This month’s books newsletter has a lot of conversations in it. It’s really pretty chatty for a topic that’s supposedly the pastime of introverts! I don’t just mean our normal author Q&As, or even the inaugural episode of the new conversation series I’ll be hosting on the Longreads podcast. (It’s called What Are You Reading?, and in it I’ll be asking authors to tell me about — you guessed it — what they’re reading. This month I spoke to Elizabeth Rush.) I’m referring to conversations like the surreal one Amos Barshad had with so-called “Putin whisperer” Aleksandr Dugin, which Barshad recounts in his recent book No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World. Barshad’s interest in speaking to Dugin is part of his broader fascination with how Rasputin-esque figures exert influence on powerful people, and his account of the conversation reflects his sensitivity to all the pressure points a con man or a close-up magician would try to hit:
Dugin’s hands move constantly. Not just one or two swipes; it’s a wild, unceasing symphony of gestures. He swings an open palm, slams fingertips straight down on the tabletop, points an index finger in the air and his other hand’s middle finger straight down. The fingers and palms move in synchronicity and also alone, every single one on a mission. He interlocks and breaks apart and throws out his hands and brings them back together. Some of the moves he repeats. Some come just once. I begin to believe that if I stay here long enough, he’ll keep inventing ways to emphatically gesticulate forever.
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Barshad is not listening to what Dugin says as much as studying how Dugin says it. Ayşegül Savaş takes a similar approach in her essay “The Cost of Reading” — though she doesn’t apply her powers of observation to a far-right demagogue and tyrant’s advisor, but rather to a male writer, a colleague, who keeps recommending that she read his own work while telling her pointblank he will not make time to read hers — so, the same kind of guy, really. There’s a lot to admire about Savaş’s essay, but I like the way conversations reverberate through the piece. At the beginning she quotes a scene from writer Deborah Levy’s essayistic autobiography, The Cost of Living.
… [T]he narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.
“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.
“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too … It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”
That conversation echoes through the rest of Savaş essay and bolsters its argument, which is that by simply reading Levy’s book thoroughly — by giving it her time — she has completed a necessary literary labor that her male colleague has failed to do; he is slated to be in conversation with Levy about her work during a symposium, but at the event talks so much himself instead that he compels Levy to interrupt him and correct his misunderstanding of her work, which she attributes to his failure to read it all the way through. The male colleague is shown, in brief but hyper-observant conversations that appear throughout the rest of Savaş’s essay, to speak regularly about how he prefers not to read whole books, or even whole stories; meanwhile, he himself gives the same talks over and over again. Savaş meditates on what men are willing to spend time on, and how little of what they spend time on seems to be taking women’s intellectual contributions — and women’s time — seriously.
Lisa Taddeo’s new book Three Women is nothing but conversation. Taddeo became the close confidante to — you guessed it — three women (straight, white, and cis) who spoke to her about an intense romance that they were currently in the midst of or emerging from; the women told Taddeo in wrenching detail about the extremes of their euphoria and despair in a way usually reserved for only a woman’s closest friends, not her biographer. In Francesca Giacco’s review, she points out that what feels striking is the women’s isolation in their passion and desire; it’s not something they can tell their beloved men about. Only other women can serve as witness to the true intensity of their feeling. The book is a dizzying spiral into those kinds of long, obsessive conversations that I’m sure many women besides me are familiar with; the kind during which it starts to feel like one’s real life is not passing the Bechdel test. I know from firsthand experience that, at the time, these obsessive talks about beloved men feel necessary, as necessary as the love itself. But in the calculating distance afforded me as I read Giacco’s review, I had (not for the first time, of course) the discomforting thought that perhaps we women don’t take our time seriously either; we let ourselves be directed so much by men.