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.