This Month in Books: ‘How Do We Stay the Right Distance Apart?’

Ladder on library bookcase
Julien McRoberts / Getty Images

Dear Reader,

At first glance, there’s a pretty stark divide in this month’s books newsletter.

In one corner, we have the isolationists. In her book The Art of the Wasted Day, Patricia Hampl writes about the Ladies of Llangollen, who became famous in the late 18th century for their intense desire to live a life of quiet “retirement” and “delicious seclusion.” They eschewed marriage, ran away from home, and, once they settled down, rarely traveled. They just wanted to be left alone. So too do the Patriot Movement-esque insurrectionists in Maxim Loskutoff’s new short story collection Come West and See, who rail against the federal government’s incursions.

In the other corner, we have the systematic thinkers, the big picture people, who are making impassioned calls for us to work — together — to change the system before the system’s collapse engulfs us all. Although, to be fair, William Vollmann, in an interview about his new book No Immediate Danger, tells us he’s pretty sure it’s already too late to stop climate change. The afrofuturist and activist adrienne maree brown, in an interview about her planet/self-help book Emergent Strategy, feels slightly more hopeful; she thinks it’s possible that we are on the cusp of a radical reckoning in self- and collective awareness. Through changes in perception and practice, her thinking goes, we will redirect our collective fate.

This same juxtaposition becomes the centerpiece of Rachel King’s review of two new books about the workplace: David Graeber, in his new book Bullshit Jobs, begs us to change the system, while Alison Green, in Ask a Manager, gives us sound advice about how to survive it.


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I think, though, that the two sides of this coin have a lot to offer one another. “I try not to have a schedule,” Vollmann tells us — useful advice for a polymath, but not so much for a regular person hoping to avert climate change, which, as adrienne maree brown rightly points out, likely requires us to engage in a new kind of “intentional” living. Meanwhile, the Ladies of Llangollen — oh, the Ladies! — lived by what they called “Our System,” managed down to the minute, exquisitely engineered to foster a productive life of the mind, healthful eating, and light exercise. For all their bourgeois moralizing (they were aghast at the French Revolution), their System was, unbeknownst to them, radically environmentalist, and, fully known to them, radically emotionally fulfilling.

And it turns out that Come West and See’s insurrectionists — or not the insurrectionists themselves, not the true believers, but rather those sympathetic to their protest — might be less interested in being left alone by the system than being recognized by it. Tori Telfer notices this in her review, pointing to the mother of one of the Cliven Bundy-like protesters, who insists, “We’re real people,” and to an angry young man envious of college athletes whom he thinks are destined to be become not only “bosses,” but “the boss’s bosses.” This is not a desire for freedom from a system, but a desire for inclusion within it.

Perhaps what I’m noticing is this: we can’t survive alone, not really. (Even the Ladies had a constant stream of visitors and volumes of correspondence. They also read books — which are, after all, just another way of talking to people.) But we won’t survive at all if we don’t each — individually — change how we live; if we don’t each become, in practice, survivalists. “This is what [we] learn from flocking,” adrienne maree brown says. “How do we stay the right distance apart and the right distance in touch with each other in order to actually move together as a unit and stay alive and make it as far as we can?”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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