In the essay “Freedom Is Overrated,” the theologian and scholar Sancrucensis contrasts the humanism of Jonathan Franzen with that of David Foster Wallace. A transcendentally beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on self and other.
I’ve enjoyed a number of essays from The American Conservative this year, but my favorite may have been Mike Lofgren’s “Revolt Of The Rich”. It’s a blistering reproof of our moneyed classes and their disconnect from the historic aspirations of our country.
The tagline of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, is “Biased and Balanced.” An earlier incarnation of the Dish bore another, equally good: “Of No Party Or Clique.” I consider Sullivan an indispensable companion, not least because his views so often diverge from my own. I can’t choose just one entry from his heady, rapid-fire mix of opinion, reporting, photographs, jokes, poems, ideas. But Sullivan’s great heart, his compassion and intellect, are a salutary test of my own convictions most every day.
The scholar Aaron Bady exposes the fatal weaknesses in the arguments of those promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in a resoundingly persuasive and passionate essay in Inside Higher Ed. Absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in the academy.
Mike Konczal, known on Twitter as @rortybomb, led a breathtaking debate on debt relief at the Boston Review that blew my wiglet sky-high. In the lead essay, Konczal makes an ironclad case that a strong social safety net, including debt relief, is crucial to the economic health of the country. Splendid, limpidly clear, beautifully reasoned.
It’s scarcely too much to say that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson single-handedly rescued my sanity from the maelstrom of this year’s election. I pretty much hop on Twitter and start banging out exclamation points every time she posts, but her recent column on the public confrontation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by a gay Princeton University student will serve as well as any to demonstrate her unwavering clear-mindedness, her sensitivity, fairness and brilliance.
The power of Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” (The Awl) derives from the purity of its point of view, which is that of one person’s lived experience, minutely and honestly detailed. Benedikt swings gracefully between humor and searing candor in this account of her growing ambivalence toward the religious, political and cultural institutions she’d grown up taking for granted. It’s a high-wire act of great elegance and sensitivity that will stay with me for a long time to come.
In “The Fire This Time” (Los Angeles Review of Books) Reza Aslan likewise makes a compelling case in opposition to conventional wisdom. I thought it by far the best of the 9/11 pieces that came out on the 10th anniversary of the catastrophe.
“American Marvel” (GQ), Edith Zimmerman’s profile of Chris Evans, the star of Captain America, upends everything one is accustomed to think about “movie stars” and celebrity, plus she blasts many assumptions about popular writing—and about reporters describing the world we inhabit—to absolute smithereens. Flesh-and-blood people suddenly appear on the screen where one had been expecting a cartoon. Steven Mikulan’s “Dr. Drew Feels Your Pain” (Los Angeles Magazine), by contrast, conjures a nuanced portrait out of the media fun-house mirror the old-fashioned way, via the painstaking layering up of detail through long and patient, keen observation. It has a similar payoff to the Zimmerman piece, in that you’re seeing a real world spring by magic out of the Potemkin one.
Spencer Soper’s Morning Call exposé of the sweatshop conditions at Amazon’s Allentown, Pa., warehouse came just as the Occupy movement was beginning to take hold. The disparity between the friendly face that Amazon crafts for public view and the abject brutality with which they treated their employees in Allentown demonstrated perfectly and at just the right time the terrible cost of profit-obsessed corporatism (and bargain-obsessed consumerism).
At Inside Higher Education, Steve Kolowich interviews Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College, regarding the coming digital revolution in academic research and publishing. Sounds a little dry, maybe, but check it out. Fitzpatrick and her forward-thinking colleagues have identified, and are carefully nurturing, the phoenix egg from which a new and improved academy is already beginning to hatch.
Fiction: George Saunders, Tenth of December (The New Yorker): best fiction of any length I read all year.
Humor: David Roth, Brief Interviews with Hideous Football Players (The Awl), a comic tour de force that fans of David Foster Wallace will particularly enjoy.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a writer for Wired UK, Design Observer, and The Atlantic, among others, and an MIT Futures of Entertainment fellow, spending far, far too much time curating the web’s interestingness as @brainpicker.
I’ve always found reading, writing, and thinking to be so tightly interwoven that, when done correctly, they become indistinguishable from one another. Like architecting your life and your social circle, architecting your mind’s life is an exercise in immersing yourself in an eclectic mix of viewpoints and directions of thought. In that way, longform is like the most intense of friendships, where the time dedication and the active choice to show up far eclipse the noncommittal acquaintanceship of soundbite culture. A healthy longform diet must thus include something that breaks your heart, something that gives you hope, something by someone you find a little self-righteous, something by someone with whom you’re a little bit in love—and, ideally, the inability to fully tell which is which. With this in mind, here are the five finest pieces I laid eyes and neurons on this year, which did for me all of the above, and then some.
A bittersweet story about Samuel Clemens, but really about something profoundly and universally human: love, timing, and the often tragic misalignment of the two. And in that story lies a subtle reminder that unless we pursue the heart’s desire with complete clarity of purpose and intention, we’re left forever playing out those could’ve-beens, as Twain did, in our dreams.
“Thus it was Sam’s stubbornness that foreclosed any further encounter with Laura Wright. Yet they did meet, time and again, over the years, in Clemens’ dreams. And dreams, Samuel Clemens came to believe, were as real as anything in the waking world.”
As both a marginalia obsessive and a hopeless bibliophile torn between the love of books and the mesmerism of the web, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of books—or, more accurately, about the function books have traditionally served as a medium for arguing and teasing out ideas of significance and cultural gravity. Hardly anyone fuses a bibliophile’s profound respect for books with a designer’s sensitivity to the reading experience and a digital entrepreneur’s visionary bravery more fluidly, articulately, and thoughtfully than Craig Mod.
“Manifested properly, each new person who participates in the production of digital marginalia changes the reading experience of that book for the next person. Analog marginalia doesn’t know other analog marginalia. Digital marginalia is a collective conversation, cumulative stratum.”
Gopnik is one of my favorite nonfiction authors working today. And this is no ordinary book review of what eventually became my favorite history book of 2011—it paints a riveting connect-the-dots portrait of information’s history and future through such fascinating and surprisingly related subjects as African drum languages, the Morse Code, Marshall McLuhan, and Google.
“Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.”
There is something magnificent and magical that happens when we open ourselves up to the poetry of possibility—of “overlookedness,” if you will. (Lesson #1.)
“The saltbox itself as an object is unremarkable. Alone, it communicates nothing. Says nothing about its role. Its intention. Its history as a gift born out of a romance between my maternal grandparents. Says nothing of its possibilities.
But add people, and it becomes a central iterative device. The license to change, to iterate, to test, to add, to make, to make over, to create (clearly, with food). It gives license and latitude to stray from what has been written (recipes) for those too shy to do. Therefore, it gives strength. It gives iterative powers to those not comfortable with version control. With its subtlety comes comfort in change.
One might say the saltbox, and access to it, is magic.”
Picking just one of Maria Bustillos’ many brilliant pieces was excruciating, but this meditation on the future of authorship, content curation, and intellectual innovation is simply exquisite, and tickles my own restlessness about the changing currencies and sandboxes of authorship in the age of information overload.
“All these elements—the abandonment of ‘point of view,’ the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing ‘of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,’ the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from ‘authorship’ (brought about by the emergence of a ‘hive mind’) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.”
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
Below, our favorite stories of the week.
1. “The Genius of Taylor Swift’s Girlfriend Collection.” (Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed Ideas, January 2015)
From holidaying in Hawaii with Haim to baking cookies with Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift has amassed a powerful coterie of friends. While I don’t necessarily agree with Petersen’s conclusion in this essay, I appreciate her sharp insight into the world of brand maintenance, female friendship and celebrity status. Read more…
By Josh Roiland
Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.
When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”
Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.
Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.
Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…
Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.
In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.
Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”
Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.
Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?
Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”
My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.
All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.