I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:
1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag
If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”
2. Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.
3. The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
4. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike
Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”
5. The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”
6. Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow
Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.
7. Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid
After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.
8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.
9. Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White
Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.
10. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”