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Dana Snitzky
Dana lives in Brooklyn.

This Month in Books: ‘Everything That We Are and Ever Have Been’

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about identities — mistaken, misunderstood, transformed, false, fictional or as anonymous as the op-ed.

In his interview with Cooper Lee Bombardier, Thomas Page McBee says that when he transitioned, he “just felt so limited, so suddenly afraid of becoming the kind of man I’d grown up in fear of.” Becoming someone you don’t want to be, he realizes, happens when you have not come to terms with who you already have been, or who you’ve failed to be:

I’m of the belief that we all have to face our own rejected parts — what Jung calls our shadows — in order to genuinely make a cultural shift.

When identities shift, cultures will follow; there is political power generated by self-actualization. As Alana Mohamed writes in her review of Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir, “It’s a forceful thing, to show up in a world that doesn’t expect you to exist, and to say something it doesn’t expect you to say.” But Mohamed also warns of the erasure of triumph, the cleaning-up inherent in actualization:

[Radical queer women who fought for queer visibility in the ’80s and ’90s] were dying not of marriage inequality, but of addiction, trauma, and poverty. If we forget them and their stories, queer history becomes nothing more than a slogan.

She argues for a cacophony of viewpoints and conflicting definitions: a queerness that “seeks to make room for us to name ourselves,” that is “ever-expanding and ever-in-conflict with itself because of this.” Mohamed imagines a hopeful future for queer identity, for all identity, pointing to the powerful potential of memory and community, even as she probes a deep rift that has breached queer culture — the Rashomon-esque inability of people to remember the same stories or to honor the same heroes: “Who threw the first punch, or glass, or heel at Stonewall? Everyone has their version of what happened that night on June 29, 1969.” A huge feud has developed over the identity of who led the charge.

Preoccupied with this same interplay of history, memory and identity, Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead erases beloved heroes of the Golden Age of film and replaces them with ghoulish impostors, rank fascists and bloviating imperialists: Charlie Chaplin is no longer the crusading satirist who created The Great Dictator, but rather he is the dictator. In his review, J.W. McCormack says this restructuring of famous personalities is an incursion of history into identity, the reality of the 1930s reshaping its legacy, its art:

As cultural monuments in any of the arts prosper, the actual culture that produced them so often plummets — into tyranny, a defiant ignorance, and death.

It’s a startling assertion that who we are and the world we will leave behind are two not-particularly-connected things. Identity can look suddenly like nothing more than another peril in a life full of them, a treacherous path in a dangerous world. “A big part of toxic masculinity is to not question anything about being a man,” McBee says. “It felt to me very dangerous to do so, even in writing this book.” Tea reflects on how her warts-and-all approach to documenting her queer contemporaries was just another way of hurting them: “It’s one thing to discuss your family’s trauma with other family; it’s another thing entirely to release their stories to a world that doesn’t love them.” In Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, when a man misstates a murdered woman’s identity, it provokes a mob of online harassers to cast doubt on his:

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And, as Levi Vonk writes in his review of Mario Chard’s poetry collection Land of Fire, identity is a tool of state power, predicated on arbitrary qualities, such as through which entrance you entered a space. And “as soon it is determined that the bird has not entered through the door — the only legitimate entrance — everything unravels”:

How did the bird get inside the house?
Through the door I said.
No. Through a window. Listen they said How did the
bird get inside the house?

The questioning continues until it has abstracted all qualities of the bird:

The bird is nameless. Who named the bird?
I said No one. The bird is nameless.
What is your name? They said.
I am nameless I said.

In her interview with Bridey Heing, Olivia Laing says she wrote her sort-of-autofictional novel Crudo to interrogate such rigid categorizations, to ask “How does one learn to be less selfish? How does one learn to soften one’s borders?” She says:

It’s a personal question, but it’s also a political question. That’s the same force that leads people to say “I don’t want immigrants in my country.”


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On the other hand, in her interview with Ryan Chapman, novelist Ling Ma asks, more or less, what has identity got to do with anything? Her protagonist, she says, became exasperated with her when she wrote an immigration narrative for the character’s family. The character refused to even tell the story, thinking it pointless:

That was really difficult to write because I feel like any time a character is a minority, their narrative is automatically an immigration narrative. Growing up I used to get asked the question where do you come from? I grew up in Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas, so you would hear that a lot.

I was just like, Can we just not have a character who needs to explain how she got to the U.S.? I think my difficulty with that came through. With chapter sixteen, there’s no first person. I couldn’t get Candace to talk about it. When I was writing it she was going, This is really cheesy, I’m not a part of this. So I had an omniscient narrator and then let her take over that chapter gradually.

Catherine Lacey, in an interview with Tobias Carroll, doesn’t get into debates with her characters about identity. Instead, she inhabits their identities so thoroughly that she marvels at how she has ended up writing something she would never say herself:

I don’t know. I don’t even remember quite where I was when I wrote that [story] to be honest. I think that one just came like from that character. I’m not sure if I would ever say that. In my life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use that description, at least in an honest way. But that character, he just said that….

I feel like when I’m writing in a place that’s really authentic and honest, it does feel a little bit like acting in a way. And then, I’m creating some sort of character, and then I’m just performing that character, and typing what they say.

This slipperiness of self isn’t just for fiction writers; you really never can know quite who you are going to become — you might die before it happens. As Susan Hand Shetterly writes in Seaweed Chronicles: A World at Water’s Edge, the British algae scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker never set foot in Japan, and yet, years after her death, her discoveries “revolutionized the harvest and consumption of seaweed in that country.” Now she is revered in Japan as the Mother of the Sea. You can visit her shrine. In death we become godlike, our small achievements in life having profound, ripple-like effects on the future; we take our exalted place in the grand human story.

(Kracht, of course, takes a different position: “The dead are profoundly lonesome creatures, there is no solidarity among them, they are all born alone, die, and are reborn alone as well.”)

So how to proceed? Be careful, Lacey warns. Remember your identity is porous:

I feel like I’m always making language out of the language that’s around me… I’m very careful. I don’t really watch a lot of series. I pretty much only watch a TV series if I’m on a plane, and I’m like really careful about what I read and when I read it. And I’m careful about who I talk to and who I spend my time around. I think it’s true for everybody, but I can’t really say it for everybody, but for me, it’s definitely true that I’m always writing a story out of the language that I surround myself with.

And as McBee points out, there is one upside to identity — most of who you are is in the past:

I’ve come to realize that everyone passes. Most of us aren’t walking around with our souls out all the time, being everything that we are and ever have been.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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This Month In Books: ‘Name the Very Specific Situation Around You’

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Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about truth and lies, fact and fiction.

In his new book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt tells us Shakespeare was constantly asking himself the question, “Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?” — plus a whole host of follow-up questions:

Why would anyone… be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?

In Shakespeare’s view, Greenblatt goes on to say, the answer is pretty basic: because when tyranny is ascendant, everyone, from the counselors to the mob, is complicit, a complicity brought on by maliciousness, fear, or a total failure to come to terms with what is happening — and maybe even a bit of enjoyment of the spectacle.  

In her new book The Death of Truth (reviewed by Bridey Heing), Michiko Kakutani says the answer is perhaps more postmodern, citing this moment as emblematic of our times:

“When called out for claiming FBI statistics were only “theoretically true,” Newt Gingrich responded, “What I said was equally true. People feel it.”

The truth is what we feeland, conversely, anyone who describes how we feel seems to be telling the truth. In her critical takedown of Jordan Peterson’s work, Laurie Penny writes:

In times of angst and confusion, anyone who accurately describes how you feel will briefly seem like God’s own prophet. This, as any half-decent writer can tell you, is a talent that is extremely easy to abuse.


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Storytelling looks, suddenly, dangerousa way of creating truth through feeling rather than fact. In an interview with Hope Reese, Alice Bolin addresses this not as a practice of a single demagogue or huckster, but a whole society:

I think we need to take into consideration what stories have been told before, what stories have been told to death, and the kinds of messages that we’re sending by reusing these same tropes over and over.

In the detective stories we all love, in which a Dead Girl is discovered and her death is mysteriously unexplained, the tropes take on the status of myths, and the myths obfuscate two important truths about Dead Girlsthat normally their deaths are totally explainable, even predictable:

When we frame these murder stories as mysteries, we have to excise that part of the story that makes who did it obvious. If you watch Dateline or whatever, they say, “Oh, we always have to eliminate the people closest to the victim.” And they don’t exactly say: men are always murdering their wives.

And that when many Dead Girls turn up in one place, it’s not because one person is killing them, but because everyone is:

I feel like, often, the truth — like in the stories of the Juarez murders or the Highway of Tears in Canada — is that those are a lot of different murderers. The truth is that… the murderer is almost a collective of violent misogynists.  

Bolin is discussing the misrepresentation of truth in fiction — in an interview with Naomi Elias, Ingrid Rojas Contreras talks about the disintegration of truth in reality:

Your biggest worry when you’re living in a violent country is that you are not fast enough or smart enough to detangle what’s going on around you. You feel at all times like “maybe this is a dangerous situation, but I don’t have the power to know.”

She’s talking about the situation in Colombia during her childhood, under the thumb of Pablo Escobar. Stephen Greenblatt, speaking of Richard III, says the confusion cultivated by a dictator, the inability to know what is happening, causes many people living under tyranny to be unable to process facts or contemplate the obvious, even if their lives are in danger:

Then there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

The tyrant, the liar who spreads confusion in order to prop up his own position, can, of course, exist on a much smaller scale. In fact, the tyrant can often be found in the home. Rafia Zakaria enumerates Hemingway’s emotional abuses of his wives and mistresses. He wrote the novel Across the River and Into the Sea while married to Mary Welsh Hemingway and conducting an affair with the much younger Adriana Ivancich. The book is dedicated to Mary, but is clearly a chronicle of his relationship with Adriana. His deceit snakes into the book and worms out as a revisionist history, fiction becoming a means to assuage a guilty conscience, to perpetuate and simultaneously reveal a lie, to gaslight some women:

When memorable moments with Adriana were not enough material, he borrowed them from moments that belonged to Mary, “an absolutely perfect present” selected and purchased for the latter becoming in the book an offering to the former.

Rojas Contreras addresses the dictator or strongman’s ability not just to use language for spreading confusion — such as, say, writing a novel in which he steals his wife’s memories and gives them to his mistress — but to warp the language of others around himself:

In the novel I call him the “King Midas of words,” and that’s true. If he had a lawyer in the news, they would call that lawyer a ‘narco-lawyer,’ and if he had an estate or farm they would call that the ‘narco-estate’ and they wouldn’t even reference Pablo Escobar, but it was understood by all the people watching the news that he had a hand in it somehow.

But Rojas Contreras also says that language will change to protect its users, to help them navigate a treacherous world:

As a writer I pay very close attention to words… There’s a way in which a very specific atmosphere of tension will give rise to new language in order to be more exact about where you are safe and where you are unsafe, in order to name the very specific situation around you.

 

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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This Month in Books: ‘What Used To Be Me Before the World Buried It’

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Dear Reader,

Ottessa Moshfegh, in an interview with Hope Reese, says the through line between her first novel, Eileen, and her new one, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is isolation:

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book…. I needed to write that book [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone.

One of those difficult things, as the former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine writes in her new memoir To Throw Away Unopened, is how what’s “worse than… being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.” Isolation can become self-perpetuating; it can be easy to convince yourself, once you are experiencing it, that it is inevitable.

Being forced to be alone is a form of torture, and (as I remember from the anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place, a book which I excerpted on Longreads a few years ago) it has always been recognized as such. In their 1833 report on the new practice of solitary confinement in U.S. “penitentiaries,” Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont wrote:

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills…. The unfortunates on whom this experiment was made fell into a state of depression so manifest that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger if they remained longer in this situation…

In a world in which a form of torture like solitary confinement exists and is so widespread, it can seem callous to talk about loneliness. But there are other kinds of forced loneliness, even if they don’t result in total solitude. A prison, for example, also causes loneliness on the outside. In his interview with Tori Telfer, Issac Bailey talks about how his beloved oldest brother’s incarceration scarred his childhood psyche. His brother’s absence was an open wound which still hasn’t healed:

I was a nine-year-old boy when this happened. I had nothing to do with it but have been punished, in a very real way, nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced I still speak with a stutter all these years later.

And there are other kinds of prisons. Your own body, for instance. In his memoir Inward Empire, Christian Donlan grapples with the effects of MS. He describes the quotidian robbing of his selfhood and the disconcerting isolation he experiences inside the vast emptiness of his failing synapses:

Day to day, I sometimes feel I am chasing a little pool of nothingness around inside me, the way I might tilt an air bubble up and down through a spirit level. Sometimes this nothingness seems to gather in the fingers, a lack of sensation that feels implausibly, paradoxically, raw. Sometimes it pools in the brain, a wordlessness, a theft of language…

In the face of this horror, Donlan jokes: “I have never really liked the fact that I have a brain,” a sentiment with which, incidentally, Moshfegh wholeheartedly agrees:

I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die.


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Luckily, there are a few voices in this month’s books newsletter who point out the upsides of being alone. In her book dedicated to the subject of solitude, Alone Time, travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom mentions writers and artists who have been both for and against the practice of eating alone. Nathaniel Hawthorne once called it “the dismallest part of my present experience,” whereas Fran Liebowitz said, “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.” Rosenbloom comes down heavily in favor of the practice, somehow managing to make being alone sound simple, pleasurable, and not at all terrifying: “When you’re not sitting across from someone,” she says, “you’re sitting across from the world.”

In her interview with Ryan Chapman, Chelsea Hodson says she finds it intriguing, rather than, say, disturbing, to be acutely aware of inhabiting a specific, lone self — because it gives her the ability to just make it up, to pick and choose her “self,” and to let a version of herself walk away from her:

There’s something about that difficulty — curating the “I,” deciding what to include, deciding what that eye “sees” — that’s really interesting to me. [The “I” in the book] feels very distant actually. It’s this weird thing that’s happened… Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

Of course, it’s the act of writing that gives her this ability to create a separate self — a revelation shared by Pearl Curran, who, in the early twentieth century, was possessed by the prolific and critically acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright — and, notably, ghost — Patience Worth. In Joy Lanzendorfer’s profile of Curran and Worth, she writes that:

When confined to writing from her own experiences and thoughts, Curran found herself bored by the “conscious effort of the ordinary manner of writing,” adding, “My own writing fatigues me, while the other (Patience Worth’s) exhilarates me. That’s a queer mess of a statement, but quite true.”

The “other” self doesn’t feel like a prison. The “other” is a treasure, a friend who keeps her company, maybe even the truer version of her. Lanzendorfer goes on to tell us that:

In [Curran’s] short story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” the character Mayme, like Curran, had a drab life until she discovered a beautiful spirit, who, for a time at least, brings her excitement, money, and a sense of purpose. Or, as Mayme says of Rosa: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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This Month in Books: ‘We Have Nothing to Weigh Our Hearts Against’

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Dear Reader,

When I look at this month’s Books Newsletter, all I can think about are borders, crossings, the terrible distances between people who have been separated….

Of course, that’s almost certainly because those things are already on my mind. To read the news now is to be made aware of the perils and punishments reserved for people who have their heart set on something remote, who have faith in the faraway.

Qiu Miaojin, the first openly gay woman in Chinese literature, migrated halfway around the world, from Taiwan to Paris. In her second novel she writes of a character who has done the same, in a bid for self-actualization which ultimately fails. The character invents a non-binary imaginary friend to live out an idealized version of her life after she ceases to exist. As our reviewer Ankita Chakraborty says of this narrator, “She is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death.” A profound sense of alienation, brought on by stigmatization, lies as the heart of Qiu’s queer classics — a breach that opens up between the self and others. The narrator crosses borders in order to become her true self, but ends up feeling like nothing more than a foreigner in a foreign land.

Of course, there’s feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land, and then there’s feeling like one in your homeland. Our reviewer Brittany Allen writes about two new short story collections that explore the inner lives of black Americans. The characters in these stories, “who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies,” suffer from the lived experience of “Otherhood,” which compels them to wage endless war inside their own heads, with their own selves.

In his interview with Hope Reese, Michael Pollan advocates for ditching the self altogether. He describes the healthy and grounding experience of seeing his own self “spread over the landscape like a coat of paint.” In his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, he discovered that:

I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case. And that, you know, your ego is this interesting character. I mean, it really is a character. It’s a projection of someone who sort of stands for you and looks out for you and patrols the borders between you and others, and the border between you and your subconscious.

In his interview with Tobias Carroll, Sergio De La Pava expresses the opposite sentiment, a niggling fear that he might ever be mistaken for someone else, even the person most nearly identical to him who could possibly exist — a “Sergio De La Pava” in another dimension:

If there’s something in another universe that looks like me, has my name, that other people call Sergio De La Pava and is doing something, that’s great, but whatever that thing is, it’s not me… Whatever you want to say my physical body or whatever you want to call it — a mind, you want to call it, a soul, whatever you want to call it — it feels indivisible.

I suppose I’ve drifted from the subject of borders and crossings to the subject of selves and others. Maybe that’s because when I think about borders, I don’t think about the gaps between places, I think about the spaces between people. Nowadays, a border isn’t a division between two pieces of land, it’s a border between two people, repeated and repeated until every small trauma of division becomes a national one. It’s a way of dictating who gets to visit whom, who gets to live with their family and who gets their family taken away. It’s a global parole system, the prisonification of the planet….. The border is everywhere. The border is between you and the pizza delivery guy, you and your high school classmate, you and your child….

Like any border — the ones between nations, the ones between ourselves and others, ourselves and the landscape — even the boundary between our bodies is not a natural phenomenon, but an imagined one. Our bodies are porous. In novelist Christie Watson’s memoir of her nearly 20 years as a nurse, she remembers her awe at the special privilege of surgeons, who can reach a hand into another person’s body and touch that person’s heart. When caring for a boy who has received a heart transplant, whose beating heart she watched be removed and replaced with another child’s, the boy tells her that now he loves a new flavor of ice cream, strawberry, because he believes the previous owner of his heart had loved it. It seems to me like he was welcoming the stranger inside of him, by trying to love with the stranger’s heart — something we all fail to do at our own peril. In the next life, we may find ourselves wanderers on the wrong side of another type of border. As Watson goes on to say:

Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart symbolized truth; after death, they would weigh the heart against a feather of truth, to be eaten by a demon if the scales did not balance, leaving the person’s soul restless for eternity. In this post-truth world, I wonder what will happen to our souls. We have nothing to weigh our hearts against.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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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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Get With the Modern Age, Sign Up for the Longreads Books Newsletter

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Dear Reader,

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 copytossed 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!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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The Ban, the Wall: Bearing Witness

Rose Marie Ascencio-Escobar's husband was detained when he went to check in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb 22. Her husband has been in the United States since 2001 when he came from San Salvador without documents. (Marie D. De Jesus /Houston Chronicle via AP)

Reports say there is going to be another travel ban soon, perhaps even today. And so, standing on the precipice of our next great catastrophe, I have decided to take stock, as far as I can, of this thing we have wrought, which I can only describe as the new American carnage. Moreover (sorry about this) I would like to put forth my own obnoxious “all else is a distraction” theory:

In my opinion, this is the greatest story of the moment, and all else is a distraction. Think-piece-ologists have recently argued that the “real story” is the dismantling of our administrative state, or the lock-out of the free press from the halls of power, or the Russian oligarchy’s new influence on the Republican party, or so on. But, when the people of the future look back at us now, it seems to me that they will “little note, nor long remember” the exact form of our bureaucracy, or whether we took seriously our own promises to ourselves about freedom of the press, or whether Michael Flynn was actually colluding with the Russian ambassador rather than just wishing him a very very merry Christmas. These things will all be seen as incidental: goings-on as curious and inconsequential as Rudolf Hess in a biplane or Marat in a bathtub. I submit that, for the people of the future, all these stories will be incidental to the story of why we allowed our neighbors to be terrorized and rounded up.

So, I am making a small attempt to bear witness.

I am asking six questions.

Who has been detained?
Who has been denied entry?
Who has been rounded up?
Who has been deported?
Who has fled as a refugee from my country?
Who has been killed here? Read more…

You’re Fired! The Unemployable Trump Administration

Wikimedia Commona

UPDATE: There are firings, and then there are firings, and former FBI Director James Comey was informed of his by Donald Trump’s favorite messenger: television. Comey saw the news flash on screen as he as giving a speech to FBI employees in Los Angeles, and he thought it was a prank, at first. But a letter was hand-delivered by Trump’s personal bodyguard to FBI headquarters informing Comey that he was indeed out. It was a classic Trump firing, and also a deeply disconcerting one, as a third offense should be added to our list: investigating Russian connections to Donald Trump. 

At the one-month mark, we now have a working theory of what makes an employee fireable (or not even hireable) in the Trump administration. There are two main types.

Fireable Offense Type #1: Be Drop Dead Scandalous

1. In December, Jason Miller, who was tapped to be the White House communications director, quit after another transition official, A.J. Delgado, tweeted her jilted love at him. Miller and his wife were expecting a new baby, so, via Twitter, “Delgado congratulated ‘the baby-daddy’ on his promotion,” ominously adding: “The 2016 version of John Edwards.”

“When people need to resign graciously and refuse to, it’s a bit … spooky,” Delgado then wrote. When an old law school friend asked on Twitter to whom she was referring, Delgado replied: “Jason Miller. Who needed to resign … yesterday.”

Delgado then deleted her Twitter account and, after Politico reported on the rumored affair, privately disclosed the details of the relationship to the transition team.

If you reach back into the deep part of yourself where you catalog other people’s misbehavior, you may even recall that Page Six reported back in October that, the night before the last presidential debate, Delgado and Miller, along with several journalists, were spotted together at the world’s largest strip club. Read more…

Exxon, Rex, and Russia: A Deep Drilling

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship, has become our new Secretary of State. I took a deep dive into the archives, and, like all the amateur Kremlinologists and power-hungry oilmen who’ve tread this ground before me, I’ve learned that the deeper you drill, the bigger the risk. Stop somewhere around point #10 if you start to feel like you’re on shaky ground, or like you’re one nesting matryoshka doll short of a shell company. Read more…

The Month That Killed the Sixties

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

 

You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

*

December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?” Read more…