Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Category: Books (page 2 of 11)

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’


“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’

I picked up a copy of Studs Terkels’ Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a sort of oral history of life and work in and around 1970s Chicago. I’ve kept it on my nightstand and slowly chipped away at it when I was between other books. It’s quite long and I’m not even halfway through, but it has some interesting pull quotes from a variety of subjects, like:

A copy chief at an ad agency:

“We’re all vice presidents,” laughs the copy chief. “Clients like to deal with vice presidents. Also, it’s a cheap thing to give somebody. Vice presidents get fired with great energy and alacrity.” …

“You become what you behold.”

A steelworker:

“Everybody should have something to point to.” …

“Automation? Depends on how it’s applied. It frightens me if it puts me out on the street. It doesn’t frighten me if it shortens my work week.” …

“You can be a fanatic if you had the time. The whole thing is time. That is, I think, one reason rich kids tend to be fanatic about politics: they have time. Time, that’s the important thing.”

And Terkel:

The science of medicine has increased our life expectancy; the science of the business frowns upon the elderly. …

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

These are not yet automata.

‘Working toward the truth’ in “How to Think”

There goes Alan Jacobs being right again:

it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.


This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At OddsRighteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.

Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.

That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.

It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.

Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:

No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”

Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.

Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?

Nothing to read here

This, from Andy Weir in his By the Book column at the New York Times, seems like an odd thing to say:

For the record, my stories are meant to be purely escapist. They have no subtext or message. If you think you see something like that, it’s in your head, not mine. I just want you to read and have fun.

#1: It’s not odd for an author to want his books to be purely escapist and fun. It is odd to insist that they have no subtext or message, and further, that if readers detect those things they are wrong.

#2: Not all subtext is intentional and not all intended “messages” are received by the reader.

#3: Authorial intent dies once the book hits the shelves.

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader


I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Media of the Moment

I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.

So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.

Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.

The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.

Tom Hanks, Olympia, and Me

I had the pleasure of seeing a photo of mine get the Ken Burns treatment on CBS Sunday Morning’s story this weekend about Tom Hanks, his new book, and his love of typewriters:

One of my colleagues got an advance copy of Hanks’ book at a library conference back in June specifically because she knew I’d love it—and I did, enough to write my first typecast review. For the accompanying image I thought pairing the book’s beautiful blue cover with my Olympia SM7 (acquired at the splendid Retro-Revolution in Madison, WI) of almost the same shade made sense and looked great:


Since I posted it far enough ahead of the book’s publication date, the photo (along with the images of my typewritten review) had time to climb up the ranks of Google Images under searches for “Uncommon Type”, which no doubt is how the CBS producer found it.

I knew Hanks’ book would give typewriters A Moment; I didn’t realize I’d be part of it! But I am happy to be. The book is out Tuesday: go get it and then get a typewriter of your own.

The Diary of a Young Girl

In my ongoing quest to catch up with the “high school reading list” books I missed the first time around, I listened to the audiobook of Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and, holy crap, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised due to its reputation, but it’s kinda amazing. Not sure how much the translation from Dutch affected the language, but Anne comes across as incredibly intelligent, self-aware, funny, honest—oh is she honest—and even noble in her struggle to become a better person even in confinement.

Knowing the ending of the story while I read it, I felt an immense sadness as I neared the end. I seemed to go through all the stages of grief: I’m sure they’ll make it through the war, then Why do they have to be discovered? then Couldn’t they just make it a few more months? then Screw Hitler and the war. This whip-smart teen who wanted to be a journalist (she would have killed it on Twitter and as a blogger), who was a self-admitted chatterbox, who struggled through boy troubles, who resented her family but tried to love them… she didn’t get the chance to see the fruit of her laboring, and the world is worse for it.

Selma Blair reads the audiobook and perfectly captures the voice of a teen girl. It’s a classic mix of sarcasm, angst, gossip, philosophizing, high-minded ideals and aspirations, and *ahem* frank discussions of sexuality.

Another high school reading list classic I recently caught up with and loved was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Like Diary, Douglass’s memoir is a hyper-articulate and honest account of oppression that writes beyond its setting and subject, much to the benefit of future readers. I highly recommend both.

So even though The Fault In Our Stars nearly ruined the Anne Frank museum for me, I’d love to visit it one day to pay my respects to an incredible young woman:

“We’re all alive, but we don’t know why or what for; we’re all searching for happiness; we’re all leading lives that are different and yet the same. We three have been raised in good families, we have the opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but… we have to earn it.”

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

In the summer of 2013 I interned at the Leo Burnett advertising agency’s corporate library and archives. In the course of my work I came upon boxes of original conceptual artwork and copy from the 1950s and ’60s of the famous brands Leo Burnett created: the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy. They also created several of Kellogg’s famous clan of characters: Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, Toucan Sam. At the time I marveled at these artifacts merely as a student of history and consumer familiar with these characters. But now, having read Howard Markel’s new book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, I see those characters not as the foundation of the Kellogg’s brand, but, since they were created after both Kelloggs died, as its unintentional consummation.

If you’re like me, you:

(a) didn’t know there was more than one Kellogg;

(b) didn’t know one of them was John—a renowned doctor in his time (1880s-1940s), founder of the Sanitarium in Michigan, and “better living” proponent who was way way ahead of his time on dangers of prolonged sitting, meat consumption, smoking, and the benefits of exercise—and the other was Will, John’s long-suffering younger brother, dour millionaire magnate of the Kellogg cereal line we all know (that’s his signature on the box); and

(c) didn’t know they hated each other’s guts.

Markel covers a lot of ground in this family biography. On one hand this provides readers with a backstory I suspect most haven’t heard before, like how the Kelloggs were reared in an apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventist culture that valued health reform and that bankrolled the Sanitarium in Battle Creek that sprung John to global renown. John was the idea man, the charismatic physician into what would now be called alternative medicine, and (let’s be honest) overbearing asshole. Will, conversely, was the details man, adept business manager, and John’s put-upon lackey before he set off on his own to expand his cereal empire and his bitterness toward John. (He was also an overbearing asshole.) Because of long-held resentments and their similar products with the same last name, the brothers sued each other throughout the 1910s and never reconciled, even into old age.

On the other hand, Markel covers so much ground and in a sometimes scattershot way that it can be an exhausting read. As a physician and medical historian himself, Markel shines in the parts about John’s development as a doctor and how it influenced his products. He illustrates the cruel irony of brothers so focused on creating products and principles based on health and “better living” for others feeding a most unhealthy rancor towards each other. He also ably balances the brothers’ colorful back-and-forth over the years, thanks to an abundant written record at his disposal. But the parts about the inner workings of the businesses get repetitive and wearying, and the last few chapters—tackling the post-litigious years and John’s unfortunate promotion of eugenics—feel tacked on when they could and should have been better integrated into the narrative, which is as a whole chronologically discombobulating.

Nevertheless, this is an illuminating portrait of a foundational American family and their business empire. Though not quite a tragedy in the end, given the Kellogg Foundation’s continued charitable work (thanks to Will leaving his millions with them after alienating all his progeny), it is a grim reminder of the power we waste on hatred and how wealth can’t cure, in Markel’s words, a “damaged soul.”

Agony and Hilarity in The Iliad


It was Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult that compelled me to finally read Homer’s The Iliad, one of those ought-to-read books that are easy to avoid because so many newer and less challenging books pop up in its way. But I’m glad I decided to dive in, even if it became my actual beach read over the Fourth of July weekend and beyond. Overall, I was surprised by how violent, funny, and sometimes profound it was, and by how much it made me want to rewatch Troy. *shudder*

After first I consulted the Cliff Notes before each chapter so I could make sure I knew generally what was going on. But about halfway through I switched it up, diving into the text first and then reading the Cliff Notes to fill in context. I grew more comfortable with the tone and flow of the text, which in my translation by Robert Fagles was in poetry form.

Because the book is basically one long battle, the fighting itself—and boy is there a lot of it—can sometimes seem abstract. So I like how in the midst of the seemingly never-ending war, Homer sometimes zooms in on one minor character and briefly tells his life story—right before he dies. Like with Euchenor in Book XIII:

But Paris flared in rage at his comrade’s death,
his friend and guest among all the Paphlagonians.
Incensed, he let loose with a bronze-tipped arrow
aimed at one Euchenor, son of the prophet Polyidus,
a decent, wealthy man who made his home in Corinth.
Well Euchenor knew that boarding the ships for Troy
meant certain death: his father told him so . . .
Time and again the strong old prophet said
he’d die in his own halls of a fatal plague
or go with the ships and die at Trojan hands.
So off Euchenor sailed, both to save his wealth
from the heavy fine the Argives made deserters pay
and himself from wasting illness—no slow plague for him.
Suddenly Paris struck him under the jaw and ear—
and life flew from his limbs
and the hateful darkness had him in its grip.

And that was it for Euchenor.

There are also periodic descriptions of combat that are surprisingly graphic. This again helps to ground the story in the realities of the carnage it was producing. It was sometimes easy to forget between all the monologues and backstories of soldiers that there was an actual war going on, with countless men dying gruesome and forgotten deaths. So the moments when Homer describes entrails spilling out on the ground, for example, were, if not welcome, then at least a crucial part of making such a mythical story feel real.

I expected The Iliad to be serious, but I didn’t expect it to be funny. In Book XIV, for example, Hera called on Hypnos the god of sleep to put Zeus to sleep in order to change the course of the war. But Hypnos was reluctant to do so, since the last time he tricked Zeus to sleep, he was furious when he awoke:

But now you are back, Hera—
you ask me to do the impossible once again.”

Eyes widening, noble Hera coaxed him further:
“So troubled, Sleep, why torture yourself with that?
You think that thundering Zeus, shielding the men of Troy,
will rage as he raged for great Heracles, his own son?
Come now, I will give you one of the younger Graces—
Wed her at once and she’ll be called your wife.”

“On with it!”—Sleep cried, thrilled by the offer—
“Swear to me by the incorruptible tides of Styx,
one hand grasping the earth that feeds mankind,
the other the bright sea, that all may be our witness,
all gods under earth that gather round King Cronus!
Swear you will give me one of the younger Graces,
Pasithea, she’s the one—
all my days I’ve tossed and turned for her!”

That “On with it!” is golden. Later in that scene, Hera, awash in ambrosia and aided by a charm by Aphrodite, goes to seduce the mercurial Zeus. And he is so smitten by her that he tells her:

Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion’s wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius’ daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men…

… and on and on he goes, because nothing will set the mood better than bragging about previous carnal exploits!

Though I can’t compare it to others, I’d highly recommend Fagles’ translation of the text. There’s some beautiful language throughout, and in poetry form it’s allowed to breathe on the page. I didn’t read every word (again with the monologues!), but I finished the journey, and look forward to more in The Odyssey and The Aeneid.

Eventually. After I take a break with some reading from this millennium.

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