Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.
I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.
We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.
In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.
“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.
You can tell from my recentposts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.
Focus on print.
I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.
I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)
Treat my phone like a landline.
Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.
This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.
Check Twitter only once or twice a week.
Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.
Wait without looking at my phone.
I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.
Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.
The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.
This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.
Consider the body.
It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.
This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.
Hold things in the mind.
I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.
I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.
Cherish everything that has no digital life.
Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.
Here’s the concluding hope:
People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.
Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.
I signed up for Facebook when I was a freshman in college, shortly after the platform had been opened to non-Ivy League schools. In the old days, as you’ll recall, Facebook was just for college students. It was mildly fun back then. I remember being excited to join a group for UNC freshmen and then, as I made friends in real life, add them as friends on Facebook. I signed up for events and posted photos of my friends and I lounging in the quad. But the sheen quickly wore off. Soon, high schoolers could join, which was something that annoyed a lot of us, as if we were the pure and rightful users, and then, finally, anyone with a pulse could sign up. By the time I graduated, just four years later, Facebook had already started morphing into the creepy, greedy, sadness monster that it is today.
Facebook’s monstrosity has always been there, lurking in its DNA. But the past few years have shown us the platform’s sinister nature in new and palpably horrifying ways.
If you’ve been paying attention, nothing below will surprise you. You already know Facebook is bad. But in case you needed a few more reasons to delete your account…
1. Facebook is using you; you’re not using Facebook.
Pro tip: If something is free, you are the product.
This is not something I stopped to consider when I first signed up for Facebook. What a great, friendly service, to connect me and all of my new friends at college! Um, no. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook out of the goodness of his heart, simply because he wanted to see everyone reach across the aisle and poke one another. (Remember “poking”? God. We should have known back then that Facebook was super-sketchy.)
Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a horny college student, creating an app to rate girls on their hotness levels. Facebook might have been for bros then, but now, Facebook is for advertisers. They are his customers. We are what they are using. Facebook tracks everything you do online, buys additional information about you from data brokers, and then sells that information to advertisers so they can get you to buy things. This is what Facebook is for—and yet we all pretend that it’s happy and useful and connecting us with friends near and far. It’s not. As we shall see in the following points.
So, not only is Facebook using you, but Facebook is also very secretive about how it’s using you.
Just to scratch the surface: Facebook knows how much you make, where you live, how many credit cards you have, how much your house cost, where you shop and what you buy, who’s in your address book, and what your face looks like. Facebook also knows where you go online even after you sign out of Facebook. (They’re tracking you with cookies; this is how the ads seem so frighteningly specific. It’s because they’re watching you, everywhere, online.) And we gave them permission, for all of this.
A summary of the scope of Facebook’s operations (emphasis added):
… even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does — ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ — and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
Facebook’s intrusion into our lives is only going to grow. It’s in a grasping and depserate state, even with its outrageous market share. 1.2 billion people use Facebook every day, but Zuckerberg won’t stop until he has everyone. This is the central business proposition: Get the entire world onto Facebook so we can watch every human and sell them everything. It all sounds so grandiose and hyperbolic, but it’s what the benighted CEO is after.
What’s needed, [Zuckerberg] argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity. This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society.
You know how America is more polarized than ever before?
How “echo chamber” politics seems to be the only way we do things now, with everyone just liking and re-posting things they already agree with, and no one is capable of listening to an opposing point of view without throwing a tantrum online? Remember how liberals were so gobsmacked that Trump supporters existed in such large numbers, because (and I heard dozens of people say this) they “didn’t know anyone who would vote for Trump”? Remember the 2016 election, the one that Russia hacked?
Facebook has a hand in all of this. Even if we can’t directly blame Facebook for the 2016 presidential election, Donald, the Dear Leader, and his conspiracy theory goons, played directly into the platform’s weaknesses.
We can blame Facebook for a lot of the ills that plague our piss-poor public discourse.
With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.
On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.
Just this month, Facebook has finally owned a bit of its culpability in propagating misinformation, with the announcement that it will be demoting posts from news outlets in favor of those from your friends.
On this whole, this seems like a positive move, but it’s also too little too late. The damage has been done; the rift in decent public discourse has been made, and I’m not optimistic it can ever be repaired. (Unless everyone gets off Facebook. Which is what I’m trying to make happen. Clearly.)
The internet can be rich in splendor and mired in filth all at once.
Facebook is squarely on the filth side of this equation. It’s the least edifying way to use the internet.
Here’s a simplistic metaphor: We, the Facebook users, are the lab rats. Facebook, the erstwhile scientist, is force-feeding us junk food to examine how we behave.
This metaphor can only go so far (because then the scientist sells his rat findings to Mad Men??), but it gets at the gist of this point. Facebook fills our brains up with junk (ads, memes, hysterical news stories, “studies,” etc.) and then uses algorithms to control what we see, in an ultimate effort to manipulate our behavior.
… if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world — always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.
Foer goes on to cite just one instance of Facebook’s experimentation on us:
We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”
For me, this attempt to control users is not surprising. Facebook has SO much data about people at its fingertips; of course it’s going to use this information to steer and control us. It’s the junk and nonsense part that also irks me, which brings me to my next point.
5. Facebook is valueless (to you, not to Zuckerberg).
Facebook does not deliver on any of its promises to users.
You’re not more connected to people. You have an illusion of knowing more about others’ lives, but do you, really? Do you really know what’s going on? Everything you see is a curated presentation. We all do it. I refuse to believe there’s even a “genuine” way to exist on social media. Even when you post photos of your toddler crying while vomiting or one of yourself with no makeup, you’re not being “authentic.” You’re also making a statement. Everything on social media is performance art.
Years ago, Zuckerberg bombastically stated, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” and then declared that Facebook would cure this ill. Everyone would share everything on Facebook, and no one could hide anymore! The dual arrogance and hypocrisy in his statement is mind-blowing. Facebook is the very method by which we all create two identities for ourselves: the public profile me can exist entirely separately from the private, real-life me.
You’re not “staying informed.” If anything, as we’ve seen, you’re staying misinformed. You’re not reading “the news:” You’re reading headlines of stories you already agree with, and usually hyperbolic reports at that. You’re also not really reading the news deeply because of Facebook: 60% of people who share links on social media don’t even click on the links themselves. This is depressing, and also nuts.
You’re not hearing about all the hot parties and social gatherings. This is the main excuse I hear from millennials like myself, when I start ranting and raving about Facebook: “Yeah, I would get off, but then I won’t know about all the things that are happening!” Guess what? I’ve been off Facebook for five years, and I still get invited to parties. I still find out about events. Real talk: If Facebook is your primary vehicle for learning about events, maybe you need to start going to different events.
Facebook, for all its lofty and pseudo-humanistic promises, is the lowest common denominator of human interaction.
If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want — if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations — then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.
(Source: “You Are the Product”)
Let’s be honest. What ultimate good has Facebook brought to our lives?
What are we using Facebook for, really? If you are like me, you were probably using Facebook for just two reasons: to (1) stalk weird homeschoolers that you grew up with, and (2) get hot and bothered by your relatives’ misspelled political opinions. That was it. Neither use made me feel particularly happy or encouraged in my development as a human being, which leads me to my sixth and final point.
6. Facebook makes you unhappy.
Facebook is a garbage platform that makes us all feel like garbage in turn.
The professor goes on to summarize these findings (and they apply to all people, not just teens):
Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.
But you don’t need “studies” to convince you of this fact. You know this, in your heart of hearts, just as I do: Facebook makes us all sadder.
We all know that too much screen time is bad for our brains and hearts and overall lives, but we’re not reducing usage that much. If you’re like me, and your entire job is dependent on a computer, cutting back on screen time isn’t an option during the work week. But the screen does not rule us. Not entirely. Not yet.
Significantly, we don’t have to let something as toxic as Facebook dominate our life online.
For me, personally, 2018 is going to be a year of cutting back, of declaring screen-free weekends and nights, as much as possible. I’m already happier for it. I’ve been happier about my online life for the past five years, primarily because I took one crucial action: I deleted my Facebook account.
Those who know me will cry foul, because they know I still use Facebook-owned products like Instagram and WhatsApp. I know that I’m being spied on there, too. But it’s a lower level of insidiousness, and the difference, for me, lies in the platform limitations. Instagram can’t distribute links or news stories or people’s hot takes. For me, Instagram is 80% babies, 10% people’s food, and 10% travel photos. I’m OK with that. It’s a nice visual distraction for about 5-10 minutes every day. I can watch friends’ kids grow up from afar and not read a single political opinion. WhatsApp is a wonderful way for my family to stay in touch, especially with a sister who lives abroad. I don’t have to interact with anyone but a small circle of family and friends there. Facebook controls the internet, this we know, but at least I can let it control me in slightly smaller ways.
I know people talk about this (getting off Facebook) in the hopes of garnering some sick sense of self-congratulation. I know that’s what this sounds like. But I just want to tell you about something that made my life better. I am a happier and more mentally balanced person because I don’t use Facebook anymore.
Facebook, unsurprisingly, makes it very difficult for you to delete your account. You can “deactivate” it, which just hides it from your friends’ feeds, but all the data is still there. If you really want off, you need to delete your account. Follow the instructions in the link above. After your deletion request, they’ll grudgingly delete your account within a 14-day period. (Even then, I’m not convinced they actually do it. But it’s worth the shot.)
Go with God, my friends, and go without a Facebook account.
The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.
We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.
And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.
Here are some things that have been working for me lately.
Read these online tips to read offline
(The irony! It is not lost on me.)
Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).
I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.
Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.
As far as fiction is concerned, 2017 was a year of returning to authors I now consider to be old favorites (or, at the very least, I was refreshing my opinions of those previously encountered). I read slowly and sometimes fitfully this year, but I was especially grateful for these top 10 highlights from my year in fiction.
1: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
Sleeper hit of 2017! I’m surprised by myself, picking this as my favorite, but there it stands. I read Austerlitz some years back and found it inscrutable and frustrating, but this brilliant, dreamy novel hit me in all the right ways late in the year. It is an exquisite pleasure to wander around history and the English countryside with W.G. Sebald. I feel grateful, to have encountered a mind like his. The Rings of Saturn is so fragmented and yet it all holds together in this ineffable way. The perfect novel for an unusual year. (Amazon)
2: The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector
My obsession with the weird, beautiful, mind-bending prose of Clarice Lispector knows no rational bounds. Her marvelous strangeness is a never-ending delight. I read these stories with deliberate slowness, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. I loved the common threads (a simple object or a stray glance hurtling a character into existential distress; chickens, dogs, and horses, but never cats; a woman ready to do something dramatic with her life and then she just goes home). I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory logic. In all the excruciating darkness of the world, at least we still have these stories; at least we still have Lispector. (Amazon)
3: The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams
No, I didn’t love it just because it has a German shepherd on the cover. Marvelously strange, gorgeously written. I am smitten with Joy Williams. This is a dense and delightful collection of her stories, old and new, and it contains manifold and unexpected pleasures. Her characters are at once familiar and foreign, transforming between sentences, subverting human behavioral conventions. And, of course, I loved the prevalence of dogs throughout. Color me a mega-fan. (Amazon)
4: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. Saunders seems to be able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character. (Amazon)
5: My Struggle, Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Perpetually riveting, in all the same mysterious ways that the prior installments have been. This might be my second-favorite volume of My Struggle, after Book 1. They’re always in my top 10, in whatever year I encounter a volume. His plain prose has a mystically addictive property. I cannot describe it. (Amazon)
6: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it. (Amazon)
7: The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
Fine, I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs. (Amazon)
8: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a fated couple in Paris. Baldwin has such range and impressive economy of language. I am grateful to be reminded of his gifts with each encounter. (Amazon)
9: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon
Marvelous, inventive prose; dark stories with a comedic edge. It’s almost impossible to believe that he moved to Chicago with a marginal grasp of English and then, a few years later, published a work with this much style and sophistication in his newly learned language. (Amazon)
10: The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce
Thomas Pierce brings all the components of a good story to the table: humor, empathy, and ingenuity. I lapped up this creative and touching novel, flying through it as I was flying home over the Pacific Ocean. Jim and Annie build a life together and wander through a future that does not feel too far away from us now. The future of American fiction, honestly, feels brighter to me, knowing that it is buoyed by writers like Pierce. (Amazon)
I feel like I covered a lot of ideological ground with my nonfiction diet in 2017, but maybe that’s not true; maybe I read the same kind of thing year after year after year. In any event, here are my favorite nonfiction books from 2017.
1: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles
Perhaps embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with Simone Weil, French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, a stylish genius who died at the age of 34. This anthology was the perfect introduction to her radical, refreshing mind. Weil’s observations of her own time (as a French Jew in the heat of World War II) strike me as startlingly relevant to our civic life today. It’s energizing and challenging in all the right ways, and I am looking forward to reading her more deeply. My in-laws gave me Gravity and Grace, her first published work, for Christmas, and it’s at the top of my list to tackle in 2018. (Amazon)
2: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond
The deserving winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Evicted is a serious, moving accomplishment of ethnography and inquiry into evictions, one of the leading causes of poverty and homelessness. Matthew Desmond’s work spans years and provides an intimate portrait of the men, women, and children struggling to keep their homes in Milwaukee. It is heartbreaking and goading all at once; I read it quickly, like a novel, over the course of a few days. Highly recommended. (Amazon)
3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee
I’ll read John McPhee on any subject. This book, an adventure through Alaska in the 1970s, is a fantastic perspective of the land, its history and politics, and the deeply curious and strong people who inhabit it. (Amazon)
4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson
If I read Anne Carson in any given year, she’ll be on my top 10 list. This is just how it is. A brilliant mix of poetry, essays, and casual philosophy, this book held my breathless attention from start to finish. I think “The Glass Essay” is a masterpiece, even though the certified poets in my life (husband, Celeste) were less than impressed. I will not yield: I’m a Carson fangirl till my dying day. (Amazon)
5: In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caren Zucker
Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name—and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails—has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present. That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.
While there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been—thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved. (Amazon)
6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat
I have loved Anton Chekhov for years, and this biography made me love him even more. His unwavering devotion to showing life as it is, not as we want it to seem, and his sincerely good nature, continue to endear me to him and to his body of work. I am not typically one for biographies, but this one was completely delightful: Henri Troyat writes beautifully and clearly and presents a riveting portrait of the literary genius. I read it quickly, eagerly. (Amazon)
7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte
My husband, who is a total gem, gave me this book for Christmas 2016, because Lydia Davis told him to. Davis, Queen of My Heart, was a visiting scholar at the university in our town, and gave a series of lectures, all of which I was unable to attend, because of work duties, and I was devastated. My husband went to all but one of them and took notes for me. When he gave me this book, which I had not previously heard of, he said that in Davis’s talk on writing, she referenced Artful Sentences as a favorite resource. She said she liked to turn to it for examples of the marvelous variety of sentences that could be created and find inspiration therein.
And inspiration abounds! Virginia Tufte is like an industrious scientist of English syntax. She shares more than 1,000 sentences as examples of all the types of good and beautiful ways that one can fashion language, and she divides the book logically by grammatical types. It is a delight and a refreshing study of the gorgeous variety of English. It now sits on my desk at work, and I hope to return to it and read it every year. (Amazon)
8: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
A complete delight, in only the way that DFW can be. Sharp, memorable, brilliant, funny essays. It is a pleasure to return to him after taking a few years off; I think he’s the kind of writer whose impact is preserved and amplified if I don’t binge read him. (Amazon)
9: Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan
They don’t make nonfiction like they used to. Marvelously researched and riveting from start to finish. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. (Amazon)
10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Powerful and extremely relevant. It was a galvanizing pleasure to read her work back to back; I had only ever read snippets before. And of course I am not the first or the last to say that this book, and Audre Lorde’s work in general, is an essential component of the American feminist canon. I was also reading this while reading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, so I found the interview between them, which is included here, particularly fascinating. We white feminists have a lot to learn from our foremothers of color. It’s a good time to shut up and listen. (Amazon)
Start studying again that foreign language once knew and have since mostly forgotten
Tell people how you feel, even if you’re not sure how to articulate it
Our dearest friends welcomed their son, their firstborn, into the world on Saturday. We met him and held him, talking quietly in a peaceful hospital room that overlooked the university and the mountains beyond while this little 6-pound bundle warmed my ribcage. His parents’ faces were alight with an exhausted kind of wonder. They were so relaxed, watching us carefully exchange their baby, and competent. They’ll parent him beautifully, and we are privileged to act as witnesses.
“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” — The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
The front door is like the eye of the house, and we finally made some small updates to ours—and to our little front stoop—this week.
The columns are still thinner than I would have liked, but apparently with the whole structure, our carpenter couldn’t make them much wider than he did. The diagonal beams help with visual interest, though, I think.
Small adaptations need to be made to clean everything up (trim is a little janky in some places), but I’m pleased.
Up next: Figuring out what to do with our ugly concrete stoop. I’m open to suggestions! (Stamped concrete is what I’d prefer, but that would apparently require jacking up the whole thing. So I think I may try to refinish and stain it.)
For now, I’m just excited to get the first Christmas wreath we’ve ever had for our new cottage-y door.
Inspired by the horrors and paradoxes of our current cultural moment (and a Paris Review article by Claire Dederer), I wrote a short piece for Mockingbird: “Love the Art, Hate the Artist?”
When a politician misbehaves, it’s easy (in theory) to wave our hands and say, “Politicians! They’re all filthy.” But when our favorite novelist or comedian or musician misbehaves, we feel conflicted. We feel like we’ve been implicated ourselves. This is how I felt when I learned that Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time favorites, dressed in blackface to a party and was famously cruel and anti-Semitic. We want our artists to be as blameless as we think we are. Our beloved artists made something so good, so beautiful; shouldn’t the end product match the content of their souls?
This is the tricky thing about art: Great art can be created by terrible people.
Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.
A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.
Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.
“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float
Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.
Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.
I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.