I imagine anyone whose life consists of open books would tell you, you’ve always read more than you think. The trouble is parsing out how much of that reading was for pleasure and how much of it was for assignments, or so as not to be left out of “the conversation.” In the best-case scenarios, those considerations intersect.
One last note: I think about books based on the story of buying them, so this essay is scattered with inadvertent plugs.
I came into 2020 reading two books that I started around Christmas-time 2019: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi and the Library of America’s collection of Joan Didion’s work from the 1960s and 70s. I think I bought the former from the Evanston Barnes and Noble, of all places, which is now closed. I started reading it on the plane to New York, on the way to visit my wife Whitney’s family, and finished it on the way back. In between, I found myself trying to explain how crazy that novel is to the deer-in-the-headlights looks of my in-laws. Without a doubt one of the most impressively constructed literary “timelines” that I’ve yet to come across, but what I find myself thinking about more is how deftly it addressed contemporary issues without being pandering, or hokey. One of several novels that has bolstered my faith in contemporary literature.
The Didion, I bought at Merritt Bookstore, in Whitney’s hometown. Kira, the owner, had to see if they still had it; apparently there was a person in town who’d been coming to the store for the express purpose of stealing LOA titles. Objectively lousy, though you have to admire the taste level. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’ve never seen what the fuss is about over Didion’s style. Tons of writers are more interesting on the line level to me. But not many are as observant, or as clear-eyed about their sense of morality—or their personal stake in the stories they are telling. Reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem during quarantine felt very prescient in the sense that, to Didion, culture (and the counterculture) were working just as intended, and yet civilization still felt as though it was coming apart at the seams. On the grand scheme, to document this is probably more valuable than language idiosyncrasies.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Whitney was shopping for me while I was learning about the LOA Bandit. As a last-minute gift, she bought me Ruffage, by Abra Berens. So good! It’s a cookbook that’s based around vegetables rather than vegetarian cooking. I really appreciated how she decentralized meat and grains as a focus, and her advice on pantry staples, which makes throwing decent meals together on a nightly basis easier. And, as a lifelong Chicagoan, how she prioritized the seasonality, locality, and diversity of food in the Midwest. Put it on a bumper sticker: Illinois—So Much More Than Corn.
Sometime around when lockdown started, I finally read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, which I bought in paperback from Amaranth Books in Evanston. If you’re ever in the Chicagoland area, do not skip that place. Last time I was there I snagged a first edition of Mike Royko’s Boss for like $5. Don’t know how the owner does it, but well before COVID-19 he’s been pricing them to move. I don’t have a legitimate reason for why I waited so long to read Kushner. As a writer, her second novel seems impossible to think about without recalling the discourse around it. I’m sure that I’m forgetting about something, but this book in particular seemed to split the critical class more than any I can recall in the past 10 years, with half of reviewers characterizing it as a saccharine fraud, and the other half raising it to Great American Novel status. I’m closer to the latter, though it did seem like there were too many set pieces. One thing I will say about it though is that, in light of the dust-up over Warren Kanders being on the board of the Whitney, and the Sacklers washing their opioid money clean via the Met and the Smithsonian, Kushner understands the revolving-door relationship between art and fascism more than most. That Sandro would have better footing as an artist than Reno seems less of a revelation than a foregone conclusion.
The last art exhibition I saw before museums shut down was The Allure of Matter, back in December. Half of it was in the Smart Museum, on the University of Chicago’s campus, and the other half was at Wrightwood 659, which is a Tadao Ando mansion turned gallery on the North Side, in Lincoln Park. The premise was artists from China who produce “Material Art,” or who adhere to a monk-like devotion to a specific medium and exploit its properties to create a personalized visual language. I thought the half at Wrightwood was better, and that the thesis of the show was a bit confused, despite featuring tons of brilliant contemporary Chinese artists. But I wound up writing about that show for Art in America, so I spent a good chunk of late winter/early spring going through the catalog, which does an excellent job of taxonomizing each artist’s specific practice, even though I’m still not sure if there is enough congruence to canonize Material Art as a thing.
I also found myself reading Peter Schjeldahl’s Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light around this time. Also late to the party on this one; I read Charles Finch’s review in the New York Times over a year ago and finally pulled the trigger buying hand soap in an Amazon order. (I know…) Two Pieces stuck out to me: Schjeldahl’s review of the Kerry James Marshall show—which I initially took issue with for pitting Basquiat and Colescott’s work against Marshall’s for the sake of establishing Marshall as the preeminent black painter—and his profile of Laura Owens that coincided with her Whitney retrospective. Regarding Marshall, I came to respect the insight that his deeply symbolic portrayal of something as simple as black people living fills a demand within contemporary consciousness, regardless of whether or not that act is cheapened by the art world using him as shorthand for representational justice. But then you have someone like Laura Owens, who is legitimately earnest about her community impact, but whose presence both inside and outside of the art world serves as a parable for why art on its own might not be enough. No writer is perfect, but Schjeldahl has thought deeply and holistically about aesthetics for quite some time now, and he doesn’t punch down.
Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories came out in the spring. I’m ashamed to say that, until I got that through a curbside pick-up order from Pilsen Community Books (along with a copy of Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You for Whitney), I had never read a story by her. My entire experience with her work was through essays in the New York Review of Books. I read Lauren Groff’s introduction in the parking lot of Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park, making sure that my hands were extra clean after demolishing chicken and fries from Big Boss down the street on Halsted. “People Like That Are The Only People Here” is as great as everybody says it is, but I’m more into “How to Be an Other Woman” and especially “You’re Ugly, Too.” Both are very instructive in expanding the parameters of what constitutes humor, or being a humorist, in the American tradition. Humor as a character’s coping mechanism, humor as characters’ security blankets—Moore is funny, but it never reads like she’s joking.
I usually read a good amount of poetry, but it feels like I read more this year. I reviewed Danez Smith’s Homie back in January, Nate Marshall’s Finna in August, and I am currently going through Frederick Seidel’s Selected Poems for an essay going into January 2021. (I’m also reading LOA’s African American Anthology, which Kevin Young edited, very slowly.) In between all of this, I’ve been rereading Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, which I bought at last year’s AWP conference in Portland: a lifetime ago in quarantine time. “Bullet Points” has taken on a life of its own in light of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. I love that poem (as much as you can love something that’s so heart-breaking), but my favorite is still “The Card Tables.” The association of “playing” with cards—of lanky men with low-cut fades with the box-like shape of cheap folding tables—dredged up so much of my personal consciousness that I had to set the book down. If the so-called Culture Wars will ever be laid to rest, it’ll be through literary moments like these, where the many ways that black people live are treated matter-of-factly instead of as esoteric or apart.
I also read all of Claudia Rankine in preparation for a review of Just Us, which ran in September. When I was doing my MFA, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago gave Citizen out as a de facto handbook on microaggressions, which was a nonstarter for me. Nobody tells me how to read a book. But she was invited as a guest lecturer that fall and did this extremely bracing performance piece where she read from Citizen over a piano score in front of a video montage of black people being brutalized and murdered by police. For people unfamiliar with SAIC, the concept of social practice was founded there, and for a certain sector of the faculty and student body an artistic work will always be weighed against its “responsibility.” Needless to say there was some pushback. Fast-forward to reading the book for a class on the more creative structures that criticism can take, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed rereading it. But it took a few years to take Arnold Kemp’s advice about Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. He’s the graduate dean at SAIC, and recommended reading it in a fellowship interview, which through some glitch in the Matrix I wound up winning as a prose writer in an art school. A perennial fan favorite—virtually everyone I’ve spoken to about Rankine insists that it’s her best. I might demur; it’s not as sophisticated visually. But the recursive nature of it got to me. And, unlike what has come after it, it’s not as overt in its mechanisms. Is Rankine’s depression and malaise because of how wretched America is, or a compounding? It strikes me as a thankless job to archive all the atrocities and indigities inflicted on black people on a daily basis, lest we collectively forget. I will always be grateful to Rankine for putting the work in.
The New Yorker put out an archival issue around this time too, and the fiction selection was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” I read that in a high school literature class, and it fucked me up beyond repair. One of the formative moments that made me convinced that reading and writing in English was worth doing in perpetuum. I reread it when Shirley Jackson’s LOA edition came out, and reread it again in this issue. The premise is obviously bonkers, but the third time around the town relationships stood out more than human sacrifice. How each individual reacts, or doesn’t react, to Mrs. Hutchinson’s selection is an incredible feat of character development in such short a space.
These days I am mostly reading for the National Book Critics Circle. I’ve still managed to take a look at a couple books for myself, though. My friends and I started a book club with Art As Experience by John Dewey about a month ago. Given the election, holidays, and an overall lack of interest on behalf of the group, it is an open secret that none of us have read the whole thing yet. The date for the Zoom meeting keeps going further and further into the future. I am the culprit; I found out that Dewey was a trustee of Black Mountain College, which has one of the more fascinating art school histories to me—this idea of training one’s focus as close to lived actualities as possible so as to make art feel more authentic. Anyway, not much to report there except to say that the writing is somewhat laborious. “Boring” and “pretentious” are among some of the words scattered throughout my text threads.
I bought Edith Wharton’s collected novels from the Powell’s in Hyde Park I don’t know how long ago. LOA, in case you were wondering! That turned out to be a godsend. Everyone was talking about The Age of Innocence, and I had no idea why. (Turns out 2020 is its centenary year.) Anyway, started reading that, and really enjoyed it. Certain society-page stuff it documents hasn’t aged well, but the notion that NYC is superior at everything and that to deviate from its mores amounts to a goofy social suicide—well, that I can relate to. There’s also a plasticity of all the characters going through the motions that conjures many eye rolls, but eventually comes back as a gut punch once you realize how miserable everyone is. It’s not that the characters can’t behave differently. It’s that they can and choose not to because it’s inconvenient for them. Which sums up this ludicrous year as much as anything.
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