In a recent newsletter about the movement to dismantle the classics, Andrew Sullivan wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.’s syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962, which included Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God—a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man at that time should know.
What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life.
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 Confusedby 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.
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.
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.
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 Distractionand How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In his post on the emotional intelligence of long experience, Alan Jacobs spotlights a letter from the great 18th century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson to his younger friend, who at one point thought he had said something to offend Johnson:
You are not to imagine that my friendship is light enough to be blown away by the first cross blast, or that my regard or kindness hangs by so slender a hair, as to be broken off by the unfelt weight of a petty offence. I love you, and hope to love you long. You have hitherto done nothing to diminish my goodwill, and though you had done much more than you have supposed imputed to you my goodwill would not have been diminished.
I write thus largely on this suspicion which you have suffered to enter your mind, because in youth we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity, but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them. …
When therefore it shall happen, as happen it will, that you or I have disappointed the expectation of the other, you are not to suppose that you have lost me or that I intended to lose you; nothing will remain but to repair the fault, and to go on as if it never had been committed.
This is great advice for life generally, but also during election season specifically. I saw stories of people breaking off relationships with their family members and friends based on their politics—which is, in my humble opinion, a completely asinine thing to do.
Ideologies ebb and flow. Elections come and go. Relationships that matter should endure beyond all of that. If that means making certain discussion topics off limits, all the better. To act otherwise means the terrorists win. (I’m only half joking.)
If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
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 Odds. Righteous 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?
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.
On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future
The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over . There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:
The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
Fandom is eating itself, but from the tone of the article and the culture at large you wouldn’t think this is a bad thing. Tanz describes the end of the panel, when the documentary filmmakers give away replicas of the specially produced Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in Part II to everyone in the audience. “Before the event,” he writes, “I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect. What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Back to the Future has been a foundational element of my life. I don’t remember when exactly I watched the trilogy, but middle school was when it caught on with a fury. Since then it’s embedded itself into my identity so thoroughly that I’ve heard from several friends and acquaintances that I’m the first person they think of to send BTTF-related articles, parodies, fake product announcements, and news bites of every stripe. It’s a distinction I’ve willingly cultivated over the years, what with my effusive writings on the subject, my collection of homemade and gifted memorabilia, my eager attendance at meet-and-greets with cast members, and my delight at two separate encounters (both arranged by my very accommodating father) with cosplaying Doc Browns.
So when I read articles like this, at the tail end of decades of brand-sponsored fandom, I’m conflicted. The incipient parade of new Star Wars films and its adjacent subculture has helped me see this phenomenon of superfandom from the outside. I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. This might be due to not watching them at an impressionable young age as I think was the case with many of its proponents. But, separating my impression of it from its iconic place in film history, I also don’t like them all that much. So when every scrap of news from the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm universe is alternately drooled over and dissected, I get that “uncanny valley” feeling of seeing another version of my BTTF-loving self that doesn’t quite feel right, that I’m prone to criticize or roll my eyes at without realizing how much it looks like me.
In a post called “Withdraw Into Yourself Forever,” Fredrik deBoer criticizes what I’ll call the fandom-industrial complex, the natural outgrowth of a cultural landscape littered with infinitely rebooted Superhero Brand franchises and their surrounding ecosystems that encourage you to keep on loving and buying it in perpetuity, and blur the lines between those two things. “It’s the creation,” deBoer writes, “of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.” And it’s a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated in Wired’s dispatch from Comic Con.
I’m not advocating for consuming only new things or for abandoning the things you love simply because other people like them (nor do I think deBoer is). Rewatching favorite movies, or going back to an album that perfectly scores a moment or mood is a unique thrill—and that in our time is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great bookThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing here:
Whim: Watch what you want, when you want to, without shame.
Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck watching the same stuff—branch out and seek to be a better watcher.
Upstream: Seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream.” It might be challenging sometimes but the rewards will be greater than just coasting downstream.
Responsiveness: Don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to what you’re watching—make moviegoing matter.
Slow: You’ll miss the little things if you view moviegoing as simply uploading information. Slow down and you’ll absorb more.
Jacobs meant for these to be an approach to reading books, but taken together they work just as well for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to consumption of whatever culture you’re into. They’re also a challenge for myself, and a reminder of what other good I could be missing every time I return to Hill Valley, however weirdly charming it is.
I’m not breaking up with BTTF. I married a Jennifer, for Doc’s sake. In 2015 no less . Our first dance was to the movie version of “Earth Angel,” which was immediately followed by a group dance with our bridal party to “Power of Love.” I think I’ve fulfilled my density. The trilogy will always be there for me to enjoy. But the hegemony it has enjoyed over my identity has begun to wane. I don’t want to withdraw into Back to the Future forever. I’m so grateful for its place in my cultural biography and for its fraternity of enthusiastic fans, but I’ve got the same blank page Marty and Jennifer got at the end of the trilogy when Doc says their future hasn’t been written yet, that it would be whatever they made it.
It’s time to explore a new future, and today is as good a time as any to begin doing so.
Footnotes 1.I think November 5, 1955, is the more important date, but who’s asking? 2.Believe it or not, this didn’t dawn on me until a few months before the wedding, which unfortunately didn’t happen in the Chapel O’ Love.
Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”
Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.
This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.
Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:
This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.
Brett McCracken was right to name Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction one of the five books recent college graduates should read. A quick yet deeply insightful read, this book was written, in the words of the author, for “those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago.” Jacobs writes not to those who have never liked reading, but instead to those who have grown accustomed to academic (i.e. obligated) reading or to “checklist” reading, whereby only “classic” or “important” books are deemed worthy of a reader’s time.
Jacobs provides some guidelines for how to read for fun:
Whim: read what you want, when you want to, without shame…
Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck reading the same stuff—branch out
Upstream: seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream”
Responsiveness: don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to the text
Slow: you’ll miss the little things if you view reading as simply uploading information; slow down and you’ll absorb more
Though I read a lot as a kid and through adolescence (if mostly in school), I didn’t start reading for fun again until after college graduation. Faced with an entire life ahead of no-requirements reading (save for the brief graduate school detour), I plunged head first into reading books that greatly interested me. My palate has consisted mostly of history (specifically the presidential kind), nonfiction, and cultural topics, though I try to throw in a novel once in a while.
Like many people, I’m sure, I struggle with the concept of “so many books, so little time,” wanting to read as much as I can so I can get onto the next book. But in our distracted age, it’s important to practice mindfulness and deep thinking in order to buoy our increasingly attention-deficit brains. I want my mind to be strong and agile now and forevermore, if only so I can still shout out Jeopardy! answers when I’m an old man. Taking notes helps in that regard. Since I mostly use library books and can’t write in the books themselves, I keep a notebook nearby to jot down key points, new words, or cool names for future reference. I don’t take notes on everything; some books, like novels and memoirs, I think should just be enjoyed without the interruption of notes.
But whatever your strategy, I encourage you to read and read a lot. Jacobs’ book is the perfect defibrillator for those who have fallen off the reading wagon but want to get back on. As a formerly indifferent reader, I’m glad I rediscovered some literary locomotion. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.