Tag Archives: Books

The Immigration-Obsessed, Polarized, Garbage-Fire Election of 1800

A. Roger Ekirch | American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution | Pantheon | February 2017 | 33 minutes (8,149 words) 

Below is an excerpt from American Sanctuary, by A. Roger Ekirch.

For background, it is important to know that a seaman named Jonathan Robbins participated in a mutiny on the HMS Hermione in 1797, the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history. Afterward, he joined the American navy, but he was eventually recognized and jailed. To justify his actions, Robbins claimed he was an American citizen who had been impressed—that is, captured and forced into servitude—by the British navy. However, his American citizenship was disputed. The British sought his extradition, which the president, the Federalist John Adams, granted—an action which had disastrous political consequences for his party. Robbins was found guilty by a British naval court and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Acasta in 1799.

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Read more…

Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

* * *

I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

Read more…

A Conversation With Ariel Levy About Writing a Memoir That Avoids ‘Invoking Emotional Tropes’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

 

When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.

And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.

Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.

Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?

That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.

If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.

That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…

How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It)

Simon Reynolds | Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century | Dey Street Books| October 2016 | 19 minutes (5,289 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Shock and Awe, by Simon Reynolds. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.

On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.

Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.

During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.

Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)

Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.

‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs. Read more…

Trilby, the Novel That Gave Us ‘Svengali’

Emma Garman | Longreads | February 2017 | 6 minutes (1,788 words)

In the fall of 1894, a New Jersey reader wrote to George du Maurier, the Franco-British author and satirical cartoonist whose Harper’s Monthly serial, Trilby, had just come out as a novel. The concerned correspondent asked that his mind be put to rest regarding the decorousness of relations between Trilby, the young heroine, and musical genius Svengali, under whose hypnotic spell she becomes an overnight opera sensation. Du Maurier replied politely but briefly: “I beg to say that you are right about Trilby. When free from mesmeric influence, she lived with him as his daughter, and was quite innocent of any other relation.” His assurance was published in The Argonaut, a San Francisco weekly, thus alleviating any similar fears for the girl’s reputation among that paper’s readership. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a woman had a disagreement with her husband over Trilby’s morals, culminating in her smashing an earthenware jar over his head. Luckily for the woman, the injured party declined to give evidence in court. Perhaps he appreciated that when it came to Trilby, emotions ran high.

Irish-Scotch-French model and laundress Trilby O’Ferrall was partly based on real women, including a 17-year-old girl, nicknamed Carry, whom du Maurier and his friend Felix Moscheles knew as art students—and amateur mesmerists—in Belgium in the late 1850s. With her “rich crop of brown hair, very blue inquisitive eyes, and a figure of peculiar elasticity,” Carry modeled nude for them and allowed herself to be hypnotized. Her soul, Moscheles later claimed, “was steeped in the very essence of Trilbyism.” Du Maurier’s granddaughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, concurred: “Carry . . . had the same camaraderie, the same boyish attraction, the same funny shy reserve.” Another inspiration was Anna Bishop, an opera star reputed to be in sinister thrall to her older lover-manager, the French harpist and composer Robert Nicolas-Charles Bochsa. In 1839, Bishop caused a scandal by leaving her husband for Boscha, and to his musical accompaniment, the legend went, she sang as she never had before. Read more…

Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (3,932 words)

 

Checking our smartphones every few minutes. Making sure every spice jar is in the exact right place in the rack. Shopping. Stealing. Working nonstop. Hoarding. “Compulsions come from a need so desperate, burning, and tortured it makes us feel like a vessel filling with steam, saturating us with a hot urgency that demands relief,” Sharon Begley writes in her new book, Can’t Just Stop. “Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.”

In a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, Begley’s book feels particularly relevant. In chapters that run the gamut from obsessive-compulsive disorder to compulsive do-gooding, Begley—a senior science writer for STAT, whose previous books include The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brainexplores how behaviors that range widely in both character and extremity can come from a common root. “Venturing inside the heads and the worlds of people who behave compulsively not only shatters the smug superiority many of us feel when confronted with others’ extreme behavior,” she writes. “It also reveals elements of our shared humanity.” Begley and I spoke by phone about what anxiety is, exactly; her own compulsions; and whether it’s possible to have no compulsions (not likely).

What is the definition of “compulsion,” as compared to addiction and impulsive behaviors?

This was the first thing that I had to grapple with. The first thing I did was go around to psychologists and psychiatrists and start asking, “What is the difference between these three things?” To make a long story as short as possible, they really didn’t have a clue, or at least they were not very good at explaining it—to the extent that the same disorder would be described in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, using “compulsive” one time and “impulsive” the next.

So where I finally came down, after finding people who had really thought about this, is as follows. Impulsive behaviors are ones that go from some unconscious part of your brain right to a motor action. There is very little emotion except for that feeling of impulsivity. There’s certainly little to no thought involved.

Behavioral addictions—and this is where I thought it started to get interesting—are born in something pleasurable. If you’re addicted to gambling, it probably is because, at least when you started, it was a whole lot of fun. You loved it. You got a hedonic hit, a pulse of enjoyment. And certainly as things go along, a behavioral addiction like gambling can cause you all sorts of distress and destroy your life. But at least at the beginning, it brings you extreme pleasure.

Compulsions are very different. They come from this desperate, desperate need to alleviate anxiety. They’re an outlet valve. The anxiety makes you want to jump out of your skin, or it makes you feel like your skin is crawling with fire ants. And what compulsions do is bring relief only after you have executed the compulsion, whether it is to exercise, or to check your texts, or to shop, or to keep something if you’re a hoarder. And crucially, compulsions, although they bring relief, bring almost no enjoyment except in the sense that if you stop banging your head against a wall, then it feels good to stop. Read more…

But What’s IT All About?: How We Forgot the Murderous Clown

Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.

I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”

Read the essay

‘A Place of Refuge and Protection’: Roxane Gay Calls on Booksellers to ‘Rise to the Occasion’

Throughout my life books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary—a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.

I have been thinking a lot about sanctuary lately during this rising age of American disgrace. I have been thinking about how I have long believed that to write as a woman and to write as a black woman is political and that words are my sanctuary and more than ever, I need refuge.

-From a stirring keynote by author Roxane Gay, during the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute. “You are not just selling books,” she said. “You are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces.”

Read the full keynote

The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Feminist Struggle

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (1,800 words)

 

Mary Tyler Moore died this week at the age of 80, leaving what might be the most important feminist legacy in television history: Her Mary Richards, the main character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, inspired generations of women just by being among the first single, professional, over-30 women depicted on TV when the show premiered in 1970. Her iconic beret toss and theme song—”you’re gonna make it after all!”—encapsulated the Women’s Lib moment perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that Mary’s character was the subject of fierce debate among feminist leaders at the time. Like any “first” of an underrepresented group to break through in mainstream culture, Mary was attacked from all sides. While many male fans wrote letters voicing their disappointment when Mary stayed out all night on a date, feminist leaders voiced disappointment that Mary called her boss “Mr. Grant” while everyone else called him “Lou.” This conflict came to a head when one of the show’s co-creators, James L. Brooks, participated in a panel discussion at a women’s conference in 1975, as described in this excerpt from my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of the show. Read more…

Mary Tyler Moore on the Joys of Dancing

Actress Mary Tyler Moore has died at the age of 80. Although she was best known for her iconic role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore was also a trained dancer and dreamed of making it into a career. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes, Moore wrote about how dance gave her strength and stability:

Dance, especially the training for it, is a big part of me. It shapes the discipline I’ve brought to my work as an actress, initiated my belief in the adage “No pain, no gain,” and generally provided a home that’s never changed. No matter what fears assaulted me, as person, actress, or dancer, dance was constantly giving me the familiar steps I needed to grow.

Dance has been my constant best friend.

During the seven years of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I arranged to have three portable ballet barres brought to the soundstage along with a huge mirror on wheels for class. It was a daily lunchtime event, presided over by a woman who’d been my teacher for some twenty years, Sallie Whalen. Music was provided by a classical pianist hired to accompany us on an upright that rolled to our spot in front of the newsroom.

There were usually eight to ten of us—Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Beverly Sanders, who played Rayette the waitress on the series, me, and several others who’d once worked as dancers and were now spending their days driving car pools or working as actresses. There were a few young dancers who’d join us from time to time, and when it was over they loved to sit at our dinosaur feet and listen.

It was a touchstone for all of us—sharing the class with its all-too-familiar panting and groaning or sitting on the floor afterward applying bandages to our new blisters.

It was a sisterhood of sorts, not about feminism, but about the nearly religious connection that is ballet class.

I’m often asked where my strength comes from to accept diabetes and its impingement on my life. I do believe ballet gave me that ability. But it’s sad to note that within the successful actress writing this book beats the heart of a failed dancer.

So as I gave up the dream of being a world-famous dancer and became, much to my surprise, a world-famous actress, I clung to dance for pleasure, for structure, and for adventure. Dance took me to places I would never have been privileged to enter without it, and to meet people I revered—and do to this day.

Buy the book