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. [millions_ad] 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).
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. [millions_ad] 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.
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. 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. [millions_ad] 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.  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.
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.” [millions_ad] 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
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. [millions_ad] 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.
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.
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.
1. The problem with finishing Proust is that there’s nothing left to read. I’m sure Swing Time is just as excellent as everyone says, but it felt like a slog to me, and I stopped close to the end, with only 40 pages left to go. It sits on my bookshelf, unfinished. The same went for my book group’s March pick, a classic, Les Liasions Dangereuses. I tried some novels that I’d been meaning to read for months, but they didn’t matter anymore. Nothing seemed interesting. Apparently, this particular form of boredom is common for anyone who has finished In Search of Lost Time. Anne Carson describes it as “the desert of after Proust:” There’s a kind of glacial expanse that opens where nothing seems worth reading and all you want is for Proust to start over again, but of course he can’t and so you read, in a desultory way, things about Proust or criticism or biography, but it’s not the same and eventually you just give up and realize you’ll be in Proust withdrawal for a while and then life will sort of go on in a grayer level. Like Carson, I picked up criticism and biographies of Proust, as well as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton’s book was especially depressing, like reading the tour guide of a country you’d just visited, and wouldn’t be able to return to for many years. Knowing I might feel bereft, I stretched out the final volume, Time Regained, for as long as I could. For me, it was the most compelling part of the novel because it spoke so directly to the writing process. After years of frittering away his time at social events, Marcel has a strange and unexpected revelation when he’s on his way to yet another party. While crossing the courtyard outside the Guermantes mansion, he jumps out of the way of a car, nearly tripping on some uneven paving stones. The feeling of disequilibrium brings back a strong memory of Venice—a memory as strong as the one that famously came to him when he dunked a madeleine in a cup of tea and his childhood visits to Combray bloomed in his mind. All at once, Marcel understands the work he must do to write the book he has dreamed of composing. In a startlingly direct 200-page passage, Marcel describes what writing is, what memory is, and how writing and memory allows us to translate our experience of life—our consciousness—into art. He explains the way that our deepest-held impressions are accessed through our senses, by the sound of a bell, the feeling of paving stones beneath one’s feet, or by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In Proust’s philosophy of memory, the majority of our recollections are intellectualized narratives; these are voluntary memories. But involuntary memories are those that come to us when we encounter a physical sensation that seems to put us in two worlds at once: the past and the present. These types of memories dissolve time, and they also, Proust observes, dissolve the ego: These [memories], on the contrary, instead of giving me a more flattering idea of myself, had almost caused me to doubt the reality, the existence of the self. To forget oneself is one of the great joys of writing, possibly the greatest joy, but we’re not living in a moment when people are encouraged to forget themselves. Social media, our most popular narrative form, is all about intellectualizing memory, and crafting a narrative of self that gives a particular impression. But these curated memories don’t have much correspondence to what people actually think or feel. Furthermore, most of us aren’t aware of their most deeply buried memories, the ones that shape our experience of life. If you want to find out your true impressions, Proust says, you must push away the distractions of everyday life: As for the inner book of unknown symbols...if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book. I read those words on Tuesday in February. I know it was a Tuesday because my son has swimming lessons on Tuesdays, and, having read Time Regained for longer than I’d intended, I was in a rush to pick him up from school and take him to class. Still, I arrived at the YMCA pool in a spaced-out mood. Usually I bring my smartphone down to the observation deck, so that I can check emails and read the news while my son takes his lesson, but on that day, prodded by what I had read, I left my phone in the locker room. I brought my book group’s February selection—Bluets, by Maggie Nelson—but I didn’t open it. Instead I stared at the pool, occasionally searching for my son’s swim-capped head. The scent of the chlorine was strong and I drifted into memories: my lifeguard training as a teenager, an unhappy time when I swam lap after lap on Saturday mornings in a pool that left my hair greenish. I changed among girls I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to like me particularly. The bathroom smelled strongly of bleach. Later, I found out that I didn’t even enjoy lifeguarding, but I did like the confidence it gave me in the water. I love to swim laps in the ocean and out to the middle of lakes. I want my son to have the same love of swimming when he’s older, but I don’t know if that’s something you can actually pass on. My son finished his lesson and I dried him off with a white towel worn from industrial washings. We put his suit in the noisy drier that I’m certain is damaging to the fabric of his swimsuit but which he loves to operate. I wondered if he would remember any of it—the noise, the chlorine, the shower stalls—years from now. 2. That same Tuesday, my husband and I went to a lecture by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He was promoting his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, which addresses the evolution of human consciousness. As we waited to attend the lecture in a very long line outside of a warehouse near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, I noticed that the majority of the people in line were looking at their smartphones. It was an unremarkable observation, but waiting in a long line had gotten me nostalgic for my 20s, when free lectures were a way of life. Except, back then, no one had smart phones. Instead, you had a book, or a magazine, or you made idle conversation with your friend or the friend of your friend who arrived first. If you called someone on your phone, the people around you were slightly annoyed to be put in the position of eavesdropping on your one-sided conversation. Everything was a little bit awkward, and a little bit boring. But on that night in Gowanus, nothing was awkward. No one was bored. Everyone was on their phones, doing as they pleased: playing games, texting, posting, reading, scrolling, commenting, joking. It was great, maybe? Or it was sad? Were these even the right questions to ask? It was a mild night, for February. Above the sky was faded New York City black, with the streetlights glowing orange. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven and there were puddles at the curb, reflecting the lights. The gutters were dirty with trash and debris. People waved to approaching friends and companions, removing earpieces in advance of hugs and kisses. They showed each other images, lit by small glowing screens. They checked the time. Many human behaviors remained the same. But a certain lull was gone. There was also, harder to pinpoint, a disengagement from the physical world. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t just read Proust’s theory of involuntary memory, and the role of sensory input in the formation of thoughts and memories. I wondered how many people waiting were absorbing anything about waiting in line with these particular people at this particular moment in time. I wondered if it mattered. I wondered if the online world, that abstract place of arguments and images, comments and shares, likes and links, was becoming, or had already become, larger in people’s imaginations than the world of paving stones and dirty puddles, telephone poles and night skies, elevated trains and guard rails, dropped gloves, car horns, peeling paint, swiftly moving clouds, and strangers standing close enough that you can smell their floral perfume. I wondered if I was a foolish, stubborn person, willfully out of touch with a new social language, a new way of being human. During his lecture, Dennett discussed his theory that consciousness is a mental process that has evolved over time and exists on a spectrum across many living creatures. He argued that human consciousness is unusually powerful because it allows us to be aware of our capabilities. That is, a spider can make a complex web but as far is we know, a spider is not aware of its web-making skills. From our awareness comes an ability to be intelligent designers; we don’t have to wait on the slow-moving, trial-and-error process of biological evolution to grow our species. We have cultural knowledge, such as language, music, and cooking, to help us survive and thrive. When describing the transmission of ideas among humans, Dennett refers to memes, a word that originates with Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene. Dennett defines memes as "a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed." Words, Dennett writes, "are the best examples of memes." He likens memes to viruses, looking for a host in a human brain. He sees them as similar to genes in their ability to replicate. He’s deeply interested in artificial intelligence, which he sees as a new stage of human evolution. His ideas are controversial among philosophers, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through his very long, very dense book and don’t completely understand his theory of consciousness, nor the arguments of his detractors. But his book was the one that brought me out of my post-Proust reading drought, I think because he looks closely at human habits, the way that Proust does. After the lecture, there was a Q&A, and an attendee asked Dennett for his view on religion’s influence on culture. Dennett said religion was a meme, a way of behaving in the world, and like all memes, its chief goal was to spread among humans. He didn’t think there was a point in assessing religion as good or bad for humans. His verdict: “Religion is good for itself.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help applying the same formulation to social media: “Social media is good for itself.” There is really no point in deciding if social media is good or bad. It is now part of our cultural evolution and there's no going back. Like religion, it is sometimes a means for justice and compassion. And like religion, it is also sometimes destructive and divisive. I thought of all those people, waiting outside, their heads bent over their phones, as if in prayer. I realized that my discomfort with social media is similar to my discomfort with organized religion. I am sympathetic to its allure, and in awe of its power to organize communities and bring about social change, but I am alarmed by the way it creates a new reality for people. 3. That was February. Now it’s June and I’ve been taking a break from social media for the past few months. For me, that meant quitting Instagram, neglecting my Tumblr feed, and ignoring online comment fields. I also removed email from my phone, which made the biggest difference in my daily routine. I hadn’t realized how much I was checking email. I also wasn't aware of how often I was taking photos with the thought of posting them to Instagram. It’s a relief to have those small decisions—Should I check email? Should I take a photo? Should I post a photo?—removed from my life. There’s still plenty of distractions on my phone, but I stare into space more than I used to, and I pay closer attention to strangers, and passersby. My life feels quieter and more relaxed, but also lonelier. If I wasn’t living in a place with a busy street life, and where I know a lot of my neighbors, I think I might feel very isolated. I keep noticing how often people refer to things that have “happened” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and in the comments section. But do the things that happen on social media actually happen? Do they have any basis in reality? This is the question I keep returning to. I know that what happens on social media affects reality, and it affects people’s perception of reality, and maybe that’s enough. But I also know that when I meet people in real life after following them on social media, the online version of the person usually becomes irrelevant. A person’s social media profile is kind of like the publisher’s summary on the backs of novels. Maybe it draws you in, or maybe it turns you off, but it likely has very little to say about the actual experience of reading a particular book. It’s better to open the book at random and read a few pages, just as it’s more informative to meet someone in person. Even an extremely self-aware person, who is “good at social media,” has aspects of their personality or physical presence that they would never think to display. It’s also just very difficult to represent yourself on media platforms whose parameters are designed with the intent, above all, to grow and replicate a larger network. (Remember, social media is only good for itself.) The difficulty of knowing yourself is one of Proust’s central themes, and one I’ve touched on several times throughout my posts. For most of In Search of Lost Time, Proust explores this law of human perception through social life, as he gently exposes the hypocrisies and delusions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He’s so good on other people that you barely notice that his narrator, Marcel, is a struggling writer, a person who tries, and fails, repeatedly, to undergo the self-examination necessary to write. It’s only in the final volume that Proust addresses the difficulty of discovering (or rediscovering) a reality that is worth expressing: The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life. I underlined that passage with the passion of an undergraduate, feeling as if I’d discovered the secret of writing—of life, possibly. Yes, my true impressions were constantly being smothered. Because what else is social media but a process fueled by vanity, passion, intellect, and above all, habit? What else is so much of Internet content, with its barrage of hashtags, inspo, links, and #goals, but “a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life”? I feel naïve writing these things, and when I first started thinking about this post, I wanted to title it: How Proust Convinced Me to Give Up My Smartphone. But to write that essay, I’d have to give up my phone, and I don’t want to. My phone makes certain parts of life really easy, and it also makes it easier for other people to be in contact with me—important people like family members, friends, neighbors, and my son’s teachers and caregivers. There’s also the fact that I’m writing this essay on a platform that uses social media and mobile apps to distribute its content. I can be as morose and confused as I want about the proliferation of social media, but the reality is that I have become habituated to its many uses. This is the struggle of modern life, an irony Proust touches on throughout In Search of Lost Time, as he encounters new technology like telephones, airplanes, and motorcars. He loves the convenience of calling his grandmother, and yet he experiences new strains of melancholy when he hears her voice through the receiver. One can only imagine the new forms of jealousy he would have encountered if his beloved Albertine had been on Instagram. And yet he would have adapted. Habit, “that skillful and unhurrying manager,” would have interceded. Louis C.K. has a joke about how quickly we adapt to technology, the joke being that the first thing we do after achieving an amazing technological advancement—like flight—is to complain that it could be better. For Louis C.K., this is evidence of our fundamental ingratitude and unhappiness, but Dennett might say that our rapid acclimation to new technology is the special gift of our species, the thing that has allowed for our wild success in reproduction and survival. I think Proust’s observations on the power of habit bridge both views. Reading Proust became a habit for me, and it’s one I still miss, months later. Certain books, Proust writes, can be a lens for your life, a way to see more clearly. His novel certainly did that for me. Years from now, I’ll read it again, when I need to see the world with fresh eyes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. Several months ago, a commenter asked if reading Marcel Proust had affected my writing, and I’ve been turning the question over in my mind ever since. I thought it would make an interesting subject for a book club entry, and I’ve started this one many times, but I haven’t been able to write anything. One reason is that I’ve been working on a novel, and that’s taking up a lot of my time. A second reason is that my attention (like everyone else’s) has been dragged this way and that by the news cycle. A third reason is that the final volume, Time Regained, is so intelligent, so truthful, and so piercing, that there doesn’t seem to be any point in writing about it. I have nothing to add, nothing to analyze. There is also something incredibly delicate about this last volume. The narrative seems to be crumbling in my hands. The characters are suddenly much older, World War I has arrived, and the voice of the author is, for the first time, a little rushed. You can tell Proust is dying, truly writing on deadline, and it’s as if the book’s most important theme, Time, is taking over. (I have more to say on Proust’s treatment of death, but I don’t think I can write it until I’ve finished the book.) With 200-odd pages still left to go, it feels too early to reflect on how this past year of reading has affected my writing, in general. But I can speak to how Proust has aided me in my own fiction. In particular, reading In Search of Lost Time has helped me to refine my approach to characterization. The novel I’m working on now is almost completely character driven, and the premise is simple: here are three women on the brink of three different life changes; let’s see how they fare over the next five years. When I started making notes for this book, a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what these three women would do or if I even had a book. (To be honest, sometimes I’m still not sure, but that’s a topic for another day.) Small plots have emerged, but most of my technical focus has been on characterization. I want to keep showing different aspects of each woman, while at the same time giving the reader a consistent sense of who each character is and how she will behave. To put it more simply, I want readers to feel as if they know these characters, in a real, complex way. 2. My first -- and now that I think about it -- only formal lesson in characterization came from my 10th-grade creative writing teacher. He asked our class to come up with a list of ways that authors convey character without simply describing a person’s personal qualities, e.g. “kind,” “greedy,” “selfish,” “compassionate,” etc. First on the list were physical description, action, and dialogue. From there we moved to the environment that a character inhabits, and their social milieu: their family and friends; their clothing and possessions; their house, room, office, school, etc. Then we got into the more subtle aspects of physical presence: the sound of a voice, a manner of sitting or standing, particular movements or gestures. Finally, we considered a person’s inner, unseen qualities: their thoughts and beliefs, likes and dislikes, loves and hates, and their previous lived experiences, i.e. their “backstory.” This may seem like a blindingly obvious exercise, and maybe it was (we were 15), but as I recall, we got into a big discussion of personality and some students questioned the premise of the exercise. Why couldn’t you just describe a character as “nice” or “good” and get on with the story? Why did you have to show it? My teacher told us that it’s more memorable for a reader to decide that a person is nice, rather than being informed of their niceness. But he offered the following work-around: another character could say that a character was nice, and that would also be memorable -- though of course, character’s B’s testimony of character A’s niceness would be judged based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to: character B’s relationship to character A, character B’s motivations with regard to A, character B’s overall trustworthiness, and to whom character B is describing character A’s niceness. This is the part of the lesson that really stuck with me, because it made me see, first of all, how plot can arise from character. Even in this highly abstract set-up, you can’t help wondering if character A is really as nice as character B says. At the same time, it made me see how difficult it is to represent the intricacies of human interaction. What is said and what is done isn’t even half of the equation. We have a variety of social selves, and even the most straight-shooting, guileless person speaks differently to a parent than to a best friend. To properly reveal a character, you would need to show them in a variety of situations and moods and how on earth are you supposed to do that with any economy? One answer is: don’t write a novel. Instead, write something for the stage or screen and let the actors fill in all the subtle dynamics that action and dialogue alone cannot describe. Another answer: write a long novel or a series of novels with the same characters. It’s human nature to feel attached to the people we spend the most time with -- this is basically the premise of the American version of The Office -- and so even if the characterization is not subtle, you can’t help feeling close to a person you have followed for thousands of pages over the course of several books. At first blush, it would seem that Proust’s strategy is to write a very long book. The events of In Search of Lost Time take place over four decades. Characters grow up, marry, and bear children. Some become ill and die. This accumulation of events certainly contributes to a feeling of knowledge and intimacy. But the key to Proust’s characterization is, paradoxically, the way he shows that, when it comes to other people, there is no knowledge and no real intimacy. Our experience of other people is subjective, colored by our own fantasies and projections or dulled by habitual contact. As Proust observes in The Fugitive, at the end of his long, tormented affair with Albertine: “It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” Our subjective assumptions keep us ignorant of other people’s motives and proclivities, and certainly we know little of the inner changes taking place in other people. In addition, powerful outside forces are constantly shaping people in ways in which they themselves are often unaware: history, society, time -- to name a few. Throughout In Search of Lost Time, Proust illustrates this ambiguity by revealing new sides to his characters. The final chapter of The Fugitive is straightforwardly titled: “New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup.” 3. The character twist is a staple of thrillers, but Proust does not use character revelations to advance his plot (the plot of In Search of Lost Time, if there can be said to be one, is: how Proust came to write In Search of Lost Time). Instead he uses them to remind the reader that our observations of other people are subjective and incomplete. Here’s Marcel, in a scene from The Captive, reflecting on the unexpected kindness of an old family friend, a person who had generally been indifferent toward him: I concluded that it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens. Proust illustrates this “succession of different aspects” in a beautiful passage about Saint-Loup, one of the most well-developed characters in the novel, someone we see throughout the book and feel that we know. But after Saint-Loup’s death, it occurs to Marcel that he really didn’t know his friend very well, and that they rarely saw each another: And the fact that I had seen him really so little but against such varied backgrounds, in circumstances so diverse and separated by so many intervals -- in that hall at Balbec, in the café at Rivebelle, in the cavalry barracks and at the military dinners in Doncieres, at the theatre where he had slapped the face of the journalist, in the house of the Princesse de Guermantes -- only had the effect of giving me, of his life, pictures more striking and more sharply defined and of his death a grief more lucid than we are likely to have in the case of people whom we have loved more, but with whom our association has been so nearly continuous that the image we retain of them is no more than a sort of vague average between an infinity of imperceptibly different images and our affection, satiated, has not, as with those whom we have seen only for brief moments, during meetings prematurely ended against their wish and ours, the illusion that there was possible between us a still greater affection of which circumstances alone have defrauded us. To me, this paragraph is a miniature class on literary characterization. Marcel is saying that even though he does not actually know Saint-Loup very well, he feels that he does; there is an illusion at play. And that illusion is the result of having seen Saint-Loup for brief periods of time in a variety of different circumstances. Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship will certainly recognize this phenomenon. A dear friend recently visited me, or at least someone I consider a dear friend, though I have actually not spent much time with him. We have never lived in the same city and I know very little of his daily life. But we see each other every year or so, and I remember our meetings in greater detail than I do with friends in New York that I see on a regular basis. In some ways, this friend is more real to me than my friends who are “like family” -- the ones I text with daily and who wipe my child’s nose. I rely on my local friends for companionship and community but I don’t notice them in quite the same way. Literary characters are, maybe, like long distance friends. Your perception of them is brief, but intense. Even in a very long book, an author writes with the knowledge that there is a limit to the number of scenes he can write with a particular character, or the number of lines he can devote to physical description or psychological observation. An author is not trying to reconstitute an actual person, but to create an illusion of intimacy. And there are tricks -- many of them as described by my teacher, earlier in this entry. But the main trick is to abandon objectivity. That doesn’t mean that a novelist has to employ a subjective narrator. It’s not the mode of narration that matters, it’s the discipline of the author -- the precision it takes to leave aspects of a character unresolved and ambiguous. 4. In order to exert some discipline on this essay, I will not get into Proust’s philosophy of selfhood, which distinguishes between the parade of moods, states of mind, and social performances that constitute our experience, and a deeper, bedrock self. But in terms of literary expression, of trying to create the illusion of character, one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust is that a writer must attempt to show a character’s “succession of selves.” This is different from the classic storytelling advice: that a character must change or grow over the course of the narrative. I’ve never liked that presumed moral arc; it feels constraining and didactic. Also, it’s not necessary, because the passage of time will always reveal character. The poignancy of the final volume, Time Regained, is in seeing all of Proust’s character’s age. At a party attended by many of the novel’s personages, Marcel observes that he must study the guests with his memory as well as with his eyes. Some are so transformed that he doesn’t recognize them at first. Of his old school friend, Bloch, Marcel cannot even perceive him as middle-aged until someone else points it out: I heard someone say that he quite looked his age, and I was astonished to observe on his face some of those signs which are indeed characteristic of men who are old. Then I understood that this was because he was in fact old and that adolescents who survive for a sufficient number of years are the material out of which life makes old men. In Time Regained, the chronology is somewhat confusing as War World I begins and ends, Marcel retreats to a sanatorium for an unspecified number of years, and certain marriages are never fully explained. It’s hard to know if this was intentional, since Proust never had a chance to complete his revisions, but it makes psychological sense, because time doesn’t pass logically for us, especially when it comes to our friends. By embracing the subjectivity of perception, and of the passage of time, Proust created characters that feel as mysterious, fleeting, and precious as life itself.
To be a woman in a movie is usually to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you’re single, you’re probably in a romantic comedy en route to marriage, or you’re in an ensemble comedy, lamenting the fact of your singleness. If you have a job, you’re likely a journalist or an assistant, but if you happen to be the boss, it’s at the expense of your personal life, which you secretly prize more than anything else. You’re probably straight, and you’re probably white. You’re probably quite thin with great skin and a large wardrobe. Your living space is probably very clean and well decorated. You’re probably smiling. Or laughing. If you’re crying, you look really beautiful while the tears stream down your face, and men fall in love with you. Three movies I saw this year broke free of this mold: Certain Women, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures. Their titles could almost be interchangeable. They featured women whose characters, motivations, and desires were not defined by their personal relationships to men, but I can’t say I was aware of that while I was watching. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the films that I realized how radical their characterization was. While I was watching them, I simply reveled in seeing women that I genuinely admired and recognized from life. Certain Women almost had a different title. Director Kelly Reichardt originally planned to call it Livingston, after the Montana town where it was filmed. While I can see the merits of that title, especially for a film that looks closely at daily life, the small choices and compromises that the characters make are so specific to the female experience that the title Certain Women strikes me as just about perfect. The film, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is structured like a miniature short story collection, and contains three short films about three different women living in present-day Montana. Ancillary characters vaguely link the women, but what really links them is a sense of restlessness. These women have jobs, autonomy, and a certain amount of authority, but they don’t move through the world as freely as they would like. They are reserved because they have to be, in order to get what they want. But that same reserve also leaves them lonely. The screening I attended to was followed by a surprise Q&A with one of the film’s stars, Michelle Williams. In her conversation, she mentioned that Reichardt had insisted on a cinematography that did not include any “beauty shots” of the spectacular Montana landscape -- no gorgeous “big sky country” sunsets, no framing of perfect views. Instead, she wanted the dramatic landscape to exist as it did for her characters; something they lived with and enjoyed, but which did not symbolize freedom, adventure, or conquest. This gave the film a quiet, lingering beauty and a kind of defiance in its unwillingness to engage with or evoke Hollywood’s usual myths about the American West. In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening embodies quiet defiance in the character of Dorothea Fielding. A child of the depression, Dorothea marries late and has her first (and only) child, a boy, at age 40. The marriage doesn't last and so she raises her son, Jamie, on her own. This puts her out of step with her generation. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but she tries. She buys an old house in Santa Barbara and restores it. She takes in younger, more radical boarders: an earnest, new-age mechanic (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a 20-something photographer recovering from cervical cancer (Greta Gerwig). The film takes place in 1979, when Jamie is 15, and smack dab in his awkward teenage years. Dorothea listens to his records, Talking Heads and Black Flag, in an effort to understand him. Feeling at a loss, she enlists two younger women to help Jamie grow up and become a man. (Or is it to help her let him go?) One of the women is her housemate, Abbie, and the other is her son's unrequited crush (Elle Fanning). Both women end up providing Jamie with a sentimental education that Dorothea doesn’t necessarily welcome and/or entirely disparage. Every once in a while, a character in a movie reminds me so completely of my mother that I feel like I’m dreaming it. Dorothea is in her mid-50s, which is how old my mother was, the last time I saw her. She doesn’t really look like my mother, but her wardrobe reminds me of my mother’s, especially in the way she mixes comfortable shoes and pants with conservative blouses and jewelry. Dorothea’s demeanor also reminded me of my mother -- a mixture of idealism and impatience, curiosity and constraint, delight and disappointment. It’s all tempered by a reserved deadpan that the other characters in the film sometimes mistake for humorlessness. Jamie apologizes for her, saying, “she’s a child of the Depression.” It’s his way of acknowledging that she was born too early to reap the benefits of women’s liberation. But the younger characters were born too early, too, and the film seems to understand that for women, freedom is always hard-won. Which brings me to Hidden Figures, a film that tells the true story of the black women who helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, based on a book of the same title, by Margot Lee Shetterly. (And recently highlighted by my colleague, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in her Year in Reading.) If it's unusual to find a movie dominated by female characters, it's downright rare to see film with black women in lead roles, not to mention a mainstream Hollywood film. And Hidden Figures is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie, with a lot of Hollywood moments, including Kevin Costner demolishing segregated bathrooms with a sledgehammer -- a scene that was fabricated to show a white male character being a good guy. But the overwhelming message of this film, to borrow from a sign I saw at the Women’s March, was: Can you believe these women have to put up with this shit? In Hidden Figures, you meet three undeniably gifted people who also happen to be black women. One, Katherine Johnson, is a genius. The other two women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are mathematicians who do computations for NASA. They have a lot to offer to the space program, but they are given jobs at NASA only because the powers that be are so desperate to win the race to the moon that they are willing to ignore gender and race when seeking candidates. Even so, the "colored computers" are forced to work in separate offices, use separate bathrooms, lunch in separate cafeterias, and drink from separate coffee carafes. They also receive separate, smaller paychecks. It’s a blatantly sexist and racist situation, and there are a lot of show-stopping scenes to highlight that. Like when Mary (Janelle Monáe) petitions the court to attend night classes at an all-white school so that she can become an engineer. Or when Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) solves a crazy-long equation on a chalkboard to illustrate a new approach to a problem that has stumped her white male colleagues. Or when Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) earns a promotion by showing her white male bosses how to program the new, room-sized computer they’ve recently installed. I enjoyed these moments, but it was the smaller scenes of female solidarity that won me over. There’s the time when Katherine stays late and the other two wait for her to drive her home; the time when Mary is feeling down because she worries she’ll never be allowed to become an engineer and her friends throw an impromptu dance party to cheer her up; and then there’s the opening scene -- which you can see in at least one of the film’s trailers -- in which Dorothy fixes her broken-down car while the other two women deflect a nosy police officer. Finally, I loved the romance that blooms between Katherine and a veteran she meets at her church. Katherine is a widow with two small daughters. She lives with her mother and is not looking for love. But then the perfect man comes into her life and proposes marriage. It’s an utterly conventional subplot, but progressive in this scenario because Katherine is not asked to choose between her work and her personal life. She’s allowed to have both and is not conflicted by this dual identity. Hidden Figures has exceeded expectations at the box office. It outsold Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on its opening weekend, a film that also features a female lead. It’s a sign of progress that two recent, popular films star women, but it’s worth noting that even when women are the lead characters in film, they speak only slightly more than the male characters and receive less screen time. When women are not the lead, or when they co-lead with a male character, they are seen and heard even less. These findings are according to studies undertaken by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis founded the institute to fight unconscious gender bias, specifically in films targeted to children and families. She works with film executives to create stories that are more balanced between male and female characters. Her prescription is simple: put women on screen more often and allow them to speak. That’s it. The female characters don’t have to be role models or hold positions of power. Roles don’t even need to be created specifically for women -- more often than not, women can be cast in parts written for men. The point is for girls and women to be seen and heard on screen as often as boys and men are. It’s not a lot to ask and yet every time I see a movie in which female characters are allowed even half of the narrative, it feels like a small miracle.