It’s one of the many random lines that has stuck in my head from a lifetime of movie watching. I think about it a lot now in relation to parenthood.
Bun (as my wife calls him) is almost one year old and my main takeaway from that time is that there is no normal. How he eats, how he sleeps (or doesn’t), how he develops. How we teach him, what we teach him, how much screen time we give him.
There ain’t no rules. And Leo wasn’t slinging empty threats. He repeatedly rams Danny’s car and gashes his side doors with spiked hubcaps.
All Danny (and we) can do is hit the gas and hold on.
Every other activity included in the survey—including movies, sporting events, zoos, national parks, and museums—charges admission fees. If all of them were free to access, would there be a different #1?
Maybe not, because another asset for libraries in this regard is their multitude of offerings for every conceivable demographic and interest. Libraries are for everyone, and “everyone” has a different reason for going to the library.
Libraries and movie theaters are both competing with streaming services and other entertainment sources for people’s attention, but theaters don’t provide internet access or storytimes or computer classes or study rooms, etc. etc. (And I say that as a cinephile and librarian, whose ideal day would be comprised exclusively of eating, visiting a library, and going to the movies.)
I’m not sure how the disparity in library use between men and women bears out in my own library, but my sense is the difference isn’t as large as the survey indicates.
Based on my son’s enjoyment of our library’s storytime, I know which activity he’d pick:
Andrei Kashcha’s City Roads tool beautifully renders every road of any city in the world into a simple line drawing using OpenStreetMap.
I did my hometown of Madison (above), knowing its isthmus gives it a distinct look. I then did the city where I work and discovered that for some reason it includes a large chunk of the interstate that borders it:
Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.
Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:
5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson
A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.
3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”
2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.
1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.
(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)
Other favorite reads
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams
This year in review is a little shorter than the last few, primarily because it consists of whatever I could do outside of work, having and raising a baby, and buying and managing a house—all of which took most of my time and energy. But here, roughly in chronological order, are some highlights from my trip around the sun:
This list happens to coincide perfectly with the period of time I began (1) reading for fun once I graduated college, (2) tracking my reading, and (3) reading a lot more.
This means I had tons of titles to consider. I forced myself to determine which books both expanded my mind and soul, and exhibited exceptional writing or creative vision. Not for nothing, almost all of the chosen ones got 5-star ratings on my Goodreads.
(My yearly best-of lists have a lot more gems that just missed the cut. Consider them honorable mentions.)
Here—listed alphabetically because I spent all my ordering energy on my movies list—are my favorite reads from the last 10 years.
Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs
Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson
Circe by Madeline Miller
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Here by Richard McGuire
How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
The Hunt for Vulcan: And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
Station Eleven by Emily Mandel
The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
Just missed the cut:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler
But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us by Nicholas Carr
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
My initial list for this endeavor had 77 movies. After I barely managed to winnow it down to 50, I just couldn’t figure out how I’d get to that arbitrary yet appealing round number of 10.
But once I realized most of the movies could be grouped pretty cleanly into 10 different categories (some of which I devised myself), that allowed me to compare movies of the same genre or subgenre to each other rather than to movies doing something completely different. Using that system, my top picks of each slot fell almost immediately into place.
Note that the list ranks the movies, not the categories they represent. The categories made picking the top 10 easier, but the finalists in each one—consider them my honorable mentions—wouldn’t have necessarily ended up in the same ranking and often could fit in several of the categories.
As with all best-of lists, I strove to use an alchemy of my head and my heart to make the final determinations, consulting my yearly best-of lists and trusty logbook to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It was at once overwhelming and rewarding to consider all I’ve seen and decide both what has stuck with me the most and what best represents a decade in cinema.
Here’s what I got.
10. This Is Martin Bonner
A serene and sure-handed film about two men with a faith problem, which inspired one of my favorite blog posts.
Category: Quiet Drama
Finalists: Moonlight, The Rider, Paterson, Ida, Columbus, A Ghost Story
How could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?
Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster
8. Minding the Gap
A stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.
Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter
7. The LEGO Movie
What should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.
Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris
An electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.
Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman
A biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hitsalbum (coughJersey Boys) with bad aging makeup(coughJ. Edgar), but as a focused, intentionally contained story that captures its subject and his times with an appropriate mix of reverence and rigor.
Category: Historical Drama
Finalists: Selma, Brooklyn, Inside Llewyn Davis, Roma
1. Hell or High Water
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”
Lots getting tangled up in this steely, ruggedly graceful, no-bullshit modern western: family, friendship, the past, the future, tragedy, redemption. A dangerous momentum drives the two bank-robbing brothers and the lawmen hunting them through a dust-choked Texas toward their fates. All we can do is buckle up and hold on.
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.
Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.
Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.