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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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5.
The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day.
Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.”
The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them.
The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small?
At the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return… But white Americans do not believe in death.”
Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.”
Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it.
As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history.
So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story.
Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone
For its November issue, Wired asks guest editor President Obama for a list of his 10 essential books. The magazine estimates that reading all of them, including James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, will take only eighty-nine hours.
Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more.
Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction.
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah)
Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael)
Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah)
Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael)
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah)
The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don’t know what to make of it all, either. You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah)
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael)
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin’s call we now have a choral response — one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb.
The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael)
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah)
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael)
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael)
Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael)
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah)
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah)
This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael)
Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah)
When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael)
American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah)
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah)
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael)
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves — not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael)
Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael)
Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah)
Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah)
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs — instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” — “fat” — for the first time. (Hannah)
Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)
Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)
Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael)
My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah)
Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael)
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia)
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
In the age of memoir, essay collections are a tough sell. Like short story collections, books of essays seem destined to be sampled rather than appreciated start to finish. That is a shame. Good essay collections are performances: multiple acts of form and function, threaded together with theme. I have always loved the fiction of Andre Dubus, but it was not until I read Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair that I began to understand the mind and heart behind the stories. This is not to say that essays serve an ancillary function, but rather that essays contain the inevitable need to require a point — either one orchestrated by the writer, or one imbued by the reader.
A masterful essay collection is a metered intellectual exercise. It is enjoyable to settle into the novelistic voice of memoir, but it is athletic to sprint, pause, breathe, and start again with the short-range essayist. Here are four essay collections worth reading: writers who challenge, surprise, and eventually reward their readers for staying the course.
1. White Girls by Hilton Als
Als is a literary showman, and White Girls is a masterful routine. The first act, “Tristes Tropiques,” is a nonfiction novella about the writer’s complicated longing for SL (Sir or Lady), whom Als considers his twin. The essay takes its name from a book by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose own interest in twins mirrors the romantic manner in which Als considers his own doubling. “I have always been one half of a whole,” Als writes, for “my ghostly twin, my nearly perfect other half” was his stillborn older brother. At roughly 80 pages, “Tristes Tropiques” is massive, a seemingly illogical choice to begin a collection, but White Girls is no average performance. “This Lonesome Place,” Als’s take on Flannery O’Connor, is best captured in its final sentence: “Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O’Connor’s voice her uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Als writes with equal verve about Truman Capote, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, André Leon Talley, and James Baldwin, yet my favorite is his treatment of Michael Jackson. I first read “Michael” in The New York Review of Books, where even its four-part structure felt inevitable. The essay begins in 1972, when “the female elders tell us what to look out for:” the men who exit the neon-lit Starlite Lounge in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Als hears Jackson’s first solo hit, “Ben,” escape from the bar before the door closes. How fascinating that a film-soundtrack song about a rat was a “mournful ballad,” which was embraced “among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing.” “Ben” was Jackson personified, “all child — an Ariel of the ghetto, whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.” The ability to capture a soul in a single sentence is no small gift.
2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Als mentions Baldwin’s essay about Jackson, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in which Baldwin writes that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” To sing the praises of Baldwin as an essayist is nothing new, but The Fire Next Time needs to be read and studied more often. It is a pair of epistles; the first, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation. Eternally a writer formed by hymn and sermon, his conclusion rises: “For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” “Down at the Cross,” the longer, second essay, sears the page. This was 1962, this is now: “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else — housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers — would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.” Baldwin hits so many notes here, yet I always return to his strained relationship with God and his house. “On the blindest, most visceral level,” Baldwin never was able to “disengage myself from [the] excitement” of church: “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.” That Baldwin follows these memories with a critique of the structure and soul of that church is the rhetorical power of The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
3. The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney
Poet and playwright McSweeney carries her rhythms to prose, and the results are essays that remake the boundaries of criticism and personal narrative. The concept of the “necropastoral” describes the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral.” The occult angle suggests the blurring of the real and surreal, orchestrated by the strangeness inherent in most literature. Here she writes of Wilfred Owen (“The poems form a continuous, necrotizing battlefield, a skinlike surface, pitted and dubious, capable of inscription and unexpected transmission, full of holes and wounds through which pity can escape like a stench”); of Jack Smith’s continual, obsessive editing of his pastoral film, Normal Love; and her fellow Catholic artist Andy Warhol, who, “possessed by media, becomes another medium in a fluxing, necrotic, necromantic, anachronistic field of media” and others. Finally, McSweeney — a poet-essayist elsewhere interested in transformation, as in “how Catholic saint’s lore is really a kind of media theory, an idea about how certain kinds of power moves from place to place” — examines translation as perhaps the apex of art. Translation “works on extant materials and transforms them — conforms them — into new, sculptural, legible shapes.” Translation might be the most human of arts: it requires humility, transformation, resurrection in new language. In that vein, the art of the essay is an exercise in translation.
4. Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden
It is tempting to call Madden’s approach encyclopedic, but that suggests horizontal over vertical inquiry. Madden’s range is certainly wide, but he also manages to dig, and the end result of his essays here (and in his first collection, Quotidiana), is not merely collection but accumulation. “Spit,” the first essay in the book, is a representative sample. Madden begins with learning how to spit while “walking down a thin path through the thick Maine woods” sometime in the ’70s. Next he considers the antiseptic properties of the action, and how his daughter spit on him by mistake as they were about to enter church. He remembers his friend teaching him how to “gleek,” which happens to be the name of the space-monkey from The Wonder Twins cartoon, a monkey that chattered rather than spoke clearly. That idea of marble-mouthing makes him think of how his father, a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, would sing to him and his siblings, and how Madden would become obsessed with the misunderstanding of lyrics. That leads him to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — “Catch the spirit, catch the spit” — and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who “was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way.” He continues to Isaiah 50:6, Mark 8:22, when a fan spit in the face of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and, finally burrows down to personal stories, concluding with one of shame. This is what essays were made for, in the words of Madden’s introduction-style chapter: essays are “oxymoronic characters, rooted in the natural world, derived from real experience…always reaching toward ideas, trying to transcend mere description or depiction. Thus, essays, perform a kind of sublimation of the solid; from the concrete, they attain abstraction.” Essays as transfigurations of self and soul.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin
Whenever I have a daunting essay to write, I turn to the Patron Saint of Telling It Like It Is, the Grand Truthteller, James Baldwin. For me, Baldwin is one of those authors that I hope to never have read everything by, because I always want to be able to read something by him for the first time. Fortunately, he was almost as prolific as he was utterly brilliant. This year, faced with two difficult essays (one for an anthology inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, both due around the same time), I finally cracked open The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, and it felt like bright light exploded out of every page. I couldn’t wrap my head around how these essays had gone uncollected until 2010. This was one of those books that I would’ve been better off underlining the sentences I didn’t want to revisit, because there were way fewer of them than the ones I ended up marking. (Some samples of my margin notes: “Jesus.” “Whoa!”). Baldwin is, as usual, unsparing, passionate, poetic, direct, conversational (some of the pieces here are transcripts, others letters), and, overall, wildly in love with the English language and all the blessed damage it can do to the powers that be. “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” rightfully reclaims the Bard as a poet of the people, touching on jazz and the immense power of the vernacular along the way. “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and “As Much Truth As One Can Bear” wreak havoc on the simplistic myths we tell ourselves about art and society, and both essays still manage to emerge from all that fire with a sense of purpose and hope. Perhaps the most breathtaking and haunting part about these collected works is that, for all their well-aimed precision regarding the disasters surrounding Baldwin when he was writing, they speak just as perfectly to today’s crises. “You have come so far,” the book seems to sing quietly, beneath all that love, and rage, and analysis. “You’ve got so far to go.”
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I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.
We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.
During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.
I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.
Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.
I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.
I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.
Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)
And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.
(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)
At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.
As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.
With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.
Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.
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David Bowie hasn’t performed live in seven years, but he has a good excuse — he’s been reading. His top 100 books are part of the “David Bowie Is” traveling exhibition (currently in Toronto.) The list reveals that he’s a big fan of American lit, including Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and more. He’s also an amateur rock historian, naming Charlie Gillete’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll and Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom among others. When can we sign up for the class, Professor Bowie?
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.Week 2: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville (from Great Short Works) and “Bartleby in Manhattan,” by Elizabeth Hardwick (from Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays)One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker) I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.Week 4: “Echoes at Ground Zero,” by Lawrence Weschler (from Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and “Against Interpretation,” by Susan Sontag (from Against Interpretation)The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.
It’s been a while since we’ve done an “Ask a Book Question” at The Millions, but Kirk from Texas left a good one in the comments of a recent post:You write a lot about your obsession with The New Yorker… Can you tell those of us that are unfamiliar with the publication more about it, and why you like it so much.I love The New Yorker for many reasons. I prefer to know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few, and so I find the wide range of topics the magazine takes on is appealing. It’s a surprising unpredictable magazine. I also like that the magazine has history, and that it has stayed true to itself by changing only incrementally over the years and for the most part taking pains to make sure any changes made sense. Generally speaking, The New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. By that measure alone it beats any other magazine I’ve ever picked up.I could go on about The New Yorker for pages, but instead, I thought I’d let some others spill some ink on their love for the magazine. We’ll start with Emily Gordon, who heads up Emdashes, a blog devoted to a single magazine. I’ll let you guess which one.When I tell people I write a blog about The New Yorker, they’re either excited and ask for the url, or freaked out. The people in the second group get that funny look so familiar to elementary-school students and poets, and say with withering irony, “Wow, you must really LOVE it.” Being an unfashionable enthusiast and advocate of the New Sincerity, I answer simply that I do.In his email asking for my thoughts about the magazine, Max called me “the Web’s pre-eminent NYer expert.” I wish! I’m reminded every time I go to a New Yorker-themed event–especially on the Upper West Side–that there are far more fanatical and expert readers out there, and they usually have a couple decades of subscribership on me, too. In my paying work life, I’m a magazine editor and a book and media critic, so that’s the spirit in which I write the blog. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a roving preacher from a quirky sect, with all the attendant longing for clarity and community, and possibly some of the narrow-mindedness and naivete, too. Meanwhile, perhaps also like an evangelist, I get to experience moments, collectively and alone, of overpowering delight and that spooky but real phenomenon called “flow.” (Also, the blogosphere being what it is, moments of derision, bafflement, and the sound of stone silence.) Man, I sound like Garrison Keillor. My real point is, I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends who feel the way I do, and despite moments of overextended self-doubt, I’m grateful for all of this.But back to the reason for reading it in the first place. I read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” recently, and wrote down this line: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” That’s probably at the heart of it. I’m a third-generation New Yorker reader, and the magazine’s writers and artists are essential to both sides of family language and lore. When I was at the Daniel Alarcon and Zadie Smith reading at the most recent New Yorker Festival, in a beautiful church-like space called the Angel Orensanz Foundation, I had the strange thought that I was in the only church my parents (who are long-divorced atheists) would ever have attended. I got a little teary thinking about them, in the Church of The New Yorker with its Chastian or Steinbergian heaven, and hey, I was the one who said I was an evangelist. “This isn’t a magazine–it’s a movement.” Harold Ross said that.So what do I preach? That the magazine, far from a bastion of elitism and snobbery, is the site of the most hardworking and stirring journalism available in English, about essential subjects like New Orleans, the global environmental crisis, American poverty, education, and the war in Iraq. Some people will never agree; they think the whole thing is foolish. “Tell me why your project is so compelling or should be to someone like me who DESPISES the culture of writing that the NEW YORKER inspires and finds literary glomming to be complete bullshit,” an acerbic fellow blogger once wrote me, sneeringly. He thinks the publishing-industrial complex needs taking down, not celebrating. I defended myself in the lengthy email exchange, but afterward I felt like my soul had been slapped to the floor, as in that scene in Amelie. I was so outraged but so suddenly unsure of my mission that I thought of shutting down the site entirely, taking my ball and going home, as my friend Tom would say; it’s a little like the way I felt when I heard, just recently, that a New Yorker film critic (for the Goings on About Town listings, which contain some of the sharpest and wittiest writing in the magazine) refers to me as “the New Yorker groupie.” Ow.On the other hand, there are lots of worse things to be. Steve Martin wrote in the magazine this week that he sometimes feels nostalgic for the “high spirits and high jinks” of his early career, “before I turned professional, before comedy became serious.” Maybe The New Yorker, too, is best viewed from one’s childhood coffee table, before it becomes a media outlet, a buzz-worthy blog topic, an online brand, a symbol of what one has, in some senses, lost: the life of Pauline Kael; the grandparents who understood fewer and fewer of the cartoons and became sorrowful about it; the vast possibilities of a future full of limitless writing and reading opportunities. But for now, I’ve got a way of broadcasting my–let’s face it–devotion. Want to be saved? Subscribe. I’m only half kidding.Millions contributor Garth also weighed in with his thoughts on the magazine:I was trying to explain to a friend the other weekend why The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the history of American magazine journalism. I can think of a few reasons.First, I love The New Yorker for the assumptions it makes about its readership. It assumes that we are bright, literate, patient, and curious about the world. (Okay, it also assumes that we’re well-off and liberal, but that’s less important). It assumes that I, who loathed biology in high school, will be fascinated and moved by 8,000 words on the redwoods…and lo and behold, I am. Rather than tailoring itself to the marketplace, which is how we now think of the publishing place, The New Yorker recognizes that it CREATES its marketplace. Which is why I hate to see it stoop to puff-pieces on Cate Blanchett or Mariah Carey.Second, I find the history of The New Yorker, and its attendant myths, endlessly fascinating. One example: Jamaica Kincaid was doing odd-jobs for editor William Shawn when he decided that she should write for the magazine. She and George Trow and Ian Frazier became an inseparable, and eccentric triumvirate. Later, she married Mr. Shawn’s son Allen.Third, The New Yorker has subsidized a staggering (surprising) number of canonical writers. E.B. White? New Yorker. J.D. Salinger? New Yorker. The Fire Next Time? First ran in the New Yorker. Silent Spring? Likewise. Eichmann in Jerusalem? You guessed it. Oliver Sacks, Joseph Mitchell, Alistair Reid, Janet Malcolm, Calvin Trillin, Philip Gourevich, Pauline Kael, A.J. Liebling, James Thurber, William Steig, the Addams Family, John Cheever, Saul Steinberg… Among the current writers, Elizabeth Kolbert, Georges Packer and Saunders, Nick Paumgarten (the new Ian Frazier), Peter Schjeldahl, Mark Singer, and James Wood (as of last month), are all doing work that may still entertain and instruct years from now. This is not even to mention the art.Each week, The New Yorker delivers a multi-course meal (about four-hours worth) of reporting, opinion, reviews, cartoons, and humorous “casuals” to my door. Sometimes the meal is mediocre, but it’s always sustaining.And finally, Millions contributor Noah brings us home:I don’t have a subscription, though I once did. It started sort of piling up on me, making me feel like an arch procrastinator. I’d like to renew but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But one thing about The New Yorker: you can pick up an issue, be it this week’s, last week’s, or one from 1987, and it always reads. This is surely a testament to the quality of the writing, but also to the editorial sensibilities that drive the magazine. My most memorable New Yorker article was about Rafael Perez, disgraced and incarcerated LAPD officer, who testified for the state in the prosecution of numerous other LA cops who were part of the Rampart Crash unit, a renegade police outfit that committed numerous crimes. Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Training Day was based on Perez. Perez has also been rumored to have had a hand in the murder of Biggie Smalls. Great article. The cartoons are fun too.