We took a very short weekend trip to the tiny mountain town of Thomas, West Virginia, so the boys could visit Mountain State Brewing Co. (Liz and I were able to find a coffee shop, to our amazement, which provided some respite from the bar.) We narrowly survived the seemingly endless switchbacks and hairpin turns and the little Versa even trucked it up there. A fun and very different way to spend the weekend; more photos on Flickr.
Longform’s Best of 2011. The best long-form journalism from last year. I really want to read all of these. I love a good, thorough, and fascinating article. (Longform)
Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview. Wow. Apparently, there are a lot of great books set to come out this year. I’m looking forward to reading many of them! (I’m especially excited about Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child, I Read Books.) (The Millions)
Dallas Calligrapher: Fabulous Forty. Now that is impressive calligraphy: Flexible nib with white ink, slanted, on a hot pink envelope. I’m jealous of her skills. (The Lefthanded Calligrapher)
How unpleasant it is to be sick. For days. And yet still be “functional” enough to go into work.
The strange paradox/dynamic between the poor having too many babies when they are too young and the rich trying to have babies when they are too old. (Even though this sounds slightly evil, I think it’s nice that fertility is the one thing that not even the super-rich can buy.)
How much I want to get into bed right now.
In re bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises: Is there any likely fatal sport that modern Americans do for no good reason? I guess rodeo is the closest thing we have to bullfighting, but it is somehow different in my mind.
I should really start figuring out what’s going on with all of these crazy GOP candidates.
Having a weekend at home, just with Guion. Haven’t had that in… months.
Sean and Julie’s new baby boy!
Basically, all I’m thinking about are babies and sickness. But don’t worry: I’d rather not have either of them any time soon. Whee. Happy Labor Day weekend!
Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.
As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.
We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,
a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.
This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.
I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”
Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World. I’ll never know unless I start reading.
This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.
For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedomcame out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.
Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?
Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.” The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.
To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.
One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.
In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:
No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.
The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?
With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.
Well, friends. Your last dose of Snax until the New Year! I’m unspeakably excited about going back to North Carolina for the holidays. We leave Wednesday morning for Southern Pines. I’m looking forward to sitting around the fire there and wrestling with Aoive and her complicated psyche. It’s going to be great. Then we’re off to my grandparents’ place for Christmas day, and then back and forth between Davidson, Southern Pines, and Durham for the next few days. Exhausting! (A wedding in the middle of it all doesn’t help the simplicity.) But I’m looking forward to it all the same.
Today’s featured website: The New York Times
OK. So it’s not like I discovered the NYT or anything, but they’ve just had a lot of beautiful, striking content lately. So I’m going to share some of it with you.
Let It Dough! The perfect holiday feature from NYT. Hilarious, brilliant, and oh-so-tasty. Thanks for the link, Granddad! (NYT blog, Abstract City)
Fourteen Actors Acting. “A video gallery of classic screen types.” These black-and-white minute-long pieces feature well-known actors playing intense, briefly realized characters. What makes it so interesting is that the only sound is the orchestra in the background. The inability to understand anything the character says gives considerable license to the imagination. My favorites: Natalie Portman, James Franco, and, of course, SWINTON. (NYT Magazine)
10th Annual Year in Ideas. The ideas are almost as great as the design of this page. Really fun to tool around in. And so much weird stuff to learn! A bra that converts into gas masks? The world could always use more of those. (NYT Magazine)
In Germany, from Derelict to Pristine. The slideshows from “Great Homes and Destinations” are my favorite way to kill time. I could look at these wild houses all day long. This couple lives in a posh, converted water tower. Crazy! (NYT)
Regularly scheduled Snax:
The Angela Simulator. “No need to miss me over the holidays,” Angela’s e-mail read. Because now you can generate any potential conversation with Angela on her website. It’s brilliant. It makes me feel closer to her, so I just sit there clicking on “What else?” for 10 minutes. (WXTCHOU)
Printable Holiday Gift Tags. Still wrapping? Try out these cute and colorful gift tags; they’ll liven up any present. (How About Orange)
What Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2011? This is for Emily. We liked to hate on romance languages a lot, basically because they are so darn easy to learn compared with Japanese and Arabic. In this piece, James McWhorter takes our side, but argues that romance languages are essentially useless to learn in the new decade and beyond. It’s Chinese for everyone, baby. (The New Republic)
Closet Visit: Momo Suzuki. Basically, I just want to BE a Japanese woman. Their sense of style is impeccable: peaceful, simple, elegant. (Jeana Sohn)
William Merritt Chase. A feature on the well-regarded portrait painter. It makes me want to go to an art gallery. (Miss Moss)
In the Scheme of Things. This dialogue reminds me of the look my mother shot my father when he was choking on the pit of a plum. After his esophagus had cleared and he was recovering from the trauma, he announced, “Wow, that was like having a baby.” I will always remember the look of pure disgust on her face. (Dooce)
Jon Rafman: Google Street View. Somewhat related to a post from last week, but these images will always fascinate me. How does he find them?? Rafman must spend all day on Google Maps. (Sub-Studio Design Blog)
Putting the “Gold” In Your Golden Years. I know retirement is very far from our young minds, but it really shouldn’t be. This is one of the many things I’ve learned in my short tenure at work. This is a great graphic from the folks at Mint explaining some of the basics of retirement saving. (Mint)