Such skills arose not from any extraordinary talent or discipline but from the enormous resources invested in each child. And though I have here emphasized traditionally highbrow skills, we were groomed to be comfortable at every level of culture, in every room—to appreciate Taylor Swift as well as Tchaikovsky, to make small talk with the custodian as well as the senator. The deeper lessons were confidence, poise in any context, what sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan calls ease. Old-fashioned exclusionary markers could in fact be a liability, in the same way an all-white classroom was. All the world was ours not because of what we excluded or inherited but because of our open-minded good manners and how hard we worked—which, all agreed, was very hard indeed. This superficial meritocracy masked, especially to ourselves, a profound entitlement.
The authors are very different people (as were their parents, consequentially), but they share an interest in examining what privilege has done to them. I grabbed “Lost Property” from the shelf and found a squiggle next to this passage of homecoming.
For once in my life I liked going to 19 Gramercy Park, going there with my wife and baby daughter. My mother and father loved Alice, and I loved showing Alice where I’d grown up and showing off to the servants. One afternoon, watching Susy, on the needle-point rug, in the paneled library, I rememberd how once at a dealer’s, a decripit old collector came, with his young wife and new baby, to inspect a white-figure wine jug of the fourth century B.C. The baby pulled at something, the lekythos nearly fell, and from the way the collector looked, I knew if he had had to choose between the vase and his baby, the baby would be dead. I’m not like that, thank goodness, I thought, watching Susy on the rug, watching my parents watching me, turning my foot from side to side, catching the light on my shoe.
Fantastic, instructive book: “Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building," by Claire Hughes Johnson. She’s a real-deal practitioner, and many of these lessons trace back to her infrastructural work at Stripe, which she helped grow. The book’s focus is on the operating principles to create within an organization — “how to create and embed the systems that help build a company you can be proud of.” (Since her primary reference point is Stripe, having a “writing culture” plays a role.)
Prompted by this Jarrett Fuller post, I scooped up and quickly read “Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir” by Paul Sahre. Funny, poignant at times — a great read for any creator. The memoir includes a good deal of striking work shown between prose pages, including several book covers I’ve long admired. You can get a good sense of Sahre’s sensibility by knowing that when he officialy launched his solo design business — the Office of Paul Sahre — he embraced its unintended acronym: O.O.P.S.
One of the best books I’ve read this year: “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," by Siddhartha Mukherjee. What an immensely impressive person: a first-class physician-scientist who’s also an exceptional storyteller with a deeply literary sensibility.
After learning that Cormac McCarthy had died, I went back to my squiggled-up copy of “Suttree,” which of all his novels is the one that moved me most. I first read it in the fall of 2002, right after being whalloped by “Blood Meridian,” and it’s never left me.
Here’s the title character, assessing the unforgettable Gene Harrogate, comically pitiable yet not only that:
Suttree looked at him. He was not lovable. This adenoidal leptosome that crouched above his bed like a wizened bird, his razorous shoulderblades, jutting in the thin cloth of his striped shirt. Sly, ratfaced, a convicted pervert of a botanical bent. Who would do worse when in the world again. Bet on it. But something in him so transparent, something vulnerable. As he looked back at Suttree with his almost witless equanimity his naked face was suddenly taken away in darkness.
Later, McCarthy writes of Suttree dreaming, in a passage rich with equisitely chosen nouns and verbs:
Down the nightworld of his starved mind cool scarves of fishes went veering, winnowing the salt shot that rose columnar toward rifts in the ice overhead. Sinking in a cold jade sea where bubbles shuttled toward the polar sun. Shoals of char ribboned off brightly and the ocean swell heaved with the world’s turning and he could see the sun go bleared and fade beyond the windswept panes of ice. Under a waste more mute than the moon’s face, where alabaster seabears cruise the salt and icegreen deeps.
I found a good amount of Ben Smith’s briskly paced new book “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral” disheartening, in considering the vast amount of energy often bright (not always cynical) people were putting into voraciously attracting and retaining eyeballs with puffs of briefly entertaining trifles (some of which I also hungrily clicked on, and will do so again). Smith shares a number of interesting stories, both from his time observing and then working from within this particular type of machine. This was my favorite small detail, in which Smith recalls what happened after he joined the rising BuzzFeed media empire (after first turning the offer down) and pressed publish on his debut piece, “Welcome to BuzzFeed Politics,” setting the tone for a significant new social news organiziation:
Then I went to check the page: it was nearly illegible, the lines almost on top of each other. BuzzFeed had never before published a full paragraph.
I have a few minor quibbles with Cormac McCarthy’s recent sharp and memorable novel “Stella Maris”, but listening to the audio version — two characters in dialogue throughout — was the ideal way to take it in.
We modern-day humans tend to exaggerate our differences. The results of such exaggerations are often catastrophic.
The question of how the most powerful man on the planet found time to read Fates and Furies amid major world events like the Arab Spring and the killing of Osama bin Laden is a perfectly valid reason for skepticism—the guy was and is busy!—but Schultz says Obama found time to read because he sees reading as necessary, and he makes it a priority on his schedule. “He considered [reading] part of being a good leader, part of being a good president, part of being a good father, a good husband, and a good man,” Schultz said.
“Pentagram: Living by Design,” the exquisite-looking 50-year history of the iconic design studio, has landed at my house. Published by United Editions. Can’t wait.
Since 2000, I’ve been publishing a kind of year in review — mainly cultural highlights from the prior 12 months, along with a few personal notes. Here’s my post for 2022.
In the mid–2000s, I was completely taken by the book “Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences,” written by Lawrence Weschler and beautifully published by McSweeney’s. Weschler surfaced “strange connections” between images and wrote about them intriguingly. I still think of the book when I come across an image — a photograph, a painting, a movie moment — that brings to mind another one.
I spent part of this evening with Julie Blackmon’s absorbing book of photographs, “Midwest Materials.” Blackmon has some intentional allusions in her photographs, but others I think just come from the consciousness of the viewer.
There’s something, for instance, about the turf and peculiar (and menacing) objects in her photograph “Spray Paint” that brings to mind Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (picture the poster, and the final 30 minutes).
Or, seen below, “Snow Days,” which immediately brought me back to a moment in Tarkovsky’s “Mirror,” which I recently rewatched and posted about early in the month:
I realize there’s a risk in it seeming like I’m undervaluing the originality of one work by graphing it over another. But one of the pleasures I get in taking in art of all kinds is not just the pieces themselves — which I’m grateful for individually — but for how they intermingle in my mind.
Book-wise, I will remember 2022 as the year I read (and listened to) Robert Caro’s massive and magisterial (and long-lauded) biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” first published in 1974. It’s not just the scale and depth of the research, but the skill with which Caro builds sentences and paragraphs that build his argument. For example:
To compare the works of Robert Moses to the works of man, one has to compare them not to the works of individual men but to the combined total work of an era. The yardstick by which his public housing and Title I feats can best be measured, for example, is the Age of Skyscrapers, reared up the great masses of stone and steel and concrete over Manhattan in quantity comparable to his. The yardstick by which the influence of his highways can be gauged is the Age of Railroads. But Robert Moses did build only housing projects and highways. Robert Moses built parks ane playgrounds and beaches and parking lots and cultural centers and civic centers and a United Nations Building and a Shea Stadium and a Coliseum and swept away neighborhoods to clear the way for a Lincoln Center and the mid-city campuses of four separate universities. He was a shaper not of sections of a city but of a city. He was, for the greatest city in the Western world, the city shaper, the only city shaper. In sheer physical impact on New York and the entire New York metropolitan region, he is comparable not to the works of any man or group of men or even generations of men. In the shaping of New York, Robert Moses was comparable only to some elemental force of nature.
In his concise and incisive book What Tech Calls Thinking, Adrian Daub examines and punctures a range of tech proclamations and tropes that many of us have just gotten used to hearing in recent decades.
That may sound sober, but it was an engaging read. Here’s Daub — a Stanford professor who’s primarily focused on the humanities — on Ayn Rand (whom he writes about in the context of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Pixar):
In other words, there is a weird (and acknowledged) tendency here to treat an effort like architecture, which by definition requires a group and—dare I say it—collectives, as though it were the art that an individual makes in the solitude of a studio or a favorite writing nook. This is what historians of ideas call a ‘genius aesthetic’: it describes our tendency to think that the meaning of a work of art comes out of the specific mind of its creator, not out of the preexisting rules that creator worked within nor the broader spirit of the society and time. When you’re talking about a novel, that makes a certain amount of sense. But Rand extended this sense of individual brilliance to some of humanity’s most communal undertakings. Have you ever looked at a rail line and thought, I wonder what the one genius who decided to build a bridge over this valley was thinking? Rand has. And notice that, thanks to Elon Musk, we actually finally do have a billionaire whose weird tunnel-boring projects are basically a form of performance art—a pure emanation of individual genius, and sort of useless to anyone else.
What a supremely fine and lovingly crafted book this was. Astute, admiring, and entertaining scrutiny of decades of rap lyrics. Huge kudos to author Daniel Levin Becker. A few especially great passages I drew circles around in my copy:
I will go to my grave wishing my self-conscious rhetorical throat-clearings could sound so cool. What Nas seems to toss off here is not just a very efficient overview of the themes he’s spent his career elaborating—decadence, gunplay, activism, divinity—but also a rare window onto his composition process, his creative deliberations, the whole inner monologue around medium and message that is at once so tantalizing in a rapper and so often viewed as beside the point. Most of all, though, what I hear in it is a true statement about what it’s like to speak on something so much bigger than yourself, so much more expansive than the present, something inexhaustible and infinite that is also right here. It’s what it feels like, for me, to put words to a way with words that so often leaves me, before the rest colors itself in, speechless.
All the discrete and interwoven pattern recognitions in this book, assembled with joy and leaving me no closer to a unified theory of how it all fits together, seem to be proof of rap’s multitudes, its dynamism, its knack for illuminating a bigger picture by obscuring many smaller ones. This is what the best art does, and I think it’s also why we play with puzzles. It’s not about the completed image, but about the slow, oddly suspenseful progress we make toward resolution and completeness—otherwise we’d just look at the picture on the box the puzzle comes in, right? There is so much in the world that is at least provisionally more awesome, more arresting, more puzzling than good. The endlessly deferred promise of understanding, being in the dark and working ever toward the light, just might be what makes the whole thing, impossibly, float.
I was knocked out by Teju Cole’s Blind Spot in 2017. Just finished Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time, and it’ll surely be a highlight of 2022. Sensitive, probing essays about humanity and the humanities. Such a privilege to be in his close-looking company. 📚
Since 2000, I’ve had a year-end tradition of sharing my cultural highlights of the past 12 months. For this year’s post, I’ll first note the major life change I had in 2021.
After eight years leading comms and marketing for the nonprofit conservancy Forest Park Forever, I re-entered the agency world this summer by joining The Stoke Group, a fully distributed digital marketing and content studio that focuses on the B2B tech sector.
As the Senior Director of Editorial Content, I spend most of my time on editorial projects for Adobe (a key client, and one that values great writing and design), as well as helping produce the video podcast Real Creative Leadership with its host, Adam Morgan. While I miss the connection to my St. Louis community, I’m enjoying working with strategists, writers, and designers on content work for large global clients. I hadn’t worked with clients at this scale or in this specific sector, so it’s been broadening in the way I hoped. The team’s packed with interesting, talented, upbeat people.
With that 2021 milestone covered, here’s a look at some cultural-intake highlights from the year:
1. Lanny, Max Porter
2. Second Place, Rachel Cusk
3. Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam
4. The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen
5. Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri
6. The Morning Star, Karl Ove Knausgaard
7. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney
8. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
9. Tenth of December, George Saunders
10. My Heart, Semezdin Mehmedinović
11. Fox 8, George Saunders
12. The Carrying: Poems, Ada Limon
13. New Teeth, Simon Rich
1. Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning, Philip Kennicott
2. The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life, Kyle Beachy
3. Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Bierut
4. Suppose a Sentence: Brian Dillon
5. Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake (Eds., Tamara Schenkenberg and Donna Wingate)
6. Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
7. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib
8. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand
9. Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, Paula Marantz Cohen
10. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh
11. The Monocle Book of Homes (Monocle)
12. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, Jim McKelvey
13. Studio Culture Now (Ed. Mark Sinclair)
14. The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton
15. Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, Adam Nayman
16. This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Steven Hyden
17. After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Ben Rhodes
18. Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald
19. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
20. The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, Christopher Clarey
21. Proustian Uncertainties, Saul Friedländer
22. Seeing Serena, Gerald Marzorati
23. Graphic Life, Michael Gericke
24. How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims
25. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, paired with Twelve New Essays by Jessica Helfand
26. Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, Tim Higgins
27. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter
28. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
29. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant
30. Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business, Adam W. Morgan
1. The French Dispatch
2. Cold War
3. Certain Women
4. Meek’s Cutoff
5. The Power of the Dog
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
7. Let Them All Talk
8. The Farewell
9. To the Wonder
11. In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark
12. Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell
14. Untold: Breaking Point
15. WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
1. Succession, Season 3
2. The Bureau, Season 1
3. Ted Lasso, Season 2
4. Great British Baking Show, Season 12
5. The Chair 6. Only Murders in the Building
7. The Other Two, Seasons 1 and 2
8. This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Visual Art This was the second year in a row with little travel (which often prompts new art-viewing) and sadly little museum-going here at home (that’s on me). That said, and acknowledging my bias, the exhibition Hannah Wilke: Art for Life's Sake — curated by my wife, Tamara H. Schenkenberg, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation — gained in richness and meaning every time I saw it. If you’re here in St. Louis, I highly encourage a visit before its January 16 close.
Music A million years ago, my year-end lists included dozens of individual albums and concerts. While music’s a daily essential for me, I see almost nothing live and dip in and out of all kinds of new things I learn about, often without good record-keeping.
I usually work listening to classical, then jazz is on in the evening. The only specific new recordings I’d surface this year are the terrific records from Tyler, the Creator, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker. Phoebe Bridgers didn’t have a new album, but I loved her live Pitchfork Festival set that I happened to catch the evening it streamed.
In terms of new discoveries, there was one artist — and one song — that I’ll long connect with 2021: “A Lot’s Gonna Change” by Weyes Blood (Natalie Laura Mering). I was introduced to this singer/songwriter through a Spotify station as I drove on an errand of some kind. I was transfixed.
At about 1:20, Mering sings the title phrase — “A lot’s gonna change / in your …. life / … time.” — and it swallowed me up in the way great song moments do. Likely because my wife and I spend so much of our non-working time focused on raising our young kids and thinking about what their future lives will be like, the line took on all kinds poignancy and significance in the seconds I heard it.
Later on, the second time that part of the song comes around (2:55 in the video above), Mering sings, “‘Cause you’ve got what it takes / in your … life / … time.”
Here’s to the time we’ve got ahead of us in 2022.
Enjoyable read — indie design studio heads talking shop in “Studio Culture Now”. A few common themes: There’s freedom in staying small; having a nice workspace is a plus, but too much overhead’s a crusher; your design output matters, but so do process, leadership & owning your POV; social posts and basic PDFs can aid biz development more than a high-maintenance, glacially updated website; you can find success based anywhere, but be engaged w/ the field and your community. 📚
From my Christmas wish list to under the tree: Self-Reliance. That “I” is just perfection. Designed by Jessica Helfand and Jarrett Fuller. 📚
Enjoyed The Chancellor by Kati Marton. Qualities vital to Merkel’s rise and 16-year tenure: endurance, humility, steeliness, patience, calm. (She once described herself, as she stood next to the high-energy, publicity-seeking Sarkozy, as an “energy-conserving lamp.”) 📚
*Sylvie, sipping through a backyard quarantine concert by a friend and SLSO musician*
Year 20 of my annual cultural-recap tradition was quite something.
Thus far my family’s had good fortune amid the global pandemic, so we’re spending most of our time feeling grateful, yet exhausted, then grateful, yet exhausted.
With lots of time at home, there was some enjoyable culture to take in. Here’s a look at some highlights:
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches & Meditations, Toni Morrison
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, Anna Wiener
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer
Having and Being Had: Eula Biss
My Parents: An Introduction, Aleksandar Hemon
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
Weather, Jenny Offill
Promised Land, Barack Obama
Then the Fish Swallowed Him, Amir Ahmadi Arian
Jack, Marilyn Robinson
My Life in France, Julia Child
Severance, Ling Ma
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson
Luster, Raven Leilani
Intimations, Zadie Smith
Monocle: How to Make a Nation
The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann
Wine Simple, Aldo Sohm
Normal People, Sally Rooney
The Lying Lives of Adults, Elena Ferrante
Girl, Edna O’Brien
Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil
How to Be a Family, Dan Kois
Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece, Alex Beam
The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, Sarah Frier
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqub
How to Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy
How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski
Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, Barton Gellman
To Start a War, Robert Draper
The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, Chris Whipple
Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
The Monocle Guide to Better Living
Hell and Other Destinations, Madeline Albright
The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger
Bitter Brew, William Knoedelseder
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (exquisite, perfect)
Meyerowitz Stories: New & Collected
The Trip to Greece
The Other Guys
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The Price of Everything
Ford v. Ferrari
Better Call Saul, Seasons 4 and 5
Atlanta, Seasons 1 and 2
Schitt’s Creek, All Seasons
Never Have I Ever
Call My Agent, Season 1
Great British Bake-Off, Season 6 and 8
I can’t recall a year when I saw less art — whether here in St. Louis or in cities we didn’t travel to. With that unfortunate reality, I’m especially grateful to have been able to see the fantastic exhibition “Terry Adkins: Resounding” at the Pulitzer this summer.
My Spotify’s a shared-with-kids mess, and for loads of weekly hours I stream jazz and classical music that I don’t make a note of to be recalled. That said, I did especially enjoy new records from Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker, Jeff Tweedy, Lomelda, Bob Dylan, Run the Jewels, and Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist. I’m grateful to have been turned on to the music of Big Thief, Harold Budd (via the e-newsletter Flow State), Eleanor Bindman, and Haley Heynderickx, whose “Oom Sha La La” always brightened our family’s quarantine, with the kids screaming and jumping along to the swelling refrain, “I need to start a garden!” Here’s to what’s to come.
How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves….
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorry into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.
From Morrison’s 1998 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address:
If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or class, or religion, I become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it is because you are my slave. I own your energy, your fear, your intellect. I determine where you live, how you live, what your work is, your definition of excellence, and I set limits to your ability to love. I will have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred; you are mine….
We are already live-chosen by ourselves. Humans, and as far as we know there are no others. We are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live. You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.
Lastly, here is the oft-quoted passage from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Loved this passage from Sam Jacob’s essay “Context as Destiny: The Eameses from Californian Dreams to the Californiafication of Everywhere,” published in the satisfyingly chunky The World of Charles and Ray Eames (2016):
For architects and designers like [Peter and Alison Smithson, who were British], the Eameses’ Californian-ness opened a dazzlingly bright window into another world, a sun-kissed world far from the origins of European modernism weighed down by all that Old War baggage — by history, politics and war, by notions of an avant-garde, by post-war reconstruction and the serious politics of the welfare state.
To the Smithsons and their ilk, the Eameses appeared as if designers from the near future. They saw in the American couple a ‘light-hearted thinking in featherweight climate-bits-and-pieces seeming off-the-peg-architecture … [a] do-it-yourself out of gorgeous catalogues, the Sears-Roebuck thinking … [a] whole blow-up, plug-in, camp-out, dump-digging type of thinking and living.’ They saw in Charles and Ray the kind of design practice that they themselves were struggling to imagine — a form of design practice that combined the modernist legacy of social improvement with new sensibilities of popular, mass-produced modernity. They saw a lightness of touch, with a direct connection to lifestyle and an easy ability to reach out across the traditional boundaries of design and out into the wider world.
Really enjoyed this substantive recent conversation on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast. At one point, Tippett quotes Cole’s Blind Spot, one of my favorite books from the last few years: “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?” She tells Cole, “I find that useful language.” The ruminative Cole responds:
Well, thank you. I find it very fortifying as an idea, to think about what is not evident, what’s not apparent. I have a real struggle, especially when I’m writing for the Times. I have a very sympathetic, understanding, and encouraging editor, who lets me get away with all kinds of things, but I’m always trying to lower the volume of my essays. Very often, I’m trying to write and not say more than can justly be said. I want to reduce the number of sparks. I want to embed hesitation and lack of certainty in it.
At the close of Coates’ recent interview with Chris Hayes, the host asks him if he’s working on a new book. The dodge Coates gives, not wanting to discuss a project-in-process, ends up being a terrific toast to the necessity of sharp, tough early readers and editors:
I do, I do have a writing project and I love you people so much, let me tell you how much I love you. I was due on this writing project two weeks ago, it was like two weeks ago and yet I'm here with you. How much love is in my heart? Here I am. I do, man and I do and what I'll say is, I love it and it's the hardest thing ever. Writing is so ... I want to talk really, I don't know if they're people who want to be writers, who are writers in the building. But I just want to talk really quickly about that process. And about specifically working with [my editor] Chris [Jackson], who is magnificent. I give him shit all the time but he's actually magnificent, best editor and publisher, excuse me, make sure I get his title right.
I have a note that one day, we should have put it in "We Were Eight Years in Power," and the note is, I wrote "Between the World and Me" four times. And every time I would submit a draft to Chris and he'd be like, "Hmm, I don't know. I don't know, I don't know." Basically, I had to go and rewrite before we even got to the level of actual line by line editing. So he sent me a note after what must have been the second or third draft. And it's just like 2,000 words about why this does not work. And it was so depressing. I remember getting it at the time, I think you have to understand about "Between the World and Me" is, it's a book that came out of my head. I had artistic inspiration in the sense of James Baldwin, the fact that I had been working through the death of my friend for 14 years at that point.
I had the fact of a black president which was sort of swirling around but I didn't know what that was. Even the idea of a letter came at the very end of the actual process of us working together. And man, I got that note from Chris, 'cause every time you're like, "Okay, I think this is it, I think I got it, I think I got it." And it's go again, go again. And I feel like at that point, I was well-known enough and this is how the industry works. Somebody would have published that draft. It's an inferior draft, it's not the same book. And this is, I've been blessed because this is actually the relationship we have even on this book, man. I turned in a draft about this time last year. Oh, I'm done, we're gonna go to line edits. And Chris took forever to read it as is his way.
But when he did, he wrote, he did a little bit of line edit but he came over to the house and he talked to me about it and it was clear that I had to rewrite the whole thing. This is my third time, I've been writing this book for 10 years, this is my third time rewriting it. But he's not gonna let me embarrass myself. You understand? I think I'm good as a writer, but I actually have much more confidence in the people around me because the people around me, they just gonna tell me, "It's not time. It's not time, don't embarrass yourself." I think a lot of writers, listen, I think talent is really important but I think what I have been blessed with, from the time I was in my mom and my dad's house, you know what I mean? From the period of working for David Carr. From the period when James Bennett ran The Atlantic. I had hard people around me. You know who just pushed. Do it again, go again, go again, go again, go again.
So if you like what you see, and this is why I'm always a little uncomfortable with this, what you are seeing is not some innate thing. What you are seeing is, go again, go again, go again. And that's the spirit I think of certainly good writing and any writing that hopes to be great. The bleeding on the page. And then bleeding again and again. I just tell him this all the time, I'm thankful to have a reader like that who push you in that sort of way.
I had felt for many, many years that the form of the novel, as I used it, created a distance from life. When I started to write about myself, that distance disappeared. If you write about your life, as it is to yourself, every mundane detail is somehow of interest—it doesn’t have to be motivated by plot or character. That was my only reason for writing about myself. It wasn’t because I found myself interesting, it wasn’t because I had experienced something I thought was important and worth sharing, it wasn’t because I couldn’t resist my narcissistic impulses. It was because it gave my writing a more direct access to the world around me. And then, at some point, I started to look at the main character—myself—as a kind of place where emotions, thoughts, and images passed through.
The Longform Podcast's new episode with Elif Batuman is fantastic. I've enjoyed her writing for a few years, and in this interview you can just feel her thinking deeply about literature and writing and gender and observing in cities around the world and much more. As interviewer Max Linsky tweeted when sharing the link: "Genuinely, this is the most fun I have had in a long time. It was so fun, in fact, that at one point I stopped and said 'Wow I’m just very happy to be sitting here with you! This is so fun!' And then Elif was very gracious with me and then she said a bunch more brilliant things." It's true.
I also loved Design Observer's new episode with Aminatou Sow. She was new to me, and I'm clearly late to the game. On being late, though: Really enjoyed Sow's skepticism of the tech press's focus on the young (who wants to peak at 28?), vs. her interest in longevity; she's long thought the ideal age is 63 .
With a nod to Kottke's monthly "Media Diet" posts, I'm experimenting this year with short monthly recaps of interesting things I've read, watched or listened to. (This is as much for myself, as noting what I took in can help me better recall it.)
Paula Scher: Works — Terrific, from the opening essay and interview to the work itself. (A)
Abbott Miller: Design & Content — Intelligent and beautiful. Especially loved reading about Miller's co-founding of a "content-based studio" years before 'content strategy' became a thing. (A+)
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates — I'd read most of these essays when they were published in The Atlantic, but they were even more powerful here as a package. I liked Coates' brief introductions to each one, noting any changes (to what happened in the world, to how he thought about the issues) since original publication. (A)
Continuing a 17-year tradition, I’m happy to share my Annual Favorites list for the year 2017:
Family Let’s start with the best thing that happened to my family this year, which is the arrival of Sylvia Huremović Schenkenberg in late April. We’re still smiling at her the way Leo was above, just a few days in.
My Struggle: Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgård
Blind Spot, Teju Cole
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman
Now You See It and Other Essays on Design, Michael Bierut
Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, Karl Ove Knausgård and Fredrik Ekelund
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah
Obama: The Call of History, Peter Baker
Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure, Bianca Bosker
A Separation, Katie Kitamura
Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art
More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers, Jonathan Lethem
Powers of Ten, Philip Morrison
Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind, Peter D. Kramer
Under the Skin
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Clouds of Sils Maria
Better Call Saul, Season 3
The Americans, Seasons 4-5
OJ: Made in America
Master of None, Season 2
Audio I’m going to skip making a long list of favorite albums and podcasts, and instead note a discovery in each, respectively: Phoebe Bridgers (watch her Tiny Desk Concert here), and S-Town. They each feel a bit haunted, and they share, in parts, a gothic sensibility. (Also: I can’t not mention Black Thought’s instantly classic 11-minute freestyle video, which c’mon.)
Technology Our SONOS Play: 1 is used every evening for listening to music as we get ready for dinner or just goof around with the kids. Things 3 finally launched, and it’s attractive and enjoyable to use. It’s only been a month or so, but I’ve been enjoying trying out Ulysses as a writing environment (despite having no interest in using Markdown.) I’ve been impressed with Airtable as a flexible, humane alternative to Excel, when you need a database of some kind but have zero needs for financial calculations. (I’d seen the fancy Sandwich video when it launched, but didn’t realize it could fit my needs until the co-founder’s segment on Track Changes.)
Personal As noted on this website earlier this month, I was sad to see an end to the remarkable life of William H. Gass, who I was lucky enough to get to know over the past decade-plus. Bill lived a long and productive life, dying at 93, and working through his final year. I was honored to write briefly about him for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and speak about his life and work on St. Louis Public Radio. I continue posting notes from readers and admirers at ReadingGass.org.
After discovering this short appreciation in a Jonathan Lethem essay collection on bookish things, I just read it aloud to my wife, who'd been curious about why I've been so utterly taken by this series and increasingly hungry for each subsequent volume. Lethem nailed it ("Knausgaard's approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself."), and he was only one volume in.
The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions. Whom are we prepared to leave behind in our own pursuit of happiness? Whom are we able to care for, whom are we willing to care for, and why are our answers to those questions so rarely the same? At one point, Saeed points out to Nadia that millions of refugees previously came to their own native country, “when there were wars nearby.” Nadia replies, “That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.” Comfort, she knows, can anesthetize one against concern for others.
This is my first Hamid book, and I’m impressed. Looking forward to catching up with some recentinterviews.
I've really been missing new Knausgaard material, as I've been waiting for the next translation... and suddenly I saw this new book being reviewed. Grabbed it from the library and gobbled it up in a few nights. Knausgaard and fellow writer Fredrik Ekelund exchange emails during the most recent World Cup. The topics are soccer, literature, childhood, family, yearning, memory... and on and on. Totally unique and enjoyable.
Loved this World Book Club episode, with informed and curious readers asking Karl Ove Knausgaard about one of my favorite works of literature in several years. We shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a thoughtful and candid interviewee.
I’ve long chuckled at Roz Chast’s cartoons in The New Yorker. This graphic memoir, the first such book I’ve read, was so much more than a chuckle: funny, yes — but direct, deeply poignant, sharply observant. It’s hard to think about someone more perfectly born and raised to write (and draw) one specific book. Having finished the book, I’m looking forward to listening to this “Fresh Air” interview with the author.
Really enjoyed this book, which eschews icy, spacious luxury and celebrates lived-in warmth and often modest SQF. The choices on the first few pages (shown below) are representative of the book’s distinct point of view. (That kitchen towel is telling.)
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
Having just finished book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle(I enjoyed the first two more, though this volume’s still captivating), I was eager to listen to both part one and part two of the author’s interviews on Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm.”
It’s great listening. These insights from Silverblatt — which followed his comment that Knausgaard clearly knows his “great literature” — rang especially true for me:
What’s daring about My Struggle is that you’re willing to put the difficulty of the literature of the century — Joyce on — aside, to recapture the human. To make it human again, or to restore it to humanness. And in doing so, you risk being wildly misunderstood….
These works of great literature, in some way, speak to readers. And they speak from a world of genius. And I feel that in order to restore the possibility of originality, and even grandeur, you had to enter the zone of shame and the zone of ordinary life, which is banality. And you had to ask, Can great literature be made of such things? Am I willing to try to write six volumes of daily life, when all of us are feeling that our daily lives are disappointing and dissatisfying? Can the novel of Knausgaard restore our feelings of the importance of daily life?
I can’t think, personally, of anything more important. I’m very grateful when I read these books, because I feel like you’ve restored my interest in human beings. In going to the grocery. In feeding a child and making sure things are taken care of from one day to the next.
Music I used to make long lists of specific albums purchased and enjoyed, but since I’ve gone to paid streaming (and, maybe, since I’ve become a committed podcast listener), it’s harder for me to point to specific recordings at a year’s end. This is especially the case since Rdio shut down, and I’m now starting fresh with Spotify — my digital records are kind of a mess. While I listen to hours of classical and ambient/lush music through the headphones during work, a few specific artists I spent more time with in 2015 include Angel Olsen, Youth Lagoon, Sun Kil Moon, Sharon Van Etten, My Bubba, Jennifer O’Connor, Girlpool, Atlas Sound, Earl Sweatshirt, J Cole, Common, Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, Villagers, Natalie Prass, and Perfume Genius.
NYC + D.C. I had the good fortune of accompanying my wife on a work trip she had to NYC, and it was incredibly culture-rich. Highlights included the new Whitney, MoMA (Yoko Ono and Bjork special exhibitions), The Drawing Center, David Zwirner Gallery (Serra show), Neue Galerie (sensational collection), the Cooper Hewitt, and “Drifting in Daylight” in Central Park (where I shot this short phone video). We also enjoyed a long weekend in D.C. with family, with pleasant dips into the National Gallery (terrific Caillebotte show) and The Phillips Collection (first time, great time).
Work I’m fortunate to have a great job at Forest Park Forever, and 2015 saw a few especially fun projects ship. This includes the introduction of our new brand platform, our launch of Forestparkmap.org and the formal introduction of Forever: The Campaign for Forest Park’s Future, with a new website that features a beautiful campaign video we made with the team at Once Films.
Family As referenced appropriately at top, so much of this year — and so much of every day — has been about Tamara and I raising our son. I’d been told that right around 2 is a fun age, and it’s true. This year had a ton of special moments, including — just to pick one, which we happened to catch on film — Leo’s changing expression during his first ride on a carousel at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Back before Tamara and I had our son in the summer of 2013, I used to keep regular lists of my “Annual Favorites” of the year — the best books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, exhibitions and so on that I’d consumed that year.
To say my rate of cultural digestion changed with fatherhood would be an understatement; that said, I still have an interest in logging the great stuff (if only for myself). So while I skipped 2013 entirely, here’s a go at some highlights from 2014:
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, Eula Biss
What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1), Dante Alighieri (Mary Jo Bang, Translator)
Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips
Like Someone In Love
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jane Eyre (2011)
A Most Wanted Man
Take This Waltz
The One I Love
Your Sister’s Sister
Slate Culture Gabfest
The Monocle Weekly
In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg
The Entrepreneurs (Monocle)
The Stack (Monocle)
The Political Scene (The New Yorker)
New Yorker: Out Loud
Articles & Essays If you follow me on Twitter, you have likely already seen links to the best articles and essays I read in 2014. I use it mainly as a way to praise and recommend.
Music I listen to Rdio every day of the week — on my Mac, iPad and iPhone. A great deal of what I stream is classical, since I listen while I work. And on that front I do a poor job of logging what I like, as I hop quickly from label to composer, from soloist to trio. So for this post I’ll skip classical (and hip-hop, where I also jump around) and point simply to a handful of indie albums I enjoyed this year:
I’ve written before of the penetrating, often funny essays of Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian writer who, fortunately for us, calls Chicago home. His new collection, The Book of My Lives, is terrific, whether the subject is gravely serious (war, illness) or much more fun (pick-up soccer with a crew of fellow refugees).
Here’s one opening paragraph I quite liked from the essay “The Lives of Grandmasters,” which has just been published online as well:
I do not know how old I was when I learned to play chess. I could not have been older than eight, because I still have a chessboard on whose side my father inscribed, with a soldering iron, “Saša Hemon 1972.” I loved the board more than chess — it was one of the first things I owned. Its materiality was enchanting to me: the smell of burnt wood that lingered long after my father had branded it; the rattle of the thickly varnished pieces inside, the smacking sound they made when I put them down, the board’s hollow wooden echo. I can even recall the taste — the queen’s tip was pleasantly suckable; the pawns’ round heads, not unlike nipples, were sweet. The board is still at our place in Sarajevo, and, even if I haven’t played a game on it in decades, it is still my most cherished possession, providing incontrovertible evidence that there once lived a boy who used to be me.
BOMB offers an extraordinary excerpt from Bough Down, a volume by artist Karen Green, who is also David Foster Wallace’s widow:
September again and
I take your parents to the lighthouse, I do. There is nothing but September fog to cover our shame, and your father laughs just like you, at the opacity. I want to eat the laugh, I want to rub it on my chest like camphor, I want to make a sound tattoo. I also want to bash these two small people together and see if a collision of DNA will give me my life back. Last night we had a lightning storm, unprecedented. It scared me to think about who might be conducting it.
After they leave I take your last blue pill, but dream about someone being put to death as punishment for putting themselves to death.
Do you know what was just great? — To notice that such a stupid, absurd little act like copying a postcard can result in a painting. And then the freedom to be able to paint what’s fun. Deer, aeroplanes, kings, secretaries. Not having to invent anything any longer, forgetting everything one understands by the concept of painting: colour, composition, spatial depth; and everything else that one knew and thought. That was suddenly no longer a prerequisite for art.
Books will always be there. That is what they are by definition: there. Whether in the classroom, the library, the archive, the bookstore, the warehouse, or online, it is our choice, however, where books will be. It is time to stop worrying and start thinking. It is time to put an end to the digital utopias and print eulogies, bookish venerations and network gothic, and tired binaries like deep versus shallow, distributed versus linear, or slow versus fast. Now is the time to understand the rich history of what we have thought books have done for us and what we think digital texts might do differently. We need to remember the diversity that surrounds reading and the manifold, and sometimes strange, tools upon which it has historically been based. The question is not one of “versus,” of two antagonists squaring off in a ring; rather, the question is far more ecological in nature. How will these two very different species and their many varieties coexist within the greater ecosystem known as reading?
I really like this bit from Katherine Boo, taken from her interview for the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” series:
I was working my butt off trying to investigate the violent deaths of some homeless children, under circumstances that had been covered up by the police, when I reached the section of “2666” entitled “The Part About the Crimes.” It begins with a relentless, near-forensic account of corpses and injustices (closely based on the murders of poor women in Juarez) that opens out into this fevered exploration of both the psychological cost of paying attention to the tragedies of others and the social cost of looking away. That section of the book undid me so thoroughly that I’ll probably never reread it, even though I surely grasped only a sliver of what Bolaño was trying to say. And I suppose that’s the built-in sorrow of my life’s most profound encounters with books, beginning with “A Wrinkle in Time” in third grade. To reread what you loved most at a particular moment is to risk the possibility that you might love it less, and I want to keep my memories undegraded.
From William H. Gass’ forthcoming novel, Middle C:
Joey … rails ran across France then, rails ran through the mountain passes and through tunnels into and out of the mountains, rails ran along the Mur, through forests of fir trees, because the war was over, the sirens had hoarse throats, all the bombs they’d dropped on one another had gone plode, and so we could have traveled home together, because there were no more warplanes, no more lights fingering the sky, no more Nazis; it was, we used to say when we slunk from our underground huddle, the large lot of us, and looked to see if our rubble was still standing, we used to say that the sirens said — the sirens said, All clear.
On Sunday Lytton came to tea. I was alone, for L. went to Margaret. I enjoyed it very much. He is one of the most supple of our friends; I don’t mean passionate or masterful or original, but the person whose mind seems softest to impressions, least starched by any formality or impediment. There is his great gift of expression of course, never (to me) at its best in writing; but making him in some respects the most sympathetic & understanding friend to talk to. Moreover, he has become, or now shows it more fully, curiously gentle, sweet tempered, considerate; & if one adds his peculiar flavour of mind, his wit & infinite intelligence — not brain but intelligence — he is a figure not to be replaced by any other combination.
Didn’t connect with: Headhunters, We Have a Pope, The Bourne Legacy.
Favorite Movies: Pre-2012
Bill Cunningham New York
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A Dangerous Method
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Too Big to Fail
I continue to be a huge fan of Rdio, which I pay $10 a month to be able to stream music on a desktop, iPad, or iPhone. (This includes, say, streaming the new Nas via my home’s wi-fi as I mow my suburban lawn.) There will always be rituals and a closeness to the music I miss from my CD days, but the advantages of Rdio — especially the ability to discover and immediately listen to new music, particularly hip-hop and classical — are significant. I don’t have a ranked list here, but my listening history is an open book.
Favorite Articles, Essays & Blog Posts (categorized, not ranked)
One unusual memory I have from 2012 is spending several weekday evenings in March walking through my neighborhood for an hour or so, listening to the day’s oral arguments for and against the healthcare act. (My greatest moment of exasperation was hearing Justice Scalia mock-ask whether he was seriously supposed to get through so many pages of material.) In April, I published Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time, an iPad-only e-book pairing an essay by William H. Gass with photographs by Michael Eastman; New York Times coverage was a cherry on top. May’s Confab conference was one of the best I’ve attended. In August, Tamara and I enjoyed a few highly cultural days in Miami. Surpassing all that, though — we’re expecting a baby in late May of 2013. I expect this should be my best year yet.
I’m still at work editing The Ear’s Mouth Must Move: The Essential Interviews of William H. Gass. While I’d love for this to be published in a gloriously beautiful print version, I haven’t yet found an interested publisher. So it’s likely that, as with Abstractions Arrive, I will publish it myself as an iPad e-book using iBooks Author. Life is short, and I get restless waiting for traditional gatekeepers. We’ll see, though.
Here are a few screenshots of the in-process project, posted here mainly to show what’s possible in terms of tappable footnotes. More in time…
The subtitle of this Slate piece is way too glib, but the essay from Piper — a literature professor at McGill — is worth reading. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s excerpted from Piper’s book, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times.
Interesting piece by Sean Bishop in the VQR blog. (And yes, I agree with this sentiment, and not just for literary publishers, but other groups in the arts: “There is still a contingent of presses and publishers who bristle at the idea of ‘branding,’ 'marketing’ and the lot. Stop it…. They (you) need to get over that. I mean, seriously: you’re a publisher, not a religion.”)
Following up on my previous post about this extraordinary 900-page book — I finished it last night — here are a few more remarkable passages around which I drew my customary lines, stars, and exclamation marks:
Paris, February 1905:
With [Théodore] Duret to Mademoiselle Courbet, Courbet’s sister. Works of Courbet from all periods, especially interesting the Demoiselles de la Seine (around ‘66) and quite early pictures from Courbet’s childhood when he was fifteen to seventeen. In the Demoiselles, although later than Manet’s and Monet’s Déjeuner, no "plain air,“ no colored shadows on the dresses (perhaps a little blue in the face of one). In the quite early pictures astonishingly there is already Courbet’s unique, completely new application of color with which he started modern painting. So Courbet achieved this revolutionary new way of painting himself. His sister confirms that he received no instruction in painting in Ornans. Everything was genial intuition. With that a major problem in modern painting is solved.
Weimar, June 1906:
Opening of the Artists League Exhibition… The most interesting thing in the exhibition the painting by quite a young artist who is exhibiting for the first time: Max Beckmann, Naked Boy on the Beach. Like Signorelli and with qualities of Courbet and Cézanne, but nevertheless strongly original in the rhythm of its accents and in its tonality, which has a marvelous unity. I introduced myself to Beckmann and congratulated him.
Berlin, two days later:
Beckmann lunched with me in the Carlton. He spoke of the romance of life that he feels so keenly, the romance of the quite common, everyday life. Poe-Whistler… He is through and through a painter, which is seldom the case with Germans.
Berlin, December 1907:
In the evening the Rilkes came to dinner. She has something great and simple, willful, almost masculine. He appears to be the more feminine of the two. When he sits, while speaking, crunched up in his chair, his legs and arms crossed, you get the impression from his thin body and his soft voice, that sounds as if were the pleading, of an ugly young girl. He spoke of Prague, Russia, Paris, always in quite long, soft, somewhat precious sentences.
Berlin, February 1910:
Met the writer Sternheim at the Meier-Graefes’ in the evening. He has a rather elegant wife off of whose money he lives. He was introduced to me yesterday by Cassirer and immediately laid out a plan for a writer’s trust. Today he launched into obscure theories about tragedy. In a tragedy, the hero is not tragic, but the world around his hero, his milieu. That’s why Hamlet for example should actually be called "the world around Hamlet,” Lear, “the world around Lear,” etc… I asked Sternheim what then was the difference between the hero and a madman? Clearly he couldn’t answer for he employed all sorts of metaphysical expressions. Meier-Graefe asked me, while I was leaving, what I thought of Sternheim. I said, “Crazy.” As Meier-Graefe later told me, Sternheim said to him, when he went back to his guests, “How happy I am to have met Count K. Finally a man who understands me!”
Paris, June 1911:
After breakfast went to the exhibition of the Henry Bernstein collection: Cézannes, Renoirs, Bonnards, Vuillards, etc. There I met Rilke, who was completely taken by the Cézannes. He is now so totally obsessed with Cézanne that he is blind to everything else. Of the mountain in the House in Provence he says, “Since Moses no one has seen a mountain thus.”
Paris, July 1911:
My attention today was fixed almost the entire time on Rilke’s enormously fat lips (especially the lower lip) and on the smell of fruit, which dominates his rooms like in the apple room of an old country house, and circulates in the fresh, warm air from outside, old-fashioned and a little old-maid like. This mouth in this atmosphere, a mixture of the old maid and sensuality.
Paris, May 1912:
In the evening the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music… A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.
Budapest, February 1915:
Sat alone in the Hungaria in the evening and during this first respite from the immediate presence of the war in seven months, I reflected on it. War is a situation to which you become accustomed, alas. You form bonds in war with an intensity and naiveté such as you only do in youth (Schoeler, Below). We are fearful in normal life and only under fire, confronting death, do we ask ourselves why, like the child when the curtain falls in the theater. This “why,” this somewhat naive problem of the fear of death, becomes gradually clear to you in a war. Gradually you grow numb to shrapnel and death. Paradoxically you live life then all the more intensely: friends, nature, all beauty. War has taught me to love and admire man infinitely more, whom it has revealed to me in all of this horror, baseness, greatness, and sweetness. I have seen him as an animal and as a god.
I’ll end there, though the diaries have another few hundred (compelling, sad) pages to go. Much more of the war. A life in Switzerland. The Epilogue, by the book’s editor and translator, Laird M. Easton, is perfect.
Obviously, Journey to the Abyss is a book I highly recommend. I wish Alex Ross’ terrific essay-review, which prompted me to buy it, was by now in front of the pay wall, but it’s not. I’ve just found another long piece about the book, this time from James Fenton in The Atlantic. It’s titled, appropriately, “Everywhere Man.” About to dig in.
Last April, I read an extraordinary review-essay by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross about the following book: Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918. Ross, one of my favorite cultural writers, told a vivid story of someone with seemingly unlimited reach in European cultural circles, someone who might have breakfast with Rilke, discuss art with Rodin over lunch, spend an early evening looking after a deteriorating Nietzsche, and look ahead to a weekend with Vuillard. Or Degas. Or Monet. A man who kept note of it all — not just logging it, but commenting, analyzing, thinking on the page.
Ross’ piece is still subscription-only (11/23/12 update; he’s posted it his on site), but Amazon’s page for the diaries offers this bit from his New Yorker review:
A document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century…also a staggering feat of reportage. The war fever infected Kessler…[he] does not hide the grimness of the scene. For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914…The supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.
Within about 10 minutes of reading Ross’ review, I’d put the book on my Must Buy list, and by the time my birthday rolled around in June, a loved one had gifted it to me. I’m only 330 pages into the 850 total, but I can say that it is indeed extraordinary.
Here is Kessler in his early 20s, in 1891, writing to himself from Paris:
Went with Papa in the evening to the Folies-Dramatiques. On the way home spoke to him about my project of a trip around the world, and he gave his consent. If everything goes well then from November until next October over Egypt, India, Indochina, Java to Australia, then New Zealand and North America.
That’s how Kessler rolled.
Berlin, February 1895:
For my part the way in which a girl places her feet while dancing or how a young officer holds his horse with his thigh gives me a joy that, in this way, none of the so-called orthodox works of art can. I find in such movements, of which a drawing, for example — even done by the Japanese — can only provide a snapshot, a secret beauty, an unconscious style, which enchants me more than all the perfect of fixed forms.
Paris, July 1895, amid a visit to Paul Verlaine:
Finally he promised me to draw a portrait of Rimbaud as well as he could from memory, the existing ones, with the exception of the Fantin-Latour, are all bad. He also spoke again today more than was necessary about earning money, but he is so naive in this that his grasping had actually nothing repellent about it. It resembled more the fondness for sweets of a child than the usual greed.
Yesterday and today I read for the second time, after four years, Schopenhauer’s Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is notable how many new voices books, which like this one are deeply thought, acquire over time, and how difficult it is — I notice this in my marginal notes — to recover the old impressions and thoughts. Such a work, read for the second time — and this is even more true for literature — is like a yardstick against which you can measure the change in your self over time. And there are also works, the most powerful and the deepest, that you must read over and over again throughout your life, which, like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day, in the morning light, in the glow of the afternoon, and in the cool gray of evening, are always changing and becoming new. You cannot waste time when you’re young, otherwise it is too late, and you have missed forever the morning light of the masterpieces, perhaps their most splendid lighting.
When it comes to art, what the idiot looks for in an artwork is the confirmation of his way of viewing, thus the satisfaction of his vanity. The artist is supposed to prove to him what a fine observer of nature he — the eternally complacent, the good citizen, the Sunday art connoisseur — is. True art demands, however, renunciation temporarily so that afterward you can walk away all the richer. All art that does not enter the nerves and senses of those who enjoy it, so that they who have experienced it see or feel the world from then on with something of the genius of the artist who has moved them, is, in the end, not worth being produced.
Today is William Gass’ 88th birthday. For the Big Other website, John Madera asked some writers, readers, and publishers to name their own “literary pillars,” as a tribute to Gass and his “50 Literary Pillars” project from the early 1990s. After being invited to contribute, I went in a slightly different direction.
As ever, Mod offers smart, forward-looking thoughts on books and publishing. His central question:
[I]f so much of what book cover design has evolved into is largely a brick-and-mortar marketing tool, then what place does a ‘cover’ hold in digital books? Especially after you purchase it? But, more tellingly, even before you purchase it?
If you’re interested in the questions, you’ll be interested in the entire essay. Recommended.
A member of the Wallace-L listserv posted this Pascal quote this morning, commenting (insightfully) on how it brings to mind many statements DFW made about reading and indeed love:
When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours. And thus this benefit renders him pleasing to us, besides that such community of intellect as we have with him necessarily inclines the heart to love.
Great piece in The New York Times, with clear-eyed (and entertaining) commentary from a writer and book critic about how technology has improved his reading life. This bit comes from his section on the smartphone:
Keep an audio book or two on your iPhone. Periodically I take the largest of my family’s dogs on long walks, and I stick my iPhone in my shirt pocket, its tiny speaker facing up. I’ve listened to Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” this way. The shirt pocket method is better than using ear buds, which block out the natural world. My wife tucks her phone into her bra, on long walks, and listens to Dickens novels. I find this unbearably sexy.
At the New York Review of Books blog, a refreshingly contrarian post:
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Peter Watson's The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century is an extraordinary 1,000-page book. It is immensely ambitious, rich in ideas and evidence of the German-speaking peoples’ world-changing achievements in music, literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, geology, bioethics, archeology, art history, and on and on. (On music, to take just one subject: “The standard ‘backbone’ of classical music consists today of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms — all German.”)
Watson, an intellectual historian and former journalist, is a confident, resourceful, learned guide. He succeeds not just in illustrating how Germany was the leading force in the world of ideas until 1933, but also in helping the reader consider the country since it was ever-changed by the Führer and the Nazi Party (“Hitler still makes history but he also distorts it”). As a writer and historian, Watson is sharp and entertaining, as evidenced by these well-drawn, memorable sketches and assessments of just some of the book’s key figures:
Prickly, oversensitive, cynical, and bad-tempered, he was as much feared and disliked as Hans von Bülow, who was notorious for his tempers and antagonisms. At one party in Vienna, it is said, Brahms left in a huff, grumbling, “If there is anyone here I have not insulted, I apologize.”
Paradoxically, Strauss was himself a solid bourgeois, with a sober — even staid — private life. Alma Mahler was at the rehearsal of Feuersnot in 1901 and confided to her diary: “Strauss thought of nothing but money. The whole time he had a pencil in hand and was calculating the profits to the last penny.” His wife, Pauline, was a grasping woman, once a singer, who would scream at her husband, when he was relaxing at cards, “Richard, go compose!” Their house at Garmisch had three separate doormats, on each of which Pauline insisted that the composer wipe his feet.“
Richard Strauss was ambivalent about Arnold Schoenberg. He thought he would be better off "shoveling show” [!] than composing, yet recommended him for a Liszt scholarship.“ … A small, wiry man, "easily unimpressed,” who went bald early on, Schoenberg was strikingly inventive — he carved his own chessmen, bound his own books, painted (Wassily Kandinsky was a fan), and built a typewriter for music.
When war broke out, Thomas Mann — as we have seen — was as nationalistic as many others. He was not yet one of the giants of European literature but he did have a growing reputation. He volunteered for the Landsturm, or reserve army, but the doctor who examined him was familiar with his work and, reasoning that he would make a greater contribution to the war effort as a writer rather than as a soldier, failed him physically for active service.
Kafka is best known for three works of fiction … But he also kept a diary for fourteen years and wrote copious letters. These reveal him to have been a deeply paradoxical and enigmatic man. He was engaged to the same woman for five years, yet saw her fewer than a dozen times in that period; he wrote ninety letters to one woman in the two months after he met her, including several between twenty and thirty pages, and to another he wrote 130 letters in five months. He wrote a famous forty-five-page typed letter to his father when he was thirty-six, explaining why he was still afraid of him.
Along with his fellow German-speaker, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx probably had a more direct effect on the recently completed twentieth century, and the shape of the contemporary world, than any other single individual. Without him there would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Mao Zedong, and few if any of the other dictators who disfigured those times. Without him there would have been no Russian Revolution, and without World War II (or Max Planck and Albert Einstein), would there — could there — have been a Cold War, a divided Germany? Would decolonization have occurred in the way that it did, would there have been an Israel where it is, the Middle East problem that there is? Would there have been a 9/11? Ideas don’t come any more consequential than Marxism.
Sigmund Freud’s influence was less catastrophic than Marx’s, but no less consequential…. Alfred Kazin, the American critic, maintained in an essay he published in 1956 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Freud’s birth that “Freud has influenced even people who have never heard of him.” Kazin thought that, at mid-century in America, “to those who have no belief, Freudianism sometimes serves as a philosophy of life.” He thought that at “every hour of every day now,” people could not forget a name, feel depressed, or end a marriage without wondering what the “Freudian” reason might be. He thought that the novel and painting (Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstraction) had been reinvigorated by the Freudian knowledge that “personal passion is a stronger force in people’s lives that socially accepted morality” and that the “most beautiful effect” of Freudianism was the increasing awareness of childhood “as the most important single influence on personal development.” He thought the insistence on personal happiness — the goal of psychoanalytic therapy — was the most revolutionary force in modern times, a modern form of self-realization.
Nietzsche’s most well-known — some might say notorious — aphorism is “God is dead.” One of his most important achievements, along with Max Weber, was to think through and confront the implications of that sentiment, to work out in what he saw as terrifying detail the consequences of modernity, a world of vast populous cities, mass transport, and mass communications, in which the old certainties had been dissolved, where the comforts and consolations of religion had disappeared for many people, and in which science had acquired an authority that was, in his view, as arid and empty as it was impersonal and impressive. It is in this sense that Martin Heidegger called Nietzsche the “culmination” of modernity — i.e., Nietzsche felt the loss of whatever had gone before more keenly than anyone else, and he described that loss in more vivid hues.
All this was overshadowed by the advent of Joseph Beuys, who stands apart (and, for many people, above) all else in German postwar art. Beuys, born in Krefeld in 1921, never deviated from his conviction that his artistic aim was to find a new visual language that would come to terms with the war and at the same time find a way forward that did not ignore all that had happened.
The work of art, Beuys believed, exists in “eternal time, historical time, and personal time.” Having himself been shot down over Russia as a Luftwaffe pilot in the Second Wold War, he was treated for frostbite by his Russian captors, who used felt and fat, which became the materials Beuys used in (some of) his art, fused with other, less personal substances. He felt the spectator should be aware of what these materials meant to the artist, adding a level of consciousness to the aesthetic experience (as a boy he used a tram stop near an important monument), with the national past, featuring railway lines to remind the viewer what railways were used for in Nazi Germany. But, his lines were slightly curved, to hint at progress, a way forward, and up. In experiencing the present-day beauty of his sculptures, Beuys is saying, we must relive past events — this is his dialogue with time.
Congrats to Watson for completing such a tremendous volume of history. I recommend it highly.
Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks them. It is that mind that is the miracle that interests me. Did he think the thinker who then thinks his thoughts? “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” I don’t believe he began by having “the eye is the first circle” arrive in his own inward office like a parishioner with a problem, and that, subsequently, he copied this thought down exactly the way it appeared when it knocked, and as he would have been required to had the words come from Allah or from God. He wrote them down so he could think their thought. And when he thought, “the eye is the first circle,” I’ll bet he didn’t know what the second circle was. But writing notions down means building them up; it means to set forth on a word, only to turn back, erasing and replacing, choosing and refusing alternatives, listening to the language, and watching the idea take shape like solidifying fog.“
From "Spit in the Mitt,” about baseball and his father:
We listened to ticker re-creations together—always the Indians, always blowing a lead. You could hear the click of the wireless sometimes as the announcer turned the tape’s dry and sullen information—F8—into a long drive which Earl Averill pulled down against the wall after a mighty run. Later, I would realize that those radio matches were more interesting than games seen on TV or from a poor seat in some vast modern stadium, because they were conveyed in symbols, created in words, and served to the field of the imagination.
Readers today are forced to choose between buying a physical book or an ebook, but a lot of them would really like to have both on hand - so they’d be able, for instance, to curl up with the print edition while at home (and keep it on their shelves) but also be able to load the ebook onto their e-reader when they go on a trip. In fact, bundling a free electronic copy with a physical product would have a much bigger impact in the book business than in the music business. After all, in order to play vinyl you have to buy a turntable, and most people aren’t going to do that. So vinyl may be a bright spot for record companies, but it’s not likely to become an enormous bright spot. The only technology you need to read a print book is the eyes you were born with, and print continues, for the moment, to be the leading format for books. If you start giving away downloads with print copies, you shake things up in a pretty big way.
I’ve daydreamed about this before. Would enjoy seeing it happen. (I had no clue, by the way, that vinyl-record buyers like Carr are indeed scoring free digital copies of the music.)
Jonathan Franzen, regretting the rise (and, it seems, existence) of e-books:
Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.
For serious readers, Franzen said, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience”. “Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
In a highly embarrassing move, publishers HarperCollins were today forced to offer to exchange thousands of copies after Franzen revealed that the UK edition of a novel dubbed “the book of the century” is based on an early draft manuscript, and contains hundreds of mistakes in spelling, grammar and characterisation.
More than 8,000 copies of the faulty first edition have been sold since it was published last week, with 80,000 hardbacks of the book in print. The mistakes were discovered yesterday.
Franzen told the Guardian that the book, the follow-up to 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Corrections, contained “a couple of hundred differences at the level of word and sentence and fact” as well as “small but significant changes to the characterisations of Jessica and Lalitha” – the daughter and the assistant of one of the novel’s central characters.
HarperCollins, who say the errors are mainly typographical, have launched a hurried operation to let purchasers exchange their faulty copy via bookshops or pre-paid post. The new version is being rushed through the printers over the weekend and will be available early next week.