When compiling the reading list this week, I was struck harder than I have been so far by the sensation that time has compressed, or flattened, or leveled out, or I’m not entirely sure what the right spatial metaphor is here, but what I mean is that the time I inhabit feels in no way appreciably different from other times that other people have inhabited. When I read about George Washington fleeing Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever, that doesn’t feel meaningfully different from now. When I read that Emma Goldman co-owned an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, it doesn’t feel uncanny, it just sort of feels like, “Yeah, well, one has to make a living! Anarchist or not, the rent is always due!” Or when I read in A Distant Mirror about the general dismay caused by the corruption and dumbing down of the clergy that resulted from the selling of church appointments to the highest bidder in the 14th century, I feel like I am on the exact same wavelength as Henry of Hereford, who wrote, “Look… at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” They had child bishops; we have Jared Kushner. It’s all one; it’s all bad.
And it seems like a lot of critics are in a similar headspace. Over the weeks, I feel like I’ve watched essayists dig deeper and deeper for “moments to which this moment compares” and what they’ve inadvertently proven is not just that this moment can be compared to so many others, but that all those moments can also be compared to each other as well! George Washington’s enlightened 18th century, Camus’ disastrous 20th, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th: they’ve all got one thing in common. The secret history of the world rears its ghastly head to reveal what we almost forgot: disease is king.
1. “Pandemics Go Hand in Hand with Conspiracy Theories” by Frederick Kaufman, The New Yorker
Frederick Kaufman writes that when yellow fever hit the newly united States in the 1790s, it led to the development of a new literary style — the American gothic, pioneered by the grieving Charles Brockden Brown in “a million words [that] poured from his pen” from 1798 to 1800, including Wieland, a book about a disembodied voice that drives people insane — as well as a new political style, the much written about “paranoid style” of American politics. Just after the fever ravaged New York in the late 1790s, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, which had formed in Bavaria in 1776 and been officially banned in 1784, began to proliferate, building into a sort of public panic. Charles Brockden Brown likewise contributed to this new trend; his novel Ormond; or, the Secret Witness, sounds like a Bourne Identity for the 18th century, with the Illuminati playing the global-conspiratorial role of the CIA — or, in this year’s paranoia parlance, the WHO.
2. “Graciliano Ramos and the Plague” by Padma Viswanathan, The Paris Review
Padma Viswanathan writes about coming to the realization that Graciliano Ramos, the giant of Brazilian letters whose novel São Bernardo she recently translated, was motivated to return as a youth from Rio to his remote hometown of Palmeira dos Índios not by disappointment in his lackluster career in journalism, as she originally assumed, but because plague had broken out at home, killing four of his family members in a single day. This insight led Viswanthan to consider how the rest of Ramos’ life’s work — in local government and in literature — was driven by notions of good hygiene, including his translation of Camus’ The Plague.
3. “The First State-Approved North Korean Novel in English” by Esther Kim, Lit Hub
Esther Kim interviews Immanuel Kim, translator of Friend by Paek Namnyong. Immanuel Kim made it his mission to find and translate a popular, non-propagandistic (as in not state-related) North Korean “bestseller” (as in widely read, not widely bought — in North Korea, print runs are limited, but worn copies of Friend, first published in 1988, continue to be passed from hand to hand). “When I started my PhD at UC Riverside in 2000, I was reading South Korean literature minus the colonial period [1910-1945]. All of my colleagues were doing the same, and I wondered, What more can I add to this field? What about North Korea? It was a crazy jump. All my friends were like You’re crazy, man….I started making a personal database of authors that moved me….Then I started looking for stories that were more relatable to the English-speaking world. I read almost a thousand.”
4. “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
Dan Chiasson writes about the life and work of poet Wanda Coleman. A new volume of her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment, was published last month. “Coleman…was one of the great menders in American verse: she found the extra wear in old forms like the sonnet and rummaged for new forms in everyday material, like aptitude tests, medical reports, and want ads. Poets sometimes brag about their fearsome powers of transformation; Coleman, beset by hardship for much of her life, kept her boasts closer to the bone. ‘I scrape bottom,’ she wrote…”
5. “Food for Thought: Ben Katchor’s Paradise Lost” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum
Ben Katchor’s books are exquisite in an old-timey way that books generally aren’t anymore, sometimes to the point of baroque bewilderment. In this review, J. Hoberman gamely attempts to explain what this latest one, The Dairy Restaurant, is “about.” As with many of Katchor’s books, the gist is that Katchor uses his deep knowledge of niche histories — in this case, Jewish-owned dairy restaurants in New York City and all tangential topics (for instance, did you know Emma Goldman was in the ice cream business?) — to create an almost-alternate history: as in, you’re pretty sure everything Katchor says is true, but the emphasis, the rhythms of history, become fixated on something so deeply unusual — radical dairy consumption — that you become possessed by an alternate vision of what has already transpired.
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6. “At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney, The White Review
A perfect short story by Sally Rooney, which was originally published in The White Review in 2016, and features characters from her novel-cum-show-cum-thing-people-love-to-hate-for-clout Normal People. The Review made the story available online for the first time last week. “People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.”
7. “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” by Jodi Dean, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Jodi Dean contemplates a question posed by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: “What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse?” Welcome to neofeudalism, fellow serfs!
8. “We’re All Preppers Now” by Heather Souvaine Horn, The New Republic
Heather Souvaine reviews Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a book about prepper subculture, and finds herself understandably more sympathetic to the preppers than the author probably expected the reader would be when he was writing the book. “How do you decide what response is ‘too much,’ when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?”
9. “Bournemouth” by Andrew O’Hagan, The London Review of Books
A long, lovely, melancholy essay about the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,” James wrote after Stevenson’s death, “but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.”
10. “How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing” by Vincent Bevins, The New York Reviews of Books
An excerpt adapted from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, which makes the argument that the mass murder of communists in Indonesia and Brazil in 1964 and 1965 was a decisive turning point in the Cold War (and a turn for the worse in the history of the world, laying the groundwork for many genocides to come) that is little remembered today because “the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”
Every week I make a list on our Bookshop page of all the books and authors mentioned in all of the readings in the newsletter this week. If you feel like taking a look-see, here is this week’s massive reading list.