I Was Formed by What I Didn’t Know: The Millions Interviews Dani Shapiro

In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.

Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.

After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.

The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?

Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.

TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.

DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.

TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?

DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”

And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.

TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?

DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…

I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.

My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.

When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.

TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.

DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.

TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?

DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.

TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.

DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.

It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.

TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?

DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?

TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.

DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.

When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

Over the summer, I read Charlotte’s Web to my son, and it was like entering the house of an old friend, someone you haven’t seen in years, maybe decades, but as you sit in their kitchen and drink their coffee and look out their window to their backyard view, you remember all the time you spent at this particular table, gazing idly at the photos and sticky note reminders on the refrigerator, at the slowly ripening bananas in a cracked wooden bowl, at the pebble-filled jam jars lined up precariously on the windowsill, at the embossed linoleum floor tiles…and it’s all so comfortable and comforting that it’s like no time has passed at all.

We’ve all had friends like that. And we’ve all had books like Charlotte’s Web. When I read it aloud to my son, the sentences were so overwhelmingly familiar that I felt like I was singing along with a song I’d forgotten I knew. I read Charlotte’s Web many times as a kid, so I knew the story had made an impression, but I hadn’t realized what an influence the prose style had been, that it was a music that would stay with me for life.

Of course Charlotte’s Web is a very sad book. It often gets described as a story that teaches children about death—and I guess it does—but rereading it, I found that the real lesson is that true friendship is rare and rarely lasts a lifetime. When you’re young, and you find someone immediately delightful, you optimistically think life will be full of such encounters; you don’t understand that such people are the exception, not the rule. Your second mistake is in thinking that your mutual affinity means that the friendship will be long-lasting, when it fact, any number of life events might separate you from your friend—not only tragic events like illness and death, but marriage, children, schooling, career, and the ultimate friendship killer, a change of address. Friendships have their seasons, like anything else.

Most children’s books contain simpler lessons about friendship that focus on how to be a good friend or how to keep a friend. E.B. White takes for granted that children have natural affinities for certain people and animals, and that they form deep attachments. Rereading Charlotte’s Web, I appreciated how subtle he was in his storytelling, with his emphasis on the changing seasons on the farm, and on Fern’s transition from childhood to early adolescence. At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern can understand what animals are thinking and communicating to one another, but by the end, she has stopped visiting the farm and is more interested in the attentions of a boy at the fair.

Did my son pick up on any of this? It’s hard to say. We read it twice, and he loves any story about animals, but it seems that Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is shorter, and funnier, is the one that tickles his soul. I read that book at least eight times this year. It’s basically a heist story that ends in a dinner party. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be the novel I would spend the most time with this year, but parenthood is full of surprises.

As adult reader, the novels I loved most were Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter, the first two in her seasonal quartet. These books are set in contemporary times and written quickly to reflect our changing politics—and even our changing seasons, as climate change skews temperatures and habitats. I haven’t read anything that reflects so well how the Internet has begun to permeate our everyday thoughts, or that gets the mood of our era so well, without getting bogged down by specific events or even names. They are witty and sad and strange and playful and kind. After I read them, I decided I would immediately read everything Ali Smith ever wrote. But life got in the way of that project and now I’m waiting for her next installment, Spring, which is due in April.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The 2018 Millions Gift Guide for Readers and Writers

It’s that most wonderful time of year, when the internet is bursting with gift guides. Here’s our annual list of suggestions for the readers and writers in your life. We’ve got all the essentials: books, candy, bobbleheads, and hammocks.

1. A Bookcase with Glass Doors
Why glass doors? Because they’re fancy. Because they protect your books from dust. Because you need to upgrade your Billy bookshelf. Because Fran Lebowitz says so.

2. Writers and Their Cats
Steven King, Beverly Cleary, Marlon James, Luis Borges … these are just a few of the writers who appreciate the company of cats. This photography book features portraits of writers and their feline companions. A great gift for writers with cats and also for writers who wish they had a cat, but are still working on convincing their families to live with one.

3. Mark Twain Bobblehead
For fans of Mark Twain, humor, and white suits. Look upon this bobblehead and remember Twain’s wise words: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” (Also: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”)

4. Wine Shelf
I’ve heard it said that editing your own work is best done after a glass of wine (but probably not two). If pinot noir is part of your writing process, this shelf might come in handy. It might also work well as a resting spot for the kitten you adopted after perusing Writers and Their Cats.

5. Ergonomic Desk Chair
Most writers could use a better chair, especially if they type on a laptop. Wirecutter recommends the Steelcase Gesture Chair, but at over $1,000, that’s a luxury gift. A more budget-friendly option is the “Mesh Task Chair” (also a Wirecutter pick) or Millbergert from IKEA.

6. Jelly Beans
An excellent writing snack. Also a good way to bribe small children who are trying to distract you from your work.

7. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands
This beautiful book contains maps of imaginary lands from literature, from Narnia to Dante’s Inferno to Earthsea, Mordor, Treasure Island, and many more, both classic and obscure. With an introduction from Philip Pullman, there are also a number of essays from authors and film directors about how maps inform their creative process.

8. Literary Walking Tour
A walking tour is the kind of thing you don’t buy for yourself, especially not in the place you live, but a tour is an easy way to see a new side of a place you think you know well—especially if you live in a place with a lot of underemployed graduate students. New York City is, unsurprisingly, home to a large variety of literary walking tours that cater to both tourists and locals. I also found tours available in a number of American cities including Boston, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Chicago, Iowa City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. For international travelers, Lonely Planet put together a list of the world’s best literary tours. (Some are offered year-round, while others are intermittent; I’ve linked to tours that are available now.)

9. Cabin Getaway Vacation
The one thing that all writers and readers want is more time to read and write. Nothing offers quiet and solitude like a cabin getaway, especially if you search for one located in an area with poor wifi access.

10. Indoor Hammock
If you can’t afford a getaway, a hammock in your home is like a daily vacation. (I recommend browsing Etsy for the widest variety of options, but many home goods stores sell them, as well as sites that sell outdoor furniture and camping supplies.)

11. A Book Blanket
Wrap yourself up in the words of your favorite author with Litograph’s blankets. Like their posters and T-shirts, their throws are printed with the text of your favorite works of literature.

12. Reading Lamp
Everyone can use a lamp for their bedside table (or floor) to facilitate cozy reading time and soothe the brain after a day of screen time. Some options: a simple light bulb, a sturdy table lamp, or this little spaceship of a lamp.

13. Literary Subscriptions
Literary subscriptions seem to be having a bit of a moment these days, with independent bookstores curating book boxes to meet the taste of their clientele. Some of the national subscriptions that we’ve mentioned in the past are defunct, while others, like Journal of the Month and The Short Story Advent Calendar are still going strong. A few others to consider: Call Number celebrates contemporary Black literature, while Coffee and a Classic helps readers catch up on all the classics they missed in college (and provides coffee to keep you awake). For used books (and a more budget-friendly subscription) try Blue Spider Books. For YA fans, there’s Bookship, which is specifically catered to adults who like to read YA.

14. Support The Millions!
And here’s something we hope you’ll consider treating yourself to: Support The Millions by becoming a member, and you’ll help ensure there’s something smart, curious, unexpected and moving to read pretty much every day in 2019. And—the ribbon on top—our members now receive an exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. It’s a great way to find new books to read!

Image: Flickr/m01229

No Superheroes Here: Nine Upcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations

Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).

Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).

Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).

The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).

Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).

Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).

The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).

The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).

You Have to Invent Yourself: An Interview with Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier wants you to take a break from social media. Not forever—but for a significant period of time. He suggests six months. He understands that this will be hard. And he gets that it could be professionally difficult and personally isolating. But he thinks it will be worth the sacrifice, because it will help make the internet better. It might also make you feel better—more free, happier, calmer.

If you’re intrigued by this challenge, I encourage you to pick up his book-length essay: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now. You won’t be scolded or labeled a screen addict; instead, you’ll be asked to take a closer look at the business models behind Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which Lanier labels BUMMER, an acronym for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into Empires for Rent.” In a recent TED Talk, Lanier explained it this way: “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”

Lanier is a Silicon Valley insider, best known for pioneering virtual reality but also for his books, especially You Are Not A Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013).  Both argue (in part) for a more thoughtful, economically fair version of the Internet. Ten Arguments is shorter than his previous books, and it’s more urgent, with frequent references to current events. In his acknowledgments, Lanier explains that he wrote it because his 2017 book, Dawn of the New Everything, a memoir about his work with virtual reality, was so overshadowed by the news that he ended up speaking to interviewers about how “social media was playing a role in making the world newly dark and crazy.”

I spoke to Lanier by phone a couple of weeks ago. The interview has been lightly edited; references to current events date to late May.

The Millions: I loved your book and I came to it in kind of a funny way. I read In Search of Lost Time last year, which is a novel that really makes you think about your habits, and when I finished reading it, I looked at my social media use and decided I didn’t want to be on social media anymore. I’ve been trying to convince other people to get off of social media, and when I saw your book of 10 arguments, I thought I could find some good ones.

Jaron Lanier: Well, the one you just brought up about your personal time, it really does deserve to be a whole argument in itself, but I only really mention it tangentially in the other ones.

TM: I felt like that was the main argument at the end of the book. It seems to be oriented toward individual action: Quit social media for a month and see how you feel about it.

JL: We’ve shifted the whole framework of society into this one where corporate algorithms are what know you, but I’m much more interested in the process of people knowing themselves and inventing themselves. It’s almost as if people have forgotten that. It’s very strange to me; people who are very addicted to the system will say, oh, well, I’m letting it know me, but in order for there to be something to know, you have to invent yourself, and in order to invent yourself, you have to spend some time with yourself. There’s a real quality of absurdity to me in the way we’re thinking about it.

TM: I did wonder if you’re also looking for collective action. Do you think a large group of people should do this in order to change the landscape?

JL: I think it would be a tremendously positive thing for the world if there were a massive group of people to delete their accounts all at once; however, I believe that it’s a very unlikely thing to happen. The truth is that companies like Facebook, but Facebook in particular, genuinely have been able to leverage addiction. The very definition of addiction is that it’s hard to quit. And then, on top of that, they have a digital large-scale version of addiction, which is called network effect. There’s something very reasonable that people want—which is what the internet was for—which is, they want to be able to reach each other, and they would like to be able to do things like share family pictures and all that. And as long as there’s a single company that has such a monopoly on that stuff and also actually owns all the data, in order for everyone to get off of it, they’d all actually have to do it at once and then get onto something else, and that coordination problem is impossible. Therefore, even if they weren’t personally addicted, it’s inconceivable that everyone could get off.

I understand that the ideal of everyone just leaving the stuff is hard to the point of near impossibility, but I feel I have to ask for it because you have to be able to ask for the right thing to happen. Even if the ideal is unattainable in a given era, you have to at least be able to articulate it. If you can’t do that, then you’re precluding hope for the future. In the immediate term, the fact that so many people have sympathy with the argument I’m making, combined with the fact that those same people have a hard time acting on it, will reinforce the idea that the current situation is really not democratic, not fair, not sustainable in the longer term.

I think that in, let’s say, the last half century or so, we’ve seen a few cases of massive societal change that were brought about by people who were trying to promote good ideas. For instance, littering used to be completely overwhelming, and now it’s rare; smoking used to be overwhelming, and now it’s rare; driving while drunk is not as rare as it needs to be but is certainly less common than it used to be. Those are three examples of very commonsense ideas getting implemented through effort and good intentions. So on one level, it’s like that. All of those degraded the lives of people in an immediate way; this one kind of hides the damages it’s doing until there’s an election that seems to be counter to what the majority of the people wanted. Or until a rise of horrible ethnic violence in parts of the world, or until waves of bullying, waves of teen suicide—all these kinds of things.

It’s a moral imperative to at least state what everybody should do even though it’s so hard. And then we’ll have to kind of gradually muddle our way toward something better.

TM: Given the situation now, how does an organization cope? For example, the website I write for now is an online magazine, and we use social media to post links to articles. And we need social media because it’s the way people find out about what we’re writing. Considering a site like ours, or even a larger site, like the New York Times, would you argue for them to just quit for six months or a predetermined amount of time, just to see what would happen?

JL: This is a tricky area. If people ask me for advice—and people do, even though I don’t advertise myself as an advice-giver on any personal level!—what I always say is: If you really think that using social media is vital to your career or to whatever you do, then you need to make the decision to make your career or your own efforts successful. It doesn’t do any good for anyone if you ruin your own life process. I feel very strongly about that. But there’s two things that have to be said in addition to that. One is that it’s possible that in some cases, this feeling of the necessity of social media is a bit of an illusion, and until we test it, it’s a little hard to say. I’m told that what I do should be impossible without social media accounts. I’m not the bestselling author in the world, but I have been the bestselling author in different countries at different times, and I have had bestselling books, and I somehow seem to get by without social media. I’m told, well, but you’re an exception in this way or that way. I might be, but why couldn’t there be others?

I think of a social media company, in particular Facebook and to a degree Google, as an existential mafia. They’re saying, you have to work with us or you effectively won’t exist. You’ll become invisible to everybody. Your very corporeality is in our hands, so give us a cut of your being. It’s a very strange moment. Ultimately, the power of a protection racket does rest with their ability to keep a community in fear. If only people could lose the fear, then their power would evaporate, but this gets us back to the problem of cooperation. Can I share one fantasy I’ve had?

TM: Sure.

JL: The number of websites that would say approximately what you just said—that we’re trying to reach people with this sincere, high-quality work we do, and we feel we need social media just to let the people know—the number of such sites in the world is not gigantic. Let’s say it’s less than 10,000. I’m not sure what it really is, but it’s something like that. There’s not a huge number of places where there’s multiple people working together to consistently put out good material online. If it’s really in the thousands, or even in the low tens of thousands, why can’t all those sites just get together? And come up with their own thing, with really great policies? Genuine privacy policies, no advertising—or at least, no advertising that’s personalized. I don’t object to advertising, I just object to behavior modification, which means there’s a feedback loop to your personal data. No Cambridge Analytica. No Putin. No information warfare. No bizarre, calculated creepy stuff. It would just be a thing to function for what you need, which would be a way to let people know what you have. Give people a way to manage the amount of complexity that exists online so they can find the things they care about. That could be done by a coalition of a relatively small number of people. I’ve heard of people trying that in the past, and usually what happens is Facebook treats that kind of like how Trump treats some person he has an affair with: This massive machine comes into play to try to shut it down. But I don’t know—I think something like that could happen.

TM: I wish it would. Right now, we’re starting to rely on a subscription model in part because it feels too dangerous to rely so much on the giant social media companies. So I like that idea, but it seems like the New York Times or some big site like that would have to get behind it.

JL: I think they might. I haven’t personally ever tried to have a conversation. This is the first time I’ve brought this up with someone in an interview. But I’m just really struck that for every organization that interviews me, whether it’s a really big one like the Times or a smaller one like yours, everyone has the same story: that we feel beholden to this weird company that stands between us and our readers and seems to be able to dictate to us how we can be in the world. And it’s a great shame that this is happening.

TM: How do you see this book fitting in with your other books?

JL: I feel like it’s a little different. The other books I’ve written were perhaps in a way more original. This one has a very different quality—it’s short! The other ones are big. This one is trying to organize some ideas and observations and information that really have been out there quite a bit. It does bring new ideas to the picture. In a lot of cases, it’s  trying to create a focused way to think about so much information that’s already been out there, some of it from me, but a lot of it from other people.

One argument in it that is new is the reason that social networks emphasize negativity so much. And there are a few other little things, like the reason cats are more popular than dogs online. In a sense, it’s a more popular book because it’s working within what’s already out there. The other books, when they came out, I think were very different from anything else that was on the same topic.

TM: Did you have a different process for writing this book?

JL: Actually, I did. The other ones were super hard to write. This one was a little different. When I was doing the press interviews for the last one, which was about virtual reality, and my life, people kept asking me questions about what had happened with technology and politics—the Trump election and Brexit. This was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was known, but there was still a lot of tension about it. It was in responding to journalists that I realized there was a need to pull everything together in one overarching argument. It rose much more conversationally than the previous ones. And so I thank all the journalists who asked me questions in the back of the book, because it really was the prompt from them that got me to pull this thing together.

TM: It seems like you revised it up to the last minute because there are references to #MeToo and other pretty recent events—how did you decide when to stop? Were you driving your editors crazy?

JL: It was kind of a comedy, actually. I turned the thing in around New Year’s, and then something would happen that would be relevant, and I’d call up my poor editor and say wait, wait, wait, I have to add a few more things. And then I’d get this email back saying well, OK, but remember we have to get it to the copy editor. And I’d say, just a few things! And then the next week something else would happen. And I’d say stop, stop, stop, I just have to add a little bit more! And we finally had to have a conversation saying, look, this could go on forever—you have to stop.

The thing is, there’s this tension: I really believe in the book as a media form, because what a book does is almost like an encapsulation of personhood. It has a definite authorship, and you put enough in it so that you present a whole worldview and not just a response, not just a countertweet or something, and you’re committed to it enough that you believe it will be able to stick around for a few years and still mean something. But at the same time, the very thing that makes it so important makes it hard to connect to fast-changing events and a very dynamic situation. You have to find the compromise between them that will work. And so at a certain point, we just had to cut it off. And even after that, Cambridge Analytica! It was at the printer, as I say in the book, and I said, we have to acknowledge it, and so I had to make it fit on the blank space on a page so that nothing would have to be repaginated.

TM: Is there something that’s happening now that you wish you could have gotten in the book?

JL: You know, it’s every day. There’s a new study today on the correlation between smartphone use and suicide. It’s just devastating. I was just reading a report on it in the Guardian; I haven’t read the original research yet. It’s not something new, but it’s more detailed research than there had been. There’s this extraordinary filing today, in San Mateo, between two extremely unattractive companies that are fighting each other. It’s this little company that wanted to sell people’s bikini pictures on an on-demand basis. They sued Facebook for shutting it down. They claim to have uncovered this extraordinary evidence that Facebook may be even more dickish than we knew they’d been. It’s sort of like a lawsuit between Rudy Giuliani and Harvey Weinstein. You can’t really root for either of them. But there they are. It’s just been happening every day—actually, the thing that was extraordinary today was James Clapper saying that the Russian information warfare would be more sophisticated, harder to notice, and perhaps more effective for the midterms than they’d been for the last election, which is not a pleasant thing to read or contemplate. It’s plausible.

TM: Before you go, I want to ask you about your reading habits and what kinds of things you like to read.

JL: Lately, I’ve been kind of feeling retro. I’ve been trying to reread old stuff that meant a lot to me when I was younger to try to understand what it was that got to me—a single sentence of Nabokov. I want to try to understand why that could be so heartbreaking and amazing. And also, I have this 11-year-old who likes to read adult books. She loves the prose of Bukowski, so we have to go through and kind of edit it out, to give her readable versions of Bukowski. I have friends who write wonderfully, and it’s strange to read somebody you know, because you don’t have that distance that is good for literature, but I just gotta say, Zadie Smith continues to amaze me with everything she does, and my buddy Dave Eggers.

I try to go through at least a dozen sites every day, just to keep up, and there’s some amazing writers online, but it just goes by so fast. I don’t really get to know individual writers, and that kind of bothers me. I wish there were some way to make it easier to get to know a single person’s writing when they’re writing in a lot of different places.

TM: It is hard; there’s not a good way. Sometimes you can go to people’s websites, but people don’t update them as much as they used to.

JL: Right. This whole world would be better if it weren’t for the domination of social media companies that are bent on behavior modification. The internet was supposed to be good about this stuff, and it still could be. I think it still will be someday.

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution to Read More

It’s the first week of February and I’ve already failed in my resolution to read more books. Between the ever-accelerating news cycle, snow days, weekend road trips, and the three-month-old baby who is smile-drooling by my side as I write this, I’ve started six books and finished exactly…one.[1] I’m probably the last person who should be giving advice on the subject of How to Read More. But, I’m trying to do better, so I’ve compiled this list of tips to help myself—and maybe you, too.

1. Schedule Your Reading Time
For me, this has always been the most effective way to find time to read. Last year, I read for an hour in the morning right after I dropped my son at school. But now I live with a baby, so I’m trying to work with her naps. The point is to make a plan in advance: don’t wait for reading time to magically appear, because it never will. Look at your day and see where you can fit it in, and then stick to the plan, as if your book is a person who you’ve agreed to meet—don’t be late, and don’t flake!

2.Turn off Social Media
You know you’re on social media too much. Cutting back on it is a pretty obvious way to find more reading time, but that’s easier said than done, especially since most of these sites are designed to be addictive. So here’s one simple thing you can do: put your phone in another room when you’re reading. I got this tip from the podcast Hidden Brain, during an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Newport emphasized that it is important to put your phone in another room because even if it’s turned off, as long as it’s nearby your mind will be distracted by its presence.

3. Don’t Overschedule Your Weekends
Weekends often get filled up with activities that aren’t reading-friendly or even very leisurely, e.g. household chores, social events, family obligations, and least fun of all, all the work you didn’t finish during the week. I didn’t even realize this was happening to me until I read Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect, which argues that our culture is slowly turning its weekends over to scheduled activities and paid work. Take a look at your weekend and see if this isn’t happening to you. Then start declining invitations and put off doing the laundry. You deserve a lazy Sunday afternoon.

4. Get Up Earlier
Okay, this has never worked for me, at any stage of my life, but I hear it works well for other people. Set your alarm for a half hour earlier and keep a book on your bedside table. No need to get dressed, just roll over and read.

5. Listen to Books
Audiobooks generally put me to sleep, especially in the car. But my husband loves them and has found they help him to bridge reading sessions; he’ll read at home and then listen on his commute. Sometimes he even speeds up the narrator to 1.25 reading speed, or even 1.5. (I listened to a little bit of The Power Broker at 1.5 speed and it actually felt kind of aesthetically appropriate, given the overwhelming amount of detail in that book.) My son also enjoys audiobooks and this has been great for me, because he’ll play quietly in his room for a good hour if there is a story going—which gives me an hour to read quietly in my room.

6. Set a Goal, but Not a Numerical One
It’s tempting to set a numerical goal when it comes to reading more. You want to be able to look back on the year and say: “I read 50 books!” But when it comes to reading, I’m not convinced that numerical goals are actually very motivating. For me, it’s more satisfying to tackle a difficult book or series of books. It’s something I can remember and look back on fondly; sometimes focusing on a particular author or subject can even give special meaning to a period of your life.

7. Read on Your Smartphone
You know how I told you to put your phone in another room while you read? If you found that advice annoying, you might try reading on your phone. A friend of mine reads all her books on her smart phone, a habit she developed because she’s the mother of two small children and a lot of her reading takes place in darkened rooms near sleeping kids. Her phone is like a book with a nightlight. I’ve tried reading my phone and it doesn’t work for me—though I was almost convinced by this beautiful essay by Sarah Boxer about reading In Search of Lost Time on her android phone, which she describes as “a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night.”

8. Read Several Books at Once
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading several books at once. If I got bored with one, I’d switch to another, and then back again. I thought this was how everyone consumed books until a teacher mentioned offhand that most people read one book at a time. I have no idea if this is true, but among dedicated readers, I suspect that habits are more varied. If you read a lot of books but you’ve never read more than one at once, try reading multiple books.

9. Don’t Force Yourself to Finish Good Books
Sometimes a book is brilliant, but it’s just not the right time for you read it. You can be sitting there, reading a book, thinking to yourself, this book is so good, and yet, you have no appetite for it. What can this mean? Are you stupid? A philistine? Naïve? Unwise? Who knows! Let yourself off the hook and read what you’re hungry for.

10. Force Yourself to Read Good Books
After 15 minutes, you might feel like you’re not “into” a book. Give it a half hour, especially if it’s a classic or comes highly recommended by a trusted source. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the necessary concentration and your initial impression of boredom was just your brain sloughing off the anxieties of the day.

11. Don’t Substitute Writing for Reading
If you’re a writer at any stage of your career, it’s important to read at least as much as you write. You’ve probably heard this advice before, because every time you attend an author panel and someone asks for advice to aspiring writers, the answer is always: “read more.” This is not just a self-serving directive. Reading may feel like a passive activity, but it will make you a better writer. It’s almost magical. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week: Let’s say you have put aside an hour every morning to work on your novel before starting your day. Take three of those mornings and spend those hours reading a book instead. I promise you that the writing sessions on the remaining mornings will be more productive and satisfying.

12. Be Realistic
I have to ask: do you actually want to read more? Or are you simply nostalgic for a time in your life when you had more time to do everything, including reading? Like exercise, the benefits of reading are exaggerated and understated in equal measure. If you don’t feel like reading more this year, just pick out a few books to enjoy. In a few years, you might have time for more. The books will be waiting for you.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] But the one book I did finish—Ali Smith’s Autumn—was so wonderfully intelligent and funny and playful that it may end up being the best book I read all year.

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

I started the year by finishing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which left me, as Anne Carson memorably put it, in “the Desert of After Proust.” I would start other novels, but nothing held my attention. Instead, I read a lot of magazine articles, worked on my own fiction, and developed a mild jigsaw puzzle addiction.

The malaise finally lifted with a streak of memoirs and novels that I later realized were all about being in your 40s, or approaching them. I’m 39, so I guess I come by my interest in this subject honestly. As I read them, I felt a little like a middle school kid reading books set in high school, hoping for some insight into what was immediately ahead.

In no particular order, these Books of Midlife were: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy; Hourglass by Dani Shapiro; Between Them by Richard Ford; Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer; Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam; The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad; Vacationland by John Hodgman; The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs; and Still Here by Lara Vapnyar, which includes the memorable piece of dialogue about the perils of age 39:
“That’s a crazy age,” he continued with the hint of a smirk. “Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re forty, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn forty.”

Some may quibble with my list, wondering how Richard Ford’s portrait of his parents or Nina Rigg’s memoir of dying of cancer count as Books of Midlife. Another odd choice is The Weekend Effect, which is borderline self-help about how to reclaim your leisure time. All I can say is that to me, three hallmarks of getting older are 1) coming to a new understanding of your parents; 2) feeling your own mortality; and 3) wanting to make the most of your free time.

After a year of breaking news alerts, I also found myself drawn to nonfiction that helped me to put our political moment into a larger context: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks; Future Sex by Emily Witt; And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill.

Most of these books are essay collections, and most of the writing contained within them was completed well before the 2016 election. It was fascinating to see the way that many of these writers anticipated our current political situation. Their blind spots were equally interesting.

I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The 2017 Millions Gift Guide for Readers and Writers

What to buy for the writer who has everything? More books, of course! But if you’re looking for something a little different, please enjoy our annual gift guide for the readers and writers in your life.

1. Keyboard Upgrade
Laptop keyboards are not ergonomically designed, nor are most of the keyboards included with desktop computers. A ghostwriter/editor friend of mine who has dealt with tendon pain from typing recommends the Freestyle2 Blue, which allows multiple Bluetooth attachments, so you can switch between phone, tablet, and laptop, and is available for both Mac and PC. Wirecutter also has an extensive list of mechanical keyboard recommendationives.

2. Portrait of a Favorite Author
It’s a literary tradition tack up a portrait of your favorite author near your writing desk—to inspire or intimidate, I’ve never been sure. Upgrade your friend’s tattered postcard of Beckett with a hand-drawn portrait from “Badly Drawn Authors.” (Or, go DIY and try your hand at your own portrait.)

3. Book Wallpaper
Book wallpaper might seem redundant if you already have several shelves of books in your home, but if you’ve moved the majority of your reading to e-readers, it might be comforting to have a trompe l’oeil wall of books. (Here’s a minimalist version for a twist on plain white walls.)

4. Bookniture
This clever stool from the MoMA Design Store is made from sturdy cardboard and can be stored on your bookshelf. It can also be used as a standing desk. Confused? Watch its accompanying video and see if you’re not convinced of its utility.

5. Five-Year Diary
I received a five-year diary as a gift seven years ago and I must admit, it took me five years to start using it. But now I love it. The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress.

6. Library Card Pillows
Small children and teenagers will have no idea what this pillow depicts. You’ll have to explain to them that, once upon a time, you wrote your name on a card, which was tucked into the back pocket of a book. Other people’s names were on the card, so you could see who else had read the book. Looking at those little cards, you had no idea that one day, they would become the subject of nostalgic pillows.

7. Monk’s Library Candle
No holiday gift guide is complete without an overpriced candle. This one smells like winter, myrrh, and quiet concentration.

8. David Sedaris Diaries
Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, is the perfect gift for an aspiring writer, who can take heart in Sedaris’s long journey to literary success. Although his fame appeared to come overnight with the instant popularity of his NPR-produced “Santa Land Diaries,” Sedaris spent the first 15 years of his career wavering between visual art projects, theater, writing, teaching, and an array of odd jobs. The diaries also reveal the evolution of Sedaris’s literary style, and fans of his writing will recognize riffs and stories that ended up in his later essays. For those with a little more to spend, David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium, is a beautiful art book that showcases the collages and artworks that have also been a part of Sedaris’s journals.

9. Literary Tees/Totes
Once quirky, the literary tee and/or tote is now ubiquitous. Even if you’ve seen them all, you might want to give these tees and totes from Litographs a second look, which pair award-winning illustrators with classic novels. You might also consider the universally flattering “Readers For” tee shirt from Books Are Magic.

10. Licorice Pipes
For those who don’t smoke but want to settle down in their den with a pipe, a snifter of brandy, and a classic.

11. Donation to Libraries in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico
Water and wind are not a friend to books, and neither is President Trump. You can donate to Houston through the Texas Library Association and Florida through the Florida Library Association. I could not find a charity devoted specifically to library restoration in Puerto Rico, but the Hispanic Federation has set up a fund devoted to short and long-term disaster relief, and has helped to coordinate donation drives on the U.S. mainland.

12. Support The Millions!
And here’s something we hope you’ll consider treating yourself to: Support The Millions by becoming a member, and you’ll help ensure there’s something smart, curious, unexpected and moving to read pretty much every day in 2018. And — the ribbon on top — our members now receive an exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. It’s a great way to find new books to read!

Image Credit: Public Domain Photos.

Text Me: On New Technology in Fiction

1.
2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005.

In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill.

At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this.

The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power.

I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.”

Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”:
Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life.
I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say.

I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he’s lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser.

In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages.

House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs.

“I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.”

Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover.

2.
But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of ’90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted?

The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.”

Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.”

Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.”

As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.”

For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.”

Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.”

Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.”

3.
The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.”

There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages.

“I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’”

Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person.

Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself.

4.
When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online?

Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.)

Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts.

Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.”

I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating.

Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.

Ten Ways to Organize Your Bookshelf

I recently moved to a new apartment, which gave me an excuse to pursue, without guilt, my favorite procrastination activity: reorganizing my bookshelf. It also forced me to go through each and every one of my books and ask hard questions like, am I really ever going to read The Forsyte Saga? (Answer: It’s been up there for 10 years, but maybe? I kept it.) Or: will I ever reread Middlemarch, and if so, will I want to use this yellowed paperback with a taped spine that I got for free off of a stoop? (Answer: No. If a person returns to Middlemarch, they deserve a fresh copy, possibly a reissue with interesting new cover art.)

On my old shelves, my books were organized into four broad genres: fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. Fiction was arranged by date published, nonfiction by subject area, and plays and poetry were not in any particular order. On my new shelf, I stuck with my broad genres, and within each one, I kept things simple and organized everything alphabetically. Boring, but effective. But part of the fun of reorganizing your books is considering all your options, so here are 10 organizational strategies for the next time you find yourself in the throes of moving, decluttering, or, if you’re anything like me, procrastinating.

1. Chronologically, by Date Published
As I mentioned above, this is how I have arranged the majority of my books for the past decade. It’s kind of a pretentious way to shelve your collection, and to make it even more pretentious, I got the idea secondhand, from a literary memoir. (I can’t remember whose memoir anymore.) But this method ended up working for me for two reasons: 1) the act of putting my books on the shelf in order helped me to remember history, and to get a better sense of which writers were writing and publishing at the same time, and perhaps influencing one another; and 2) when I add books to my collection, they’re usually brand-new, published recently, and it’s easier to just plunk them down on the end of the shelf rather than finding a place for them alphabetically.

2. By Color
If you have a large number of books, this is an extremely silly way to organize your bookshelf. I know, because I tried it once. I have a good memory for covers and I thought it would be an intuitive way to find my books—and would look pretty, too. What I didn’t realize is that the spines of books are sometimes a different color from the front covers. I found myself spending a lot of time looking for, say, a book I was certain was red, only to discover that its spine was blue. But, if you really love putting things in rainbow order, and you have a small number of books that you know well, this could be a visually striking way to arrange your shelves.

3. Artful Piles
I’ve seen this in design magazines and once when I was visiting a fancy Nolita loft, where tall stacks of art books were arranged in uneven piles on a long bench. It reminded me—not unpleasantly—of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway visits Gatsby’s library and discovers that none of the pages of the books have been cut for reading. So if you have a lot of beautiful books that are just for show, artful piles might be the way to go.

4. By Subject/Genre
If you’re a collector of books on a particular subject, or a big fan of a particular genre, this is probably the most satisfying way to arrange your books. It’s also a good way to organize your books if you don’t have a good memory for titles and authors. I group my nonfiction books by subject because I don’t always remember nonfiction authors and titles as readily as writers of fiction. My subjects are: History, Criticism/Literary Interest, New York City, and Art/Design. (I debated giving memoirs, letters, and journals their own nonfiction subject area but ultimately decided to shelve them with fiction, since in many cases, I’m most interested in the memoirs of authors whose fiction I admire.) A handful of my books don’t fit into any of those categories, and they are stacked up vertically in a miscellaneous pile, near the art books.

5. Geographically
I’ve never seen anyone organize books this way, but why not? The question is, when you’re organizing geographically, do you go by the author’s place of birth or the particular place that an author is associated with? For example, would Joseph Mitchell be a New York writer or a southern writer? What about Ernest Hemingway? The Midwest, Florida Keys, or Spain? Another option would be to organize by the geographical setting of a particular book, which is somewhat more definitive, though many books are located in multiple locations and/or fictional places. A compromise might be to devote a section on your bookshelf to one particular geographical area.

6. In Order of Importance and/or Goodness
This could be a good way to start debates among guests. It also could be a good way to kill a rainy afternoon.

7. Secretively
If you don’t want anyone to know what you’re reading and/or if you don’t care about being able to find your books, you can place them on the shelves so that the spines are facing the wall. This will give your shelves a soothing, monochromatic look. It will also make it difficult for people to borrow books from you.

8. Alphabetically
This is the obvious, most boring method, but it might be the friendliest, too. Anyone looking for a book in your library will be able to find it. It’s kind of interesting, too, to see who ends up next to each other.

9. Randomly
You don’t have to organize your books at all. You can shelve them in no particular order, like Pamela Paul, New York Times Book Review editor: “What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity.” Personally, I couldn’t stand to do this at home, but I do enjoy perusing the strange mix of books that you find in beach houses and summer cottages, for the way it always leads to an unexpected choice.

10. Autobiographically
Credit for this idea must be given to the film High Fidelity (based on the Nick Hornby’s novel by the same name). Post break-up, a lovelorn record store owner, Rob, decides to reorganize his record collection autobiographically. He arranges his records in an order that only he can understand, the key to which are his life experiences and personal obsessions. He explains to a friend, “If I want to find the song “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

It could be argued that every bookshelf, like every piece of writing, is autobiographical, even with its veneer of objective organization, but I admit I can see the nostalgic appeal in consciously organizing my books according to the stages of my life. I’m not sure how I would end up grouping my books, but it would be interesting to think back on all the people—family members, teachers, friends, writers—who have influenced my reading, the classes I’ve taken, the authors I’ve met, the booklists I’ve clipped, and the summers I’ve whiled away. I’d also have to reckon with some of the less flattering aspects of my bookshelf, like the fact that a certain number of books will always remain unread, and another, larger percentage will never be reread because my hope of returning to them “one day” has nothing to do with a desire to reengage with the author, but instead, to return to a certain period of my life, a frame of mind, or even a particular person or place. To shelve autobiographically is to embark on a journey of self-examination, which is why I’m saving it for when I undergo a midlife crisis—or maybe when I move to a bigger apartment.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.