Over coffee a few weeks ago, our audience development editor Catherine Cusick told me something remarkable: someone, somewhere is always reading “A Sociology of the Smartphone,” an excerpt from Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017) which we published in June of last year. This astute social scientific rumination on our new and profound interconnectedness via the “ubiquitous… slabs of polycarbonate” in our pockets is Longreads’ most-read book feature of all time.
Meanwhile, in “The Death Row Book Club,” our recent excerpt from The Sun Does Shine (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), Anthony Ray Hinton remembers that “the books were a big deal. Nobody had books on death row. They had never been allowed, and it was like someone had brought in contraband.” It is the book, sometimes just a single copy — tossed from reader to reader across the prison library with a little prayer that it never land too far out of anyone’s reach, since rising from your seat during death row book club is strictly forbidden — which provides a new and profound interconnectedness for the prisoners.
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In another of our recent book excerpts, from Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank (Henry Holt & Co., 2018), we read that when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded their literary magazine Les Temps modernes in the rubble of Paris in 1945, they had to request an allocation of paper from the government. They had to bring their own rations to the literary parties. Nevertheless, the magazine was an instant, global success — Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s books became bestsellers, rumors spread that women would swoon when they heard Sartre lecture, even the State Department got Existentialist fever, and Richard Wright bought his entire family steamer tickets to France and wrote in his diary that he “felt relief as he saw the Statue of Liberty” drifting away. He came to Paris to advise Les Temps modernes on their upcoming “America” issue — in which they excerpted books like The Black Metropolis, a groundbreaking sociology of redlining and poverty on Chicago’s South Side.
Of course, in this post-Rex world, the State Department surely no longer has the wherewithal to bother reading such a minor cultural artifact as the first ever Longreads Books Newsletter. Indeed, the founding of Les Temps modernes differs from the first ever Longreads Books Newsletter in, ah, a number of ways — probably the most important of which is that I have not written a 1,000-page philosophical novel to co-promote with this newsletter. But I find myself dwelling on it anyway, comparing our efforts to the past and its apparent perfection. (Or near perfection. According to David Remnick, who is certainly an authority on such things, it was the first issue of The New York Review of Books — also founded, incidentally, at a moment of paper shortage, during the 1963 printer’s strike — which was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.”) After all, it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand on the shaky notion that there is some strong dividing line between “the modern times” and “history.” And difficult to think that we should not be making comparisons.
So in the future (no matter how alarmingly it starts to resemble the past), look to this newsletter to encounter new works that hopefully, as Sartre bragged in his introduction to the first issue of Les Temps modernes, “do not… miss a beat on the times we live in,” that “inten[d] to influence the society we live in,” that “take sides.” You’ll read excerpts from new books like Noliwe Rooks’ groundbreaking study of inequality in public education, Cutting School (The New Press 2017); interviews with authors who’ve written remarkable new books that we’re eager to hear more about, like Elizabeth Flock’s study of love, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea (Harper, 2018); essays and discussions about the writer’s craft; and book reviews. Yes, book reviews. This, despite the fact that, in her interview with Longreads, the cultural critic Michelle Dean notes the hysterics to which Norman Mailer was driven by Mary McCarthy’s The Group when he reviewed it in 1963 (in those same venerable pages of the New York Review of Books, although not in the first issue — I checked — but rather the fourth one). Dean tells us that, reading Mailer’s review and others like it, she “starte[d] to have a sense of humor about the value of a review that comes out when a book is initially released.” She continues:
You start to realize how wildly out of sync [contemporary reviewers tend to be] with whatever later opinion of the book developed after people had the chance to digest it and think about it…. The reception adds an element of absurdity to the whole thing.
So there you have it. The modern times are wildly out of sync (more so than ever?) and absurdly wrong about new books; these days books are as ubiquitous as air and as precious as contraband; and we at Longreads have decided it’s the perfect time to start a books newsletter. Welcome and enjoy!