Essays

Podcasts and Literary Criticism

If listening to your favorite podcast is like meeting your best friends at the bar, then reading a 500-word book review is like sharing an elevator with a casual acquaintance. There’s a chance both could be great experience, but it’s more likely the elevator ride will blend in with the hundreds of other forgettable interactions you have every day. There was a time when the print book review was the definitive source on how to think and talk about new books. Even five years ago, the idea of an author going on a podcast to promote his or her book seemed laughable; most people didn’t even know what a podcast was, let alone how to download one. In some ways, print is still the dominant form, and every writer still dreams of getting that great New York Times review. But with new literary podcasts appearing every week, the world of book discussion has been fractured and reshaped. The podcast hasn’t killed the book review, but as traditional book reviews have become less dominant, podcasts have filled that void and changed the form. In a recent episode of "Book Fight," the podcast I co-host with Mike Ingram, our guest Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, a poet and music critic, argued that the era of the traditional music review is dying. You don’t need to read Spin or Pitchfork to find out how many stars they gave an album, because you can stream it yourself and then go to social media to read hundreds of reactions from your friends within an hour. There was a time when the point of most reviews was expressly to guide you in making one decision: do I buy this thing or not? Now, thanks to digital media, the engagement with the material is totally different, though still rooted in the same desire: to hear some music you’re going to love, and connect with other people who love it too. Though the music and book industries aren’t quite analogous, there has been a similar shift in the way people want to talk about books. John King, host of "The Drunken Odyssey with John King," describes podcasting as, “An elaborate extension of social media.” A good book podcast can graft the spontaneity, intimacy, and energy of talking with your friends onto the conventions of a book review. Though there is still an invaluable place for detailed criticism from writers like Zadie Smith and Daniel Mendelsohn, many book lovers are seeking out venues that seem less intimidating. It can be daunting for someone who feels like a literary outsider to pick up a 10,000-word piece on three translated works in The New York Review of Books, but not to download a couple episodes of a show you can listen to while you’re cleaning your apartment. Book reviews have traditionally been written in an ostensibly objective voice, while podcasts provide a more personalized, idiosyncratic response to a given book. Listeners are less interested in where the book should be placed in the canon than they are in how the hosts of their favorite show were affected by it, and why. When asked how podcasting has changed her approach to criticism, Rebecca Schinsky, co-host of "Book Riot" and "All the Books," says, “I care much less about criticism, about pretending that objective evaluation of a piece of literature is even possible, or about pronouncing whether a book ‘should’ be read or not.” Tod Goldberg, co-host of "Literary Disco," echoes her view: “Our listeners come to our show not just to hear us review a book, but to talk about our lives, hear our stories, learn how literature plays a role in our real lives." You might argue that this emphasis on the hosts’ personal reactions is problematic, a sign of the self-obsessed times in which all opinions are treated as equal. There are, you might say, objective standards that make some books definitively better than other books, and that the increasing interest in podcasts is more proof of the decline of rigorous criticism in an era of moral relativism. While I concede both the value of the canon and the need for some baseline standards in evaluating books, I would argue that the shift toward more personal criticism is actually the opening to a more inclusive culture of book criticism. To record a podcast, you need a computer, a decent microphone, and a couple hundred dollars for web hosting; not everyone has these tools at their disposal, but it’s an increasingly accessible medium that allows for a more diverse range of opinions than you might find on the handful of influential book review sites. When you listen to a podcast, you’re not just getting a plot summary and a star rating for a book; you’re being invited to share in the deeply personal response that a real person, whom you’ve come to know and think of as a friend. There’s a greater empathy for the host, but also a greater burden on the host to articulate her thoughts on the book effectively. Every episode, the hosts are forced to consistently define and redefine their personal aesthetic, defending their reaction to a book while trying to articulate why they love or hate a particular thing, particularly when listeners might have expected them to have the opposite reaction. This discussion can be rigorous and difficult, and over time can lead to the host’s views on literature evolving significantly. It can also compel listeners to pick up a book they never would have tried otherwise. Sitting across the table from a friend whose opinion I respect, I’m forced to explain every week why I feel the way I do about the most recent thing we’ve read. In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m bringing a different set of experiences, expectations, biases, and values to the table, and hold no illusions of speaking on behalf of Literature as a whole. Schinsky adds, “We're not thinking about reviewing in the traditional sense. Our goal is to talk about what worked for us about a book and help listeners determine if it's then a book they want to try.” Many of the most passionate arguments I’ve had about books have occurred in bars with my friends, where we were willing to be uncensored, strident, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes you want to defend a book you don’t really like just to get under a friend’s skin. Sometimes your friends will roast you for loving a book they can’t stand. It’s liberating to be with a group of people you trust, knowing you can argue that the canonical novel everyone loves is terrible. Or that the small press chapbook you’ve just finished is one of the most important things you’ve ever read. And beyond all else: it’s fun. It’s a reminder for those of us in academia that you can talk about books without losing your sense of humor. At their best, podcasts replicate this particular experience for readers. There are now dozens of thriving literary podcasts (some profiled here and here), and though there is surely some overlap in audiences, each fills its own comfortable niche, the place where the listener has found some hosts they respect and like spending time with. As with all subcultures, book lovers are interested in the work itself, but they’re also interested in joining a community. Longtime fans form intimate relationships with the hosts of the show and their fellow fans. "Books on the Nightstand," one of the pioneers in the literary podcast genre, built a thriving community of nearly 6,000 fans on Goodreads, and many are still actively posting even though hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness ended the show in July. These are people scattered across the world, reaching out to find others who also love books and enjoyed spending time once a week with Ann and Michael. What they had in common was a desire to connect, not just with the literature but the people behind it. Though each listener has her own favorite episodes of a given podcast, the real depth of experience comes from living with the show over a long period of time, developing relationships with the host(s), and feeling included in the dialogue. It’s like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine. You can show up whenever you have time, do the reading or not, and leave when you’re ready. You can form a bond with the voices in your head. Traditional reviews are limited in their ability to meet these needs from a reader. Brad Listi, host of "Otherppl," says he wants to avoid a “high-minded academic back and forth [because] that kind of talk feels limiting to me; it excludes too many listeners.” Though you can read your favorite critic’s work over the years, learning from them and seeing their tastes evolve (or calcify), you never really feel like you know them. There is a distancing effect created by the medium itself. You are there as a student, not as a guest in the author’s living room. This is a good and valuable thing, but it’s not the same thing as listening to two people you like discussing books every Monday on your drive to work. A quick story: two nights after the recent election, while many of us were still reeling from the results, I went to a reading in Philadelphia. The atmosphere in the room was weird, unsettled, and anxious. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even show up, but it turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd. I got the sense that everyone was tired of sitting alone in their homes and fearing the worst. People cried while Paul Lisicky read about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama with his dying friend. People cried during every reading. Ingram, my "Book Fight" co-host, opened the night with a short speech about the value of community in a time of great anxiety. He said literature can’t save people’s lives, but it can help a little. It can be a small, good thing to use books to build community and make people feel loved, supported, and welcomed. Though he didn’t mean it in exactly this way, I think it was also a good summation of what makes podcasts great: they draw people in based on the common ground of literature, and then use it to create connections where there were none before. Goldberg says that when he and his co-hosts are recording "Literary Disco," “we know that beyond the quality of the book, we are sharing with our audience something more profound: here is what great literature can do, here’s the empathetic bridge literature lets you cross, here’s us, experiencing it, live.” As our lives become more fragmented and diluted across various online streams, there’s something rare and valuable about knowing you can have this resource to build meaningful bonds with thousands of strangers. Image Credit: Pixels.
Essays

Tom Robbins Was My Spiritual Advisor

1. Everybody wants to know why I moved back. I can’t say I moved from New York City without people thinking I failed or I am moving to the Pacific Northwest without people wondering what I left behind. I am from here, but I am moving back as a much different person than the first time I moved to Seattle as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. The truth is I lost my brother two months after I landed in New York. Overdose. The kind of death that means he’ll never be remembered as a good father or the brother who was proud of me. The truth is that the three years I lived in New York were the worst three of my life so far. The truth is that my experience of New York is different from my friends’ or my roommates’ or my lovers’. Like cosmically bad. Like comedy on top of tragedy, bed bugs on top of losing my only brother to the addictions he struggled with most of his life. Sometime after his death, long before I landed a dream publishing job and was vacillating between staying and leaving, I became obsessed with the idea of “grit.” It was a buzzword in education, and the researcher who popularized the term, Angela Duckworth, began appearing on NPR’s homepage. NPR defined grit as the “ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.” The times were tough; the goal was to be a writer. Grit, I convinced myself, was all I needed to survive New York, survive my brother’s death, and survive my life. Six months after I lost my brother, I found out my only living grandparent was dying of cancer. The thing I realized then was that life is mostly shitty, but there are pockets of happiness. When I found myself in one, I savored it; I felt grateful for it. Those pockets in New York were small: listening to a summer concert in Prospect Park with my friend, stepping outside of the bar during a date and finding someone had set up a giant telescope fixed on a nearly full moon, reading one of my pieces in a bar in the West Village and receiving roaring applause. New York is a hard city to live in. It’s a hard city to shop for groceries and commute to work. It’s a hard place when your family is grieving across the country and a hard place to feel alone. But I could do it, I told myself time and again, as long as I had grit. 2. Close to my three-year anniversary in the city, after another relationship had petered out and I was again questioning why my life had become about getting by, I took a long, hard look at how far grit had gotten me: I had a job that excited me, a few close friends but no real community, and a book on the way from an indie publisher out West. Any excess cash of mine was spent on pricey plane tickets to travel back and visit friends and family whenever possible. No romantic relationships lasted because I always intended to return to the West Coast. And I was sad. Not all the time, but enough to make me question how much value there was in having grit if it came at the expense of my well being. What waited for me at the end of sticking it out? What if being happy meant more to me than proving to others I was tough? In my post-breakup floundering, I did what many people do: look for quick and unrealistic solutions. There was an opening for a publicity position at a university press in Missouri. I had zero ties to the state, but for a week I entertained the idea that all my problems would be solved if I left New York and remade my life in the heartland. I quickly dropped that silly fantasy, but the idea of leaving persisted. I wanted guidance, so I sought out an unusual source: author Tom Robbins. This may seem like an out-of-left-field choice in spiritual adviser, but Tom Robbins is just that. His novel Another Roadside Attraction played a key role in me losing my religion -- long before I ever lost my brother. I read the book when I lived in Portland, during a time I felt myself fracturing from the Christian church over the patriarchy I felt was embedded within it. I had also been following a series on NPR that profiled atheists. This was a perfect storm of influences, and Another Roadside Attraction became the eye of it. The book features a madcap plot about exposing the Catholic Church’s cover up of the truth about the resurrection, namely that it never happened. The book climaxes with the main characters attempting to steal the corpse of Jesus Christ from the Vatican -- an over-the-top and ludicrous plot turn that nonetheless caused me to look around at the religion I had been practicing for 10 years and recognize that Christianity itself is ludicrous. Robbins is an icon of mine: a writer who made it outside of NYC and on his own, very weird, terms. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, the idyllic life in a small town by the ocean I frequently dreamed of when ascending the garbage-strewn staircase of my fourth-floor Brooklyn walkup. Through a bit of research, I found a mailing address that matched the small town north of Seattle where I knew he lived. To that address I sent my first fan letter: part confessional, part screaming into the void, and part advice-seeking. Surely Tom Robbins would know what to do. “Mr. Robbins,” I began and told him, “After nearly three years, of which I have disliked every day on this coast, I think often of returning home. I dream, I plan, I hope, and eventually I talk myself out of it. This unfortunate result usually happens because someone shames me for wanting to leave New York, they tell me to be stronger and have more grit, they question how I could possibly give up working in publishing and living in the city of everyone else’s dreams.” Truth is, nobody told me that. It was the voice of doubt inside my own head that clung to that word: grit. I savored the word, sucked on it like a sour candy. Grit was my obsession. I couldn’t control outside factors like New York’s constant, unprovoked aggression between strangers or the horror of being told over the phone that your sibling is dead, but I could control my response to it. I told Tom Robbins that because I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins my big brother was dead and I was hurting every day. I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins about the worst months: that first winter after my brother’s death when I was jobless during the polar vortex and sometimes late at night when I waited for the subway after having too much to drink, I stared into the darkened tunnel and thought of jumping at the approach of the oncoming train. I didn’t want Tom Robbins to pity me; I wanted his sage advice. So I told him instead about wanting to be a writer outside of New York and asked for his advice -- and his belief that I could do it. A few weeks later, to my great bewilderment, he replied. When I wrote the letter I did so with zero expectation of receiving a response. I had already made up my mind to leave New York. The house, the job, everything else would fall into place. All that mattered was the inner peace I felt just thinking of my decision. Tom Robbins’s blessing would merely be the cherry on top. The letter was personalized enough for me to know it was not a generic response to a fan letter. It was endearing in its cultural references -- sort of like receiving a letter from your cool grandparent. Why would I choose him to send a fan letter to, he asked, when I could write to Hillary Clinton or Bruno Mars? What the letter was not was an affirmation that I should drop everything and move across country. Instead, he told me a “cautionary note” about someone he knew who left publishing and New York behind, relocated back to the West Coast, and was now unemployed. “Tom Robbins doesn’t know me,” I comforted myself. I decided waiting for his stamp of approval was as useless as waiting for anyone else’s. Nobody could make my decision for me. Moving back was my own choice as much as moving to New York was. What mattered the most was believing in it. 3. I don't think you can be an optimist until you've survived a terrible experience. You can't believe in good in the future unless you’ve seen darkness in your past. Otherwise, you're nervous and fretful as you look over your shoulder for the bad thing coming. Growing up, I was a casual pessimist, more of a complainer than anything. I expected the worst, occasionally experienced a slight variation of it: a cheating boyfriend, my grandparents' deaths. I don't think I was an optimist until I came to New York. Until I learned that I could make it out the other side of tragedy. Maybe the grittiest thing I could do was admit my unhappiness and take steps to change it. I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest since the end of August. I live in a house in a quiet neighborhood and have easy access to nature. But it’s more than the external improvements to my quality of living -- it’s feeling the safety net of my community around me. I don’t feel as scared anymore knowing they’re close by. I live in the same city now as my brother’s children. It’s my responsibility now to be their safety net. Returning home didn’t put a Band-Aid on my life. There are new problems; there will be new tragedies. But I feel more prepared for them now, a little less naïve, and more at ease asking those around me for help. When people ask me how I could possibly leave New York, even if they don’t imply failure but I still infer it, I tell them I missed nature or I hated the crowdedness. If we’re moving a bit closer toward intimacy, I describe the feeling of isolation or how much I missed my community. I rarely jump right into the bombshell of my brother’s death and the myriad ways it exploded my life. Death is a buzzkill at parties. With time, it will become easier to describe it and I’ll have the distance to reflect on who I was for those three years. Eventually, I’ll tell people I left because I didn’t have enough grit, but for what it’s worth, at least now I have a bit more happiness. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays, Quick Hits

How I Got It: ‘Breakfast of Champions’

When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there  -- or so says the internet -- and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors. There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet -- save for the waft of classical music -- lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap. On one of my few trips there -- I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me -- I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author -- Kurt Vonnegut-- and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book. Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works -- The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders -- wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never -- and still have never -- read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style -- that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision -- but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world. Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others -- and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about -- something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become. And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it -- this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine -- at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable -- so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously -- judging by its swift closure -- there weren’t enough of us. That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together -- and for that, I can only offer thanks.
Essays, Lists

Better Late Than Never: On Blooming as a Reader

I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction.  The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?"  My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors.  My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens.  We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child.  I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button.  Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically.  Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally."  Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying).  Where had this kind of reading been all my life?  I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading.  The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading.  In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them."  I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late.  I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life.  But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation.  I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual.  Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement."  I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern.  Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett.  I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it.  At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder.  I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy.  It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.   Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence.  You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy.  Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare.  I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way.  But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it.  Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance.  Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better.  I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.  At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity.  But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --"  (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.)  Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions.  I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now.  Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives.  Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated.  The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia
Essays

James Joyce and the Yuletide Epiphany

Readers of James Joyce will be well used to flipping back and forth between the main text and endnotes, or perhaps keeping Google at hand, to find explanation for some obscure reference to Irish politics or a piece of 100-year-old Dublin slang. It is this specificity of setting and precision of detail that Joyce contended was a crucial cornerstone of his work, arguing that “In the particular is contained the universal.” This point may be made most accessible in "The Dead," the final short story in his collection Dubliners. Although, like all of his fiction, it is rooted firmly in specifics of Irish culture, it is structured around the universally familiar time of Christmas, and its very meaning hinges upon this seasonal setting. Even if one is not an active participant in annual yuletide celebrations, popular culture has ensured that we all recognise the greeting card image of the traditional Christmas gathering: friends and family joined in a single warm home, with the snow falling outside, to enjoy food, drink, music, speeches, and general merrymaking. Joyce’s story presents this exact Christmas-time setting. However, his narrative does not move in the same stream of hokey sentimentality that so many Christmas stories do: he keeps the unfortunate exchanges, conversational faux pas, and awkward silences, which are such an inevitability, firmly intact. Although Joyce may not believe in any notion of idealization of the holiday season, he nonetheless suggests that this Christmas romanticism, that we all on some level buy into, can in fact be the catalyst for moments of profound realization. Indeed, the story ends with the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiencing one of the most famous epiphanies in all of literature, which is directly inspired by the preceding Christmas celebrations: “He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.” The absence of a question mark in this last sentence suggests that these Christmas celebrations, even if Gabriel does recognize them as “foolish,” are a necessary component in bringing him to his epiphany, by forcing him into a more emotional state of mind. This emotional resonance of the Christmas season may come in part due to its unique ability to force us to simultaneously confront both the past and future. Situated on the cusp of the New Year, Christmas is a natural time for reflection, whilst also providing a hope of some new beginning. Furthermore, the image of snow -- the blank white surface -- is suggestive of a sense of optimistic forward thinking, and the nostalgia that comes from bringing family together is bound to force the mind backwards. This duality implicit in the Christmas tradition is also embodied in the two most enduringly popular Christmas narratives of our time: Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories take their protagonists on journeys into alternate realities based on decisions they have made in the past, and decisions they might make in the future, culminating in an epiphany of redemption. While "The Dead" also forces its protagonist to examine the past and an imagined future, its ending is much more ambiguous and has none of the redemptive qualities of Dickens or Capra. This is reflected through the fact that unlike these narratives "The Dead" does not take place on Christmas Eve, which allows an opportunity for change before the day itself, but rather on the final day of the “Christmas-time” period -- the day known fittingly as Epiphany. By setting his story in the wake of Christmas, Joyce implies that it is too late for change, with that possibility lying dead in the past. Furthermore, the fact that he informs us of the story’s Epiphany setting by referring to a New Year’s resolution already broken (the "reformed" drunk Freddy Malins gets “screwed” at the party), reinforces the notion that a failure to self-improve is a theme at the story’s center. The image Gabriel conjures of his grandfather on horseback, endlessly circling a statue in town on his confused horse, also suggests an inability to move forward, and is part of a larger tapestry within Dubliners that presents all of Ireland in a state of “paralysis.” Likewise, Gabriel’s assured vision of the future, in which he imagines his aunt’s funeral and thinks “that would happen very soon,” suggests a sense of impending death, with no chance of aversion. His prophetic name further implies the certainty of this future, and seems to end the story on a note of undiluted bleakness. However, although "The Dead" does not offer hope in the straightforward way that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life do, there is surely some hope in the fact that Gabriel experiences an epiphany at all. If everything in the world were truly in “paralysis,” this moment of transcendence and absolute truth-seeing would not be possible, and although it brings no joy, it is a key moment of recognition and self-understanding; a moment of growth. What Joyce presents us with in "The Dead" is a true, unidealized epiphany. In the real world epiphanies are hard -- we do not have literal ghosts and angels to gently guide us towards them. And that is why Joyce’s story is the perfect coda for the holiday season. As we leave Christmas, which is a time of fantasy -- taking us away from the routine of our normal lives, and saturating us in narratives of schmaltz -- "The Dead" represents a return to reality; a reality in which brief moments of self-realization are hard-won, and even when they do come they do not necessarily offer any possibility of tangible change. For Joyce, the true epiphanies do not come during Christmas, amidst wine and tinsel and distant relatives, but after the celebrations have died down, when we find ourselves alone, awake in the witching hour with only our own imagined ghosts of the past and the “shades” of the future to keep us company. Image Credit: Flickr/formatc1
Essays

The Right Book at the Right Time

For well over a year people have been trying to make me read A Little Life. I will not. I believe them when they say that it’s good, and that they loved it, and what an epically harrowing experience the whole thing is. Still. Can’t do it. Don’t want to. Don’t even know why I don’t want to. Just don’t. This would not be any kind of an issue, were it not for the fact that people keep trying to set me up with it. They want me to read it so badly! They are adamant in their belief that it is the book for me. My resolve is only hardening. I have about me the look of a person who will never read A Little Life. The look of a person at peace with herself. I know what will happen though. At some unspecified point in the future, I will walk past A Little Life on my bookshelf and I will stop, because it will suddenly be the right time. I have come to recognize the feeling. It will be a terrible and perfect marriage of my weird mood and this undoubtedly weird book. I’ll start to read and I will be immediately gripped, instantly crazy about it. I will try force people to read it and when they say they don’t want to, I will say that they are wrong. It always happens like this, with the right book at the right time. The only thing I can compare it to is falling abruptly in love with someone you have been distantly aware of for years. You have seen the point of them in general, but nothing more. They were just there, going about their lives, greeting you politely at parties. They seemed nice, in a remote sort of way. Then something happens, there is an audible click, and there they suddenly are, in front of you, ready to be adored in all their weirdness. Their personality seems to have been engineered in a lab to please you. It’s awful, because you think at once about what a close thing it was, and how hideously perilous love is in general. They had been under your nose this whole while. What if you had missed them? What were you thinking, overlooking them? It’s no good berating yourself about time wasted, though. It’s not that you had overlooked this person, it’s that you weren’t ready for them. You needed a few bitter experiences under your belt first -- one or two awful break-ups, a few incidents where you see your own flaws with searing clarity, some moments of pure, high boredom. It’s only now that you are prepared, that you can see them properly. It happened to me first like this with Middlemarch. If you spend any length of time in an English department, you will be obliged to have an opinion on Middlemarch, whether or not you have read it. My opinion, for many years, was that I hated the very idea of it. Everything I read about it got right on my nerves, beginning with Dorothea. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to love her so much, so Spartan and always reading a boring book. I took her very personally. Why always Dorothea? I did not like the sound of Lydgate either, or think that I could mind very much about a vaguely thwarted country doctor. The historical backdrop did not strike me as very interesting (I still don’t really know or care what a rotten borough is), and it didn’t have any good wars. It also seemed too long, and by all accounts there weren’t a lot of parties. My whole soul shied away. People kept telling me to read it. My mother, especially, who knows me better than anyone. Read it, she kept saying, and you’ll understand. I couldn’t and I couldn’t, for about six years, and then one day I could. Some things had happened. I had broken some people’s hearts, and I had had mine broken in return. I had gone through a period of severe underemployment, related directly to my inability to pull myself together. I had realized that existing in the world with other people meant understanding that we were not the same as each other, and that we were all just trying our deeply inadequate best. I had realized, further, that knowing this is not the same thing as being able to do anything about it. What I am saying is that I was finally ready to listen to what Middlemarch had to tell me. I just picked it up, like it was no big deal, like I hadn’t spent years and years resisting it, and I was done for. That first time reading it, I kept looking around like Jesus, will you please get a load of this? Does everyone know that Middlemarch exists and that you can go ahead and read it just whenever you please? I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I felt that it was speaking directly to me. This is of course a definitive feature of the novel -- the narrator’s inclusive, confiding address to the reader. I felt that it had been written for me, that it was mine. Again, this is the same thing as falling in love very hard, with all the egotism behind the outlandish notion that a) the person was put on this earth for you, and b) they are objectively the best person to ever exist in the sorry history of the human race. Love! What would we do without it? I couldn’t talk about anything else for weeks. I found a way to bring it up in all kinds of situations, to tilt the angle of my conversation so that it flowed straight back to Middlemarch. It is amazing how many reasons one can find to bring up the pier glass bit, for instance, or to talk about what a nice man Caleb Garth is. He really is very nice, and we should all strive to be more like him. I developed my own understanding of the novel’s co-ordinates, my own greatest hits collection. I still, for example, don’t really care about Dorothea. She is not my scene, in the same way that Jane Eyre is not my scene. Too severe. I still also don’t care about Lydgate, although I can feel that changing. Better to say that I don’t care about Lydgate yet. Fred Vincy, though, my God. I cared about him a lot from day one. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fred Vincy changed my life. Middlemarch’s narrator has been accused of being overly partial to Fred, the implication being that he is not all that wonderful or deserving of the narrator’s time and attention. This accusation is false and I resent it. He is selfish and frivolous, yes, and almost unmatchedly entitled, but he is also a person capable of being redeemed by love. He is good not because of anything intrinsically fine in his character, but because of who he chooses to care about most. I mean, he is okay, but the reason he is good is because he wants to be good enough for Mary Garth. We do not speak of him enough. Fred Vincy: good humoured, a tiny bit silly, a tiny bit too interested in fun. Fred Vincy: the man responsible for me finally getting a grip. I was enduring, as I said, a period of underemployment that was only and entirely my fault. I was trying to be good but I just couldn’t. Is it enough to say that I was 25? Everyone around me was working, and getting on with things, taking their lunch breaks and being responsible for their little sisters, and I was just...not. Fred Vincy and I, messing everything up, with our self-absorption and our quiet belief that other people would sort things out for us. It was at about age 25 that I realized, to my horror and distress, that no one was going to come riding in and fix my life for me. The injustice of this only enervated me further. It was bad, and then I read Middlemarch. Chapter 25, and the bit where Fred comes over to tell Mary Garth that he has landed her father in debt, a debt which he knows Caleb Garth will find nearly impossible to pay. Mary looks at him with first alarm, and then, worse, dismissal. He asks him to forgive her and she asks him what difference her forgiveness would make, given that it would not alleviate a single one of his fuck-ups. He says, infuriatingly, that he is “so miserable, Mary -- if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me." A great man for missing the point. He says, panicked, that he is “going now”, and that “I shall never speak to you about anything again.” I read all this with the particular kind of mounting alarm that comes with being recognized. Not even recognized: accused. I knew this particular movie so well, and had starred in it too many times. And then, Mary says, “How can you bear to be so contemptible, when others are working and striving, and there are so many things to be done -- how can you bear to be fit for nothing in the world that is useful?” That’s all she says, and that’s all it took. It was as if George Eliot had reached into my brain and jiggled it around a bit. It seems like a small thing, but it really wasn’t, because how could we bear it? We were better than that, surely? It was the thing I was finally ready to hear, after years of Vincy-ing around. The change did not come overnight, not for Fred Vincy or for me. He goes away from that meeting with Mary still needing to spend many pages getting over himself. I needed a few more months before I was ready, too. But I swear to God it was the seed for us both. Fred Vincy was made better by Mary Garth; I was made better by Middlemarch. He spends most of the novel getting to a point where he is good enough for her, and good enough even to love her properly. I spent half my twenties getting to the point where I was grown up enough to receive the medicine Middlemarch was determined to administer. I’ve had this with other books since. Blood Meridian was a good one. It sat on my shelf for years, giving me no good reason to read it. Friends had loved it, but it sounded ridiculous, mostly, and over the top, all that stuff about "he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” Come on. It seemed rude, also, to entirely disregard humor as a mechanism. And then, I went through a period where I don’t remember smiling for about two months. Some bad stuff happened, some massively over-the-top stuff, and the funny or ironic side of things remained obscured. I felt extremely dramatic, as ancient as the hills, and do you know what is a good book for a mood like that? Why, Blood Meridian. I devoured it, reading long sections about scalping out loud. I have the last lines of the novel pinned above my desk, now, the bit about the judge dancing and saying that he will never die, and I look at them every day. He is a great favorite, the judge. That ending: so scary, so serious and devoid of irony, and so fine with that approach. It knocked me out then, and it knocks me out today. I needed a book that confirmed my sense that things were bad, and getting worse, and while this may sound counter-intuitive, it did make me feel better. I wish I was reading it right now. I think about Toadvine’s ear necklace all the time. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters got me for the opposite reasons. It is often dismissed as quaint, and it is, a bit. It is small, and focused on small things. Not grand in any sense except that it is in love with the world. I had read it once before, and liked it fine, and then I fell in love in that way which does not confine itself to the person but spills out onto everything and everyone. I chose a strange moment to feel this way, because the world at that time was presenting itself as an objectively unlovable place. Almost everyone I knew was focusing on the bigger picture, and was being made desperately unhappy by this. I was happy, though, because I was in love, and I badly needed a book which would tell me that it was fine to focus on small things, to see the whole universe in one car journey, one disastrous wedding, one drink. The world can only be kept at bay for so long, but inside the car, with Buddy Glass narrating, it felt briefly okay. Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it. Image: Wikipedia
Essays

God Talk

1. We sat in a semicircle with Dorothy in the center, an open copy of the Good News Bible on her lap. She wore a t-shirt with “Maine” printed below an image of a fly fisherman. He’d hooked a trout but the fish was twice his size. I tried to understand how that was possible. I’d seen shows on ESPN where harried outdoorsmen wrestled sturgeons in Alaskan rivers but I’d never met a trout longer than my arm. That line of thought got me halfway through her first reading, something vaguely violent from the Old Testament. She followed that with a selection from the Gospels. She read with a smile, and when she finished she paused and stared at us. I swear she made eye contact with each and every kid there, as if she could read our thoughts. I wondered if she could read mine. David said there’d be pizza, movies, soccer, and swimming. So far I was disappointed. 2. I can’t quit God if I tried -- especially not when it comes to books. Conversion and explanation are not in my wheelhouse; my brand of superstitious Italian-Catholicism via Jesuits always turns faith inward. I would rather criticize myself than someone else. Maybe that’s why I’m interested in books about God, about faith, about our most earnest attempts to be good and our daily actions of being terrible. I like the idea that writers wrestle with words to capture the ineffable. I like that writers fail far more often than they succeed. 3. I usually spent my summers playing Nok Hockey and lacrosse at Bee Meadow School. The free, public day camp only lasted a few hours a day. We tried to avoid the obligatory craft sessions every Friday, (fill in the blank + popsicle sticks) and got pumped for the end-of-day dodge ball game, cramped chaos in a gym used for theater practice and AA meetings. Our counselors were college students home on break, who flirted with each other, beat us soundly in soccer games, and lied about finding dead bodies floating in the pond behind the school. Once I was sent home for calling another kid chicken-face-punk. Someone else told me to say it but I accepted the punishment. My sister picked me up and took me to Dairy Queen. The next day I was back, turning paper-towel rolls into glasses. (Craft classes were the halfway-house for suspended students.) David and I played 21 at the basketball court. He flailed, threw elbows, and made left-handed layups. He kept his mouth shut during games, which was a blessing compared to the counselors, whose trash talk reached epic proportions. At the end of our game, David and I bought Gatorades from the snack bar and sat in the gym. Two upright fans spun hot air across the stage where three girls sang something from Mary Poppins. The next day was my least favorite of the year, the Six Flags trip. I hated roller coasters; so did David. He knew that, and I suspect that was why he asked if I wanted to go to Bible camp with him instead. He listed the activities and none of them had anything to do with the Bible. In fact, the words Bible and camp didn’t come into the conversation until later. He just asked if I wanted to go to Blue River, and I said yes. I asked my mom if I could go to Blue River with David. She asked if I needed my fishing license. I explained that it had to do with his church. She sat me down, and though I don’t remember the exact content of her conversation, it sounded awfully close to a warning -- as in look but don’t touch, and certainly don’t taste. Catholics don’t have Bible camps. At least not the Catholics I knew -- Italian, Irish, and Portuguese immigrants in Whippany, NJ. We had retreats, lock-ins, CCD classes, but we never talked about Jesus in public. I don’t think we were ashamed -- it just didn’t seem right. It was as if we were opening up about a personal secret that evaporated the second it met air. At Blue River people talked about Jesus like he was their second cousin. They held hands during responses and never crossed themselves. Pamphlets leaned forward in wooden shelves. It was easy to tell the bad ones (thunder-stuffed clouds and tears) from the good ones (sunshine and high grass). There was a lack of men, and a plethora of fanny packs and hummed hymns. Most kids called their parents halfway through the day. I declined. I really had no idea what to say. 4. Joy Williams reminded me of the strangeness of God in her 99 Stories. I had found God in her sentences before, but it was nice to see her sprint headlong into the divine. I escape in similar ways in the writing of Ron Hansen, Toni Morrison, and that heretic from the Bronx, Don DeLillo. I have this quirk where I always want to know a writer’s religious interest; it helps me grasp how that writer understands atmosphere and setting. I have a special place in my literary heart for the lapsed: those who grew up looking up -- who decided one day to drift. I have friends who sometimes drift back into church, like they are returning home, before leaving again. Then they return to their essays, stories, and poems, that contain shadow of God without any outline. But isn’t that how faith is supposed to work? You see the soul, but not the body? 5. Dorothy stood in front of a long grill, flipping burgers with what looked like a pancake spatula. I thought she was going to quiz me on her reading or say she knew I wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t. She asked if I wanted cheese. I said yes. Group prayer came after lunch. There was no church or chapel on campus, only a room with folding chairs and fans in the windows, slicing the sunlight. Dorothy was back in Jesus mode, waiting for all of us to take a seat. I was afraid of the inevitable audience participation. After CCD classes we’d converge in the church, where Father John would query us with softball questions about the catechism. Wrong answers were met with a laugh and smirk, not a smack to the palm. But it still made me nervous. Dorothy spoke softly and we became silent to meet her voice. She asked us to consider what we were thankful for, and then talked about Jesus in a succession of praises. I did not recognize any of these prayers. I was used to the mention of saints and much less talking. For me prayer was silent; communal, yes, but a sort of hushed thought, not a bunch of talk. Dorothy seemed like a nice woman but it sounded like she was trying to talk her way toward God. Or maybe barter something from him. Years later my wife -- another cradle Catholic -- and I would be in the middle of a similar group prayer at a showing of The Passion of the Christ. Somehow we were the only two people in the theater who were not congregants of a Pennsylvania evangelical church. I held my breath during that prayer as well. In the midst of Dorothy’s spiel I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Something just didn’t feel right. I snuck out the back of the building. I hid, first, behind the shed where two tractors sat silent in the dark, then in a thin patch of woods behind the unused soccer fields, grass reaching halfway up the goals. All the time I kept my eye on the building and was able to weave back into the procession as it came out. I’m sure somebody noticed but no one said anything, probably because I was only a visitor. During the ride back home, David’s mom hummed John Denver while we sweated with the windows down. She never used the air conditioning in that burgundy minivan. When I got home I was still hot and rushed into my house. My mom asked what was wrong, but I held up a finger while I downed water. It was a full glass, and it felt like the water would never end. Maybe that was what miracles were really like: small comforts from this wailing world. Image: Gauguin, "Agony in the Garden," Wikipedia
Essays

A Reading Resolution

Back in 2011, my cousin bought me a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson for Christmas. The biography had been released a couple of months earlier, less than three weeks after Jobs’s death, and had become an immediate bestseller -- one of those books that makes the transitional leap from the bookstore to the "impulse-buy" shelf by the supermarket checkout, and the kind of thing I snobbishly regard with suspicion while waiting to pay for my kale. I really had no notion as to why my cousin would choose to buy this particular book for me. I am not only something of a luddite, but am also a sworn enemy of Apple, the company which Jobs co-founded. During my teenage years, I spent most of my savings on an iPod Mini, only for the battery to die after 11 months. Although it was covered by a one-year warranty, when I made my claim they told me that for battery-related issues the warranty is a mere six months, and that the cost for one of their technicians to replace the battery would be almost as much as the iPod itself. After that experience, I swore I would never buy another of their overpriced products again, and have held a deep personal grudge against Jobs and his cohort ever since. Thus when I opened the wrapping paper on that Christmas afternoon five years ago to find myself confronted by the arrogant stare of Steve Jobs, I smiled and said a polite word of thanks, and then immediately disregarded the book, exiling it to a bottom corner of my bookshelf, where it has been gathering dust ever since. Earlier this year, for my birthday, I received a copy of the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film Steve Jobs on DVD. (Yes, I still watch DVDs. I told you I was a luddite.) Although the subject of Jobs did not strike me as being any more interesting in 2016 than it did in 2011, and I still had not forgiven him for the iPod Mini incident, it seemed as though some invisible hand in the universe was intent on forcing him into my life, and so, encouraged by the row of five-star reviews on the DVD cover, I decided to give it a chance. I ended up being surprised not only by how much I enjoyed the film, but how interesting I found the historical context of Apple and the early days of developing computer technology. The film stayed in my mind for a few days, and, becoming unexpectedly eager to dig a little deeper into the facts behind the fictionalized Sorkinese dialogue, I decided to commit myself to trying out the 600-page Isaacson tome on the much-mythologized Jobs. Lo and behold, the book I had not given a second glance half a decade ago ended up being one of my favorite books of 2016. That is not to say that it converted me to the Church of Apple, but it introduced me to new perspectives on technology that I had not previously considered, such as why Jobs believed it was essential that the iPod Mini had no convenient flap to easily replace a dead battery, and the advantages and disadvantages that stem from this "closed system" model. Jobs never wanted the seams or screws to be visible on any of his products, wishing them to be complete entities in themselves, which could not be corrupted by any inferior outside components. This approach yielded great success for Apple, and helped bring a sense of beauty into the world of computing, which had previously been dominated by clunky and unattractive machines. As someone who has grown up in the age of computer technology, I suppose I had never questioned many of these digital facts of life before. To me, elements such as the great Apple/Microsoft divide have simply always been part of the natural order of things, and it had never really occurred to me how intertwined the destinies of the two companies have been, and how the progress of computer technology might have turned out entirely differently had either one of them not existed. I learned more from Isaacson’s biography than I have from a single book in a long time, simply by virtue of the fact that it concerned a subject I previously knew nothing about and assumed I had no interest in. It is a credit to Isaacson that he manages to make the complex evolving world of computer technology so accessible and fascinating to a novice like me; when he concludes that Jobs will be placed “in the pantheon next to Edison and Ford” I can now see where he is coming from, where previously I would have, in my ignorance, snorted in disbelief at the notion. The Edison and Ford comparison strikes me as particularly apt, in that Jobs was not necessarily the greatest engineer himself, but seems to have had the clairvoyant ability to see the potential in other people’s inventions and predict what the customer wanted before they themselves knew. With this greatness came a darker side to his personality, which allowed him to take credit for other people’s ideas, berate his employees for not being able to meet his impossible standards, and neglect his familial responsibilities. Isaacson does not shy away from these more negative qualities, and is able to portray the complexity of Jobs -- a man you may admire, but would probably not invite to your home for dinner -- while also preserving that aura of enigma which inevitably surrounds anyone who achieves things that defy easy explanation. Steve Jobs was not necessarily my favorite book of the year (that title would probably go to Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity) but it affected me in the most significant way, and will probably be the book I end up recommending most often. It is a book which, for one pretentious reason or another, I considered to be outside of the realm of my interest, and it never would have occurred to me to read it had it not fallen into my lap. It also reminded me of something that is easily forgotten: namely, that the unexpected book has the greatest potential to surprise you, and offers the greatest potential for learning outside of one’s normal cultural sphere. Without even noticing it, many of us are guilty of trapping ourselves into small pockets of literature. So, inspired by my enjoyment of Steve Jobs, I am making a New Year’s resolution to embrace the unexpected book; to make an effort to read things I have never heard of, on subjects I know nothing about. If 2016 was able to introduce me to the book that would finally allow me to forgive Steve Jobs for the iPod Mini, I’m looking forward to seeing how my mind will be changed by the unexpected books of 2017.
Essays

Reading Tagore in 2016

Which poet of the past should we turn to as we look back on the traumatic year that is drawing to a close?  Throughout much of 2016, W.H. Auden seemed to many the obvious choice.  Fearing where the current tide of angry nationalism could lead, many commentators, including Neal Gabler and Cynthia Ozick, singled out “September 1, 1939” as a twentieth-century poem that spoke powerfully to our current twenty-first century tragedies.  The poem, which has been downloaded from the web tens of thousands of times this year, refers to “what dictators do” across “the darkened lands of the earth” -- these and other phrases resonate today. There was a great deal of interest as well in the renewed topicality of William Butler Yeats, particularly after the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was assassinated.  This act of violence, in a year that had seen so many and witnessed a rise in international tensions, shifted attention back from the 1930s, the “low dishonest decade” of Auden’s, to the 1910s, during which a global war had been sparked partly by the murder of a diplomat.  The ultimate poem of the moment seemed then “The Second Coming,” which Yeats wrote in 1919 and many had quoted earlier in the year already.  It evokes a period when “anarchy is loosed upon the world” and the “centre cannot hold.” There is a third great poet, however, who seems to me worth re-reading while reflecting on 2016.  The poet is Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize.  The less weighty reason to focus on Tagore now is that much was made this year of the novelty of a songwriter becoming a Nobel Laureate.  Bob Dylan was not, however, the first one to get this prize; that distinction, as Amit Chaudhuri noted in the Guardian belongs to the Bengali poet Tagore, who wrote many songs as well.  The more substantial reason to associate Tagore with 2016 is the renewed relevance of his “Sunset of the Century,” which was written on the final day of 1900, a year during which wars, humanitarian crises, angry nationalist rhetoric, and a diplomat’s assassination all made headlines. The diplomat killed in the year of Tagore’s searing poem, which speaks of a time when the sound of the “clash of steel” filled the air, was Baron Clemens von Ketteler.  The Baron was the German Plenipotentiary to China.  He was slain in broad daylight in Beijing in mid-June, just before anti-Christian militants known as “Boxers,” backed by soldiers of the Qing Dynasty, laid siege to the foreign legation quarter of China’s capital.  The combination of the assassination and the siege, which famously lasted 55 days, triggered an international invasion of North China that ended up costing the lives of tens of thousands of people, most of them Chinese villagers with no ties to the Boxers.  On December 31, 1900, while Tagore wrote “Sunset of the Century” in India, a crowd of people from different countries gathered on the other side of the Himalayas to see von Ketteler’s killer decapitated in a public square. The poem, which Tagore wrote in Bengali, is filled with phrases that could easily have been inspired by 2016 news stories.  It refers to people “howling verses of vengeance,” of the “drunken delirium of greed.”  The poem evokes a time when the “self-love of Nations” triggers a “whirlwind of hatred.” Tagore writes of watching the last sun of 1900, which was also the “last sun of the century,” sinking into clouds that, befitting the times, were of a “blood-red” hue. Back in July, when 2016’s status as an annus horribilus was already clear, Slate’s Rebecca Onion asked ten historians to propose candidates for the worst year in history.  Some looked back many centuries, while those who focused on the recent past chose years such as 1919, when “The Second Coming” was written, and 1943, when the “dictators” of Auden’s poem carried out some of their darkest deeds. No one mentioned 1900. When that year began, a large-scale famine was underway in India and China and the Boer War was raging in South Africa.  In the spring, the Boxers -- who blamed the presence of a foreign religion for angering local gods and causing these deities to withhold much needed rain from the drought-parched lands of North China -- murdered missionaries and Chinese Christians.  At various points in the year, wars were fought in other parts of the world, including the Philippines, where Tagalog rebels and American soldiers clashed.  The summer saw intense fighting in China between Boxer and Qing forces, on one side, and an international army made up of soldiers marching behind eight different foreign banners, including the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, and the Japanese and Russian flags, on the other. In 1900, as in 2016, a new communication technology was used to spread false information.  The most important example then of what we now call “fake news” was a widely circulated and for a time widely believed report of a mass killing of the foreigners held captive in Beijing, which had allegedly led to the death of all diplomats and their wives and children.  This incorrect report began with one cabled story, disseminated via telegraphy, a medium that had been invented decades before but had just gained added importance when the first undersea cables were laid.  Soon, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in other parts of the world, were presenting the rumor as truth.  Eventually, when the international forces lifted the siege, the foreigners who had been held hostage emerged very much alive, but the horror generated by the rumor of their slaughter had an important effect. When the stories of Beijing’s streets running with blood circled the globe, it stoked the outrage generated by factual reports of the Boxers killing Christians and von Ketteler’s assassination by a soldier.  Even though the stories had been proved untrue before the international force reached Beijing, memories lingered of the loud calls for retribution heard while the rumors were taken as fact.  Many had been insisting, even before the rumors flew, that China and the Manchu dynasty that ruled it, which had decided to back the Boxers, needed to be taught a lesson they would never forget.  But the fiercest prose equivalents of the “verses of vengeance” alluded to in Tagore’s poem were issued while images of rooms filled with slain diplomats and their family members were in people’s minds.  Some insisted that Beijing should be razed to the ground, and a European newspaper said that “exemplary vengeance” should be the order of the day once the international army reached the capital.  In the end, while Beijing was not completely destroyed, there was wholesale looting of imperial treasures and the campaigns of retribution subsequently staged across North China could be seen as “exemplary vengeance” of a sort. In 1900, some saw the troubles in the world as a straightforward battle between good and evil, with no ambiguity about who and which creeds were on which side.  Campaigning for the vice presidency, for example, Theodore Roosevelt gave speeches defending his running mate William McKinley’s expansionist moves in the Philippines and the American contribution to the invasion of China as just the latest in a long line of efforts by “civilized” men, by which he meant Christians, to defeat “barbarous” ones.  When the “civilized” took actions, even things that seemed warlike and cruel were justified, since they “ultimately” brought “peace,” he said, to the affected lands.  “In China we see at the moment,” he told a packed crowd at a July rally in Minnesota, “the awful tragedy that is following just exactly such a movement as the so-called anti-imperialists have championed in the Philippines.”  The Boxers and Tagalog needed to be defeated, just as Native Americans on the U.S. frontier had needed to be at an earlier time.  His listeners should remember that before “we had expanded over this country, the border warfare between the white men and the red men and among the different red men was unceasing, but now that we have expanded, peace has come exactly as peace has been brought to Algiers, to Turkestan, and the Soudan by the great peoples of Europe.” Donald Trump’s tweet presenting the December 19 “terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany” as being of one piece, despite the different targets and actors involved, fits in with the 1900 speeches by Roosevelt, a future resident of the White House.  So, too, did the President-elect’s appeal to the “civilized world” to respond to the violence.  There was even a 1900 analogue to Trump’s past efforts to associate his domestic opponents with terrorism.   The cover of the August 11, 1900, issue of the magazine Judge showed three figures standing side by side, each with a plague reading “I AM AGAINST AMERICAN IMPERIALISM” across his chest.  On the left, a menacing looking Chinese Boxer, on the right, a Filipino rebel with a fierce expression, and in between, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. In 1900, as in 2016, there were those who insisted that it was wrong to see the violence wracking the world as a simple struggle between “savagery” and “civilization,” with all Christians on the side of the angels in all disputes.  Mark Twain, for example, expressed sympathy for the Boxers, seeing them as patriots, and drew attention to atrocities committed in the name of “civilization,” as foreigners, including missionaries, looted Chinese national treasures, and international troops rampaged across North China.  He also chastised Christendom for besmirching its reputation through acts no better than “pirate raids” in the Philippines and South Africa as well as China.  Tagore’s “Sunset of the Century,” by blaming the “self-love of Nations” and a “drunken delirium of greed” for the era’s horrors, rather than seeing them as part of an epic battles between “civilized” and “savage” groups, expressed views closer to Twain’s than Roosevelt’s. In 1900 there was a sense that so many different things were going wrong that the end of the world might be at hand.  Writing home from China during the Boxer crisis, one missionary mused that she felt “as though these were the last days,” due to the sufferings around the world caused by “wars, famines, rumours, persecutions!”  2016 witnessed references to specific events as having an apocalyptic feel to them, as well as dark reflections on the year as a whole, including the way it moved us closer to a climate change doomsday scenario while reviving worries about a nuclear Armageddon. It is possible to take comfort from the knowledge that previous generations have felt that end times were near.  There is such a feel of familiarity to the problems Tagore describes in “Sunset of the Century,” though, that reading it now leads me in a different direction.  He and his contemporaries thought of the day he wrote the poem, December 31, 1900, as bringing the nineteenth century to a close. It was possible to imagine that narrow forms of nationalism, fear of the foreign, and other things that had caused such misery during the previous months would soon be seen as problems of an age gone by.  If we move forward from Tagore’s poem to the famous ones that Yeats wrote in 1919 and Auden in 1939, we see that the phenomena the Tagore felt had marred the nineteenth century continued to do an enormous amount of harm in the twentieth.  And if we focus on the years just ended, we find clear evidence that, due in part to the continuing power that “greed” and the “self-love of Nations” can exert, we live in a twenty-first century when the “howling” of “verses of vengeance” often fills the air.
Essays

Something Sinister on the North Shore

Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city. And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better -- bucolic, quiet, safe -- or worse -- insular, bland, blindingly white. When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara -- drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it's the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies. “Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over $100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is $42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other. In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger -- school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface. Hog Barbecuer for the World, School Segregator. Mower of Lawns, Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper; Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting. Suburb of the White Collars… So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book. “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over. A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest's 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments. Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes: He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world. Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man's Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world -- the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape -- cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities. White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s. There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as "The World's Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses. It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away. There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in "Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us -- a sense of style, of experience-collecting -- seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.