I mentioned Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine in an earlier “Books of the Year” piece for The Guardian. I think both books are ones that take a long time to absorb; they are profoundly powerful not only in their observations and stories, but in how courageously and carefully they speak to our present moment.
Other resonant books I read this year are Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which I wept through, as happens for me with the most revealing satire; Anosh Irani’s courageous The Parcel, about the life and desires and compromises of Madhu, a hijra in Kamathipura, Bombay; Chester Brown’s very personal and searching meditation on the sex trade, Paying for It; Katherena Vermette’s bold, beautiful, polyphonic novel, The Break; and James Gleick’s Time Travel, which bends time and movement around us and, through literature and the written word, within us.
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“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird
Tom Robbins, in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, abruptly interrupts the narrative and briefly expounds on the nature of time in literature. “Even though we agree that time is relative,” he writes, “that most subjective notions of it are inaccurate just as most objective expressions of it are arbitrary…even so, we have come to expect, for better or worse, some sort of chronological order in the books we read, for it is the function of literature to provide what life has not.” He has interjected, he explains, to inform the reader of some reordering of certain events — i.e., that the events of Parts I and II occurred after the events currently being described in Part III. “The author apologizes” for any confusion but “does not, however, disavow the impulses that lead to his presentation…nor does he, in repentance, embrace the notion that literature should mirror reality.” Moreover, he continues:
A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves — all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.
This passage — one of my very favorites — drifted into my mind (a psychological phenomenon referred to, I now know, as “involuntary mental time travel”) as I read through James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History, as Robbins’s quote seems to have anticipated (or, maybe, pre-emptively challenged) just such a work. What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.
It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book. Gleick’s hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics, and philosophical meditation is itself a time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey, and it works so well. Even though Gleick can elucidate complex ideas into accessible language, he’s even better at explicating notions that remain perplexing. That is, he’s good at explaining paradoxes — itself a sort of paradoxical phrase, paradoxes supposedly being logical contradictions that defy common sense and are thus difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend. But a subject like time travel, as we savvy citizens of the 21st century well know by now, is rife with paradox, and any account of its history must not only engage with those incongruities but transcend them in some powerful way. There has to be, in other words, more insight than one would find in a given episode of Doctor Who.
That’s not to say that elements of popular culture are out of the time-travel historian’s reach (Doctor Who, for instance, is fruitfully used by Gleick in Time Travel), but rather that such an enterprise’s primary subject must only ostensibly be time travel but that it’s truly about why we’re so interested in the subject and what that means about who we are. The infinite intricacies of moving forward or backward in time have been so thoroughly dissected by popular culture that, quite amazingly, these meta-cognitive and entirely theoretical ideas have become clichés. In her fun and insightful new book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman notes a plot hole in 1985’s Back to the Future: “But complaining about credibility issues in a movie about time travel is surely the definition of carping.” And to think that humanity, as a species, didn’t even consider the concept of time travel until a little more than 100 years ago, and already such innovative and cerebral ideas have grown so banal they’re barely worthy of comment. It is amazing what human beings can become bored with.
Gleick is particularly suited to the task of writing a history of time travel. His previous books include Genius, a rich biography of physics bad-boy Richard Feynman; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which traces the origins of the information age; and Chaos: Making a New Science, a work that tackles chaos theory and that made “the Butterfly Effect” a common term. Gleick was also the founder, with Uday Ivatury, of The Pipeline in 1993, one of the earliest Internet service providers. Time travel, for such a writer, must be almost bromidic. And to be sure, there is a slight trace of disdain in Gleick for his subject here, almost as if he’s getting annoyed having to explicate ideas he knows are hogwash — e.g., his takedown of “time capsules,” which he refers to as “a special kind of foolishness,” — or having the irksome duty of assembling such declarations as, “In point of fact, time is not a river.”
But by the end of the book I too developed a frustration with the myriad arguments surrounding time — not at any of the arguers but of the flimsiness of my hold on it as a subject of speculation. Every time I felt I had a grasp on a particular way of thinking about time, some new theory threw my understanding out the window. For example, Gleick begins his history with the creator of time travel, H.G. Wells, and his monumental work of science fiction of 1895, The Time Machine. In its early pages, the protagonist, the Time Traveller, Socratically explains the basics of his invention with some skeptical (and similarly ersatz) characters:
‘You know of course [said the Time Traveller] that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.’
‘That is all right,’ said the Psychologist.
‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’
‘There I object,’ said Filby. ‘Of course a solid body may exist. All real things-‘
‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?’
‘Don’t follow you,’ said Filby.
‘Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?’
Filby became pensive. ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration.”
Gleick calls Filby a “poor sap” for putting up such a “feeble resistance” to the Time Traveller’s points, but for me such a basic explanation was revelatory — to consider duration as a necessary component to existence seems not only true but rather obvious once you’ve learned it.
But it quickly becomes clear that the validity of time as the “fourth dimension” wasn’t going to last too long in the rapid development of subsequent time travel theorems and the physics and quantum mechanics that eventually joined the party. Just as my brain congratulated itself for its keen comprehension, it was thrown for a new loop. Not that this is Gleick’s fault, of course — the very subject of time travel invites headaches if pondered longer than a few minutes, and Gleick’s book totals 336 pages of mind-bending conundra: some mental pain is inevitable, both for author and reader.
Gleick, though, through his years of scientific authorship, has become an artful writer who clearly has a deep love for literature, consequently employing fictional techniques in his nonfiction work. He repeatedly opens sections with the mise-en-scène of novels or TV show episodes that feature time travel, as in this description of the opening of La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker from 1962 that is made up of only still images, and which was the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys:
We begin again. A woman stands at the end of “pier” — the open-air observation platform at Orly Airport (la grande jetée D’Orly), over-looking a sea of concrete on which the great metal jetliners rest, pointed like arrows toward the future. The sun is pale in a charcoal sky. We hear shrill jet blasts, a ghostly choir, murmuring voices.
There is a ton of rhetorical work going on here, the kind usually associated with fictional narratives, from the thematic reference of the jets “pointed like arrows toward the future” to the asyndeton in the final sentence. Or consider Time Travel’s opening sentence, introducing Wells’s Time Traveller: “A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods — a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials.” Notice how subtly Gleick takes us from literal description (“A man stands…”) to metaphorical commentary (the 19th century as “a drafty corridor”) to literary criticism (“…the poor reader…”) to cluing us into the fact that he’s talking about a novel (“despite the listing of parts…”). Gleick may have a little of the frustrated novelist in him, but he’s certainly learned well how to exercise (and exorcise) that frustration advantageously. Time Travel is as elegant and eloquent as it is edifying.
This love of literature manifests in other ways in the book, too, also beneficially. Though Gleick runs the gambit of physicists and philosophers and theorists (from St. Augustine to Stephen Hawking), he’s most fruitful and fun and alive as a writer when he dissects novels and films and television — which is more than fitting considering that time travel itself was the invention of a fiction writer; Gleick, by featuring more fiction than theory, as it were, is merely staying in the tradition that originated the notion. For instructive tools, Gleick takes the reader through, e.g., Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and William Gibson’s The Peripheral and, most interestingly, E.M. Forster’s bleak and just fucking weird novella The Machine Stops. But perhaps my favorite is that episode of Doctor Who Gleick discusses (which I at first wanted to summarize here to grapple with a bit but which proved way too elaborate to do in anything fewer than like seven or eight sentences, and this is already getting too long as it is). Part of the fun of these sections is the various ways Gleick uses them to demonstrate certain abstractions or murky concepts, but what really makes them sing is how richly palpable Gleick’s love for sci-fi is — for its inventiveness, yes, but more so for its playfulness, the way it can positively relish the paradoxes and the moral dilemmas and the general confusion of it all. (Best example: Robert Heinlein’s short story “By Your Bootstraps.”)
And his love is particularly noticeable when set against his growing irritation at now commonly accepted views of time — most of which he so obviously disagrees with. “Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional spacetime loaf,” he concludes, “These are the illusions.” Time, for Gleick, no matter how skillful the rhetoric or how tempting the logic, simply cannot be denied its reality (or at least our illusion of its reality), because of how completely it situates our experiences of everyday life. It is, rather, space that is the illusion.
By the end I found I concurred with Gleick about time’s irrepressible existence, which might have warranted more examination of our psychological perception of time, as in Claudia Hammond’s 2013 engaging work Time Warped, which mostly ignores those dusty arguments over whether or not time exists and instead focuses on the way we experience it as a phenomenon. She notes, for instance, that as humans we’re not only organized by time but also exceptionally skilled at it (though, Hammond notes, citing Jean Piaget, the “father of developmental psychology,” that as children, we “find it hard to distinguish between size as it relates to time and size as it relates to space”). Hammond shows how time affects more aspects of our lives than we might assume, like conversations:
To produce and understand speech, we rely on critical timings of less than a tenth of a second. The difference between the sound of a ‘pa’ and a ‘ba’ is all in the timing of the delay before the subsequent vowel, so if the delay is longer you hear a ‘p,’ if it’s short you hear a ‘b.’ If you put your hand on your vocal cords you can even feel that with the ‘ba’ your lips open at the same time as you feel your cords start to vibrate. With the ‘pa’ the vibrations starts a moment earlier. This relies on timing accurate to the millisecond.
If the abstract debates over time are inadequate at worst and irrelevant at best, then shouldn’t these be the kinds of ideas we focus on? If time (and not space) is fundamental to nature, and we’re stuck with its effects no matter how much of an illusion we “prove” it to be, then our clever excursions through the epochs in science fiction might not be the most productive use of our intellectual attention.
But what the hell do I know? With each thought regarding all these pitfall-ridden concepts, I second-guess myself, and I begin to relate to Tom Robbins’s meditation in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. After his apology for mucking up the chronology and noting that books don’t actually reflect reality, he adds that he’s got a repertoire of sentences at his disposal, to do with what he wishes. “This sentence is made of yak wool,” he writes, while another sentence “has a crush on Norman Mailer.” “This sentence went to Woodstock” goes another, and “this little sentence went wee wee all the way home.” It’s a fun bit, but the one I really relate to is the final one: “This sentence is rather confounded by the whole damn thing.”
Out this week: The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano; The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai; Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua; Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin; Time Travel: A History by James Gleick; and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-Half 2016 Book Preview.
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)