Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Paisley Rekdal's beautiful, devastating comment on her poem "Philomela" deserves a willing commitment of time and attention. Fair warning: it's anchored by an open recounting of sexual assault, so read at your own emotional risk. Rekdal draws on centuries of poetry — Shakespeare, Ovid, Chaucer are just a start — to gloss her experience and her own lines, spiraling away from and back to the narrative. This is literature at the top of its game.
Perhaps the greatest desire a victim of violence has is to look, in memory, at that violence dispassionately. But remembering, the heart pounds, the body floods with adrenaline, ready to tear off into flight. For some, there is no smoothing chaos back into memory. Poetry, with its suggestion that time can be ordered through language, strains to constrain suffering. It suggests, but rarely achieves, the redress we desire. Language does not heal terror, and if it brings us closer to imagining the sufferer’s experience, this too does not necessarily make us feel greater compassion, but a desire for further sensation. If we cannot articulate pain beyond inspiring in the listener a need for revenge, we only speak of and to the body.
An impassioned piece by Scott Esposito, author of The Surrender, on why books matter — with a visceral example from his own life. As Esposito says, it’s easy for even the most dedicated readers, writers, and booksellers to feel overwhelmed by the daily grind and the “mind-numbing cascade of new books, book reviews, author interviews, profiles, lists, gossip, feuds, and so on.” His essay is a welcome antidote.
I know that against the awesome power of the President of the United States a single book doesn’t seem like much, against a hateful Klan rally a mere LGBTQ bookstore display seems puny. But I’m here to tell you that these things do make a difference for a lot of people. We must not doubt the importance of books. When we publish, or handsell, or review, or simply recommend to a friend, we must think very deeply about the kinds of messages we are putting into the world, as well as the sort of country we want our literary culture to represent. They are heard and seen by people all around us, and they are affecting lives.
Lana Lokteff runs a media company that’s the digital hub for the alt-right, and advocates for using the fear of rape as a conversion tactic to bring other women into the fold. Ayla Stewart is a successful YouTube personality who dresses her children (her “BASKET FULL OF ADORABLES”) as Pepe the Frog. Mary Grey is a podcaster and the author of the children’s book Walls and Fences (“Why do we build walls? We have walls for protection.”).
These are women walking a very thin line, stepping into positions of power within our nation’s ugliest political splinter group while advocating for their own subordination. Seyward Darby’s investigation of how the alt-right’s perhaps most dangerous members operate, and what they hope for, is a long, slow punch in the stomach.
For months, America has tried to understand what the movement wants. Perhaps the better question is, who gets to decide? In grappling with how to set priorities, the alt-right is bumping up against ideological contradictions, divergent opinions, and other schisms in its ardent, loosely formed ranks. Assertive women are exposing some of these fissures, which seem likely to grow as the movement vies for a modicum of political acceptance.
Lokteff, though, is sanguine. “Ten years from now, a lot of these alt-right concepts are going to be very mainstream in white people’s minds,” she told me. Then, as though a light bulb had clicked on in her brain, she continued: “Look at feminism. It started as a fringe movement. Now it’s mainstream, left and right.”
Benjamin Haas spent a week in Hong Kong’s ironically named Lucky House, where “the poorest people in the most expensive city in the world” find shelter in tiny plywood enclosures, so small they’re openly referred to as “coffin homes.” Haas got just a taste of life in twelve feet of personal space; as you read his essay, imagine the experience without an exit date. This photoessay on the same subject from June has blunter impact; the two pair well.
The plight of Hong Kong’s coffin dwellers is well known throughout the city. The tight living conditions have become so infamous, one hostel styled its dormitory as a sort of hip hybrid of coffin homes with modern details.
The hostel bills itself as “authentically HK”, which strikes me as insensitive, as no one who has spent a night in a coffin home would ever think there is anything trendy about how the poorest live.
But the hostel’s existence speaks to the complacency that has developed, with many Hong Kong residents convinced the city’s problems are unsolvable.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
David Roth won the internet’s heart this week by boiling our nightmare national politics down a simple and compelling assertion: Donald Trump is an asshole. We’ve let the Confounder in Chief tie us in knots, and we’ve knotted ourselves up just as much, trying to make sense of it all. Roth’s Gordian solution — “stop trying” — is a bit of a relief all around.
There is no room for other people in the world that Trump has made for himself, and this is fundamental to the anxiety of watching him impose his claustrophobic and airless interior world on our own. Is Trump a racist? Yes, because that’s a default setting for stupid people; also, he transparently has no regard for other people at all. Does Trump care about the cheap-looking statue of Stonewall Jackson that some forgotten Dixiecrat placed in a shithole park somewhere he will never visit? Not really, but he so resents the fact that other people expect him to care that he develops a passionate contrary opinion out of spite. Does he even know about . . . Let me stop you there. The answer is no.
In an essay that's pretty much the antithesis of asshole (see above), Danielle Tcholakian talks about becoming a journalist in the era of fake news, and what it takes to keep an open heart — and an open ear — with people who have fundamentally different beliefs. May we all maintain the same equanimity in the face of conflict, and the same willingness to take a punch if it means a handshake at the end of the round.
Maybe it will be exhausting and frustrating. But I want to try, both in-person and online, with people who have thousands of followers and people who have a handful. Because it’s my job and I love my job, because they are colleagues and neighbors and voters, and because we all have to live here on this Earth together, and if we’re not communicating, what the hell are we doing?
Maybe you’re refusing to read any of the buzz around the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death; it’s an entirely defensible position, and I was like you until The Guardian pushed this piece by Hilary Mantel. Gretel, princess bride, Joan of Arc, White Goddess — Mantel applies her signature talent for pulling story out of history to the question of why we can’t stop talking about Diana Spencer.
Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.
But in case you just can’t stomach or just don’t care (still very defensible), here’s another excellent long read from The Guardian: a look back at the tsunami that followed the monstrous 2011 earthquake in Japan, and how hard it is to make the right decision when the water comes over the wall.
“What do you like to read” is a very personal question; Amy Reading breaks down why. A little romantic — or, less generously, pretentious — this essay works best as a personal reflection and less well as an anatomy. Most readers will recognize themselves at least once or twice, then enjoy arguing when they don’t.
Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious — because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure.
On a recent visit to the US Post Office, a postal employee offered some practical advice: need packing material? Grab a few copies of the The Stranger from the box at the door. Leaves you wondering: with the Village Voice gone digital, what the heck are New Yorkers using to wrap fish?
David Dudley’s mostly unsentimental comment on the shuttering of the Village Voice’s print edition does a good job on why alt-weeklies matter, and why print matters in particular for the free weekly newspaper. It’s not just the writing — though alt-weeklies can offer a specific and unique way of experiencing a city — it’s how print gets in your space, welcome or not, and stays there.
The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.
Instead of starting this week's picks looking backward at the barfing horror show of a week that proceeded it, let us turn our attention to the heavens, to the cleaving of our nation by a shadow stripe which will wend its way from west to east, a direction opposite the sun's travel (therefore significant, symbolically), and in that unearthly darkness (the shadow of which, for a minute or three, reminds us of one necessary constant in our lives that we barely pay enough heed to, the mostly unhidden sun) may the sins of our forbearers be purified in the birth of a new sun, a post eclipse sun, a sun whose rays pierce madness and bring succor to pain and horror and fear. Let this moment our country is experiencing be but a symptom of misunderstood celestial psychology; for ask any emergency room worker and they will tell you that things are worse at a full moon. Surely, then, there is a possibility that the madness we are amidst, this unhinged and unbalanced carnage of irrationality could be tied to the heavens and the gravitational bodies swinging against each other, drawn by the magnetism of our dense inflamed nuclear center. Let it be so. Let us be free of this terror.
Apparently, eclipses inspire great awe. Don't take my word for it, listen to Annie Dillard:
I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden. Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire. And blackbirds do fly back to their roosts. I had seen a partial eclipse before, and here was another.
Lauren Michele Jackson argues that the explosion of white-owned "craft" businesses are built on privilege and appropriation. You will not be surprised to learn this is not a new phenomenon. As Jackson points out, Jack Daniels himself learned how to distill from an enslaved black man named Nathan "Nearest" Green. Jackson visits barbecue and coffee as well, bringing forth the black history so readily ignored.
Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white. Craft culture tells mostly white stories for mostly white consumers, and they nearly always sound the same: It begins somewhere remote-sounding like the mountains of Cottonwood, Idaho, or someplace quirky like a basement in Fort Collins, Colorado, or a loft in Brooklyn, where a (white) artisan, who has a vision of back in the day, when the food was real and the labor that produced it neither alienated nor obscured — and discovers a long-forgotten technique, plucked from an ur-knowledge as old as thought and a truth as pure as the soul.
Can you believe it hasn't even been a fucking week since that shitshow? A moment so present and intense in cultural life, that it will be the point they talk about in history books. You could feel how palpable it was, the needless and horrible deaths, the nazi inciting to violence, the militias armed to the teeth and ready to defend...something.
But of all the reports I've read from the ground, Blake Montgomery's coverage for BuzzFeed News is the clearest and most well laid-out. It's a nice companion piece to the Vice Media video that has been so widely shared.
Yes, you can blame the Nazis.
The race-fueled chaos that wracked Charlottesville, Virginia, finally came to rest on Sunday night. And the hundreds of people who spent the weekend fighting in streets — and the millions who watched them — began what has become a new American ritual: arguing about what really happened, and what a spasm of localized political violence means.
Was this an assault by racist extremists on innocent, rightly outraged Americans? Was it a clash between “many sides,” as President Trump notoriously said? Was the scale of the white supremacist threat blown out of proportion? Was the violence of the black-hooded “antifa” understated?
The answers are clearer on the ground than they are in the filter bubbles driven by fierce partisan argument on social media and cable news. They are complicated but not ambiguous. Here are a few:
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman draw the stark line in the sand for Jews who either support, or think they have found common cause with our president. There is no middle ground here, now that he has unequivocally showed his truth. The time to oppose him is now.
So, now you know. First he went after immigrants, the poor, Muslims, trans people and people of color, and you did nothing. You contributed to his campaign, you voted for him. You accepted positions on his staff and his councils. You entered into negotiations, cut deals, made contracts with him and his government.
Now he’s coming after you. The question is: what are you going to do about it? If you don’t feel, or can’t show, any concern, pain or understanding for the persecution and demonization of others, at least show a little self-interest. At least show a little sechel. At the very least, show a little self-respect.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
There’s nothing like a solid takedown, especially of a book that, apparently, many people disliked but were afraid to confess to disliking until the movie trailer came out. We could go deep here on how nerd culture became cool, and whether we’ve hit peak nerd and are ready for a nerd backlash, but maybe let’s just take this at face value: Ready Player One had the references, but not the heart, of Among Others. One round was enough.
Nearly every one of Ready Player One’s faults is a direct result of Cline’s authorial narcissism. The writing process appears to have begun with the question: What if the entire world revolved around me, and the specific video games and movies I like? The rest was assembled around that essential core. Cline is far from the first author to write a self-insert wish fulfillment narrative, but he may be the first to write one this lazy and self-indulgent.
It’s a narrow line: spend a day in one of the lowest-paid and least-respected jobs in the food industry; write a shiny, self-deprecating-but-not-really, slice-of-life story; but don’t condescend or overwrite the reality of working your ass off for very little money in an environment where your colleagues may not even speak your language.
Food critic Tom Sietsema does a reasonable job with his recounting of a day as a dishwasher in a high-pressure restaurant kitchen, and there’s lot of interesting stuff about the job itself — and how the job is changing, thanks in part to successful chefs who got their start with their arms buried in suds. Here’s hoping equal salary goes along with the new titles and upgraded uniforms.
The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.
“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.
This series of photographs of front-row fans, taken by documentary photographer Jessica Lehrman from the concert stage, are stellar: the human face (and body) burning with adrenaline, jubilation, awe, and fury. Look especially for the outliers in each image — the stone-faced security guard, the blue-lit skeptic, the man whose eyes drift from the star and meet the camera dead-on.
The front-row fans are willing to be crushed against a metal barricade, hundreds, maybe thousands of people swaying and pulsing behind them, all connected to the same rhythm.
There are weepers, Instagrammers, those who need to live-stream all their experiences.
The fanatics know every single word.
There’s a surprising amount of romance in Bloomberg Businessweek’s soul — witness this piece by Greg Milner on NYC’s subterranean mirror. We’ve mapped the surface of the planet down to the last ripple and bump; maybe the final frontier is under our feet.
New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one.
An ode to the numero by type designer Jonathan Hoefler, a geeky piece that philosophizes about punctuation, reminisces over a few lost forms (the asterism!), and winds its way to a detailed exploration of the main character (pun intended). The internet is swarming with this kind of “inside look” from industry experts; here’s an enjoyable example based on real knowledge and obvious love for the subject.
At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.)
This essay by soccer player Georgia Cloepfill starts with what I believe is called a “devastating indictment” of the discrepancy in how male and female athletes are treated, financially and otherwise; that section alone is worth your time. And then she offers more, handfuls of short, lyrical-in-a-good-way vignettes about the nature of work, sacrifice, and achievement, through the lens of a woman who’s dedicated a great deal of heart to her sport.
I ask the clock how much time is left. It answers in monotonous pulses: there is still time, there is still time; or: it is nearly over. The amount of time that passes is inseparable from the immensity of my panic — they are one and the same.
With a comfortable lead, ninety minutes have the texture of a single day. Things happen with a calm inevitability. Events are as stable as a sunset, and consequences are modest. There is still time to erase, if necessary; to repeat, if you’ve already done the right thing; to find glory, if glory has thus far proved elusive.
At its worst obscure, self-righteous, and exclusionary, academic language is such an easy target! And yet I can’t help cheering Nathan J. Robinson on as he takes aim and fires at it again. In fairness (to the language), his point is that academic writing isn’t inherently bad, it’s just used that way.
if people are actually trying to communicate with one another their words need to have meaning, and we need to have relatively fixed and identifiable definitions for concepts and actions. That’s always going to be elusive, because the usages of words will change over time and vary among users, so it will be impossible for any definition to stay truly stable and universally agreed. Yet while their boundaries can be fuzzy and contested, words ultimately need to be something more than meaningless mouth-noises.
If we’re going to face off against inflated language (see above), why not go head-to-head with inflated pocketbooks as well? If Spidey has to check his virtue, even more so Batman.
According to many philosophies and faiths, wealth should serve only as a steppingstone to some further good and is always fraught with moral danger. We all used to recognize this; it was a commonplace. And this intuition, shared by various cultures across history, stands on firm empirical ground.
Over the past few years, a pile of studies from the behavioral sciences has appeared, and they all say, more or less, “Being rich is really bad for you.”
Bonus for book nerds! Adrian Tahourdin reports out of London on how to decode the ISBN, and on the sea change its adoption signaled in what we know about the books we read. The article is a bit of an amuse-bouche, so here are a couple of trails to follow, based on Tahourin’s references: Philip Bradley on the ISBN’s history and use, and David Whitaker (“the father of the ISBN”) on the classification system’s birth.
One senior editor at the time would spend half his working hours proof-reading the item; I think he quite enjoyed it. He must have known many of the ISBN prefixes by heart: 0 19 for Oxford, 0 521 for Cambridge, the somehow pleasing 0 224 for Jonathan Cape, and the equally pleasing 0 393 for Norton and 0 674 for Harvard. Another editor at the TLS used to like being tested on ISBN prefixes, but she recalls that particular challenge now with some (understandable) embarrassment. She’s probably not even aware that Cambridge University Press a few years ago changed their prefix from 521 to 107.
A microinteraction with a stranger waiting to ride the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad sparks a wide-ranging essay by Tabitha Blankenbiller on women’s clothing, choice, and self-respect. And nope, it wasn’t a man who shamed her for wearing a dress to the Happiest Place on Earth.
A day at Disneyland is a rare day of freedom. If you have a ticket, you have the world. You can stay as late as your feet will carry you, ride as many Mountains and Mansions and Cruises and Carousels as you wish. You can have Dole Whips for lunch and Matterhorn Macaroons for dinner. You can let yourself believe that the college student in a wig you’ve waited forty minutes in line to be photographed with is actually Cinderella because she is Meryl Streep-level committed to the role. A hundred fireworks end the day not because it’s special, but because it exists.
On top of that, you can wear whatever you want.
You’ll begin this piece by Martha Baille knowing what it’s about; very shortly in, you’ll realize you have no idea at all. But you’ll keep reading — lyrical in substance, blunt in language, and personal without a hint of gossip, it’s addictive. Yes, this is slightly mysterious; now is a moment for trust. Read on!
My future self, month in month out, has perched on the tall filing cabinet in the corner of my study these past eleven years. Every so often I’ve cast a glance her way, applauded V for his fine sense of humour, and wondered about the life and identity of the woman captured in the likeness offered to me as a teasing foretelling of who I may one day become. Most days I’ve given her no thought, yet she has hovered. Then H’s recent shot of her arrived.
Graphic novelist Jess Ruliffson has spent the past five years interviewing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for an upcoming book about their experiences. This well-timed excerpt is a reminder, for those who need it, of what’s at stake when our crazy president salves his political humiliations by reverting to Bully in Chief.
Nate Silver wins this week’s sci-fi smartass award for playing tour guide through an alternate universe in which we were all right about Election Day 2016.
Things are really different on Earth 2! Merrick Garland is on the Supreme Court instead of Neil Gorsuch. Clinton didn’t enact a “travel ban.” The United States didn’t withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Kellyanne Conway has a CNN show.
OK, maybe things aren’t that different. This is Earth 2, not Earth 5, where Clinton won in a landslide, or Earth 4044, where Jim Gilmore is president (it’s a cold and dark place, and I wouldn’t advise visiting). Earth 2 preserves about as many of Earth 1’s features as possible, other than the things that just can’t be the same because you have Trump as your president and we have Clinton as ours.
Would you rather live and work in a Twinkie, or in your grandmother’s fruitcake? (Perhaps neither.) David Galbraith proposes a new concept, “recipe-based” city design, that could change how architecture and city planning interact with human experience. A fabulous set of images and examples, from David Cronenberg to Mies van der Rohe, brings this somewhat wonky piece to life.
This functional need for highly ordered city plans is changing, however, as information technology allows communication that is independent of the physical environment, and intelligent automation allows point to point physical movement in self directed pods rather than mass transit on fixed arteries. Specifically, ubiquitous, GPS enabled smartphones remove entirely the concept of "getting lost," and route programmed self driving cars and mesh network power grids enable organic city layouts to replace grids. Cities of the industrial age looked mechanical, cities of the information age can look like fractal networks — like nature.
Not to beat you with a dead horse, as my high school chemistry teacher used to say (verbatim) — the issues novelist Matthew Galloway raises in this piece are frequently discussed on the Seattle Review of Books — but: Publishing is going through the kind of cataclysmic shift that certain industries refer to as “disruptive,” and no reader or writer can afford to play innocent bystander.
Galloway published his first book in the “Green Zone” enclave of Big Publishing, his second with “the resistance” (independent publishers and sellers). The metaphor is dramatic, and he’s quick to dismiss the financial issues faced by those for whom writing is a vocation, rather than an avocation. But he has a solid insider’s view of how Amazon is shaping the book market, and how that translates into costs and benefits for authors, publishers, and readers.
Here’s some good news: As soon as an industry player is declared disruptive, it’s a sure thing that they’re vulnerable to disruption by the next new thing. It’ll take more than a drone army to keep Amazon fresh, as long as those committed to the written word make pragmatic decisions — decisions that drive the right action from publishing, and not Amazon’s bottom line.
Then there’s Amazon. If you talk to your overworked/underpaid friends who work in the trenches of Big Publishing, you’ll be keenly aware that no decision — from “content” to book covers to publication schedules to sales/marketing strategies — gets made without considering the actual or looming impact of the alien overlord/distributor. If Amazon is “unhappy” about anything, or if the perception of unhappiness is wielded like a dictatorial cudgel, the publisher will scurry to find a solution. The message — and the reality — from Amazon is: Make Us Happy or Die Trying.
The story of artificial intelligence is, at least for now, a story about human intelligence. Alexis Madrigal profiles Marion Tinsley and Jonathan Schaeffer — the world’s greatest checkers player and the world’s greatest checkers programmer. Chinook, the program that came between them, is a quiet third wheel as the two men race to the death (literally) for mastery of the board.
Schaeffer and Tinsley sat across from each other, and a large screen rendered the movement of the pieces. Tinsley drew first blood, besting Chinook in game five. But then in game eight, Chinook delivered a stunning win; it was Tinsley’s sixth loss in 40 years.
Despite the years of toil and dreams of success, Schaeffer felt sadness in that moment. “We’re still members of the human race,” he wrote in his book, “and Chinook defeating Tinsley in a single game means that it will only be a matter of time before computers will be supreme in checkers, and eventually in other games like chess.” Schaeffer might have won, but the humans have lost.
To celebrate his fiftieth birthday, Mike Montiero wrote a letter that’s somehow both typically irascible and terrifically poignant — about landing on the moon, landing in America, and choosing your own “we.” If you can get through this without watching the Dead Milkmen video twice, and/or crying a little, you’re a better man than I am.
As I looked down at my new son, I realized that for the first time in my life I was in a relationship I could not run away from, could not put on someone else, could not half-ass, could not pretend to do right. Even if I managed to to get all those things right, what genetic malfeasance had I saddled this kid with? I looked at this little bundle of pink flesh and spit and poop and realized that inside him there was the genetic code for depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer, anxiety, and all sorts of other shit. I looked at that little kid and thought, little one you are fucked.
Conversations about race and class and economic disparity are loud and angry in post-Trump (or, sadly, mid-Trump) America. David Joy strikes the tough balance between apology and defense in this honest essay about what “trash” really means.
Maybe that’s why what I read in a trade review recently struck me so hard. The reviewer didn’t like my book, and that’s all right. A whole lot of people don’t like my books, and that’s perfectly OK. My books aren’t for everyone. This reviewer didn’t like what he called my “Southern Poverty Law Center photorealism.” This is what got me, though. He wrote that I should “leave the peeling trailers, come down out of the hollers, and try writing about people for a change.” He actually italicized that word, people, to be sure and say that what lives in those trailers, what finds itself in a world consumed by hopelessness, addiction, and violence, those aren’t people at all. I’m not sure what he thinks men like my grandfather, boys like Darrell, Smokey, Bubba and Lyndon, men like Donny, like Paco are, other than to use his own words, “trailer trash.”
Yes! Housework is “a nerve-twangling bore”! Let’s celebrate the life of the woman who recognized that ugly truth and did something about it: designed and built a house — her own — to end the tyranny of daily cleaning chores.
In each room, Ms. Gabe, tucked safely under an umbrella, could press a button that activated a sprinkler in the ceiling. The first spray sent a mist of sudsy water over walls and floor. A second spray rinsed everything. Jets of warm air blew it all dry. The full cycle took less than an hour.
Runoff escaped through drains in Ms. Gabe’s almost imperceptibly sloping floors. It was channeled outside and straight through her doghouse, where the dog was washed in the bargain.
Lindy West isn’t a social justice warrior, she’s a social justice apocalypse. Unsurprisingly, she’s already taking heat for her new weekly column in the New York Times — the Internet’s creepiest denizens have very little sense of irony. Keep publishing petty insults in Reddit forums with unprintable names, trolls; Lindy’s in the NYT.
What we could really use, my guys, is some loud, unequivocal backup. And not just in public, when the tide of opinion has already turned and a little “woke”-ness might benefit you — but in private, when it can hurt.
One of my podcasting friends told me that he does stick up for women in challenging situations, like testosterone-soaked comedy green rooms, for instance, but complained, “I get mocked for it!”
Yes, I know you do. Welcome.
In the wake of the debate over David Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine piece, which describes a catastrophically uninhabitable planet within a matter of decades, revisit this quiet, lyrical essay from last month’s Oxford American. It’s a telescope-to-microscope shift: Wallace-Wells imagines a worst-case outcome on a global scale; Molly McArdle brings it back to the coast of North Carolina and a family with generations of investment in, almost literally, a castle built on sand.
These days — as the weather everywhere grows steadily stranger, storms stronger, seas higher — I worry about the Outer Banks, surrounded by water and just barely above the waves. What does it mean to be from, and of, one of the most vulnerable places on Earth? The Midgetts felt like a key. Six years after I first took note of them, I started the nine-hour drive down the coast to find what I could unlock with it.
Is it utopian or dystopian to posit a world in which humanity’s unique value proposition — against a growing force of AI workers — is providing a compassionate interface while machines do the real thinking? AI researcher Kai-Fu Lee’s experience with lymphoma gave him a new perspective on his life’s work.
The answer I propose would never have come to me when I was myself somewhat of an automaton, living to work rather than the other way around. It was only my cancer diagnosis, and the sudden realization of what my own stupidity had made me miss, that led me to my suggestion. Our coexistence with artificial intelligence hinges on combining what is humanly unattainable—the hugely scaled narrow AI intelligence that will only get better at any given domain—with what we humans can uniquely offer to one another. And that is love. What makes us human is that we can love.
Dawson, MN, welcomed Dr. Ayaz Virji — its first Muslim resident — with open arms when he and his family arrived three years ago. Then his town joined the majority in Minnesota that voted to put Donald Trump into office. Ayaz became a reluctant spokesperson for his religion, and an increasingly reluctant resident of the community that used to feel like home.
“Hey there,” Ayaz said, snapping out of his thoughts to greet his neighbor.
“Hiya,” said the neighbor, who worked in security.
He had heard from his wife about the talk in Granite Falls and, wanting to be helpful, had offered to lend Ayaz his bulletproof vest for the evening, and here it was, in the duffle bag he was slinging through the ornate front door. He set it down on a chair in the doctor’s study and pulled out the vest. Ayaz looked at it. He began taking off his suit jacket and tie to try it on.
What’s it like to be on the other side of the airport security experience, especially right now? To work in job where ideological decisions come down to eye contact between a tired traveler and the agent calling you over for a pat-down? Edward Schwarzschild, for reasons barely known even to himself, took a break from his university job and career as a writer to find out.
The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie.
In a highly amusing essay (hopefully not only to this fellow worrier), Irish novelist Donal Ryan traces the bloodlines of worry in his family and finds a quantum solution, only to be defeated by a faulty sensor on a plane from New York to Shannon.
A brilliant idea occurred to me, a way of allowing me to worry in an infinitely efficient manner. Instead of worrying in a haphazard and time-eating way about whatever happened to present itself to my consciousness at any given moment, and unless I had a specific and urgent worry to contend with, I’d restrict myself to worrying about gluons, the tiniest of the known particles of matter.
We are turning the stories of our lives over to our devices, and especially to the social media channels — Facebook, Instagram — where our memories are preserved, ostensibly for the consumption of others, but ultimately for our own. Molly Sauter asks about the consequences of moving our memories into crisp digital vaults where they remain ageless while we wither.
[P]hysical evocations age, and their value and veracity as objects of testimony ages with them and us. They date, they fade, they display their distance from the events they are connected to and their distance from us. Digital memory objects, on the other hand, although they might abruptly obsolesce, do not age in the same way. They remain flatly, shinily omni-accessible, represented to us cleanly both in the everlasting ret-conned context of their creation and consumption. The user interface of Facebook doesn’t time-machine itself to the design it had when you composed whatever memory it is showing you from 10 years ago.
In a love letter to the German language, John Le Carre suggests how clarity and simplicity can help lead us through the treacherous linguistic waters of international (and our own national) politics in 2017.
Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.
And that’s what language means to a linguist. Those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.
Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s description of the invisible landmarks used to map the sky is two years old, but we plead special dispensation — this is the time of year when Seattle’s skies are gloriously clear and bright, and the entire city’s in a dream of summer. How can we resist an article by and about the lucky few who spend their days navigating those (almost) cloudless fields of blue?
Word lovers will particularly enjoy the conventions that name Sonoma’s waypoint SNUPY, honoring Charles M. Schulz and his pilot pup, and Hannibal’s TWAIN, among many other suprisingly quirky choices.
From a plane, even a wide modern road can look as slow and old-fashioned as an ancient bridleway. The plane slides like an eye over the page, like a finger across a map, over everything the road and the drivers on it must turn to avoid — towns, mountains, lakes — features so low they appear nearly smooth from above. Waypoints, though invisible, remind us that while pilots are not nearly as constrained by the sky as drivers are by roads, neither is our path always as free as it appears.
What if everything in the world were captured on camera, all the time, and one photographer pored through endless reels of film and pulled out the most evocative shots to share with the rest of us?
Jacqui Kenny more or less fits that description, and Andrea DenHoed’s profile includes a gorgeous selection of images from Kenny’s Instagram portfolio. Shaped by Kenny’s agoraphobia, the images are spare, and somehow at once wide open and controlled. A short read but one worth a long look.
Sometimes, she has difficulty going to aisles of the grocery store that are too far from the exit, and getting on a plane is a huge ordeal. To go to her sister’s wedding, in New Zealand, she told me, required months of therapy beforehand. The Street View project has become a way for Kenny to visit places that she could never go to herself—the more remote, the better, she said. It’s also a practice that involves a tension between control and surrender: she has the ability to parachute into anywhere in the world, but her views and angles and lighting are in Google’s hands.
#amediting is a-Twitter this week over the New York Times’ decision to eliminate its copydesk and adjust the balance between people-who-write-copy and people-who-edit-it. The letters by the copydesk editors and the Times’ executive and managing editors, published by Poynter.org, are excruciating to read.
The Times is a stronghold for those who believe passionately in editorial standards, and this is another crack in the foundation — making similar shifts more likely across the industry and threatening the livelihoods of an entire class of professionals. It may not be wrong (may not), but it hurts, badly.
We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.
As SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) becomes METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence), the twenty-first century is making its first serious addition to a long line of attempts to talk with aliens. Steven Johnson’s examination of the challenges and ethics associated with contacting other life is characteristically precise. But it’s hard to think your way around the romance and terror associated with the subject, as displayed in this stellar quote from the first attempt — 1974’s Arecibo message.
Not just “malevolent,” note, but “malevolent or hungry.” Yikes.
Within days, the Royal Astronomer of England, Martin Ryle, released a thunderous condemnation of Drake’s stunt. By alerting the cosmos of our existence, Ryle wrote, we were risking catastrophe. Arguing that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle demanded that the International Astronomical Union denounce Drake’s message and explicitly forbid any further communications. It was irresponsible, Ryle fumed, to tinker with interstellar outreach when such gestures, however noble their intentions, might lead to the destruction of all life on earth.
Just a boy, his guitar, and 30+ years of rock history. A “making of” story by arts critic Geoff Edgers that captures the nostalgia and geeky glory of a high school kid’s fascination with the guitars of the greats.
You can do a lot with an abandoned Supro, especially if you’re a chubby 14-year-old with a gap between your front teeth and a very questionable collection of Jams. Buy a cheap amplifier and go to Pete Woodward’s. He’s got the drum set in the basement. Learn three chords — G, C and D — and bash out a simple version of “Wild Thing.” Then record it on a Maxell tape, slap it into your Walkman and listen to all 43 minutes of instrumental glop over and over again. Suddenly, you’re a band.
This one’s already causing a little online consternation (what doesn’t, these days?): Jon Ronson investigates whether a rash of fires in San Francisco’s Mission District could be arson, intended to drive out lower-income residents and make way for SF’s version of the epically sky-blocking tech towers that are springing up all over Seattle. Regardless of whether the fires are intentional or just ancient wiring and insulation, it’s a sign of the times that we’re ready to think this might be true. Average joe vs. rich developer is a longstanding David-and-Goliath trope — but has it ever been as widespread and divisive as it is right now?
For five days, Gideon was going to be an arsonist: “Five days between me meeting the guy and, bam, the cops knocking on my door.”
To his credit, The Mountain View was supposed to be empty on the day of the planned fire. His insurance company had been paying his tenants “to get the fuck out of the building.” And they were relocating. “They were taking off like roaches,” he says.
Half an hour ago, Gideon referred to his residents as pigeons. Now they’re roaches.
Periodically the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock, reflecting a shift in world currents that brings us closer to (or farther from — wouldn’t that be nice?) “destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making.” It’s a powerful visual metaphor to express that we’re nearer now to self-destruction than at almost any point in past 70 years. Oliver Pickup tracks the clock’s history and the reasons behind the recent 30-second jump toward midnight.
At this precise moment we are the closest to the apocalypse since the 1950s, a twitchy period when Cold War combatants, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, were doggedly pursuing the hydrogen bomb. At least that’s according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ symbolic Doomsday Clock, which sparked global alarm when it ticked forward to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in January.
More worrying still, the 2017 time setting was determined before North Korea’s recent spate of nuclear missile tests, and climate-change denier Donald Trump’s erratic presidency, which has re-chilled Russian-American relations, had begun in earnest.
The original design of the clock, featured on the cover of the Bulletin in 1947, was revised a few years ago by Michael Beirut, who also designed the iconic logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. That story in more detail here.
It’s a little sad to see the renascence of letterpress printing credited to Martha Stewart — at least, for those who love not just the output, but the messy, painstaking process, the geekery of platen vs. cylinder, the mind-bending complexity of thinking about language through a mirror and in three dimensions. If you can forgive Glenn Fleishman the sin of attribution, here’s a good piece on Seattle’s still-growing letterpress scene and how digital technologies are changing the throwback industry.
Though letterpress might seem like yet another expression of a society hankering for artisanal, one-of-a-kind goods in an era of endless, identical reproduction, this return to the past is different. Beneath the old-timey patina of letterpress goods is a full-scale digital reinvention that drags Gutenberg’s great creation into the full embrace of modern technology.
Doomsday, arson, gentrification, and the tech industry in everything … In case this week’s post is too much like your Twitter feed, here’s something thoughtful, solitary, and just a little bit quixotic: Amy Liptrot spent a summer on Orkney Island, trying to heal her life and counting a rare, endangered bird she never saw. After dark, the world transforms itself, and she has just the right voice to help us hear it.
I am the night listener. My woolly hat pushes my ears forward. I chew no gum, wear no rustling clothes. The work is repetitive — driving to the next stop, pulling in if possible, turning off the ignition, winding down the windows, consulting the map and noting down the grid reference. Then I wait for the noise of the car engine and my head to subside, and the sounds of the night to reveal themselves.
Most of the writers interviewed for Danny Funt’s article on the necessity of serious reading to good journalism have appeared in the Sunday Post at one point or another. The perfect mashup for Seattle Review of Books readers, as well as a strong argument in favor of reading as as a practical way to interact with the world. Probably not a discussion we need to keep having, but this is an interesting version of it.
I spoke with a dozen accomplished journalists of various specialties who manage to do their work while reading a phenomenal number of books, about and beyond their latest project. With journalists so fiercely resented after last year’s election for their perceived elitist detachment, it might seem like a bizarre response to double down on something as hermetic as reading — unless you see books as the only way to fully see the world.
Friend of SRoB Rahawa Haile returns to the Appalachian Trail, this time on a road trip with her father. Speeding from BBQ to buffet, they take the first small steps toward knowing each other after a ten-year hiatus and map the distance that remains between.
Now, driving instead of hiking down these mountains, I learn that my father loves taking sharp turns too fast, something I never noticed growing up in the road-dull broadsheet that is Florida. I do not share his enthusiasm. I’ll take sore knees from 4,000-foot descents over feeling my inertia any day. I recognize for the first time just how much of him comes from the highlands of Eritrea. He's been courting death in this way since before I was born.
Also fascinating: the backstory of how the original article came to be, via an interview with Haile in the Columbia Journalism Review.
People think it’s a rather gloomy job, but it’s very seldom a sad job. Usually, the people you’re dealing with have lived for ages and have done really interesting things. It’s only when people die young that I think it becomes sad. I think of death as going into another place where you are as alive there as you are here. It doesn’t bother me at all.
If you were born at a certain point in history, your childhood shelves included odd books about stunt-flying seagulls, sky-climbing caterpillars, and this gem: Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ. I was lucky enough to read it (likely while sitting in the middle of the street with a handful of firecrackers) before the “adult only” flag was added to the cover. Kevin Litman-Navarro celebrates Uncle Shelby and the consternation of several generations of unsuspecting parents.
Given all of the thinly veiled adult humor throughout the book, it seems quite clear that Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not intended for children. But some distracted adults, it seems, neglected to actually read it before passing it to their sweet, impressionable young ones — today’s parental equivalent of giving a child unprotected internet access. One scandalized reader on the book review site Goodreads didn’t realize her mistake until she had already begun a family reading. “The truly shocking page,” she wrote, “was where he was joking about going with kidnappers and eating the lollipops they offer.”
In its exclusive on Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb (no ropes, no company) of the massive El Capitan, National Geographic says Honnold’s “tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable” that he’s been a lab subject for neuroscientists fascinated by his ability to chill. Honnold’s take? “I just set [fear] aside and leave it be.” Philippe Petit, the man on the wire, has a somewhat more detailed and poetic anatomy of the deadly emotion.
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad.
Meehan Crist was skating in the wrong direction and missed the moment her mother fell, slamming her head against the ice and sending shockwaves through her brain. Crist’s essay about the slow discovery of the depth of the injury — and the gradual disintegration of her mother’s personality — travels loss, neuroscience, and the history of our understanding of the mind, the heart, and the self. (H/t Ed Yong for this one; see also jumping spiders, below.)
I have been wondering when the silence began. Maybe it started when I was trying so hard to stay quiet so she could get better.
Or maybe it came later, when I had tired of getting “I don’t know” as an answer and stopped asking questions.
Then again, maybe I didn’t ask much in the first place. Perhaps I was too shy to intrude on the adult world of illness and recovery, or too wrapped up in my own world to notice the silence stealing around me and settling into place.
The inimitable David Sedaris on the ten stages of grieving Trump’s election. Spoiler: none of them are “acceptance.”
Back in the room, I turn on the radio and look at the electoral map online. I go to bed, reach for my iPad. Shut my eyes, reach for my iPad. When the election is called for Trump, I lie there, unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, I go to the fitness center and watch the little TV embedded in my elliptical machine. The news had been telling me for months that Clinton was a shoo-in. Now they want me to listen as they soul search and determine how they got it so wrong. “Fuck you,” I say to the little screen.
If you describe your job as “a day job” (instead of just “my job”), you’ve probably spent at least one long dark night trying to figure out how to connect it with the real person you really are. Then, of course, you got up the next day, regained your sense of irony, and went to work. Here’s Rumaan Alam making sense of his day job in advertising and the virtue of bad ideas.
When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country’s largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father’s Day or the story was Mother’s Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff.
It would be very responsible of you to read The Atlantic’s fascinating, in-depth profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer, written by his eighth-grade lab partner. (Is there any fate worse than to be famous enough to be profiled by someone who knew you in high school? Especially if that someone is Graeme Wood?)
Meanwhile, fellow astronomer Alex Parker had read Lomax’s tweets. “Have you tried lasers?” he replied. “Seriously though, some jumping spiders will chase laser pointers like cats do.”
There are, indeed, many Youtube videos of them doing exactly that. But Emily Levesque — Lomax’s colleague, with an office two doors down — wanted to see it for herself.
Speaking of antiheroes (someone must be, somewhere): Jesse Barron follows the story of Andrew Left, a short-seller who makes a ton of cash by exposing corporate fraud to manipulate stock prices. Left helped bring down Valeant Pharmaceutials, a company that made its own money by buying drug patents and yanking up the prices to impossible heights. You’d hire this guy to protect your town against the corrupt sheriff — then be glad to see him ride away again.
I met Left for the first time last May. After leaving my job as a fact-checker at a magazine — the pay was terrible, but the business cards said “Assistant Editor” — I was padding out my freelance income with some part-time work for finance types, editing letters and writing reports. The door creaked ajar into a totally different world. I started reading short-seller blogs at night, obsessed with the feeling that invisible forces controlling my life were flashing into visibility. That’s why my wife’s prescription cost $300 a month. That’s why the world was how it was. I wrote Left in April and asked if we could meet. In May, he sent a text: He had dirt on an online postage seller. Did I want to come to Los Angeles?
E. B. White said despots should fear drunken poets more than eloquent writers preaching freedom, but I don’t know; I’d be scared of the eloquent Rebecca Solnit if I were Donald Trump. And who knows: maybe she was drunk when she wrote this piercing essay — brilliantly, dazzlingly lit with the power of words to deflate our hot air balloon of a president.
A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not.
The US discussion of health insurance gets heated over the ACA vs. the AHCA and hopes for/dread of a single-payer system (cf. California, June 2017). Laura Turner takes a look at an alternate system: faith-based sharing ministries, in many ways similar to standard insurance but with less family planning, more uncertainty, and the potential to destabilize health care for all of us.
Luckily, Zain was healthy. But Bet and Erik took him to the doctor for a general checkup when they arrived home, and as a precaution the pediatrician ordered a panel of blood tests recommended for international adoptees by the University of Minnesota. The tests cost around $6,000, a sizeable portion of their annual income, and Erik and Bet set about submitting their need to Samaritan. “God blessed our family by giving us a beautiful boy from Ethiopia!” they wrote on their need processing form to Samaritan. “We had to have some medical testing done. All recommended international adoption medical testing came back normal and healthy. Praise God!”
Samaritan declined to share their need.
Did Stephen Booth (swoon) invent modern cognitive science as a byway of close Shakespearean study? We tend to think we’re in the driver’s seat when we read, but maybe, Jillian Hinchliffe and and Seth Frey say, it’s language that’s behind the wheel. This one’s for people care a lot about literary style or care a lot how the brain works — or both, of course. (Also enjoy, or not, the classically academic trolling in the comments.)
A cognitive scientist looking at Booth’s explanation of Shakespearean effects would spot many concepts from her own discipline. Those include priming—when, after hearing a word, we tend more readily to recognize words that are related to it; expectation—the influence of higher-level reasoning on word recognition; and depth of processing—how varying levels of attention affect the extent of our engagement with a statement. (Shallow processing explains our predisposition to miss the problem of whether a man should be allowed to marry his widow’s sister.)
The consonances are surprising, considering that when Booth established his method of criticism, the prevailing school of linguistics had no room for such ideas.
Why not. But good cognac is key.
One topic they do take (somewhat) seriously is the artistic nature of their book burnings. At their sole incineration outside Iceland — in Basel, Switzerland — they had a difficult time persuading the locals that this was “a poetic act, not a political one”.
They assure me that they burn books “with a lot of care and respect, using only first-grade French cognac to help to fuel the flames”.
Withholding maintenance as a power play, hardcore debt collection, and public shaming for late rent — sounds like a classic slumlord. Or, maybe, Jared Kushner. Here’s Alex MacGillis on what it’s like to live in a property owned by the president’s son-in-law.
The worst troubles may have been those described in a 2013 court case involving Jasmine Cox’s unit at Cove Village. They began with the bedroom ceiling, which started leaking one day. Then maggots started coming out of the living room carpet. Then raw sewage started flowing out of the kitchen sink. “It sounded like someone turned a pool upside down,” Cox told me. “I heard the water hitting the floor and I panicked. I got out of bed and the sink is black and gray, it’s pooling out of the sink and the house smells terrible.”
Cox stopped cooking for herself and her son, not wanting food near the sink. A judge allowed her reduced rent for one month. When she moved out soon afterward, Westminster Management sent her a $600 invoice for a new carpet and other repairs. Cox, who is now working as a battery-test engineer and about to buy her first home, was unaware who was behind the company that had put her through such an ordeal. When I told her of Kushner’s involvement, there was a silence as she took it in.
“Get that [expletive] out of here,” she said.
On the same day that The Washington Post praised Melanie and Ivanka Trump for being pretty, stylish, and silent, Jess Zimmerman posted a call for women to embrace ugliness. It’s hard to pull off without sounding like sour grapes, but she threads the needle brilliantly — not anti-beauty, just pointing out that there’s more than one game in town. Naming Medusa the patron saint of not-lovely women doesn’t hurt.
There is no male-controlled culture that by default sees women, that allows women to be seen. In my country the government doesn’t (yet) require us to cover our faces, but don’t confuse that for visibility: We’re obscured not by cloth but by disregard, by the way men are taught to devalue us and we are taught to devalue ourselves. It’s beauty — and specifically femininity, and even more specifically, sexual attractiveness to men — that burns through the veil.
People look through your face, or past it, when beauty doesn’t focus them, when there’s nothing there they want. They’re not afraid to meet your eyes—they just don’t see the point.
Better for them to be afraid. Better for them to think they’ll turn to stone.
See also Mary Beard, more scholarly but no less righteously pissed off, on monsters, myths, and women in power.
If you missed the reading by Seattle’s Nicole Dieker last Tuesday (or even if you didn’t), you can catch up with her at The Awl, where she’s chronicled the journey toward self-publishing her first novel with great wit and self-effacing charm.
Whether your novel will be a success is still to be determined — though you can guess already that it might not, five-star reviews and Ferrante comparisons aside. It is successful because you did it. It is financially successful because you have not yet spent more, to publish and promote the novel, than you earned from the Patreon project. You can say all of these things but you know there is another marker of success out there — well, multiple markers, because you know that the trad publishing world counts a “successful” literary fiction novel as one that sells 3,000–5,000 copies, and you also know that there’s the type of success that derives from momentum; from being good and having everyone talk about you at the same time.
You do not think you will have that kind of momentum, for the same reasons you weren’t ever popular in high school.
There’s a numbing volume of subculture reportage on the internet, rapidly catching up with the ubiquitous personal essay. Simon Akam’s piece on the British legal system — specifically, the political, financial, and class-haunted relationship between the barrister and the clerk — stands out. Informative, bemusing, and vital background reading for fans of Sarah Caudwell and many others.
At a chambers that had expanded and was bringing in more money, three silks decided their chief clerk’s compensation, at 10 percent, had gotten out of hand. They summoned him for a meeting and told him so. In a tactical response that highlights all the class baggage of the clerk-barrister relationship, as well as the acute British phobia of discussing money, the clerk surprised the barristers by agreeing with them. “I’m not going to take a penny more from you,” he concluded. The barristers, gobsmacked and paralyzed by manners, never raised the pay issue again, and the clerk remained on at 10 percent until retirement.
Halfway down, Joseph Bernstein’s article on “He will not divide us,” a public art piece fronted by Shia LaBeouf, goes batshit crazy. Launched on January 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the installation was simple and in theory (although: really?) nonpartisan: a sidewalk-facing camera and a line of text for passersby to read aloud. Within a week it was a mosh pit of alt-right trolling, trash, and violence. Then the real fight started: between the artists, the museum, and the community.
By the third and fourth days of the installation, as young men in MAGA hats started showing up to the museum in larger numbers, "He Will Not Divide Us" began to resemble nothing so much as a social network made flesh. There were civil discussions. There were shouting matches. There were visitors squawking about Trump, about “the Jewish word for division, Soros,” about the revolution not being televised, about their mixtapes, about how Bitcoin would save the world, about WeSearchr, about yo, follow my Instagram. There were doxxes. There were well-intentioned founders with institutional backing and idealistic words about free expression; there were early celebrity adopters; there was an initial period of great hope; there was a worsening signal-to-noise ratio; and there were trolls and racists determined to test the boundaries of the new space with provocations and hate speech.
And then, there was chaos.
Rebecca Mead profiles Gerhard Steidl, considered the best printer of photography books in the world — a craftsman so confident he was disappointed by the Gutenberg Bible. Fascinating look at the practicalities of printing (the fine details of ink, paper, and press) and the philosophy of books as beautiful and meaningful objects. As well as the book as more than an object:
Steidl’s family was poor, and his parents had received no formal education. There were few books at home, and it was momentous for Steidl when he received one — Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” — as a Christmas gift. Steidl begged his sister to read it aloud to him immediately, and afterward he told his father how much he had loved it. Steidl’s father, angered that the children had finished the book so quickly, struck the sister. Years later, Steidl’s father explained that he had believed the book, having been read through, was now useless; before buying the gift, he’d never been in a bookstore.
See also Craig Mod this week on the maturing debate about print vs. digital reading: “Containers matter.”
In 1843, a jealous James Hooker started a twenty-year evolutionary hack, shipping the first of hundreds of trees to barren, equatorial Ascension Island. Today the island’s “Green Mountain” is lush and abundant — and a new ecosystem is pushing out the old. This is what terraforming a new world might look like: the transformation of a Mars-like wasteland; a slow, painful struggle between native and alien species; and constant vigilance to prevent an epic system crash.
I visit Ascension’s famous Dew Pond. By the 1880s, Hooker’s “mist-catching trees” had formed a small pond at the mountain’s summit, the island’s first freshwater water body. Today, bamboo trunks form a 40-foot tall wall around the pond, knocking together harmoniously in the breeze.
A life-sized, plastic crocodile waits half-submerged in the pond with teeth showing. The faux reptile appeared there in the 1990s as a gag. It quickly developed its own mythology among the military residents. Should they remove the item? Or leave it? No one can agree what to do with it now. The same can be said about the artificial ecosystem all around.
This week Masha Gessen and Michael Errard both take a close listen to what's coming out of Donald Trump's mouth — not what he says, but how he says it.
Errard's piece is a quick read on Trump in transcription, validating (unfortunately) that our country's chief executive is just as batty as he sounds, and may be making us a little crazy, too, simply by the structure of his speech. That feeling of being gaslit every time you hear our president? This is how he does it.
Gessen's article is longer, more serious, and sort of terrifying if you have any interest and/or faith in language. Trump is overwriting the meaning of our language until, like an overused palimpsest, it no longer holds meaning at all. Here's a battle that writers are uniquely suited to fight.
Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality. This is what language is for: to enable you to name “secateurs,” buy them, and use them. To make it possible for a surgeon to name “scalpel” and have it placed in her open palm. To make sure that a mother can understand the story her child tells her when she comes home from school, or a judge can evaluate a case being made. None of this is possible when words mean nothing.
Start with the premise that if treatment for a particular disease exists, then people deserve access to it, especially if treatment is relatively simple and affordable to the US health system. Now throw in racism, poverty, and national politics, and you get the infuriating situation in Marion, Alabama, where tuberculosis — utterly curable and manageable — has moved in to stay.
In October 2014, a nurse practitioner tore into [Shane Lee's] office with a fresh medical mask over her mouth, frantically waving an X-ray film. The mask, a tight-fitting turquoise respirator, was unusual. And then he looked at the radiography, which showed that the patient’s lungs were nearly completely whited out. It was the worst case of tuberculosis that he had ever seen.
Since then, Marion, a town of 3,500 and the seat of Perry County, has been grappling with a historic outbreak of a disease that has vanished from worry in much of the United States. Thirty-four active cases have been found; if that doesn’t seem like a lot, consider that the rate of infection — what the World Health Organization uses to determine severity — is almost a hundred times the national average, and higher than the rates in India, Kenya, and Haiti.
Rafe Bartholomew’s father tended bar at the famous McSorley’s Old Ale House for decades, then transformed himself by self-publishing The McSorley Poems. Great piece on pride, resilience, and the false romance of the writing/drinking life.
In the end, it took two years of course work and arriving right at the edge of a decision to leave McSorley’s for my father to realize he wanted to stay at the bar. He didn’t need to change careers to find satisfaction. He just had to find a way to inject the bartender’s life with a greater sense of purpose. The solution was obvious: He had to write again.
Most of us experience surgery from the sharp side of the knife, with all the attendant glory of hospital gowns, IVs, and iconic fluorescent lights. Scottish novelist William Boyd charts a recent increase in memoirs by the women and men who do the cutting — a reader’s guide to a professon in which the gruesome reality of flesh opens big questions of life, death, and trust in another human’s skill.
For the non-surgeon, I would claim, the sight of a dead human being, supine, spatchcocked, heart removed, would be a life-changing horror. The fact is that for surgeons the interior of the human body – its glossy organs, its swelling fluids, its lurid blood – becomes a very normal, unremarkable sight, an everyday arena of activity, very quickly losing its freight of torrid emotion and associated gag reflex. I put this to Moran and he admits to never having felt squeamish. Maybe this is the crucial first requirement.
Apropos of nothing, except a stray thought that the blaring noise coming from social media is just the opposite of what Joan Didion described in 1961 as self-respect — in a Twitter-like assignment to fill a gap in Vogue, left by another writer, exactly to the character.
The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions ... The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough.
In case you missed the link in our warm-up to Free Comic Book Day, Jia Tolentino profiled Seattle’s G. Willow Wilson in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Wilson, author of the much-awarded Ms. Marvel reboot, is as likeable as her breakout superhero: gentle, direct, and taking absolutely no shit from anybody.
At the coffee shop, as a barista cleared our plates, we talked about how the stakes of every identity-politics debate feel heightened since November — and also about new alliances that seem to be forming in the election’s wake. Wilson spoke with some astonishment about the fact that she could include a gay secondary character in “Ms. Marvel” — the blond, popular Zoe — and still have mothers and daughters show up to her readings in hijabs. “It’s funny. Those right-wing bloggers who said my work was part of some socialist-Muslim-homosexual attack on American values, they really created the thing they feared. There wasn’t a socialist-Muslim-homosexual alliance before, but there sure as fuck is one now, and I love it."
This week “Believe,” by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, is making the rounds with a characteristically cutting and charming assessment of why it’s so hard to change anyone’s mind. Over at The Intercept, Sharon Lerner interviewed Jerry Taylor, a one-time climate change denier, about his conversion to climate activist and how he’s working to shift others the same way. (Bret Stephens take note.)
If you talk about the need to transform civilization and to engage in the functional equivalent of World War III, you may as well just forget it. To most conservatives, that’s just nails on a chalkboard. Or if you say, you’re corrupted and a shill and ignorant. That’s no way to convince anybody of anything. What are the chances they’re going to say, Gee, you’re right? All that does is entrench someone in their own position.
Speaking of Seattle and superpowers … The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a huge influence on global health, and their enormous philanthropic buying power put them on par with, and maybe above, international players like the World Health Organization. How does an 800-pound gorilla learn to throw its weight gently — and help prepare for its own exit?
Over the past decade, the world’s richest man has become the World Health Organization’s second biggest donor, second only to the United States and just above the United Kingdom. This largesse gives him outsized influence over its agenda, one that could grow as the U.S. and the U.K. threaten to cut funding if the agency doesn’t make a better investment case.
A very short collection of tweets we wish Warren Ellis had posted.
Very excited about America these days. Really enjoyed the MAD MAX films, looking forward to the theme park
This is a scathing take on that most beloved institution of the MFA — the writing workshop — by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer. Hard to say what’s most terrifying here: the thought that this set of attitudes and assumptions is readily accepted (and celebrated) throughout American literary culture … or that it’s becoming an infectious export globally. I’m going to shut up now and let Nguyen carry it:
We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have — we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses. We come from the Communist countries America bombed during the Cold War, or where it sponsored counter-Communist efforts. We come from the lands America occupied, invaded or colonized. We come as refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented. We come from the ghettos, barrios, reservations and borders of America where there are no workshops. We come from the bedrooms and the kitchens of the American home, where we were supposed to stay, and stay silent. We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what “creative writing” is. We come from communities we do not wish to renounce in the name of our individualism. We come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences.
Making every book in the universe searchable and instantly available online? Yes, please. Stealing income from authors and holding libraries hostage to skyrocketing access fees? No, thanks. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Google’s “Project Ocean,” a moonshot to scan every book on the planet.
James Somers threads the massive legal labyrinth of copyright and class action suits that’s holding the world’s largest digital library hostage — and demonstrates just how urgently we need a new model that mediates between artists and audiences in a sane and sensible way.
Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages — to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time — and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.
eBooks can be polarizing: friends and families set at odds, lovers torn apart over paper vs. Paperwhite. In a bit of good news for those holding up the side for physical books, headlines that once read “print is dead” are suddenly posting obits for electronic editions. Paula Cocozza argues that digital books are simply finding their level, but that won’t stop us from enjoying the public re-investment in the beauty of a well-made book.
Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are — not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.
It’s deeply satisfying, from a narrative perspective, that the Trump presidency has invigorated both the transformation of Teen Vogue and a comeback by discredited elder statesman Dan Rather. Sort of like Don Quixote saddling up to ride with Furiosa … or not, if you’re not that kind of nerd. Ahem. Regardless: In this profile of Rather, Ben Baker describes a journalist who is passionate, articulate, and determined to win the last battle of his career.
For decades, Rather was fodder for critics who considered him too emotional, too liberal, too ambitious, too self-serious. He didn’t smile a lot; his folksy sayings could come off as downright weird. But the exact eccentricities that made at times for an awkward fit for network television, and his talent for thoughtful but unambiguous pronouncements of outrage, have been pitch-perfect for this new medium and moment. One of the leading voices of the Trump resistance is not some black-masked radical or a marching young woman with a pink knit hat but a man with gray hair, a name you know and a neatly knotted tie.
In a complete change of pace (no pun intended), here’s an engrossing article by Sara Estes about a batshit crazy footrace called the Barkley Marathons that may or may not be run by a man named Lazarus Lake.
Since 1986, the Barkley has been operating entirely under the radar, rising from a casual underground affair to a cult obsession. Few even figure out how to enter the Barkley, fewer still come close to finishing it. Today, people come from all over the world for the chance to annihilate their minds and bodies in a 60-hour, 100-mile, sleepless, nearly impossible gauntlet through the merciless mountains. Lost and alone, they struggle through hallucinations, extreme cold, heat, thunderstorms, sleet, and rock-bottom exhaustion while they navigate vast stretches of sinister, unmarked woodland with only a compass and their prayers.
Steven Pete feels no pain. Even broken bones bring only a slight discomfort. For Pam Costa, any warmth burns like fire; she takes morphine every morning and sleeps on ice-cold pillows. Although the two Washingtonians live just over an hour apart, they’ve never met — but their cases are helping identify a gene that could be used to control chronic physical suffering. Erika Hayasaki documents this classic scientific detective story.
As a child, Costa would dawdle in the deep gutters lining the streets near her home, the cool, mucky water providing her momentary pain relief. In classrooms she would wrap her hands and feet around the poles of a desk, like a koala, to feel the coolness. And she’d sneak off to water fountains to wipe down her limbs with cold water.
Doctors didn’t know how to diagnose her. Some adults thought she had behavioral issues or depression. One physician said her symptoms were psychosomatic. The plum color was the only visible evidence that she might have any medical disorder at all. Then, in 1977, when Costa was 11, a letter arrived from the Mayo Clinic.
Ex-Evangelical Meghan O’Gieblyn is really, really good at describing what it’s like to lose your faith — to be dislocated in time, even to lose your sense of your own body as you lose your sense of God. That makes it easier to understand how a new, outlandish set of beliefs, the transhumanism favorited by tech elitists like Elon Musk, could slip unconsidered into the gap.
The deeper I got into the articles, the more unhinged my thinking became. One day, it occurred to me: perhaps God was the designer and Christ his digital avatar, and the incarnation his way of entering the simulation to share tips about our collective survival as a species. Or maybe the creation of our world was a competition, a kind of video game in which each participating programmer invented one of the world religions, sent down his own prophet-avatar and received points for every new convert.
By this point I’d passed beyond idle speculation. A new, more pernicious thought had come to dominate my mind: transhumanist ideas were not merely similar to theological concepts but could in fact be the events described in the Bible.
Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on Rachel Dolezal for The Stranger went viral this week, and rightfully so. Oluo perfectly expresses the frustration of trying to engage Dolezal, who is endlessly slippery and self-protective — just reading their exchanges is maddening. Then she neatly pivots out of the game of “she said, she said”: out of the pseudo-academic arguments, out of the crocodile tears, and back onto terra firma. Here’s hoping this can be her final word.
When the story first broke in June 2015, I was approached by more editors in a week than I had heard from in two months. They were all looking for "fresh takes" on the Dolezal scandal from the very people whose identity had now been put up for debate—black women. I wrote two pieces on Dolezal for two different websites, mostly focused not on her, but on the lack of understanding of black women's identity that was causing the conversation about Dolezal to become more and more painful for so many black women.
After a few weeks of media obsession, I—and most of the other black women I knew—was completely done with Rachel Dolezal.
Or, at least I hoped to be.
I don’t know, Kevin Nguyen; this is all fine practical advice, but doesn’t it boil down to — if you want to read more, read more? We don’t need a listicle for that, or a Fitbit so we can track page counts against our friends. However, in case you do want some highly amusing guidance on how to read in the absence of a comfy chair, a few hours, and glass of scotch, here it is.
Before you tell me how much you “enjoy the smell of print books” like some kind of psycho, let me try to sell you on the convenience of reading in the Kindle or iBooks app: you’ll always have your books with you, and most importantly, you can always get through a little reading in those lost minutes of the day — waiting in line for coffee, for the 4-train running behind schedule, and for the bathroom because you drank too much coffee. Those pages add up fast.