Outside Reading — Gender Specific edition

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The Third Rail of Calling ‘Sexism’ by Rebecca Traister

The endless frustration of the media’s coverage of political campaigns continued this past week as policy discussions (not to mention the ongoing criminality of the amoral marauders currently occupying the White House) were largely set aside to eagerly pursue an inconsequential squabble between two candidates who almost entirely agree. Even putting aside the likelihood that the reportorial astonishment about freshly unearthed behind-the-scenes discussion was likely hogwash, there was an especially nettlesome aspect to the need to contrive drama. Think pieces and cable pundit pontification proliferated, all musing about the electability of a female candidate. As usual, when arriving at the intersection of gender and politics, Rebecca Traister provides the most useful reflection. This piece was published at The Cut.

 

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Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) by Benjamin Dreyer

The chief copy editor at Random House assembles his basic rules and guidelines for strong writing, and it is an absolute delight. I will readily concede, however, that, to deploy a cliched metaphor that would surely cause Benjamin Dreyer to deploy his editing pen, mileage may vary. I was thoroughly enamored with the astute breakdown of language usage and the chapters that tick through words and phrases most likely to set writers stumbling. Mostly, I appreciated the way Dreyer’s views are founded on a principle of crafting work that is consistently engaging and highly readable. Rather than setting up rigid, persnickety rules that can lead to painfully tortured sentences (Dreyer is happy to discard some of the most timeworn strictures), he repeatedly stresses crafting writing that is clean, clear, and consistent. Every rule can be excepted if doing so will improve the finished work. Except the serial comma. And I agree with him on that, too.

 

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The Undoing Project (2016) by Michael Lewis

One of Michael Lewis’s specialities as a writer is shrewd assessments of figures who spend a lot of time thinking about the way we think. So it makes sense — it indeed has the air of inevitability — that Lewis found his way to Israeli scholars Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The duo conducted transformational research demonstrated all the faulty ways human beings observe and process reality, and the shaky decision-making that often results, driving society into disrepair. As usual, Lewis demonstrates an uncommon skills for taking incredibly complex material and getting it as close as possible to broadly understandable. He also proves to be a skilled biographer (if fairly surface-level in his examination), tracing the genesis, prosperity, and eventual dissolution of the partnership with a keen eye.

Outside Reading — America’s Press Conference of the Air edition

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The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd by Jay Rosen

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone gave a platform to Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, interviewing him about an upcoming special edition of his venerable program. Todd and his producers have apparently come to an epiphany about the intellectual dishonesty employed by several of the politicians and political commentators booked as guests on his program. For those of us not drawing obscenely large paychecks as network news figures but actively paying attention to the right wing’s strategy of flooding the public  with easily debunked distortions (often propagated on Meet the Press, where the lies too often go unchallenged), Todd’s newfound astonishment is embarrassing. Luckily, NYU professor Jay Rosen writes a properly savage appraisal of Todd’s comments in the interview, detailing exactly how current stewards of journalism like Todd are entirely unprepared for the current era. More worrisomely, that lack of basic ability to meet the moment helps perpetuate the ruthless opportunists who are spreading their destructive toxins throughout society.

 

Little Women (1868, 1869) by Louisa May Alcott

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To the best of my recollection, I’d never previously read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s book that’s one of the cornerstone works of U.S. literature. It’s possible that there was a school assignment at some point, and it’s equally possible I stupidly dismissed such an assignment because it was a “girl’s book.” Although clearly pitched at younger readers, the novel is rich with offhand insight about the ways in which people move around one another, striving to make and keep ahold of connections. It often reads more like a collection of connected short stories, reflecting the time when it was written and first published. Through it all, the measured mastery of Alcott is evident. There’s no confusion as to why it’s a classic.

Outside Reading — Big Numbers edition

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Big Calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class by Maya Kosoff

My time in high school math classes predated the introduction of the TI-81, the graphing calculator that serves as the starting line for Maya Kosoff’s article, published at GEN. Even by that point, though, there were a subset of my fellow students who showed up with the advantage of blocky behemoths of advanced calculation made by Texas Instruments. The piece traces how the class divide was poured in concrete, in part because Texas Instruments manipulated education policies to essentially mandate use of their expensive devices. It’s one of those hidden examples of how corporations keep themselves viable in part by coopting policy-making that is supposed to be strictly focused on the public good.

 

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In a Chaotic World, Dungeons & Dragons Is Resurgent by Ethan Gilsdorf

Reported by Ethan Gilsdorf, for The New York Times, this article doesn’t exactly go deep on the famous creation of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It’s still highly entertaining as it simultaneously marvels at the sense of community Dungeons & Dragons engenders and takes a newsy look at some of the factors that helped the role playing stalwart find a new cultural foothold in an era of online gaming, an often interconnected and yet comparatively isolating pursuit.

 

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Conversations with Friends (2017) by Sally Rooney

I’ve been excited to read the fiction of Sally Rooney ever since The New Yorker offered a profile of the Irish author earlier this year. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends, doesn’t disappoint, zinging along with a combination of modern sensibility and the most sturdy and classic storytelling craft. The plot hinges on the sort of illicit happenings that have driven novels for generations, and it’s fascinating to see a bright, anxious, millennial perspective applied to one of these highly Updike-ian (or Roth-esque, if you prefer) progressions of a wounded life bandaged up by impulsively hedonistic choices. Rooney uses an abundance of telling, terse dialogue without ever letting that book fill like a screenplay in waiting, mostly, I think, because she deftly shows how inner lives often contradict outer statements. I’m glad I’ve already got Normal People on the tall stack of to-be-read books.

Outside Reading — Human Community edition

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Le Guin’s Subversive Imagination by Michael Chabon

We recently passed what would have been Ursula K. Le Guin’s ninetieth birthday, and we’re approaching the two-year anniversary of her death. I suppose either of those momentous dates might have inspired Michael Chabon to write about Le Guin’s massive influence of him. Whatever the prompt, the essay, published by The Paris Review, is terrific. With a grace and easy insight he brought to his finest novels, Chabon highlights the piercing intellect that made Le Guin special, writing “it was obvious to me, even at nine, that the true name of magic was writing, and that a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin was a mage.”

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The Force is With Them by Michael Schulman

This article was published several weeks ago, but my giant stack of New Yorker magazines (they just. keep. coming.) takes some time to get through. At times, Michael Schulman’s piece has a charming stodginess to it, due to the necessity of explaining, say, slash fiction to the uninitiated. Mostly, though, it shrewdly explores the phenomenon of deeply entitled fans, which has been present for ages (he cites Lisztomania and the fervor for new installments of Dickens’s serialized fiction) but has received a turbo boost in the digital age.

Outside Reading — The Orr Stratagem

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The cleverness of stupidity by Tom Whyman

Drawing a few sharp illustrative examples from classic literature (including a ruse that leads to escape from the military for Orr in Catch-22), Tom Whyman shows how defiant rejection of learning is a solid strategy for unscrupulous and unkind people amassing cultural clout. Politicians feigning ignorance when asked direct questions are rightly held up for scorn, but some of Whyman’s most compelling animosity is directed at journalists who, presumably in an attempt to project evenhandedness, don’t immediately challenge the pure nonsense coming out of the mouths of those they interview. Seeing Chuck Todd respond with a prompt reality check to Senator Ron Johnson’s crackpot fulminating on Meet the Press this past weekend was jarring because it offered a reminder of the rarity of such an occurrence.

 

Alan Dershowitz and the wheel of pain by Lyz Lenz

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In writing about Alan Dershowitz for the Columbia Journalism Review, Lyz Lenz is gifted with the perfect lede by the lawyer’s phone interview behavior, which pulls off the trick of being both boorish and childish. She could have made a tidy little article out of little more than his furious denials of accusations that he was an active participant in some of the vilest happenings orchestrated by Jeffrey Epstein. Instead, Lenz draws in a lot of research that provides understanding of how Dershowitz has gotten himself to this strange place where he disgraces his already mud-caked reputation a little more each day.

 

Trouble Boys: The True Adventures of the Replacements by Bob Mehr

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I previously read the oral history book about the Replacements, so I figured I didn’t need to push through this quite weighty tome, too. How wrong I was. Bob Mehr fleetly goes through the tumultuous career of the famously self-sabotaging Minneapolis band, taking care to make sure that every last figure who passes through the book comes across as a fully realized person. I can’t judge how engaging this book will be for a reader not already happily familiar with the Replacements’ music, but for those who have a few (or all) of the records on the shelf, Mehr’s attention to detail is an absolutely delight. If nothing else, I’m deeply grateful that the book confirms the accuracy of my unquestioned favorite story about the band, involving Bob Dylan helping himself to an item in the Replacements’ well-stocked beer fridge while hanging out during a recording session.

My Writers — Molly Young

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Despite the fact that I myself chose to sling my words around in the echoing void of the web wide enough to engulf the whole world, it took me a remarkably long time to land on the revelation that I could find favorite writers there. I have long been a prodigious consumer of digital content, a famished gourmand of information with a bottomless belly. But I tended towards sites and broad topic areas, rarely distracted by bylines and even less likely to make a mental note of wordsmiths who left me feeling extra ticklish after perusing one of their pieces. That personal shortcoming eventually changed (clearly), and the first writer to chip away at my unexplainable resistance, to make me really notice her, was Molly Young.

I first came upon Young’s work when it appeared on the blog This Recording, which I will confess, I mostly perused because it shared downloadable MP3s in a questionable relationship with U.S. copyright law, plopped at the end of snappish articles on pop culture. The essays usually got no more than a glance from me, my interest poofing into nothingness as soon as the thesis revealed itself as flimsy or the self-satisfied snark became overwhelming. This meant I rarely made it past the first paragraph before I scrolled down to click and save on the songs I coveted. Young’s pieces had an entirely different effect. They were witty and insightful and crackled with curiosity. Even when an article was little more than a listing of observations, Young brought inescapable personality to the work. Reading her work was a delight.

And then, as if Young were a college buddy rather than a stranger whose writing I enjoyed, I lost track of her. A modern feature and essay writer is called upon to hustle wherever the winds of freelance are blowing, and Young seemingly landed in cultural corners I wasn’t watching.

Then, a couple years ago, I flipped open The New York Times Magazine one sunny Sunday morning and started reading a profile of Chantal Bacon, a pretty, airy peddler of lifestyle enhancement products wrapped in an especially spiritual brand of quasi-science. The opening line was flat-out perfect: “The amount of time I waste finding and consuming alternative-medicine supplements for ‘brain function’ has made me at least 10 percent dumber, and that paradox is not lost on me.” The article goes on to wryly assess the collection of totemic miracle cures for the malaise modern life that Bacon bundles together into a lucrative philosophy, filling the column inches with inventive descriptions that effectively conveyed the strange world of isolated privilege where Bacon resides and plies her profession. “I passed the most expensive-looking mailbox I’d ever seen, and more varieties of security fence than you could possibly imagine, and houses that looked like every decade’s concept of the future,” the article offers about Bacon’s posh neighborhood, leading me to immediately decide I’d never before encountered a better description of grotesque wealth leveraged into ostentatious living spaces begging to be noticed.

The writer of the article was, of course, Young. My appreciation for her roared back in a rush, and I took advantage of the generous listing of hyperlinkable articles on her website to discover what I’d been missing. I also started scouring the newspaper for more of her words, especially once it became clear to me that she regularly contributed to the Sunday book review section. If Young was the writer, I read the review, irrespective of my interest in the book under her scrutiny. Time and again, I marveled at her wizardry with opening lines, whether in assessing a novelty work about odd, obscure laws (“Why not treat yourself to a crime spree this summer? It’s an easy and affordable way to have fun without consequences, as long as you choose your violations carefully”) or a novel about a compulsive Frenchwoman (“To be a recovering addict is to admit that your highest purpose is to avoid your worst impulses.”) or, spurring my favorite of Young’s ledes, a book about hunting down a foolproof hangover cure (“A thought experiment: If hangovers didn’t exist, what percentage of your life would you spend drunk?”). I’ve read none of those books, but I adore reading the results of Young reading them.

Writing about books is clearly Young’s main racket now. She parlayed a book-centric newsletter she developed into a staff job with New York magazine. Her Read Like the Wind can be subscribed to via the New York website. Young’s brisk, bright observations on a book are usually anchored by a “Recommended If You Like” notation that is inspired in its bundling of disparate references into a definitive characterization of the work in question. Having read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is In Trouble, I can confirm that Young’s RIYL gumbo of “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York, feeling slightly proud of yourself for finding Adam Driver hot, Paul Mazursky, trying to game your therapist” is spot on. The newsletter can also simply be accessed at the magazine’s website, like any other article, but I value having it urgently announce itself my inbox. I lost track of Young once before. I aim to not make that mistake again.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Outside Reading — Profound-Other-Fascination edition

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Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s consideration of the broad field of fiction storytelling, published recently in The New York Review of Books is dazzling, provocative, cerebral, emotional, and deep as the ocean. Smith introduces ideas, counters them, and swerves around to their defense, weighing the risks and rewards of both writing and reading fiction. And she manages to somehow place her arguments in both a broad historical context and teetering atop the shifting tectonic plates of the current culture. The essay makes me long to crack open a new book and starting testing Smith’s theories against my own experience.