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Books Music

The long and winding genius of the Pauls (McCartney and Simon)

While trolling for something to read on Hoopla, I came upon Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It’s only available as an audiobook (or “audio biography”), and wisely so since so much of it depends on hearing Simon play his songs amidst his conversations with Gladwell. In that way it’s more like a limited podcast series than a book.

Whatever you call it, Gladwell’s intention was to interrogate the phenomenon of creative genius, and pinpoint how and why it applied to Simon, whose long and wide-ranging musical career set him in contrast to other contemporary artists who may have had higher peaks (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) but didn’t produce at the same level of quality over decades as Simon has.

As Gladwell writes:​

We tend to be much more caught in the peaks of an artist’s career. But why? The true definition of creative genius—to my mind, at least—is someone who is capable of creating something sublime and then, when that moment passes, capable of reconfiguring their imagination and returning to the table with something wholly different and equally sublime.​

Whether Simon meets this criteria is debatable, though Gladwell makes a good case for it.

The other Paul

Regardless, the book found me at a propitious time since I just finished watching and listening to the other famous ’60s singer-songwriter Paul in the documentary The Beatles: Get Back. The film captures McCartney in his first sublime period, which coincided with the transition between The Beatles and his solo work.

His career as a whole is eerily similar to Simon’s: incredible creative and commercial success within a popular group throughout the 1960s, followed by an acrimonious breakup in 1970 and then decades of steady solo output of variable quality.

(Conan O’Brien even had a bit involving Lorne Michaels called “Which Paul is he talking about?” since Lorne is friends with both.)

Per Gladwell’s formulation, both men created something sublime within a relatively condensed cultural moment, then reconfigured their output after that moment passed. Whether those later albums were “wholly different and equally sublime” depends on where you look.

If it’s a choice between The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, I choose the Fab Four all the way. (My cheeky Better The Beatles series notwithstanding.)

But solo-wise, I think Simon’s exceptional ‘70s work combined with the highlights of Graceland (1986), The Rhythm of the Saints (1992), and So Beautiful or So What (2011) give him the edge over McCartney, whose early solo work was definitely the best of all the ex-Beatles (though not perfect), but didn’t approach the sublime until Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007).

Seeing Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field just over 10 years ago remains an all-time life highlight. (By seeing I mean standing outside Wrigley listening and singing along and barely catching a glimpse of him on the Jumbotron. But still.) I regret not being able to see Paul Simon live, as I imagine it would have been just as good but delightfully different. Which, perhaps, is what Gladwell would consider it too.

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Books

Favorite Books of 2019

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

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)