Category: Books

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard lately

Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!

Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.

Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.

In the Heights (movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.

Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.

A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins. Shoutout to the post office.

Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.

On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females

I just finished reading Cameron Blevins’ new book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, which I learned a lot from (see my full notes and quotes from the book below).

One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.

This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”

All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day.

I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.

Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.

Notes & Quotes

(more…)

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard recently

The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.

The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.

Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking by Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.

Media of the moment, toddler edition

Based on the ongoing series, here are the books, movies, and music my two year old is into recently.

So. Many. Books. We have shelves stuffed with board and picture books in four different rooms of our house, plus a stash of library books, so he’s never lacking literature. Some current favorites: Sandra Boynton’s Pookie series, Tap Tap Bang Bang, There’s a Mouse About the House!, and really anything related to trucks.

So. Much. Music. He’s a big fan of the Super Simple Songs catalog, which introduces him to childhood staples like “BINGO” and “Old McDonald”. But it’s very important to me that he gets exposed to quality music for adults too. The last few weeks we’ve listened and/or danced to pop and rock (The Beatles, Paul Simon, HAIM), soul (Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Ben E. King), classical (Mozart, Haydn, Handel), country/folk (Willie Nelson, Uncle Earl, Joe Pug), hip hop (Jay Z, The Roots), and jazz (Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson). Cue The Onion.

Peppa Pig. Might be my favorite of his things to watch. It’s the go-to for when we (or he) need a break. The delightful British silliness has made me laugh a few times.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Like its ancestor Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it’s a sincere (often saccharine), educational, and wholesome vessel for social-emotional development. Bonus points for all the jingles that are helpful for kids and parents (e.g. “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”).

Caitie’s Classroom. Part of the aforementioned Super Simple universe, this YouTube show is also very Mister Rogers-esque, with the cheerful Caitie leading crafts, songs, and field trips that he’s learned a lot from already.

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

(Haven’t done this since before the end-of-year list-o-mania, so check out my favorite books and films of 2020 for a fuller “Media of the Moment” experience.)

Ted Lasso. Throughout the whole 10-episode first season I kept thinking, “How is this show real?” Can’t wait for season two.

Down from Basswood by Lynn Maria Laitala. Went long on this short, wondrous book.

Palm Springs. I love when comedic actors, like Andy Samberg in this instance, stretch into drama. Also love when a movie manages to mix so many genres well—in this case comedy, romance, sci-fi, drama, and even philosophy.

Run. The latest thriller from Aneesh Chaganty (whose debut film Searching was one of my favorites of 2017) puts Sarah Paulson right where she shines, in a role that cloaks a dark edge with a sunny surface. Kudos to her co-star Kiera Allen for an impressive debut.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. Listened to the audiobook and enjoyed when the British narrator adopted Winston Churchill’s distinctive even-more-British accent when quoting him. Remember to be brief.

The Dig. Like The Splendid and the Vile, a stately story set in World War II Britain that was just OK—though Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes were, as always, the best part of it).

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. Documentary about the influence of music and musicians on Carter and his 1976 presidential campaign. Had no idea he was best friends with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Perhaps I’ll make him my next presidential biography…

Contagion. Finally dove into this Steven Soderbergh joint that was eerily prescient about pandemic life, though thankfully more extreme than what COVID-19 hath wrought.

Wings. This 1927 silent film was the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically “Outstanding Picture”). About 30 minutes too long but strikingly style-forward for its time, as this stunning tracking shot demonstrates.

Ghosts of the Abyss. Went on a Titanic kick a while back and stumbled upon this documentary from James Cameron on his 2001 expedition to the Titanic wreck, which captured some incredible footage.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Between this, Broken Flowers, and Patterson, I have yet to be let down by Jim Jarmusch.

A mind for winter

As above…

…snow below:

Before the recent heat wave started melting the abundant snow, I was able to enjoy a moment in the snowfall with Mr. Two Year Old, which is where I grabbed the clips above. I’m so glad he loved it as much as I did.

Anytime I’m able to dwell in idyllic winter weather I think of Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five Windows on the Season, which I read back in 2014. I’m always on the lookout for quotes and books that capture the alluring spirit of winter and why I love it so much, and that book definitely delivered.

But I realized I hadn’t actually taken any notes from it, so I did something I rarely do: I reread a book. Admittedly it was less a full reread and more a skimming for the best quotes, but I’m glad I did because there was lots I failed to note and appreciate the first time.

I included my favorite quotes below, but before that I also want to highlight an excerpt from a poem Gopnik himself quotes—1794’s “The Winter Evening” by English poet William Cowper:

   Oh Winter! ruler of th’ inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art!  …
I crown thee King of intimate delights,
Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

Quotes

  • A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying presence of something else—the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime.
  • Winter’s persona changes with our perception of safety from it. … The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.
  • In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of.
  • The iceberg becomes representative of the ultimate common mystery of the mind—what you don’t see is what counts most—and the snowflake becomes a representation of the radical individualism of each person.
  • The final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall; that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever stranger and more complex patterns, until at last they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.
  • We celebrate continuity and want to renew it; we recognize that continuity has its discontents, and want to reverse it. (re: reversal festivals and renewal feasts)
  • The reason we should be engaged with material life is that our abundance can lead us to acts of altruism.
  • That’s the complex inheritance of modern Christmas. Our recuperative winter is one in which renewal and reversal, anxiety and abundance, epiphany and uneasiness are knotted together. 
  • The earth does renew itself; we don’t. And so we want to connect our human cycle of mere growth and decay, where winter holds no spring, to the natural cycle of renewal. We can’t do it, of course, but we can’t stop trying.
  • The symbolism of the modern, ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, double-faced Christmas is winter symbolism. We need the warmth in order to enter the cold, and at Christmas we need the cold in order to reassert the warmth, need the imagery of the bleak midwinter in order to invoke the star above the stable. If the world has globalized Christmas, Christmas has winterized the world. And so the empire of the winter holiday extends from one end of this continent to another.
  • It is necessary to assert snow in order to evoke sunshine, to make a theatre of winter in order to promise spring, to chill the Baby in order to let him do his thing, to submit to helplessness and winter in order to evoke power and new light.
  • If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.
  • Winter stress makes summer sweetness—and the stress of warm times makes us long for the strange sweetness of cold ones.
  • Stress makes sweetness, and snow and ice are the frosting of loss.
  • That feeling that only the thinnest of membranes, the simple pane of glass separating the onlooker—the poet or the painter or the ordinary child—from the threat beyond is one that has receded from our immediate experience.
  • But instead we give the coldness names, we write it poetry, we play it music, we experience it as a personality—and this is and remains the act of humanism. Armed with that hope, we see not waste and cold but light and mystery and wonder and something called January. We see not stilled atoms in a senseless world. We see winter.
  • Winter is the white page on which we write our hearts.

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

Hernando Columbus at the Sistine Chapel

Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library is a fascinating book for many reasons. It covers an era of history I’ve rarely visited, so that in itself felt like an adventure.

By following the life of Hernando Columbus, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, the book takes detours that venture beyond the well-worn paths of history that are familiar to most people.

One such detour finds Hernando in Rome on legal business:

As the Sacra Rota was not in session on All Souls’ Day (November 1) 1512, Hernando was free to go to the Apostolic Palace that day to witness the unveiling of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, as the rest of Rome did (according to an eyewitness) “even before dust that had been raised from taking down the scaffolding had settled.”

The Sistine Chapel in The Vatican

He just happened to be in Rome and just happened to have the day off, so he was able to see the debut of one of the most famous artworks in history. Of all the gin joints in all the world…

This kind of thing is one of the many reasons I love reading history. You get to watch people cross paths with other historically significant people, places, or things before they’re historically significant. It’s like being an omniscient time traveler with Ebenezer Scrooge-like observation powers, but untethered from your own life.

In other words: “History has its eyes on you.”

Favorite Books of 2020

In his year-end summary of reading, Seth Godin wrote: “Books are an extraordinary device, transitioning through time and space, moving from person to person and leaving behind insight and connection. I’m grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to read (and to write).”

I read 18 books in 2020. For some people that might be a lot, but for me it’s an all-time low and a continuation of a downward trend since my peak of 80 books in 2016. The global pandemic had something to do with it, as once I started working from home I lost the time I had previously spent reading during my daily commute and lunch break.

But that’s OK. Like Seth I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to read at all, let alone whatever I want. Of what I was able to read this year, here (in alphabetical order) is what stood out.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

While I’ve been a fan of Dazed and Confused for a while, I knew next to nothing about its making aside from Richard Linklater’s freewheeling filmmaking style. This book is a good mix of context-setting commentary from the author and contributions from everyone involved with the movie. (The funniest part is everyone dumping on one insufferable actor who thought he was the next Brando.) Rewatched the movie after reading and appreciated it anew.

Choice quote:

Every few years, as a new crop of high schoolers graduates, new generations discover Dazed. The fact that it doesn’t really have a plot means it holds up better with repeat viewings. You aren’t watching for the story. You’re watching to hang out with the characters.

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

I took the online Jeopardy! test back in March after I started working from home. It… didn’t go well. But that made me appreciate the show and its contestants all the more, along with how televised trivia has managed to remain not only relevant but beloved for so long. This book digs into all of that and more with a combination of concision and panache that Alex Trebek (RIP) would appreciate.

Choice quote:

The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. … The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions. The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Set in a dystopian future, this short novel follows a man and his daughter forging a lonely existence in the wilderness. What begins as a rugged, sparse tale soon combines with elements of magical realism, and that’s what really made it sing. Makes me eager to read more Krivak.

Choice quote:

The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story.

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs

Jacobs’s writing is very influential to me. His blog is a constant source of bemused, no-bullshit commentary about politics, religion, culture, and the life of the mind. His latest book seeks to make the case for “temporal bandwidth”—the idea of widening your understanding of the present by engaging with old books and ideas that provide an “unlikeness” to your own assumptions. This means accepting good things about the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.

Choice quote:

If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Nestor’s previous book about freediving really spoke to me, so I was eager to see where he went next. His immersion journalism takes him into the surprisingly deep terrain of respiration, especially timely this year given how central breathing is to Covid-19 transmission. Obviously breathing is important to your health, right? But it’s fairly astounding how just breathing deeply through your nose can improve your overall well-being. This book taught me a lot, but mostly it made me more attentive to the aspects of our humanity we often take for granted.

Choice quote:

Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread through the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village meet Home Alone. Though I read Brooks’s previous book World War Z, it didn’t stick with me nearly as much as this one, which treads similar realistic sci-fi territory. Because the main event is right there in the title, the dramatic tension builds so exquisitely throughout the book. It was one of those stories that delightfully defied prediction, and managed to end on a tantalizing yet satisfying note.

Choice quote:

They all want to live “in harmony with nature” before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson

One of my favorite authors, Johnson nailed it again with this riveting historical epic that weaves together 17th-century seafaring, the surprising culture of pirate ships, the dawn of the multinational corporation, and much more. Johnson’s magic trick is being able to stuff so much fascinating information into a crisp narrative without making it seem stuffed. It really feels like a rewarding reading journey.

Choice quote:

Ancient history is always colliding with the present in the most literal sense: our genes, our language, our culture all stamp the present moment with the imprint of the distant past.

Go to Sleep (I Miss You): Cartoons from the Fog of New Parenthood by Lucy Knisley

This laugh-out-loud hilarious cartoon collection is a short, sweet, and stunningly accurate depiction of the small moments and observations new parenthood allows. Though mostly geared toward the experience of mothers, so much of it resonated with me. Really glad to have stumbled upon this at my library’s New Graphic Novels shelf.

Choice quote:

Dude, I love you so much… but could you *please* stop discovering the infinite wonder of the world for, like, two minutes?

Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss (review)

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories: how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war; and how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground. I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations. But if you share my interests in librarianship, archives, history, and World War II, you’ll dig this.

Choice quote:

The war challenged these librarians, archivists, scholars, and bibliophiles to turn their knowledge of books and records toward new and unpredictable ends. The immediacy and intensity of their experience tested them psychologically and physically. Whether soldier or civilian, American-born or émigré, these people’s lives changed as they engaged in this unusual wartime enterprise. They stepped up to the moment, confronting shifting and perplexing circumstances armed only with vague instructions and few precedents to guide them.

Favorite non-2020 books I enjoyed

  • Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset (review)
  • The Night Lives On: Thoughts, Theories and Revelations about the Titanic by Walter Lord
  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee