“Letter of Recommendation: Recently Returned Books” in the New York Times Magazine
So much of what we encounter each day is designed to influence our decisions and purchases, but the books on this shelf have no agenda. They are not being pushed by the publishing industry. There is no marketing budget behind them. They’re not trending on my social-media feeds or selected by a recommendation algorithm. They were not chosen to signal anyone’s intellect or righteousness or in-the-know-ness. They are often old and very often ugly. I’ve come to think of this shelf as an escape from hype, a kind of anti-curation.
“Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news?” in The Guardian Long Read (also available as a podcast)
If you have ever cared for a sick parent, or child, you might recognise the symptoms of increased stress: the bad sleep, bad moods, bad stomach. I have experienced compassion fatigue as a caregiver myself. My husband has a chronic illness, and when he started getting ill, several years ago, we didn’t know what was wrong. He would be struck with sudden vertigo and trapped on the couch, panicked, for hours. On other days, he was too dizzy to drive, or too unsteady to walk without a cane. Even more worryingly, his hearing started fluctuating, the levels changing from day to day, sometimes better in one ear and worse in the other. This made his work particularly difficult – he was teaching at a university at the time. Throughout it all, he had roaring tinnitus, which he compared to hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, jet engines, sirens, and on one occasion, a UFO landing. Some days he could barely hear anything, and it seemed that any day, he might wake up with no hearing at all, unable to work or communicate, even with me. John was in his 30s.
“Big & Slow” in Real Life
It’s hard to know — and easier not to think about — the effects that all the nuclear materials on the planet could have on people, other organisms, and the environment over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. This kind of time-delayed destruction is what the writer Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” a violence “that occurs gradually and out of sight … dispersed across time and space.” Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor explores how processes like toxic drift, global distillation (also known as the grasshopper effect, which causes pollutants to accrue at the poles), and the acidification of the oceans unfold so slowly they “can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively.” The emphasis here is on action — not the object per se but the work it does. An idea as large and amorphous as global warming blurs the distinction between object and process: To look at the moving object we have to pause it, which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively.
“Crash Course” in the New York Times Magazine
The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 has often been described as the worst nuclear disaster in history. But there are records of several larger and more destructive catastrophes. In “The Age of Radiance,” a history of the nuclear era, Craig Nelson cites a 1957 plutonium-plant accident in the Ural Mountains that irradiated an area 14 times as large as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. There are other examples, too, but these accidents weren’t publicized, because they took place in the U.S.S.R. during the secretive era before glasnost. So what makes Chernobyl history’s worst? It’s the fact that we all know about it.
In other words, our collective reckoning of what is or isn’t a disaster entails publicity. Disasters are news because they are news.
“Doomsday Pattern” in Real Life
When Chernobyl exploded, workers at the plant and in the nearby town of Pripyat experienced something very like the Trinity test: a purple and pink glow in the sky; a fresh, clean smell like ozone. “It was pretty,” one witness said. They went out and watched it from their balconies like it was an L.A. sunset. If they were quite close, they tasted something metallic. You see this over and over in reports of radiation exposure — a taste of metal, like tinfoil, or in one case, “a combination of metal and chocolate.” Cancer patients receiving radiotherapy describe the same sensation. It’s not the flavor of waves or particles but a phantom taste — a sign of nerve damage.
“True Crime” in Real Life
For years, I’ve believed there are two kinds of happiness. On the one hand there’s the happiness of stability: a good job, a loving family; dependable American-dream prosperity. On the other, there’s the happiness of intense experience: dizzying highs and crushing lows in quick succession. My theory is that when we’re young, we prefer the second kind of happiness; we take a lot of risks because the lows improve the highs. As we get older, as the pressures of conformity increase and the lows take their toll, we strive for the first kind of happiness. But we continue to prefer our painful memories — stable life may be happier, but unstable life is more interesting. It’s almost as though being happy day to day doesn’t make us happy overall.
Believing this scares me, as much as the news scares me. I worry that, despite the wages of stress on my body — my blood pressure is higher, my gums are receding — I’ll look back on this whole awful year with nostalgia. Nostalgia, etymologically, means “homesickness” or “return-home pain” — again, there’s the significance of place. But I also find that the “pain” part of the word (algos, as in fibromyalgia), the longing part, bleeds over into the “return home” part — I’m not just nostalgic for my past, I’m nostalgic for my pain. My own past suffering can be a great source of comfort. Why is that? Because it’s over? Or because it’s a badge of honor?
“On the Pleasures of Front Matter” in the Paris Review Daily
Good introductions are full of these grand, seemingly unprovable (and undisprovable) proclamations: a near aphorism acts as a self-dare to the author, whose challenge is to back it up with the book. I like to collect them as theories, like perfect lines of poetry that require no evidence other than themselves.
You notice it here, and in her audition tapes, which are also on YouTube, and of course in later parts of the show when Anne has aged and come into her own, that Follows is very pretty, even beautiful. I used to think it was a remarkable stroke of luck that they managed to cast a homely adolescent who would turn out to be beautiful, just like in the books. How foolish of me! Now I can see she has the same face and the same body from scene to scene. So much of beauty is a social construction—smarten up your clothes and do your hair the right way and everyone starts to agree that you are pretty. When the people on screen remark on Anne’s improved looks, we the viewers see it too.
“In Our Midst” in Real Life
As the injustices pile up, and reserves run low, the question of where we should focus our moral attention becomes critical — when exposed to more evils than we can possibly attend to, most of us feel helpless. And what, more than helplessness, excuses apathy and inaction? Rather than confront global suffering, we may cull our feeds, or stop watching the news. Or, worse, we may make of the suffering other an enemy, turning apathy to antipathy. These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost innocent, almost “self-care.” (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.) But layered together, they have the shade of evil.
“Picture Yourself Happy” in Real Life
Photos confirm that we were really there, but more so (or less?), they confirm that we were: Being took place. In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that a portrait, in the days before photography, was meant to confer and confirm status, thus the owner needed only one. With photographic portraits it’s different: “What the photographic record confirms is, more modestly, simply that the subject exists; therefore, one can never have too many.” Photos extend our existence, since they can live on after our deaths like poems or mummy masks. Of course we take selfies, when the barrier to create them is so low. But we don’t just paint self-portraits or take selfies to prove to others we exist. Seeing a photo of myself reinforces my sometimes shaky belief that I exist. Is my existence as it seems? Am I a Boltzmann brain, a character in a simulation, a two-dimensional hologram? Even taking for granted that I’m real and of my time and that other people also exist, do people see me and think of me as I think of myself?
“The Little Room, or the Unreality of Memory” in Pacific Standard
I could not remember the room at all until my mother said it was where the placemats were stored. Then I had a flash of going in there as a child, pulling out the drawer that held the table linens, so I could set the table for some family dinner. I saw myself there in the little room, not from the first person, but as though watching a girl from a kind of bird’s eye view or hidden camera, out somewhere near the ceiling in the den. Yes, finally, I could picture the blond color of the wood and the way the drawer would often stick. But the memory was flimsy, like a memory of a dream. My father still could not picture the room; perhaps he had never been in there. What do you imagine on that wall? my mother asked. Just wall, we both said, a continuation of the wallpaper. I had no fond memories of that room, and in all my years of visiting the museum of my grandmother’s house since it sold, had never seen it there; my mind simply wallpapered over it. And now I doubt the specificity of the rest of my museum — am I sure where the floor lamp was, of the color of the brocade?
“Earth Is Not Vengeful, Just Indifferent” in Pacific Standard
Like an asteroid impact, a supervolcano can cause global cooling, forming an ash cloud that blocks the sun and leads to widespread famine. At this moment in history, when we’re breaking new heat records every month and the permafrost is melting, global cooling doesn’t sound so bad. But we don’t know what the baseline will be when it happens. What if some other disaster has already altered the global climate? A “mini ice age” in the 1300s has been tied to both volcanic and earthquake activity in Europe and the bubonic plague — there is debate over whether famine led to weakened immune systems, making populations more vulnerable to the plague, or whether mass deaths from the plague led to reforestation and subsequent global cooling.
“NASA’s Overlooked Duty to Look Inward” in the New Yorker
Mike Massimino, in his memoir, “Spaceman,” reports having spent almost a full day staring out a window of the Space Shuttle Columbia, watching sunrises and lightning storms (“like a form of communication, like a sequence, like the clouds are alien creatures speaking to each other in code”). On his second spacewalk, Massimino told me recently, he had a spare moment to “take in the view.” He recalls being struck not only by Earth’s incredible beauty—“We are living in a paradise”—but also by its fragility. From out there, he said, especially during night passes, “you can see the thinness of the atmosphere,” a bluish-green line. This sudden perception of Earth as a delicate, intricate system is so common among astronauts that the writer Frank White coined a term for it: the overview effect.
“Magnificent Desolation” in Real Life
When I think of the jumpers, I think of two things. I think of images of women covering their mouths — a pure expression of horror. They were caught on film, watching the towers from the streets of Manhattan. I do this sometimes — hand up, mouth open — when I see or read something horrible, even when alone. What is it for? I think, too, of the documentary about Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between the tops of the towers in 1974. At the time they were the second tallest buildings in the world, having just been surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was an exceptionally windy day (it is always windy at 1,300 feet) and when a policeman threatened him from the roof of one building, Petit danced and pranced along the rope, to taunt him. This still seems to me like the most unthinkable thing a man has ever willingly done. The jumpers did what he did, but worse. Death was not a risk but a certainty; they jumped without thinking. It’s more horrible to contemplate than many of the other deaths because we know the jumpers were tortured. Death is fathomable, but not torture.
“Vanity Project” in Real Life
On the other hand, there are phantom limbs. Amputees frequently continue to feel the presence of their missing limb and even feel pain in it, suggesting that the mental self-model can be so persistent and strongly ingrained that changes to the physical body are difficult to incorporate into a new mental model — that the mind is not as plastic as the body. Or perhaps it’s that the sense of self expands more readily than it retracts, that the mind is resistant to reducing the scope of the self. I am reminded of the poet Anne Boyer remarking on Twitter that she did not identify with recent photos of herself because her hair was missing, following treatment for breast cancer. Of course, I thought: phantom hair.
“Can Ideas Withstand Shifts in Language?” in Guernica
For every translator, there must come a moment of reckoning, of wondering, What precisely am I translating? Flaubert was famously a stylist, who believed “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” (If unchangeable, then untranslatable.) Odd, then, Davis writes, that “many of the translations do not try to reproduce that style, but simply tell this engrossing story in their own preferred manner.” She cites the “lush, loquacious” 1948 translation by Gerard Hopkins (nephew of the poet), which “added material in almost every sentence.” A text is only made of language, and yet the language seems to generate some other, ineffable, epiphenomenal essence—a spectral text that survives when all the language changes. Infinite translations, infinite texts.
“Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook” in Catapult
A few weeks ago, cleaning out my grandmother’s room, my mother and I found a plastic bag of personal effects, brittle and delicate, that had belonged to her father, my grandmother’s first husband, who died in 1956. My mother was six at the time and barely remembers him. A black wallet, containing cards and photos (one of my uncle, her older brother, but none of her). Some old receipts and documents, folded and worn soft. A flat, round object we eventually identified as a bottle opener, rusted shut. What meaning was there? He’s part of my blood, but I don’t think of him as related to me. My mother had never seen any of these things.
“Variations on Crying” in The Butter
I have noticed that there’s something about speech that can trigger tears. I’ll hear a story, and know intellectually that the story is sad, but I won’t actually cry until I tell it to someone else. Is it the speech act itself, or the presence of an audience? In college, I learned that a girl from my high school, someone I knew but hadn’t kept in touch with, had been in a bad car accident; her right arm was severed off. I was shocked when I heard it, but not sad, exactly. Later, I repeated the story to my mother; I remember we were driving at the time, and I was in the passenger seat, as the girl would have been. I started crying when I said the word “severed,” which had not seemed quite so brutal in my head as it did it my mouth. It’s not often we have cause to say the word “severed.” Several years ago, my friend Kevin’s wife Katie was almost crushed when a gallery wall fell on top of her; her pelvis was shattered. She has said she didn’t recognize the animal scream that came out of her. When Kevin called their families to tell them what had happened, he couldn’t get it out; he’d try to speak and start sobbing. More than once, mentioning this story offhand to someone else, I’ve gotten unexpectedly choked up, like I can only realize how close she came to being killed or paralyzed when I’m vocalizing it.
“Dream Logic” in The Butter
Years ago, a friend told me that she dreams in the third person, watching herself. At the time, I found this improbable—why wouldn’t you dream as you live?—until I noticed that I often fantasize in the third person. I don’t just mean sexual fantasies, but any time I project forward into an imagined future, and sometimes I replay memories as though I’m watching them from outside the scene. In dreams, though, I embody my body, only seeing myself when I look in the mirror, in which case my reflection is often grotesque or distorted in some way. I once heard that you shouldn’t look in the mirror while on LSD; perhaps the same is true of dreams.
“Why Read Novels?” in The Smart Set
“Time, Money, Happiness” in The Smart Set
“Impossible Time” in The Smart Set
“Seeing Things” in The Smart Set
“The Point of Tangency: On Digression” in The Smart Set
“Fair Usage: On the Politics of Dictionaries” in The Smart Set
“Writing that Sounds like Writing” in The Smart Set
“Ways of Looking” in The Smart Set
“The Art of the Paragraph” in The Smart Set
“How do you pursue a writing career in Trump’s America without hating yourself?” in Electric Literature
“How do you know if your writing is any good?” in Electric Literature
“What is fiction for?” in Electric Literature
“How do you know when your book is finished?” in Electric Literature
“Structure vs. Urgency: On Finding Work/Life Balance as a Writer” in Electric Literature
“Should white men stop writing?” in Electric Literature
“Connections and Luck Do Matter” in Electric Literature