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How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)

When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.

With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.

One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

* * *

It’s October 2019, and I begin with Malcolm Gladwell. The funny thing about these courses is that you have a relationship with the teachers already — or at least with their reputation. Gladwell has a host of detractors. He’s been reproached for oversimplification and vast generalization, for illogical arguments and a lack of critical thinking. A book reviewer once wondered why Gladwell didn’t “hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious.” But nobody questions Gladwell’s ability to write. He is the small-town Canadian boy who made it to the New Yorker on the strength of catchy ideas, brilliantly told. I have been reading his books, sometimes despite myself, for years.

Gladwell teaches his class in a cozy space that looks like a cross between a bar and an apartment. A chess set on a low table behind him suggests something intellectually challenging could happen, but no worries, strong drinks will be served. Ever the model pupil, I open a fresh notebook and write down every other sentence Malcolm says, intent on letting no insight or bon mot slip my attention. I spend so much of my life teaching that it feels like a treat to be a student again, waiting to be filled up with wisdom. It helps that Gladwell is wry and quietly charming, his self-effacing good humor belying a deep seriousness about the calling of writing. More importantly for me, he offers a lot of practical advice — nitty-gritty tips for conducting interviews, structuring articles, and building characters.

I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

Having so much concrete information about how he goes about his work makes me feel confident that I could do it too. Suddenly, this all seems possible. I will become a fantastic writer! I will publish features in the New Yorker and give entertaining talks to sold-out auditoriums! David Remnick will invite me to dinner and I’ll have everyone in stitches with my anecdotes! Pass the butter!

Most exhilarating for me is Gladwell’s approach to imperfection. “What you find interesting is not perfection,” he explains. An imperfect moment in an essay irritates readers just a little, like “red pepper,” but keeps them thinking and talking about it. Gladwell appears generous, providing his audience with surprises and space to draw their own connections. But he’s also happy to make promises he won’t keep, or to force an unwieldy argument together with writing. His way of working is wildly unlike my good-girl academic mindset, but it seems suited to getting things done. “The task of a successful writer,” he says while arguing for bad first drafts, “is to lower the bar.”

Of course, it is one thing for your writing buddy to tell you to embrace your imperfections and slam out a crappy draft, and another for Malcolm Gladwell to do it. Success creates its own truth. This is the MasterClass formula: once a person is famous enough they acquire a charismatic glow. Their counsel is prudent, their past decisions are justified, and their jokes are funnier, too.

* * *

Gladwell’s MasterClass leaves me energized. Writing seems more manageable now, simply a matter of the right tools and attitude. I decide to work on one of my weak areas. Due to a series of curious life choices, I trained to become a scholar and teacher but wound up spending much of my workday carrying out managerial tasks. MasterClass is ready to help me, however, with a course by Anna Wintour on “Creativity and Leadership.” There is a cheekiness to offering advice on how to deal with employees when a hit movie has been made about your notoriously demanding — if not outright callous — management style. Then again, maybe I could use a bit of that Wintour ruthlessness, or what might be called “decisiveness” if she were a man.

The course introduction confirms my suspicion that its appeal is as much about offering a glimpse of the woman behind the mysterious sunglasses as it is about learning how to deliver negative feedback. Sitting in a discreetly lavish apartment, and wearing a stunning green dress with bulky statement jewelry, Wintour describes her vertiginous rise to the top — from somewhere remarkably close to the top. She learned the ropes from her father, Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard in London at the time. (She leaves out the part where he arranged her first job at Biba, a trendy fashion store.) Much of the course revolves around Wintour’s comfort with risky decisions, even if they are wrong. She deals with her mistakes by owning, acknowledging, then moving briskly past them. It sounds like excellent advice for people cushioned by money and an astounding network of connections. By the time Wintour says, “act like no one’s telling you ‘no,’” I want to ask her if anyone ever did.


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The most depressing thing about Wintour’s advice is that it is not wrong. “Own your decisions,” she says, “and own who you are, without apologizing.” It’s just that most people do have to apologize at some point in their lives. (If they are Canadian, like me, they will apologize to complete strangers simply for disturbing the air in their general vicinity.) I want to see a visionary describe how they wrestled with mistakes that had real consequences. Wintour’s suggestion to give direct feedback does give me the courage to have a frank conversation with an employee, and we are both better off for it. But I wonder how her life lessons could possibly translate to someone else’s reality.

The name MasterClass also increasingly bothers me. I remember when I first saw the term (as the two-word “master class”) on a poster in graduate school. A musician friend explained that a visiting eminence would work with one of the students on stage, correcting and training them right in front of an audience. It sounded horrifying, but my friend said it was an honor to be chosen for this kind of specialized attention.

Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

Over the years, I began to see all kinds of things called master classes, not just intensive live workshops for people who already had a thorough grounding in their field but online introductions to topics like social media marketing and meditation. Why couldn’t people just take classes, I wondered, especially when they knew nothing about the topic? Were they worried about feeling like a child again, afraid of admitting their own ignorance? Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

* * *

It seems easy to turn into a success story when you start out young and privileged. I want to watch a self-starter, someone who had to figure out how to practice their craft on their own. Enter Werner Herzog, who materializes on a dark, empty film set, wearing a green Bavarian-style jacket with elbow patches. Herzog begins with his childhood: the bombing of Munich, his escape with his mother to the mountains, living with no running water and only occasional electricity. “I did not see films until I was eleven,” he says, “in fact, I was not even aware that cinema even existed until I was eleven.” I know there is some legend-polishing here, especially when he mentions the bombing again in the second video, but it’s a more appealing myth than the well-connected London girl who becomes editor of Vogue in her thirties.

Herzog has the air of a professor who has cultivated his eccentric persona for so long that he can now let it do most of the work. His voice alone, at once hypnotic and foreboding, brings me back to evenings in grad school when my German boyfriend did his best to introduce me to the highlights of the Herzog film corpus. Lessons of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man — we watched these masterpieces on his laptop in bed. I usually fell asleep after about 20 minutes, occasionally waking up just enough to be confused by a burning oil field or a screaming Klaus Kinski. Still, that boyfriend became my husband, so I have a soft spot for old Werner. I don’t need him to make sense or teach me anything practical. I’m not going to make a movie. I’m just hoping to absorb some of the unflinching resolve of a man who once ate his own shoe after losing a bet.

Although the course is aimed at budding filmmakers, much of Herzog’s advice applies to making art in general. It helps that he speaks in enigmatic aphorisms: “you have to know, you have to know, that you are the one who can move a ship over a mountain.” It also helps that he cares very little about the standard ways of doing things or about the rules of a particular medium. Herzog’s advice is to search for inspiration in a wide range of music and books, to gather nuggets that can be reshaped into a snippet of dialogue or an unusual camera angle. I love this, probably because it confirms so many of my own beliefs. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!” he intones, and laments all the prestigious film-school students he meets who do not read and are doomed, as he puts it, to be “mediocre at very best.” Could I make my own students watch this? Could I show them Herzog reading the opening of the Poetic Edda out loud, explaining how its laconic description of the creation of the world and the birth of the gods helps him edit his scenes?

There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them.

My semester is shifting from intense to overwhelming, so I watch much of the course while folding laundry or cutting vegetables for dinner, chuckling at reliably absurd Herzogisms. My notebook and pen are always close by, but my notes wind up as cryptic as his movies. What is the iguana? The Swiss chocolate? Why have I written down “20 milking cows”? Something penetrates my distraction, though: the intensity of Herzog’s belief in his own films, and by extension, in the power of great art. Although I teach literature for a living, I rarely hear my fellow scholars talk about why creative work matters. And seldom does anyone venture a judgement about the quality of a book or a poem. It seems like it would be overstepping our boundaries to call something “excellent,” or “middling,” or even “bad.” We are deft at dissecting novels and plays, pinning down their references and ideologies and unresolvable tensions, but not particularly good at putting things together. I realize at this point how ill-suited years in the academy have made me for making art.

My husband walks into the room at one point and watches a few minutes with me. “With Herzog you get the feeling that he absolutely does not censor himself,” he says quietly, “No self-doubt. He totally trusts his own judgement.” Mired as I am in endless discussions with my inner critic, I find something beautiful about Herzog’s assurance in the brilliance of his own work — even when it is, let’s be honest, kind of awful. A deep belief in my writing would give me the freedom both to make a mess on the page and to edit it ruthlessly. Herzog seems to be speaking directly to me when he says that “there’s something much bigger than your own quest for perfection: your own quest for inner truth.”

* * *

Three months in, the MasterClasses are beginning to frustrate me. There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them. Am I ever going to be the editor of a fashion magazine? No. Am I ever going to direct a movie in Antarctica? Actually, come to think of it, even that’s more likely than the fashion magazine. I want something within reach, I want a celebrity to teach me something I can actually try to do. I have spent untold hours watching Gordon Ramsay tell people what they’re doing wrong in the kitchen — now it’s time for him to show me how to do it right.

In order to do Gordon’s cooking class full justice, I prepare a full dinner spread and bring it to the couch on a tray. I have baked frozen miniature spring rolls and jalapeno poppers in my oven, which at this point has had a broken thermometer for about four months. For a touch of class and nutrition, I also have fresh radishes. And a cold beer. It is some sight.

The class is set in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, which is spacious, sunlit, all marble and polished steel, and filled with jars of fresh herbs. Through the window we catch a glimpse of a manicured lawn, a backyard pool, and behind it a gently rolling Cornish hill. This kitchen is possibly the most pornographic thing I have ever seen. I try not to think about my own kitchen, which my husband and I outfitted in a hurry when we moved into our bare apartment, as you have to in Germany. The cabinets were the cheapest available from Ikea, and we bought them second hand. We got our fridge from someone who had used it to store raw meat for his dog. All of it began falling apart immediately.

Ramsay is annoying at first. He repeats himself a lot. Everything is “unbelievable.” At one point he demonstrates how to choose good produce, picking up flawless baby vegetables from a tray in front of him and showing them to the camera. (“Unbelievable!”) I think about how I could not buy those vegetables even if I had the time to seek them out in my city. But as I let the videos roll on, I start to find him charming. I have watched Ramsay play a dour taskmaster in a series of television shows by now, but here he has the enthusiasm of a labrador retriever. He explains how to lovingly brush carrots with toothbrushes instead of peeling them (confession: I will never do this), and describes herbs as being like “a lady putting perfume on.” Then he demonstrates how to sharpen knives and I’m off to the races.

I have a decent set of knives — a remnant from my childless twenties, when I did footloose things like take the free knife-skills classes offered at Williams-Sonoma. The day after beginning Gordon’s course, I go on a hunt for my knife sharpener, which finally appears behind an entire regiment of mismatched tupperware. I spend a meditative afternoon sharpening my knives, testing each one by slicing it through a piece of paper I hold up in the air. At one point my son and husband walk into the kitchen, see me with all the knives, and quietly slink out again. I feel powerful. My knives are sharp. I can cut things again. I resolve to use my honing steel every time I cook, with the exact up-and-down movement Gordon taught me. It gives me the feeling of being a kitchen warrior.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course.

Gordon’s is the one course I don’t watch in order. Instead, I pick the recipes I think I can manage given the state of my oven. I decide to attempt the poached eggs and mushrooms on brioche. To my surprise, my local discount supermarket carries brioche buns, most of which my delighted son eats before we make it to breakfast. I get up on Sunday morning, make myself a pot of coffee, review the recipe, and cook alone for an hour. The result is not perfect. I oversalt the mushroom-and-bacon mixture. My eggs come out a bit harder than I would’ve liked. It has been so long since I have poached an egg that I’ve forgotten how to do it.

But the time spent in the kitchen, learning some new techniques and remembering others, brings me back to the early days of my relationship to my husband. There was a time in our lives when we would spend an entire weekend day trying out a new recipe, or experimented with poaching eggs three different ways to see which method was best. Now we put eggs in water with a tiny mechanical device that plays “Killing Me Softly” to let us know they are soft-boiled. You could say our standards have fallen. But on this particular day, we eat so much brioche with protein on it that we are unable to move for hours. I’m not sure what makes me feel younger, trying out a new recipe or spending an entire day doing nothing afterwards.

Emboldened, I take on experiment number two: lobster ravioli. Fresh lobster would be impossible to get, but I look up a vegetarian filling with spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts. Nor can I find the correct Italian flour, so I settle for the most promising alternative. But life intervenes, and by the time I have a few hours to make fresh pasta, most of the eggs have disappeared from the fridge. I decide to make a smaller batch, with the wrong flour, just one egg, and a bit of oil and water — after all, I think, surely an Italian nonna could make do without the ideal number of eggs? The dough turns out tough, and my wrist hurts trying to soften it, which seems far from the sensuous experience Gordon is having as he expertly kneads his pasta dough in the video.

My son comes to the kitchen to see what I am doing, and I convince him to join me. He tries to knead the pasta with his little hands, helps me roll out the dough and run it through the pasta machine. Sometimes he loses interest in the work but likes staying close to me, and I find it comforting to feel this small, curious creature by my side. At one point he insists on making a dough of his own out of flour and water, which I am to fry for him. After three hours of labor, we manage to produce a grand total of ten ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta; in all the excitement I forgot to add the pine nuts. We supplement our small dinner with my son’s fry bread, cut in half and smeared with cream cheese. Making and shaping the dough has been so pleasurable that we don’t mind that we got almost every part of the recipe wrong and had very little to show for our efforts. In the weeks that come, my son and I make pasta again, screwing it up even more thoroughly, and having even more fun.

* * *

The idyll does not last long. My life is increasingly taken over by work. In January, I am part of a grant renewal application that involves a two-day inspection by a crew of visiting scholars, a process in which millions of Euros of funding are at stake. I remember that I am, in fact, expected to demonstrate mastery at my job. In my morning shower and before I fall asleep at night, I practice answers to potential questions, working out what impressive German abstract nouns I need to survive this experience. I try to cultivate an air of confidence, but worry it might be coming out more Herzog than Wintour. But the questions we get are not the ones I practiced, and by the end of the ordeal my project is booted out. I travel to my hometown to teach for a few months, and the hassle of settling in helps me put the failure out of mind. Then, a few weeks later, I learn that someone I trusted has spread a damaging lie about me. My stomach drops. I feel rage. Then I feel as though I have left my body altogether. A day later, my lower back spasms. I wind up immobile in bed.

I had planned to learn tennis with Serena Williams or do barre with Misty Copeland, but here I am in a rented house in a rented bed, moaning in pain if I turn as much as an inch. Propped up against pillows that do little more than fix my body in the least excruciating position, I have little patience for books or even television. Then MasterClass sends me one of its emails, and I can barely believe my eyes: it’s RuPaul.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course. This particular class is only nominally about drag: it claims to be about “Self-Expression and Authenticity.” This is convenient, because covered with heating pads and smeared with a variety of pungent salves, I’m not in much of a position to try and look fabulous. Still, I would watch RuPaul explain the finer points of installing drywall, so I click the button to join.

By this point, I have realized that there are two kinds of teachers. Some focus on transmitting their skills. They seem to be saying to the student: “this is how to do what I do.” Others offer themselves as models to be imitated: “this is how I became who I am.” Many MasterClass instructors pretend they are selling the former while in fact delivering the latter. RuPaul doesn’t even pretend. Dressed in a carmine suit and seated against a black-and-neon set reminiscent of Studio 54, RuPaul talks about some of the most basic challenges of growing up in the world. He describes the course of his career, the role artistic inspirations played in his life, the challenges of addiction, criticism, and just plain being ignored. I take no notes — I physically can’t. But I am moved by RuPaul’s vulnerability, a refreshing change of pace after the unrelenting cockiness of the other teachers. Instead of presenting himself as magnificent from the get-go, brave and destined for greatness, he comes across as a human being who had been broken but helped along his way by kind mentors, friends, and a lot of therapy.

Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

The other MasterClass teachers seemed impervious to criticism, able to brush it off with a knowing smile. But what do you do when you are not born that way, or if you have been brought up to value the opinions of others, sometimes to a fault? In one episode, RuPaul describes the unquenchable hunger of bullies to feed their fragile egos: “The only time they feel visible is when they create pain.” I reflect on how attached I still am to what people think of me, and how hard this makes it to distance myself from the hurt they cause even when I know they act out of their own self-loathing. RuPaul’s answer is to focus on finding what he calls “your natural frequency, your natural energy source.” Incapacitated, I can muster little of my usual cynicism about talk of “energies.” Besides, I like what he seems to be getting at. Maybe the secret to freedom is not to emulate the bravado of a few wildly successful people, but to tap into what feels true. According to RuPaul, doing so will draw other people with a similar energy to yours, but, “like a garden, it takes managing. You have to cultivate it.” Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

I binge-watch RuPaul’s MasterClass late into the night. I am only half-focussing when a story breaks through my daze. RuPaul recalls his parents divorcing when he was seven. His father had custody on the weekends, and every weekend, little RuPaul would sit on the front porch waiting for his father to pick him up. His father never came. RuPaul looks straight into the camera and speaks softly now, to the child he somewhere still is: “Baby, that had nothing to do with you.” I think of my father, who left my life eight years ago, who is now just an hour’s drive away, and who I know I will not see. I think about the grandson he has never met. I am fuzzy on the details, but this may be when I begin weeping like a baby. Ru breaks down too as he describes his own journey to sobriety. And there we are, two people separated by a screen, crying together in the dark.

* * *

Half a year after starting my MasterClass adventure, I am a different person from the eager pupil who scribbled down every pearl of wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell’s lips. I am disappointed in other people and — in a distant way I cannot quite place — also in myself. I wish I were stronger, or easier to transform. My back still hurts. And if that were not enough, I have returned home to voluntary quarantine. Now, instead of a fun distraction from everyday life, the computer is my only point of contact with the rest of the world. I cannot bear to see more people talking on the screen, but there are not too many other places to go.

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening. The instructor, Ron Finley, is a fashion designer turned urban-gardening advocate. MasterClass pitches him as a “gangsta gardener,” and he offers fresh, zen koan-like takes along the lines of “Air is gangsta as fuck” and “When Bambi dies, or some shit… no one buries it.” At first, I ignore the ads. I have no green thumb. My rap sheet includes a long list of potted herbs, houseplants, and even cacti that I have, by some amazing level of neglect, managed to dry to death. In the past 20 years I have moved through a variety of dorm rooms, house-sits, and rental apartments in three countries. How could I grow something when I have barely put down roots myself?

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening.

The ads keep coming. One night, I have a dream about planting a garden. Then I get flashes of another version of myself: a teenager tending to the front and back yards of my family home. I had the boring chores of raking leaves and mowing the lawn, but I also grew flowers and pulled weeds and cared for a bed of strawberries. I remember now how I used to pore over seed and bulb catalogues, calculating the amount of sun each part of our yard received, imagining how I could replace our lawn with a glorious cacophony of color, if only my parents would fund the project. I never did manage to plant the garden I dreamt of. One bad spring my mother spread grass seeds all over my flower bed, and in my anger I gave up gardening altogether.

I start the course.

Finley is charismatic and funny and, wouldn’t you know it, down-to-earth. He’s not precious about gardening, a point he makes by showing how to turn a wooden dresser drawer into a makeshift planter. The course itself is not so much a master class as a basic introduction to keeping a plant alive. Finley stands behind his big wooden table and rubs different kinds of soil between his hands to show how to recognize the good, loamy kind that plants will flourish in. He gently eases seedlings out of their pots and pats them into the ground, pokes holes with his finger, and pops in sugar snap peas. Given that I haven’t touched a bag of soil in over two decades, this is what I need.

Between little jokes like “size does matter… in a garden,” Finley slips in an entire philosophy of being in the world. He describes building a relationship to plants as a way of connecting to one’s body, one’s environment, to life itself. Learning to care for plants, he says, is a way to learn to care for yourself. As he shows how to loosen the roots of a nursery plant or divide a sprouted sweet potato, Finley calls attention to the creative force deep inside all living things. “Plants want to grow, they wanna live, they wanna thrive,” he says, and I’m enchanted by the potential of survival he sees in a part of life I had wholly overlooked. I can’t remember looking at a plant and not seeing a future reproach.

In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own.

Watching these videos makes me want to nurture something. I run to my kitchen and pick up a pot of fragile supermarket parsley. I pick off the dry leaves, then water it. A few days later, it has perked up. I gain courage. That weekend, I go with my family to a garden center, where we don our masks and look through fogged glasses at a bewildering variety of soils. We spend hours on our balcony, mixing soil with fertilizer, planting a cut-off wine barrel full of kitchen herbs. In other pots, we give a tiny strawberry seedling and a tomato plant a chance next to some sprouted onions from the pantry that I have learned how to divide on YouTube. In the days that follow, the three of us are stupidly happy. We go out on the balcony, stare at the plants the way parents watch sleeping newborns, call each other to witness how quickly they have grown. Then, what begins as an experiment turns into a minor obsession. Flowers and a miniature olive tree join the herbs. We plant peas and potatoes, and my son and I try germinating seeds for herbs we could not find in the store. There is no special talent here: it is an ordinary hobby, but that does not dull its wonder.

As I observe our seedlings take root and flourish, it dawns on me how little power I have over their growth. I can provide them with a fertile space to be. I nurture, prune, and guide them as necessary. I can destroy them through neglect or poor decisions. But I do not make them what they are. In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own. It is what being pregnant felt like. It is also how some essays have come to me, in full bud and pressing to be written down.

More often than not, though, making things in the world feels like slamming dead clay on the ground, hoping that enough force might shape it into something beautiful. It occurs to me that what I have to learn in my little balcony garden has nothing to do with mastery. As I watch the cilantro and the basil and even the sad supermarket parsley take root, I feel that I am coming back to myself, to a part of me I had forgotten. Here it is at last: something new.

***

Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.

Editor: Ben Huberman

A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List

A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List

Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach performing. William Gottlieb/Redferns

I am a jazz devotee, the kind with shelves of jazz books and photos of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in his home office. Because I love music so much, I want to understand where it came from, and learn about the people who made it.

What is jazz? “It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires,” Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest. “Jazz was created by a people obsessed with their survival in a time that did not want them to survive, and so it is a genre of myths—of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you, or until the noise is an echo in your own head that won’t rest.”

Jazz is a uniquely American creation. People all over the world play it, and no matter how many talented white musicians play it, it was created and primarily redefined by Americans of color. Jazz is music that cannot be separated from the racially divided country that produced its musicians.

“Put it this way,” Duke Ellington said. “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

Like critic Gary Giddin’s arbitrary map of post-war jazz, this list collects just a few of my favorite stories — mostly about my favorite period of jazz, from Bop to Hard bop. You’ll find a lot of worthwhile jazz reading in collections by Whitney Balliett, in the anthology Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, and in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. James Baldwin’s short story ”Sonny’s Blues” is essential jazz fiction. Of course, you could write a huge list of must-read jazz books, though these are the stories that stay with me, or that handle jazz’s big names and issues exceptionally well. I’m sure I missed many things. But as Miles Davis said, “Do not fear mistakes.”

* * *

I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” (Luc Sante, The Believer, November 1, 2004)

Sante’s short essay is two things: an etymology of the term “funky,” and a profile of mythic, 19th century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, whose song “Funky Butt” turned “funk” into a musical concept. One of the many important figures who helped create what we call jazz, Bolden was a respected improvisational player in his time. Unfortunately, no recordings of Bolden survive, and reliable historical details are hazy. We know that he was institutionalized and died young. Sante conjures Bolden from the haze, painting a vivid, living portrait of a musical mystery man and his era.

He starts with a location: the site of a demolished church that doubled as a dance hall where Bolden performed. “On Saturday nights,” Sante writes, “it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking.” As a reader I have a bias for stories of lost or nearly lost people and things, but Sante’s voice and sideways way of telling this one is what ultimately stays with me. This piece seamlessly weaves scenes with conversational exposition. And the essay’s structure does what essays can do: start in one place and end in a very different place.

Our Lady of Sorrows” Francis Davis, The Atlantic, November, 2000)

No matter how much you love Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, no one can deny that Billie Holiday remains one of jazz’s greatest singers. Along with her stirring music and delivery, she stands as a tragic symbol, “a victim,” as critic Francis Davis writes, “of both injustice and her own vices.” In this probing piece, he illuminates her artistic achievements and enduring stature by peering behind persistent stereotypes and listeners’ projections to see who Holiday truly was as a person and a singer. “The singer nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ or just ‘Lady’ has become an all-purpose Our Lady of Sorrows,” Davis writes, “embraced by many of her black listeners (and by many women and gay men) not just as a favorite performer but as a kind of patron saint. She touches such fans where they hurt, soothing their rage even while delivering a reminder of past humiliations and the potential for more.” Davis also wonders how she became so deeply connected to the idea of sadness. Part of the answer has to do with her masterpiece about racism and lynching, “Strange Fruit.” “If the story suggests that ‘Strange Fruit’ ultimately became a way for her to release her anger,” Davis writes, “it also suggests that her anger could be unfocused, her racial indignation mixed up with resentment at her mistreatment by the men in her life, her persecution by the law, and the public’s preference for blander female singers.”

“The Charlie Christian Story” (Ralph Ellison, Saturday Review, May 17, 1958)

Although famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison published many essays. This one is about pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose scorching solos made too few appearances on record but whose small body of highly stylized work transformed amplified music. By a twist of fate, Ellison grew up with Christian in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, Ellison’s essay is not online. You can read it in his book Shadow and Act. While you’re there, read his essay on Charlie Parker, too, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz.” Ellison was a singular voice and his ideas created a lasting portrait of racism in America. Reading this essay makes me grateful he was so influenced by jazz.

You might not know Charlie Christian’s name, but when you hear an electric guitar, be it rock or jazz or Blues, you hear Christian. “Some of the most brilliant jazzmen made no records,” Ellison writes. “So at best the musical contributions of these local, unrecorded heroes of jazz are enjoyed by a few fellow musicians and by a few dancers who admire them and afford them the meager economic return which allows them to keep playing…” Christian almost became one of those lost local musicians, but thankfully, he ended up in Benny Goodman’s band and lived long enough to get some of his genius on record.

Bird-Watcher” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008)

Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most influential musicians in history. An indisputable genius, he also suffered greatly, died at age 34, and left a vast body of work that people are still studying decades after his death in 1955. David Remnick profiled one of those hardcore Bird fans, Phil Schaap. The obsessive, detail-oriented Schaap had hosted the Parker-themed radio show “Bird Flight” for 27 years back in 2008. It was a show that fed a jazz fan’s curiosity while also testing their patience, or as Remnick put it, blurred “the line between exhaustive and exhausting.” Remnick doesn’t question Parker’s contribution or examine his music. He focuses on the way jazz completely shaped Schaap’s life and on his approach to his radio show. (Schaap was partially raised by jazz legends, including drummer Jo Jones, with whom he watched cartoons and played records.) Why does he play countless, poorly recorded, live renditions of Parker songs? Why does he pontificate on air for hours on historical minutia and the meanings of song titles and lost recordings? Because jazz obsessives like Schaap preserve the details of a musical history that increasingly few people care about. Ultimately, Remnick recognizes that Schaap’s invaluable cultural service goes beyond jazz, that “Schaap puts his frenzied memory and his obsessive attention to the arcane in the service of something important: the struggle of memory against forgetting—not just the forgetting of sublime music but forgetting in general.” Bird was one of a kind, and Schaap is, too.

The Grandest Duke” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Review of Books, October 28, 2010)

Ostensibly a review of Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, O’Brien’s essay expands to cover the grand scope of Ellington’s entire professional creative life. One of history’s greatest composers, Ellington was not strictly an American jazz composer. He was a visionary global artist, even though he was shaped by, and in return shaped, the racially segregated America he inhabited. Stanley Crouch, a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature, called Ellington “the most American of Americans.” Ellington not only managed to succeed commercially in a divided nation, he succeed without compromising his artistic freedom, his musical vision, or his identity. Like the book it reviews, O’Brien’s essay goes beyond biography to examine how Ellington managed his career, his public image, and of course, his music, across decades of American life. “Reading Cohen’s book,” writes O’Brien, “we begin in one nation and end in quite a different one… Of many artists it can be said that deep cultural currents can be read through their work; much rarer are those who, like Ellington, worked so powerfully and subtly on those currents as to transform them.”

Black, Brown, and Beige” (Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, May 10, 2010)

Miles Davis said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Ellington’s range is so vast that he’s worth reading about twice here. Responding to Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont takes her examination of America’s Beethoven in a more particular direction than Geoffrey O’Brien did in his review. Drawing its title from Ellington’s unfinished piece “Black, Brown, and Beige,” Pierpont’s piece focuses on what Ellington’s career reveals about race in America. “Black, Brown, and Beige” was not well received. This stung Ellington especially hard, since the work celebrated Black history, following the many strands of Black culture from Africa to the United States. For insight, she follows Ellington’s long musical life back to its beginning:

“More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was a done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton brushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. …Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical reviews.”

“What,” Pierpont asks, “was he thinking?” Meaning: how does Ellington’s early period square with his middle and later periods? It is a legitimate question about an artist whose work and reputation tried to transcend race in a world that would never let any artist of color remain unaffected by racial dynamics.

Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Getty Images

“At the Five Spot” (Stanley Crouch, Considering Genius, 2006)

Crouch is a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature. In 2003, JazzTimes fired him as a columnist for his article “Putting the White Man in Charge,” where he correctly argues that “white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” Crouch did fine without that magazine. He’s opinionated. Some critics claim he has too narrow a set of aesthetic guidelines for what good jazz is. But he wrote the best book on Charlie Parker, called Kansas City Lightning, and his ideas about music, race, and history are brilliantly observed, finely articulated, and thought-provoking. I like my thoughts being provoked, just like I like my music to push me. In this book Considering Genius, Crouch writes many powerful, controversial jazz essays. “At the Five Spot” covers Thelonious Monk’s 1957 stint at the iconic Five Spot club in Manhattan, painting a portrait of this singular jazz composer and stylist at what is arguably his creative peak, and what makes him a genius. Originally written in 1977, the piece appears in his book Considering Genius.

Jazz and the White Critic” (Amiri Baraka, Down Beat, 1963)

Crouch and poet and critic Baraka had a contentious relationship, but after JazzTimes fired Crouch, Baraka defended Crouch’s right to his musical opinion, especially with music. Baraka examined jazz at a time when few Black critics were publishing essays about the music. He has written timeless, influential pieces about jazz and race in America, most notably “Jazz and the White Critic.” He challenged critics to quit examining the music without examining its musicians’ lived experience, treating the music as if it emerged sui generis, as a collection of sounds, when it was, as he writes, inseparable from “the attitude that produced it.” “The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy…” He begins the essay:

Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been. This might seem a simple enough reality to most people, or at least a reality which can be readily explained in terms of the social and cultural history of American society. And it is obvious why there are only two or three fingers’ worth of Negro critics or writers on jazz, say, if one understands that until relatively recently those Negroes who could become critics, who would largely have to come from the black middle class, have simply not been interested in the music. Or at least jazz, for the black middle class, has only comparatively recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority). Jazz was collected among the numerous skeletons the middle-class black man kept locked in the closet of his psyche, along with watermelons and gin, and whose rattling caused him no end of misery and self-hatred. As one Howard University philosophy professor said to me when I was an undergraduate, “It’s fantastic how much bad taste the blues contain!“ But it is just this “bad taste“ that this Uncle spoke of that has been the one factor that has kept the best of Negro music from slipping sterilely into the echo chambers of middle-brow American culture. And to a great extent such “bad taste“ was kept extant in the music, blues or jazz, because the Negroes who were responsible for the best of the music were always aware of their identities as black Americans and really did not, themselves, desire to become vague, featureless, Americans as is usually the case with the Negro middle class.

Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Map” (Gary Giddins, Village Voice, June 4, 2002)

Gary Giddins has long been one of jazz’s most passionate and incisive authors — authoritative but approachable, rigorous but not academic. You see him speaking in many jazz documentaries. He wrote the Village Voice’s his “Weather Bird” column for years. In 2002, he decided to create what he called “an overview” of jazz records during the post-swing heyday of Bop, Hard bop, free, avant-guarde, and modern jazz, so he challenged himself: He would create a map by selecting a single jazz song for each year between 1945 and 2001. Just one song. Then he’d write a paragraph about each song — for 57 songs! That was a gargantuan undertaking that exhausted me just thinking about it, and “choosing,” he wrote, “was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak.” Why subject himself to this? “I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation.”

He acknowledged his subjective map’s inherent flawsone and the many ways readers would disagree with his choices. (Only one song? The year 1957 alone produced countless jazz masterpieces!) “An infinite number of maps were possible,” he said, “all of them valid.” Instead of debating him, Giddins wrote, he invited readers to make their own selections to enjoy the process of revisiting the music. “For me,” he wrote, “the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn’t revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration.” Reading this is fun. You can dip in and out for years, reading your favorite years or your favorite artists. And although I will never subject myself to the grueling process of mapping jazz’s years myself, I do appreciate the chance to listen closely to the music. That’s why anything like this matters.

Heroine” (David Hajdu, The New Republic, December 24, 2006)

Jazz has no shortage of brilliant, tragic figures. Sometimes their destructive behavior is inseparable from their body of work. Foremost among them was singer Anita O’Day. Many listeners called her the greatest of all jazz singers, but the substances that helped her swing also ensured she never reached the top like Ella Fitzgerald. Hadju explores how O’Day’s singular delivery, her whole approach, was unfortunately related to inebriation. Or in his words, he shows us “the error in defining her by either her substance abuse or her singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.” Even short pieces like this make it clear why Hajdu has long been one of America’s foremost writers. “Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost,” he writes. “Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity.”

O’Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she is to appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. We like our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, like O’Day’s long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in their music we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker) or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evil soul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to know about it. We want to hear only about heroin’s inevitable betrayal, not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to think that music as spirited and delightful as Anita O’Day’s work in her prime could be good because of its debt to heroin.

Another great O’Day piece is Matthew C. Duersten’s “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs,” from Flaunt Magazine. It isn’t online, but you can read it in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2002.

When Canadian Jazz Was Good” (Chantal Braganza, Maisonneuve. May 4, 2010)

Heard of Nelson Symonds? Me neither. The guitarist’s talents attracted the attention of B.B. King and Miles Davis. During a 1965 performance, John Coltrane told Symonds’ band “This is the best organ trio I’ve ever heard.” And yet Symonds only recorded one proper studio album as a leader and a few collaborations. His ouevre is mostly what writer Chantal Braganza calls “crude recordings that get shuffled around like playing cards.” Why didn’t Symonds tour, release more albums, and have a more visible career? Why, when jazz left Montreal, did he stay? This is a fascinating story of an overlooked talent who crossed paths with giants but never joined their ranks.

Those old enough to remember often cite Symonds’ nights at the Black Bottom as among the best of his career. Out-of-town acts—Miles Davis, John Coltrane—would drop by after their gigs to see what all the fuss was about. Once, at the end of Symonds’ set, Davis pulled him aside. “What’s your story, what you playin’?” he asked. “Hey man, I do what I can,” was Symonds’ answer. “I like it,” said Davis, but it’s hard to tell if Symonds did. He was constantly self-effacing about his licks, sometimes to his own detriment. Whenever friends asked him to record albums with them, they got the same response: “Man, I gotta practice. I’m not ready.” For the most part, Symonds wasn’t interested in any aspect of the business that didn’t take place in a smoky club.

Nica’s Story: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness” (David Kastin, Popular Music and Society, August 21, 2006)

This is one of those academic pieces that doesn’t read like an academic piece. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but any deeply researched story about the compassion and financial support of the Jazz Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter — whose name graces many mid-century jazz titles — is worth reading. Jazz would have much less music were it not for her support, and this profile does her contribution justice. Here is the abstract: “While a coterie of bebop loyalists keep alive a caricature of Pannonica de Koenigswarter that has been woven into some of the music’s most durable myths, she has, for the most part, been relegated to the dustbin of history. A closer look at Nica’s 40‐year reign as New York’s ‘Jazz Baroness,’ however, reveals an iconic figure whose extraordinary life was played out at the nexus of gender, race, and class during a particularly transformative period in American popular culture.”

Killer Mike Takes His Allies Where He Finds Them

Killer Mike Takes His Allies Where He Finds Them

Rapper Killer Mike, left, and State Representative La Shawn Ford listen as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a meeting with local activist and community members Monday, December 23, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

In 2018, Killer Mike sat down for an interview on NRATV, the former online broadcasting arm of the NRA. Perhaps predictably, the NRA took his quote on school walkouts and used it in a campaign against the March for Our Lives. He’s not sorry, though, and in a wide-ranging interview at GQ, Donovan X. Ramsey finds out why.

Still, the damage was done. Mike doesn’t apologize for sitting down with the NRA, however. He believes, at his core, that Black Americans should find allies wherever they can. “The greatest gift Atlanta has given me is to be able to judge people solely by the content of their character, because all my heroes and villains have always been Black,” he tells me. Mike repeats this a few times throughout the afternoon. He doesn’t say it about the NRA directly, but it speaks to how he measures allies and enemies. “You may start off with Professor X,” he says, “but Magneto got a fucking point.”

As we cruise around, I ask him if he plans on voting for Joe Biden in November. He demurs, asking me if Biden plans on signing H.R. 40, the bill that would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for Black Americans, before launching into an impassioned monologue:

“I don’t give a shit if Joe Biden the person is moved to the left. I don’t give a shit about liking you or you liking me. What I give a shit about is if your policies are going to benefit me and my community in a way that will help us get a leg up in America. That’s it. Because we deserve a leg up, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

“We fucking deserve it. My great-grandmother, who taught me how to sew a button, was taught how to sew a button because her grandmother was enslaved. The daughter of a slave taught me and encouraged me to write, read, sew buttons, take care of myself. So why the fuck am I going to accept anything? I don’t give a fuck if you kneel in kente cloth. Give a shit. What have you got for me?”

It speaks to the philosophy that undergirds all of Killer Mike’s political ideas and positions. Before anything, Mike is a Black man from the American South who is deeply skeptical of how much a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal power structure built on the evils of capitalism will do to ensure his freedom. So he’s willing to embrace methodologies and tactics from across the political spectrum to see what works.

Read the profile

This Week In Books: I Bought Some Books

This Week In Books: I Bought Some Books

Soldiers read books while maintaining social distancing due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at Foca Transport and Terminal Unit in Izmir, Turkey on April 29, 2020. (Photo by Mahmut Serdar AlakuÅ/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

My concentration is pretty much shot. So I have to confess I haven’t gotten very far into A Distant Mirror. I’ve mostly been playing Unciv on my phone and watching Devs and making curry and cleaning out the closet and periodically tweeting at A24 that I would really like to watch First Cow now and feeling slightly removed from my body. But that hasn’t stopped me from ambitiously and somewhat compulsively ordering even more plague books: The Great Mortality (about the black death) and The Great Influenza (about the 1918 flu, of course) from The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois; Asleep (about the mysterious pandemic of “sleeping sickness” that followed on the heels of the 1918 flu) and The Ghost Map (cholera) from The Bookstore at the End of the World; Pox Americana (smallpox) and Epidemics and Society (all of them!) from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. (I also ordered Joan of Arc In Her Own Words from Split Rock Books in Cold Spring, New York, but that’s related to an entirely different phase I’m going through.)

I’m not sure what I feel like all these plague books will achieve. Will I read them all? Probably not. Will they all sit on my desk talismanically protecting me from getting sick? Of course, but that goes without saying. Will they make me feel more or less anxious? TBD, I’ll let you know.

Ordering the books was a circuitous choice for me because I’ve been having some trouble coming to grips with the fact that the American lockdown fell so short of what it should be; that we began talking about reopening before we ever, it seems to me, fully closed. All these bookstores I ordered from are places I used to work or are owned by friends of mine, and I know they’re doing their best to keep themselves and all their employees safe and paid (though The Bookstore at the End of the World is a Bookshop site begun by a group of bookstore employees who were covid-furloughed by their employers). What that means, practically, is that because none of these stores have employees on site, all of these orders were fulfilled “direct,” which, in the rarefied parlance of bookselling which I know from my years in the business, means they were shipped directly to me from one of the wholesaler’s warehouses (the bookstores get a cut of the sale, although a smaller cut than normal). The wholesaler in this case — in all cases, as far as I know, including orders placed through Bookshop — is Ingram, the behemoth book distributor rivaled in reach only by Amazon and owned by the billionaire Ingram family. Early on in the pandemic, as lockdown began rolling across the country, I thought for certain that the warehouses themselves would soon close — not just Ingram and the smaller regional wholesalers, but the publishers’ warehouses as well, not to mention the printers! I thought the whole industry would have to, at least momentarily, pause. But while many publishers have pushed back the release dates for their spring titles and laid off employees (so that’s not going well) and one major printer has closed (while another has filed for bankruptcy, so that’s not going well), the major publisher warehouses themselves, as far as I can tell, have stayed open — with social distancing measures in place, of course. (The situation at the Big Five publishers feels a little opaque to me, but smaller publishers/distributors such as Small Press Distribution, a longtime distributor of micro presses, have been clear about their need to raise money.) Ingram, meanwhile, has been considered essential throughout the country during the pandemic and its warehouses have remained open and shipping direct to customers (as well as, of course, to stores in states where things like curbside pickup and receiving/shipping in and out of the store are still allowed — Point Reyes Books in California made an excellent video of what that looks like).

And so, what I’m trying to get at is that in the beginning of the pandemic I thought the best way to support bookstores was to order gift cards and donate to fundraisers (special shout out to Unnameable Books in Brooklyn and The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago) or maybe order audiobooks or ebooks if that is your thing (though independent bookstores earn somewhat slim percentages of those sales, when they are able to offer them at all), convinced as I was that any sort of physical shopping would be tantamount to forcing warehouse and postal workers to endanger themselves, and that those warehouses would soon close down anyway! But I suppose that lately, despite few if any tangible signs that the spread of the virus has begun to decline in America, I let the growing narrative that “corona is nearly over now” and “the country is reopening soon” seep into my brain. And so, to be frank, I ordered some extremely nonessential stuff.

I guess I stopped expecting that the book warehouses would shut down. I stopped expecting the peak and have settled for the plateau.

But I’m sitting here staring at this copy of Epidemics and Society, which has already arrived and which I have set in a “decontamination pile” because we’re running low on disinfectants in my apartment, and I’m wondering, if I’m afraid to touch it, should I really have had someone send it? It’s a ghoulish feeling.

When the pandemic was starting, my feed was full of people tweeting about buying Nintendo Switches, so I mean, I’m aware that I’m not the only person in the world to buy something nonessential during the pandemic. I guess it’s possible I’m just being overwrought, here.

But it still seems like something is fishy about all this. I still feel like a ghoul. I feel like we have settled for a rolling epidemic until (purely theoretically!) herd immunity is reached, but we are doing it without admitting that that’s what we are doing— or acknowledging who will suffer for it (prisoners, warehouse workers, grocers, nurses!). And business owners are being forced into this mass casualty scheme because federal and local governments refuse to provide financial relief.

So, yeah, I have no idea where I’ve landed here. Am I ghoul for buying all these plague books? I mean, ok, yes; we all know the answer is yes.

I’m a ghoul with just enough plague books to tide me over until the second surge.

1. “The Pre-pandemic Universe Was the Fiction” by Charles Yu, The Atlantic

Sci-fi writer Charles Yu weighs in on reality. “Years ago, I started writing a short story, the premise of which was this: All the clocks in the world stop working, at once. Not time itself, just the convention of time. Life freezes in place. The protagonist, who works in a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, takes the elevator down to the lobby and walks out onto the street to find the world on pause, its social rhythms and commercial activity suspended. In the air is a growing feeling of incipient chaos. I got about midway through page 3 and stopped. I didn’t know what it meant.”

2. “What Rousseau Knew about Solitude” by Gavin McCrea, The Paris Review

Novelist Gavin McCrea writes about Rousseau’s lonely years, noting that the thinker’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker are haunted by the society they seek to avoid. “Looking at himself through the eyes of society, he is ‘a monster,’ ‘a poisoner,’ ‘an assassin,’ ‘a horror of the human race,’ ‘a laughingstock.’ He imagines passersby spitting on him. He pictures his contemporaries burying him alive. Rumors about him are, he believes, circulating in the highest echelons: ‘I heard even the King himself and the Queen were talking about it as if there was no doubt about it.’” This version of Rousseau sounds, to me, pleasantly like a morose Twitter poster. It just feels very familiar. I feel like I could scroll through Twitter right now and see some defeated soul posting that if they ever walk in public again, they will be spit on and the Queen will hear about it.

3. “Creation in Confinement: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” by Nicole R. Fleetwood, The New York Review of Books

An excerpt adapted from Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, in which she surveys art created by incarcerated people or made in response to incarceration. Fleetwood describes the unique challenges of documenting prison art: “…many of the artists, whether currently or formerly incarcerated, do not have possession of their art, nor any documentation of their work, nor knowledge of how and where their art has circulated… art made in prison may be sent to relatives, traded with fellow prisoners, sold or ‘gifted’ to prison staff, donated to nonprofit organizations, and sometimes made for private clients. There are people I interviewed who described their work and practices to me but had nothing to show.”

4. “The Exclusivity Economy” by Kanishk Tharoor, The New Republic

Author Kanishk Tharoor reviews Nelson D. Schwartz’s The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business, an exploration of the byzantine hierarchies that have emerged in all manner of consumer-facing industries to separate the wealthiest customers from the chaff. “What these changes augur, in [Schwartz’s] view, is the crystallization of a caste system in the United States and the birth of a new aristocracy.”


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5. “Gay Literature Is Out of the Closet. So Why Is Deception a Big Theme?” by Jake Nevins, The New Yorker

Jake Nevins surveys recent queer fiction and finds that deception is a major theme, even when it’s not explicitly the deception of the closet. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Dorian Gray to Tom Ripley, the lie of the closet was the hinge upon which queer literature would pivot, reflecting what were then the often judicial or mortal costs of being openly gay. Insincerity, ‘merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities,’ as Dorian Gray put it, was the mode of congress gay men had been taught to adopt for the sake of self-preservation…”

6. “The Surreal Stories of ‘Lake Like a Mirror’ Show How Power Distorts Reality” by YZ Chin, Electric Literature

YZ Chin interviews Chinese Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong about her short story collection Lake Like a Mirror, recently translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Ho says her stories try to reflect the way the exercise of power distorts reality. “I think a surrealist style can twist the surface of a reality that presents as neutral. Then we can see reality as a screen that has been yanked askew, and its seemingly solid surface starts to be pulled apart. Through this we realize that reality can be distorted by power. This isn’t something realism can achieve.”

7. “What if, Instead of the Internet, We Had Xenobots?” by Garth Risk Halberg, The New York Times

In his review of the long-awaited second novel from Adam Levin (author of the 1,000-page widely lauded high school bildungsroman The Instructions), Garth Risk Halberg writes that “Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new.” His latest book, Bubblegum, is about “a novelist-cum-memoirist-cum-unemployed schlub named Belt Magnet, of the fictional Chicago suburb of Wheelatine, Ill.” who can “hear the suicidal pleas of certain inanimate objects through a telepathic ‘gate’ above his right eye” and was one of the first patients therapeutically paired with a “botimal” aka “a mass-produced… velvety soft, forearm-length, ‘…flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend®!’”

8. “No Sleep till Auschwitz” by Jeremy M. Davies, The Baffler

New fiction from Jeremy M. Davies, author of The Knack of Doing, presents a fictionalized publishing industry that is — purely fictionally speaking, of course! — terrible. “Drucksteller saluted the long con of literature by way of the time-honored method of stealing a ream of copy paper and not flushing the toilet on his way off the estate.”

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky


Books Editor

@danasnitzky

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