“What would it be like if a Level 4 virus event occurred and the Ancient Rule arrived in the supercity of New York? It wouldn’t take much to produce the Ancient Rule in New York City. A dry virus with high mortality that infects people through the lungs. No vaccine, no medical treatment for the virus. If you take the subway, if you ride in an elevator, you can be infected, too. If the Ancient Rule came to New York City, we can imagine people lying face down on the street or in Central Park, crowds staring and hanging back. People begging for help, no one willing to help. Police officers wearing full PPE gear. People needing ambulances. No ambulances. Hospitals gone medieval. Medical staff absent, dying, overwhelmed. All hospital beds full. People being turned away on the street from Bellevue Hospital. Medical examiner facilities gone hot as hell and crammed with corpses.” –Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come – Richard Preston
Image courtesy of S Donaghy
What kinds of things defined April for you? Budgets cut, marriages ended, and we wonder… how many of these things were hastened – how many would have happened at all – if we had been distracted by all the things that normally make up our daily lives? Do we live more authentically in an era when we are forced to have no other distractions? Do we succumb to identity crises because so many of us were defined by the things we did that kept us busy? Is it painful that now, perhaps, we face our unvarnished selves for the first time without the filter of all those intermediary people and acts?
Life slowed down in April, affording me the ability to read an unthinkable amount. And as always, it was richly varied – some exceptional, some disappointing, some timely, some timeless.
We remain in the limbo of not knowing where the COVID-19 virus will take us, “guided” by leadership that, at best, leaves much to be desired. During these April weeks, I have – for some reason – read various books about epidemics, pandemics, epidemiology and a variety of other seemingly unrelated topics, such as economics and politics. Before this pandemic, I had rarely, if ever, heard the name “Anthony Fauci“, in much the same way that you don’t expect to be familiar with the names of public servants who aren’t, for example, presidents, prime ministers or cabinet-level ministers. Yet, suddenly, Fauci was everywhere. In a Larry Kramer documentary, and several books I read about the AIDS crisis, the Ebola crisis… and any book that mentions the NIH/NIAID.
In the end everything is interrelated. The more I read, obviously the more connections I find. So many books from both the near and distant past warn us of impending crises of all kinds. It’s hard to read these and know what to do; helplessness is paralyzing.
Here’s what you missed in previous years: 2020 – March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for April:
“I don’t remember a time when I felt safe in America, but I remember when I thought it was possible I would be, someday. The nostalgia for what never was is a familiar feeling for those born in the opening salvo in the symphony of American decline.” –Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America – Sarah Kendzior
*Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America – Sarah Kendzior
“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”
All I can say about Hiding in Plain Sight is that you must read it.
“What Americans rejected in 2016 was not trust but discernment. A criminal can bury the truth in a conspiracy because no one will believe it except those accustomed to parsing absurdities, who are then mocked as insane.”
To understand more about how we got here (in part because “American exceptionalism—the widespread belief that America is unique among nations and impervious to autocracy—is the delusion that paved Trump’s path to victory”) you must also read Kendzior’s earlier book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.
“The only honest line of Trump’s campaign was that America was broken. Trump would know: he helped break it, and now he and his backers sought to capitalize off the wreckage. Trump did not strike me as stupid, like pundits kept proclaiming, but as a master manipulator who preyed on pain like a vulture.”
While you’re at it, you also need to invest time in the Gaslit Nation podcast, also brought to us by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. Both Kendzior and Chalupa present their hard-won expertise, analysis and insight, which emerge from their backgrounds in academic and journalistic research. That is, the real kind of research – not the “I looked at the internet and found something to support my beliefs” kind we now blindly accept as we devalue education, expertise in specific disciplines, journalistic integrity, historical accuracy and truth. Kendzior’s area of expertise is in authoritarian states/dictatorships (this is, again, simplifying it), while Chalupa is a writer and journalist.
“I took a picture of an anti-Trump protester holding a sign that said THE BANALITY OF EVIL—a reference to Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who said of life under the Nazi regime: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The Trump rally was a study in how people capable of compassion can turn cruel in response to the rhetoric of their chosen leader or in retaliation to those who dare oppose him.”
““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””
None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar to you in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.
“In 2002, Ron Suskind, a journalist for The New York Times, interviewed a Bush administration official later identified as adviser Karl Rove. Suskind recalls: [Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””
“This uncritical embrace of authority for its own sake is similar to the excuses given for the refusal of officials to address the attacks on the 2016 election in depth. (The Russians want us to distrust the integrity of the US election process, the pundit explains, therefore we must never, ever question what the Russians did to the election process!) The trustworthiness of a process or person was to be dictated from above by “history’s actors,” not decreed from below by the empirical observations of the masses. What Rove did in that interview—and what Trump does now—was take the ruse one step further, and admit to manipulation openly, not even giving the public the illusion of an honest broker.”
“This is not boldness: crime ceases to be risky when you know you will get away with it. In the twenty-first century, the corporate loopholes that enable white-collar crime double as nooses around the neck of Western democracy. In the Reagan era, Trump’s Republican backers helped devise the dissolution of corporate regulations. In the Bush era, they chipped away at political checks and balances, with the near elimination of accountability as a result. The Republican party provided the structure for an American autocracy enabled by corporate corruption. But it was television producers who gave the future autocrat his most important script.”
I could go on. Instead, you must read the book.
““In fall 2016, I said to a friend, “I don’t know who has it worse—the people who understand what is going to happen, or the people who don’t.” Her answer was simple: “Neither of them: it’s the kids.” For the past four years, I have been taking my children on road trips around America, in the event of its demise. This compulsion began in September 2016, when I became certain that American authoritarianism loomed. National landmarks that I had long taken for granted seemed newly vulnerable to destruction or desecration. It was important to me that my kids see America with their own eyes, and not through mine. I want my children to have their own memories of the United States, so that if they’re confronted with a false version years from now, they can say, “No, I saw it. We had that. This was real. That America was real.””
*Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist – Kate Raworth
“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”
Doughnut Economics would have been an important book about how to think about and reform economics at any time. In this particular moment, which could be a crossroads, it is a vital contribution to rethinking what economics is and can be.
“‘As markets reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms, the notion that markets don’t touch or taint the goods they exchange becomes increasingly implausible,’ warns Sandel. ‘Markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.’”
“One thing that is clearly coming to an end is the credibility of general equilibrium economics. Its metaphors and models were devised to mimic Newtonian mechanics, but the pendulum of prices, the market mechanism and the reliable return to rest are simply not suited to understanding the economy’s behaviour. Why not? It’s just the wrong kind of science.”
“From this perspective, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the imminent collapse of the Greenland ice sheet have much in common. All three are reported in the news as sudden events but are actually visible tipping points that result from slowly accumulated pressure in the system—be it the gradual build-up of political protest in Eastern Europe, the build-up of sub-prime mortgages in a bank’s asset portfolio or the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
“This should set the alarm bells ringing: in the early twenty-first century, we have transgressed at least four planetary boundaries, billions of people still face extreme deprivation and the richest 1 percent own half of the world’s financial wealth. These are ideal conditions for driving ourselves towards collapse. If we are to avoid such a fate for our global civilisation, we clearly need a transformation, and it can be summed up like this: Today’s economy is divisive and degenerative by default. Tomorrow’s economy must be distributive and regenerative by design. An economy that is distributive by design is one whose dynamics…”
When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.
“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”
“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”
How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?
“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”
“Donella Meadows—one of the lead authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth report—and she didn’t mince her words. ‘Growth is one of the stupidest purposes ever invented by any culture,’…”.
“response to the constant call for more growth, she argued, we should always ask: ‘growth of what, and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how long can it last, and what’s the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?’
I am oversimplifying this book, and haven’t even mentioned its analysis or prescriptions. I would recommend that you read this if you have an abiding interest in economic justice and how we might reverse the trend of thinking about market norms as norms, placing human and societal needs as less important. In a consumer-oriented society, which is where we live, we aren’t taught to question the primacy of the market and its “health”, but this is akin to brainwashing.
This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it? Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.
“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”
“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”
“Why does it matter that this core economy should be visible in economics? Because the household provision of care is essential for human well-being, and productivity in the paid economy depends directly upon it. It matters because when—in the name of austerity and public sector savings—governments cut budgets for children’s daycare centres, community services, parental leave and youth clubs, the need for care-giving doesn’t disappear: it just gets pushed back into the home.”
*Indigo – Ellen Bass
Poetry, of course.
*Ledger: Poems – Jane Hirshfield
*The Carrying – Ada Limón
*The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
““You’re back,” I said. “Yes.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I didn’t want you to see me.” “Others can see you and not me?” “I don’t care about others, I do care about you.” I looked at her uncertainly. What was I not supposed to see?”
The Neapolitan quartet of novels offers an extended and intimate view into the life of a friendship and its lifetime of ups and downs. Whether or not you’re impressed, I’ve found Ferrante’s writing so lifelike that it swarms around me before settling and insisting that I immerse myself in the relationship she describes, which is at once personal and unique while also being universal. I’ve written before about the first of the four books and how exquisitely it probes the twists of girlhood/adolescent friendship. I didn’t find myself as sucked in by the subsequent books in the series, but it’s easy to dismiss the exceptionally good because its genius appears to be so effortless.
“She loved him, she loved him like the girls in the photonovels. For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books.”
Good – or better than expected
*The Witches are Coming – Lindy West
“When faced with a choice between an incriminating truth or a flattering lie, America’s ruling class has been choosing the lie for four hundred years. White Americans hunger for plausible deniability and swaddle themselves in it and always have—for the sublime relief of deferred responsibility, the soft violence of willful ignorance, the barbaric fiction of rugged individualism.”
On initial reading, I didn’t find West’s The Witches are Coming particularly compelling. I don’t think I rated it too highly on my Goodreads page (I wouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of ratings in any case. I count myself fickle on this front; what struck me as readable but not terribly insightful later strikes me as offering a striking voice. It’s a matter of mood that determines how everything is received and assessed).
When I read West’s book, I don’t think I was adequately enraged by the world we live in. I live cocooned in a remote self-(near)-exile in a forest. Rage, and the injustices that lead to justified rage, is hard to come by. But as the handling of coronavirus has unfolded, and incompetent white men bungle it, lie about it, and put power above life – particularly those lives disproportionately affected by the effects of the virus – my anger has risen.
It’s impossible to divorce oneself from the reality of how we got here. West channels much of this into her writing here, whether it is in her being “so fucking sick—FUCKING VIOLENTLY ILL” of watching good people be conned or her takedown of the sick lionization of serial killers by white cisgender men, i.e. ““Straight, white, cisgender men love to file serial killers under some darker subcategory of white male genius. It’s easier to be titillated when fear is an abstraction.” (I hadn’t really thought much about this enduring fascination with/analysis of serial killers, but West is absolutely right.)
This concoction of going back to the book to read West’s words and the circumstances in which we now find ourselves… thanks to our own “bootstrap ethos (itself just a massive grift to empower the snickering rich)” that cause me to reassess. We are in deep shit and blithely rolling around in it like we can’t smell it.
*I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution – Emily Nussbaum
“Yet there’s a level at which I can’t entirely explain my adoration for television, my sense of it as not subject matter but a cause. There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not. You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you. I like movies, but I’m not a cinephile; you’ll never catch me ululating about camera technique, for better or worse. I love books, but I have little desire to review them. Television was what did it for me. For two decades, as the medium moved steadily from the cultural margins to its hot center, it was where I wanted to live.”
As a would-be reformed television addict who is also uncooperative with myself and the limits I’ve set for tv viewing, I relate to Emily Nussbaum’s writing. Her defense of television as a dynamic art form makes me wonder why I’ve been so obstinate in my pursuit of severing the relationship (healthy or not) I’ve developed with televisual entertainment.
Unlike Nussbaum, I am not a tv critic – I am not a critic of any kind. As Nussbaum declares, though, television is a medium worth evaluating and criticizing. It can delve into questions and debates about values. It can reflect the values (divided though they might be) of a society, and chronicle their changing face. Consider how quaint the Dan Quayle–Murphy Brown kerfuffle about single parenthood and “family values” now feels in some ways, given how the shape of our television-like (so-called because so much of it now is not made for TV specifically) entertainment has expanded to become more inclusive and, as stated, has veered away from the limitations and restrictions of network TV screens into new media. (Which has also pushed at least some of network television to become more creative.)
At the same time, though, have we moved so far away from that ‘moral’ debate, when debates continue to rage about (as a starting point) women’s bodies, access to birth control and abortion? Our entertainment is a mirror, and the reflection we see is changing all the time.
“Back when no one believed they were in a Golden Age, Lear shrugged off the way that his native medium had always been “a convenient whipping boy” for American malaise. It was the networks who thought small, he argued, and who were condescending to their viewers: “I’ve never seen anything I thought was too good for the American people or so far above them that they’d never reach for it if they had the chance.” To Lear, TV was still all potential, particularly an untapped potential for variety—it just needed to “replace imitation with originality as the formula for success.” He envisions cross-medium experiments: “How do they know there wouldn’t be as large an audience for a John Cheever or a Ray Bradbury drama as there is for a Norman Lear or a Mary Tyler Moore show?””
Nussbaum has captured here what I have long tried to articulate when people question my devotion to tv viewing. Criticism of other art forms – poetry, literature, cinema – is accepted, respected and “more difficult”. But Nussbaum argues, television criticism is valid and legitimate – and in her case (and this would be true for me, too), she didn’t feel a strong enough desire or pull to dedicate herself to any other field with the kind of rigor needed to be a serious critic or writer.
Nussbaum offered a lot to dig into, but I’ll highlight here (but may discuss elsewhere later) a couple of things I loved.
First, the Law & Order: SVU character Rafael Barba. So sorely missed. (It was a pleasure to see him turn up in a recent episode of The Good Fight):
“None of the new cast members has quite his magnetism, although the Broadway star Raúl Esparza is a major asset as the dandyish ADA Rafael Barba. “Objection!” Barba announces, when someone accuses Benson of being a man-hater. “Argumentative. And ridiculous.””
Second, The Americans.
“The Americans refuses to do what similar cable shows have done, even some of the good ones: offer a narcotic, adventurous fantasy in which we get to imagine being the smartest person in the room, the only one free…”
I am still surprised when I meet people who have (inexcusably) never even heard of this. The few people I’ve convinced to watch it always return to me blown away by it, but it is, as Nussbaum explains, “a must-watch and a hard sell”.
“The Americans is a bleak show that ends each episode with heartbreak. It’s also a thrilling, moving, clever show about human intimacy—possibly the best current drama out there (at least of the ones I’ve been able to keep up with). Dread is its specialty and also its curse; it’s what makes The Americans at once a must-watch and a hard sell. This is a surprising conundrum because, judging by a plot summary…”
*Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
“But surely it was not that day, in that supermarket, that I understood what was happening to us. Beginnings, middles, and ends are only a matter of hindsight. If we are forced to produce a story in retrospect, our narrative wraps itself selectively around the elements that seem relevant, bypassing all the others.”
What makes a relationship – a marriage – solid but malleable enough to withstand change? Luiselli explores the difficulties of marriage – or being generous in a marriage in the long-term – and considers the unforeseen, sometimes invisible, ways that connections erode. That’s how erosion works – you don’t know something is slipping away underneath you until you fall. A foundation is slowly worn away, imperceptibly. When that foundation lacks strength in the first place, e.g., if one of your strongest bonds was a work project that ended, what remains for you as a couple? I suspect this happens in celebrity relationships that are reported in tabloids and fizzle out in mere months. How else to explain?
“The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day, the other can suddenly become a stranger.”
When the close intensity of working together for a brief time sweeps one away, what remains when the project is over? That will, Luiselli seems to argue, be the test.
“Without a future professional project together, we began to drift apart in other ways. I guess we—or perhaps just I—had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude, as Rilke or some other equanimous, philosophical soul had long ago prescribed.”
“I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books. I would never lend a book to anyone after having read it. I underline too much, sometimes entire pages, sometimes with double underline. My husband and I once read this copy of Sontag’s journals together. We had just met. Both of us underlined entire passages of it, enthusiastically, almost feverishly. We read out loud, taking turns, opening the pages as if consulting an oracle, legs naked and intertwined on a twin bed. I suppose that words, timely and arranged in the right order, produce an afterglow. When you read words like that in a book, beautiful words, a powerful but fleeting emotion ensues. And you also know that soon, it’ll all be gone: the concept you just grasped and the emotion it produced. Then comes a need to possess that strange, ephemeral afterglow, and to hold on to that emotion.”
An odd overlap: Luiselli writes about a roadtrip throughout the book, and in Kendzior’s aforementioned book, she chronicles her desperate need to share America’s landscapes with her children before they disappear, to bear witness to the America that once was. It’s haunting, in some ways, how these travelogue accounts both create a sense of impending loss, a disappearing world. For Kendzior, it is as vast as the country she has always known as home. For Luiselli, it is the intimacy of family life.
“More and more, my presence here, on this trip with my family, driving toward a future we most probably won’t share, settling into motel bedrooms for the night, feels ghostly, a life witnessed and not lived. I know I’m here, with them, but also I am not.”
*There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition – Jill Jacobs
April was a month to explore Judaism in greater depth thanks to a reading list I found via the Twitter account of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I read an extensive list of the recommended books, and this will continue throughout the year. I mention it now because I enjoyed the way Rabbi Jacobs presented an interpretation of Jewish law and tradition that does not just make room for social justice and alleviation of poverty – but insists on it.
“Within Judaism, support for the poor is understood as an obligation and as a means of restoring justice to the world, and not as an altruistic or voluntary gesture.”
We are living in a moment in which extraordinary need has become immediately apparent. And how are governments dealing with it, as opposed to how they should?
“The task of the just sovereign, whether human or divine, is to establish a system of government that protects the vulnerable.”
“One recurring theme in rabbinic discussions of wealth emphasizes the interdependence between the rich and the poor, and the ease with which wealth can turn into poverty.“
How is humanity dealing with it?
“The concept of tzedek, according to this understanding, extends beyond the basic legal requirements of the state, and beyond the execution of strict justice. Nor is tzedek a divine attribute, beyond human capacity. Again, tzedek appears as a relational term that describes a contract between God and humanity, or between humans of differing social or political status, to establish a system aimed at liberating the vulnerable from their oppressors.”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
*The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity – Esther Perel
“In a world where it is so easy to feel insignificant—to be laid off, disposable, deleted with a click, unfriended—being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all. It shatters the grand ambition of love.”
“I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota“…
I’m an armchair/amateur therapist; people who know me will probably attest to this. They tell me their problems; I listen; we talk through it. I don’t offer “advice”, but we talk through options, feelings, motivations. My approach to relationships, intimacy and human ‘mistakes’ and betrayals, in many ways, mirrors the kinds of things Esther Perel explores in this (and other) works. Yet when I’m talking to the more rigid among my acquaintances who see the world in very clear “right or wrong” binaries, I am charged with the dubious misdemeanor of “being very California”.
“As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.”
I, like Perel, believe we must be realistic; we must be compassionate; we must listen and communicate. Regardless of what choices we make about a relationship in the wake of infidelity, we are not served, clear, being heard, getting closure (or whatever you want to call the peace or answers we seek), moving forward if we don’t deal with it. This is particularly true given the expectations we place on ourselves and on a relationship (and what we commonly think a relationship ought to give us):
“Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, children, property, and respectability—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends, trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot. The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer. Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability—all the anchoring experiences. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. Give me comfort and give me edge. Give me familiarity and give me novelty. Give me continuity and give me surprise. Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings.”
A number of the books I have read this month (and tend to read in general) deal with the idea of novelty, and modern life’s many dissatisfactions. The more convenience, connectivity, seeming choice we have, the less content we seem to be… the more “on the hunt” we are. I’ve noticed this most particularly in the world of online dating sites/apps, where the illusion of endless choice creates the sense that one is shopping from a catalog and can simply return what s/he doesn’t find perfect. There’s always something else, something more, something different, and this sense is pervasive – even among those of us who push against these changing “norms” (can we call them that?):
“In our consumer society, novelty is key. The obsoleteness of objects is programmed in advance so that it ensures our desire to replace them. And the couple is indeed no exception to these trends. We live in a culture that continually lures us with the promise of something better, younger, perkier. Hence we no longer divorce because we’re unhappy; we divorce because we could be happier. We’ve come to see immediate gratification and endless variety as our prerogative. Previous generations were taught that life entails sacrifice.”
*Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators – Ronan Farrow
I looked forward to reading this, even though I knew it would make me unspeakably angry (it did). The lengths to which institutions will go to protect predators and the profits and status quo they represent is detailed here. I’d just say… read it.
And, yeah, Matt Lauer is way, way worse and more disgusting than I had ever imagined. The fucking criminal audacity of these men. I wish it were surprising, unusual, anomalous. But no, people like Lauer are just symptoms of a whole system that props up mediocrity, and lets it get away with anything it wants.
There’s nothing really ‘coincidental’ about having read these books. They share themes – epidemics/pandemics and, tangentially related, forensic ecology. All provided a lot of insight and fed my need to understand better, know more (in a broad/general sense). I know plenty of people who are avoiding all types of information because, under the circumstances, they can’t tolerate more. They will actively seek out the barest minimum, i.e. “Am I allowed to go outside? Must I wear a mask?” They don’t want more information or statistics. Therefore, reading these kinds of books, even though they don’t directly deal with the virus at hand (but do liberally mention Anthony Fauci), would be a definite “no”.
*The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace – Patricia Wiltshire
“To me, corpses have ceased to be people; they are repositories of information where nature has left clues that we might follow.”
“No, there is no life after death—but there is always life in death. When you are alive, your body is a mass of beautifully balanced ecosystems, and so it is in death. Your dead body is a rich and vibrant paradise for microbes, a bounty for scavenging insects, birds, rodents, and other animals, some of which will come to your body to feast upon your mortal remains, and some of which will come, like the tinkers and traders exploiting a “gold rush,” to prey on the scavengers themselves. And this too is of significance for a forensic ecologist—for the way a body is being broken down, the kinds of scavengers that come for it, and at what rate, can itself provide vital pieces to the puzzle of who, what, where, and how.”
*Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic – David Quammen
“To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. There are three elements to the situation.”
“This elaborate concatenation of life-forms and sequential strategies is highly adaptive and, so far as mosquitoes and hosts are concerned, difficult to resist. It shows evolution’s power, over great lengths of time, to produce structures, tactics, and transformations of majestic intricacy. Alternatively, anyone who favors Intelligent Design in lieu of evolution might pause to wonder why God devoted so much of His intelligence to designing malarial parasites.”
*Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come – Richard Preston
“’This is how all outbreaks end,’ Armand Sprecher, the Doctors’ official in Brussels, said. ‘It’s always a change in behavior. Ebola outbreaks end when people decide they’re going to end.’”
This book was, strangely, a page-turner. It was dramatic, high-stakes, harrowing, sad… I can’t speak to its absolute accuracy, but I assume because it was written by a writer/journalist rather than a scientist, it has more novel-like qualities, keeping the reader invested in the characters and the ballooning scope of the disaster they faced. (And Fauci, of course, appears again.)
As a side note, I was a bit disturbed by how the following was written:
“Ever since she had been in college, Lina Moses had wanted to go up against Ebola in an outbreak. This had been her dream for years. Now it was really going to happen. It was a battle of a kind, a public health battle, and the aim was to save lives.” (weird thing to want to do – have happen).”
I have no doubt that the writer meant that this Lina Moses character wanted to face the toughest possible public health challenge, but the idea that someone would wish for an Ebola outbreak (“this had been her dream for years“!?) seems like it might have needed an editor…
Like most books of this type, it serves as an ominous warning. Written before the latest coronavirus outbreak, it cautions that these kinds of outbreaks can run rampant before we are even aware of their spread. Highly contagious, Ebola acts fast, and its symptoms are obvious and extreme. Much more extreme than the reported early symptoms of COVID-19 (and its transmissibility when carriers are asymptomatic). Preston, as writers in all such books do, shines a light on the lack of preparedness for, as we have learned, virtually all of these public health challenges.
“In other words, if the Makona strain hadn’t been stopped quickly, it would have continued improving its ability to spread in humans. It would have become yet more humanized. The world got lucky this time. If the Makona strain had raced into a poor supercity, it would have gotten into many more thousands of people, and gotten many more chances to evolve and change. For a long time after the Ebola epidemic subsided, nobody really understood just how close the world had come to a much bigger disaster.”
Biggest disappointment (or disliked)
There were a number of books in April that I felt might be really interesting, and they all disappointed, or I miscalculated. They weren’t necessarily bad, but I had higher expectations.
*How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks – Witold Szabłowski
When will we see a chapter here to cover the eating habits and gustatory proclivities of Donald Trump as an afterword to this oddity?
*Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima – James Mahaffey
I think I expected something more gripping; something that conveyed in a more vivid way just what atomic accidents portend. Maybe I have been seduced by how well, for example, the Chernobyl story was told in televisual terms. This book was informative, but not what I was expecting or hoping for.
*Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World – Cal Newport
“I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”
As I picked this book up, everyone around me was becoming accustomed to the confines of being in lockdown, working from home – potentially sheltering in place alone – or trapped with the entire family – in what may have started to feel like an increasingly small space for an indefinite (both in terms of length of time and the shape of the future). One of the only connections to the outside world, to friends and family, to shopping, to continued livelihood, were the same digital tools and platforms that Cal Newport urges us to reconsider our relationships with.
Maybe my ongoing hermit-like seclusion (and comfort with this) positions me to observe other people’s behaviors and reactions. Maybe prescriptive books of this nature feel unnecessarily judgmental and smug at a time like this. It’s stark right now: choosing digital minimalism was always about having the luxury to choose or not. It requires having the digital smörgåsbord to pick and choose from in the first place. We see more clearly than ever the digital divide when we are involuntarily disconnected physically. Who has the privilege and power to decide whether their kids will be able to go on doing some form of online learning when schools are closed? Who is welcome in the digital/knowledge economy, able to work from home?
In light of our current environment, this book rubbed me the wrong way.
That said, my questions from the introductory part of this write-up poking into identity and personality do tie to one of the central tenets of this book: what are your values? This book asks whether, and how, technology serves those values?
“Once we view these personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll gain the precise vocabulary we need to understand the validity of the second principle of minimalism, which states that optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.”
*Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams – Matthew Walker
“Accepting that our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia, what can be done about it?”
I don’t know many people who are good sleepers. Insomnia, interrupted sleep, sleep disorders and constant exhaustion (as well as the repeated complaint, often multiple times a day, “I’m so tired”) plague everyone I know. I’m lucky in that I don’t have any such problems, but I wanted to learn more about sleep and had heard that this book was, for lack of a more dazzling word, “great”.
But the fact is, despite the dizzying amount of research conducted on the subject… stunningly little is truly understood for certain about sleep. Sleep offers all manner of benefits for the body and brain, and lack of it is dire for health, upping risk factors for various diseases and disorders. I came to this book hoping for more certainty as to why these things are the case, only to learn that there are no definitive answers. I don’t think I really believed the book would actually “unlock” anything as its title promises. But I hoped for something beyond the “why” (i.e., sleep is healthy; sleep helps you form and retain memories, etc.). I wanted the why behind the why (why is sleep healthy? Why and how does sleep work to empower or enfeeble memory-making?).
The only thing that really piqued my interest was the discussion on the human’s intentional daily routine of “premature and artificial termination of sleep”:
“Compare the physiological state of the body after being rudely awakened by an alarm to that observed after naturally waking from sleep. Participants artificially wrenched from sleep will suffer a spike in blood pressure and a shock acceleration in heart rate caused by an explosive burst of activity from the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system. Most of us are unaware of an even greater danger that lurks within the alarm clock: the snooze button. If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means that you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time. Step and repeat this at least five days a week, and you begin to understand the multiplicative abuse your heart and nervous system will suffer across a life span.”
*Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion – Jia Tolentino
“I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”
I found myself underwhelmed by Trick Mirror, and again, I think I found it unsatisfying in part because of what society is experiencing right now. It feels indulgent to examine some of the questions Tolentino and the aforementioned Cal Newport spend time obsessing about. Sure, they did all of this in another time – not that long ago, but it may as well have been years – when segments of the population were concerned about the ways in which online/internet life warps our realities, our identities, creating an artificial and commoditized version of ourselves, a shallow but still multi-sided illusion showing different faces to different groups of people while only data brokers and analytics tools (think they) know who we really are.
“Selfhood buckles under the weight of this commercial importance. In physical spaces, there’s a limited audience and time span for every performance. Online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end. (You can essentially be on a job interview in perpetuity.) In real life, the success or failure of each individual performance often plays out in the form of concrete, physical action.”
In that sense, Tolentino’s themes are timely. But most of what she has written here feels like it’s been written before, and better, by other people, so hers is a regurgitative exercise of sorts. I wanted to see something new, but there wasn’t much here lighting my mind on fire.
However, credit where credit is due. Tolentino cites Erving Goffman‘s work on theory of identity:
“a person must put on a sort of performance, create an impression for an audience. The performance might be calculated, as with the man at a job interview who’s practiced every answer; it might be unconscious, as with the man who’s gone on so many interviews that he naturally performs as expected; it might be automatic, as with the man who creates the correct impression primarily because he is an upper-middle-class white man with an MBA. A performer might be fully taken in by his own performance—he might actually believe that his biggest flaw is “perfectionism”—or he might know that his act is a sham. But no matter what, he’s performing. Even if he stops trying to perform, he still has an audience, his actions still create an effect. “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify,” Goffman wrote.”
This might not have hit me as hard as it did had I not also watched a deeply affecting video of Sterling K. Brown, in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, talking about the masks black men wear every day as they go out into the world and are always performing, always being someone else. While Tolentino’s book and analysis address these identity questions in an almost sterile way, e.g., digital personas that e-commerce retailers create to market more effectively.
But it’s much more powerful to apply Goffman’s “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”. Without being constantly reminded by a Sterling K. Brown, or the seemingly endless string of tragic, horrifying, senseless, unjustifiable deaths of black people, is anyone thinking actively about the crucial ways in which the world is not a stage – but reality, life, in which living, breathing people cannot leave their homes without feeling like this might be the day that, despite my mask, I don’t get to come home again?
3 thoughts on “Said and read – April 2020”