Sunday, January 25, 2015

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Back On the Horse

Traction lost its footing in 2014 (har har), lying dormant and neglected.

There were a few reasons for this: moving to a new city, starting a new job, trying to work on more pieces for publication, and, perhaps above all, my renewed revulsion to the sheer amount of stuff written, tweeted, broadcast, podcast, scrawled, and posted about seemingly everything that happens in our culture, from deflated footballs to the fairness of Lyndon Johnson's portrayal in Selma. In the midst of the American Babel, silence often struck me as the wisest course.

Still, the whole point of this blog, if we revisit its founding in Philadelphia in the Year of Our Lord 2010, was to work through some of that cacophony (we recall the origins of this blog's name, which today I find somewhat cringeworthy but nevertheless will stick to out of a sense of loyalty to my younger self: remove the prefix from the word "distraction," and you're getting somewhere)--not necessarily to comment on every last happening (though I often did, back then; I was in college, after all), but to try and think honestly about the things that captured my interest for one reason or another. If anyone else found my musings provocative or interesting or even just wrongheaded, then all the better, but it was largely an exercise for myself.

I've been feeling the absence of that exercise lately. 2014 wasn't a great year for my writing. Outside of a commentary on the Ferguson situation that appeared on the website of St. Louis Public Radio, I didn't publish much. It seems to me that part of the block arose from not having this space to work in, a sketchpad where I don't feel compelled to worry each sentence. So my New Year's resolution for 2015 is to post here at least once a month. It seems unlikely that Traction will ever return to the frenzied pace it maintained in 2010, '11, and '12, but I'm not ready to bid it adieu just yet. As an end to the silence, I present my annual recap of my year in reading. 2014 proved to be a good one.

I finished Shakespeare's Twelfth Night shortly after midnight on January 1st. I've read far more Shakespeare than I've seen; Twelfth Night is the only one that I'd seen performed first. Shakespeare on the page has often made me long for Shakespeare on the stage--the text alone can feel a bit arid. But reading Twelfth Night after seeing it was a wonderfully deepening experience--if nothing else, a reminder to get to the theater more often.

Visiting Walden pond on Thanksgiving Day 2012 was the spur I needed to finally read Walden. If Thoreau's slow cataloging of life in the woods is occasionally tedious, his rich attentiveness to nature's moods, and his own, is revivifying, particularly in our accelerated age. At one point,
Thoreau muses on how fast human beings can move thanks to steam engines; it's probably for the best that he never saw an iPhone.

I continue to think that Maira Kalman is one of the most interesting voices in American literature today: an artist and a writer, her illustrated musings on everyday life are both unflinching and optimistic. The Principles of Uncertainty is an unabashedly cheerful attempt to reckon with what she calls "the too-muchness of it all," an endeavor very welcome in the midst of a grey January.

The rest of the year was largely given over to big books, the first of which was Middlemarch. The classics are usually classic for a reason, and George Eliot's sprawling tale of ambitious lives compromised, disappointed, and generally lived as well as weak human capabilities can allow is no exception.

Before Pope Francis took office, James Martin was the most famous Jesuit priest in America. His slim volume on Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Therese of Liseux, Becoming Who You Are, was a characteristically engaging and conversational reflection on living a life of faith.

The real reading accomplishment of 2014? Reading every one of the 4,000-plus pages of Robert Caro's five books: The Power Broker--about Robert Moses, who ruled New York's civic planning for more than half a century--and all four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Together, the works are a compelling study of power: how it's acquired and used, and the effects it has on those who use it. Master of the Senate, the third volume of the LBJ books, should in particular be required reading for every American, a reminder of what the Senate is supposed to be, and can be, at its best: a place for honest (if inefficient) debate, not posturing and obstruction.

I read Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh the Glory of It All almost ten years ago. While entertaining, it struck me as the epitome of our memoir-centric age: more than a little narcissistic, and occasionally confusing total disclosure with honorable truth telling. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by his new essay collection, More Curious. His report on NASA I found particularly well done: funny and perceptive, it deftly found in our budget-strapped space bureau a parable for our nation's shrunken ambitions.

I reviewed Antonio Munoz-Molina's In the Night of Time for The Hudson Review. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I were more familiar with Spanish literature, but nonetheless, I found his portrait of Spain on the verge of fascism inventive and moving.

Two of the last books I read were about key figures in Lyndon Johnson's life, one his great antagonist, the other his vice president. Jack Newfield's RFK: A Memoir is the best book I've read on Robert Kennedy--not an exhaustive biography, but rather the honest, fond, and sad reminiscence of a hardboiled journalist who knows better than the mythologize. Carl Solberg's Hubert Humphrey, meanwhile, while not terribly well written, provided a competent overview of the life of a consequential but largely forgotten American politician. 

After so much history and nonfiction, I needed a fictional palate cleanser, so I reread Moby-Dick, which I liked even better the second time around. When I first read the novel as an undergrad, I found my patience growing thin with the encyclopedic disquisitions on the whale's size and color, his fins and flukes. I found them totally engrossing this time around (perhaps because I didn't have deadlines to meet)--an obsession with fact in the midst of a story of life's deepest, unutterable mysteries.

Finally, I read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of Edmund Morris's three volumes on our 26th president. Where Caro's prose is majestic and stately, designed to inspire solemn thoughts on the nature of power, Morris's is brisk and lively, evoking the incredible energy and variety that marked T.R.'s life, perhaps the most remarkable our nation has ever seen.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

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A Thought for the Fourth

There is no doubt that the government of the United States in 2014 is inefficient, ineffective, divided, bloated, and, in some instances, corrupt.

And yet I choose to have faith in our government.

Many of my friends think I'm naive for doing so, and I can't blame them. I suppose faith can never totally be expunged of naivete.

But I have faith in our process, and I believe if we spent more time engaging that process than bemoaning it, our common life would be much improved. 

One of the many things that drives me nuts about contemporary American discourse is the way we make saints of the founding fathers. No doubt, they were a remarkable group of men. But they were not perfect, and neither was the system they created.

What frustrates me most about the canonization of Jefferson and Madison and Washington is that it distracts from the work at hand. Rather than putting our shoulders to the work those men would have wanted us to undertake--the hard work of improving our system, of preserving it by adapting it to modern times--we lament that our era is not like theirs, that our leaders are not like they were, and that our citizens are not like the ones they governed. 

The result is that we retreat from the laborious work of governing ourselves, withdrawing instead into the comforting bubbles of cynicism ("Politicians, they're all the same") and righteous anger ("Obama/The Tea Party/The Supreme Court is ruining America!"), venting our anger on social media, where we can be just as bitter as we please. It is instantly gratifying to be angry; it is not instantly gratifying to attend a meeting at city hall. 

In this climate, a certain kind of techno-utopian-libertarianism has come to vogue. To put it very crudely, this movement often proposes: Why pursue anything through public channels when we can solve things with technology and business? It's a fair question, but one that I think is dangerous for the public institutions that bind our unruly republic together--the institutions that the founding fathers set up for each generation to make its own to the best of its ability. Nathan Heller, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Yorker writers, recently articulated the perils of giving up public processes for dead in an article about San Francisco's tech culture:

"Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? ... The truly radical move in the Bay Area would be a return to the messy business of public debate. 

That would be tricky, because public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting. There are many people involved, with disparate ideas, and most big decisions are put to public vote--which means more people and ideas. This is the hell of regulatory blockades and referenda and open meetings to which crazy people come to read bizarre complaints off rumpled notebook paper. ... Getting anything done through public process requires convincing many, many individuals of the rightness of your dream. And it demands that you do that over and over, against a tide of disagreement, settling for half measures rather than no measures. The terms of public process are not personal or romantic but objective; it is language that could have been drawn up, literally, by committee. And yet, because of that, it is a language shared." 

One of the great lessons of American history is that just about every major achievement--from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s--took the kind of time, patience, and compromise that Heller so wonderfully describes. To imagine that democracy functions otherwise is to delude oneself; to abandon the methods that have served us so well (albeit imperfectly) for more than 200 years would be a great betrayal of the things we purport to celebrate tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

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One Trick Pony

Yes, yes, I know, doesn't this guy ever write about anything other than Saul Bellow? I can't help it, folks—I know his books well, and the machinations of publication take time. And so it comes to pass that a little more than a month since I wrote about The Adventures of Augie March for the Wall Street Journal, I have a piece on Humboldt's Gift in The Believer. They're very different in tone, and this will be the last I write about Bellow for a long while. Next up: a piece on David Foster Wallace for the Hudson Review.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

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2013 In Reading

In this post last year, I expressed some ambivalence about continuing to keep an annual list of the books I read. At its worst, the practice had begun to feel a bit like ledger keeping, my desire to finish a book motivated in part by the anticipated satisfaction of entering another mark in the credit column. That's not what I want my reading life to look like.

Thanks to some encouraging words from my friend Andrew Ivers, however, I decided to keep a list in 2013, and I'm glad I did. It's been a while since the contours of my reading life—private, solitary—seemed to so richly illuminate the shape of my life in the world. 2013 was a remarkable year, marked by some of the lonelier nights I've experienced since freshman year of college, but also offering some of the greatest comforts and joys I've known. The books I read were inseparable from this strange, wonderful mixture.

I began the first volume of Alan Ryan's On Politics at the end of 2012, and finished it in late January. Reviews of the volume had treated it as a masterwork of intellectual history, but I have to admit I found it intermittently incoherent. Ryan is not a great explainer; that said, the grand scheme of his project—a history of the intellectual-philosophic framework behind liberalism—is noble and inspiring enough to make me want to tackle the second volume (which most critics seemed to prefer to the first anyway) at some point.

I much preferred politics as served up by Norman Mailer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Hilarious, knowing, and belligerent, this is Mailer's view of America as it entered the last turbulent months of 1968. Mailer may have lamented his inability to produce a great novel, but a book like Siege of Chicago strikes me as more than compensatory.

In March and April I read two very different works for the third time each: Othello, which I was teaching to my juniors in high school, and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which, if pressed, I will offer as my favorite novel. Teaching Shakespeare to 17-year olds was a frustrating experience; the joys of Shakespeare seem so evident to me, but the archaic language proves a powerful deterrent to young men. That said—as with so much of my experience as a teacher—frustration was only the most obvious part of the story. The daily give-and-take over the play still yielded something of ineffable value. That's for another blog post. As for Augie March: the book turned 60 last year, and I was able to turn my third reading into an essay for The Wall Street Journal, surely the highlight of my young writing life.

Teaching also required me to read Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which I hadn't read since I was a junior in high school in the spring of 2007. The book sags a bit in its third fourth, but Heller's angry humor and defiant humanism struck me afresh.

Pride and Prejudice is only the second Jane Austen novel I've read, and if I always feel a bit thwarted by Austen—analysis feels like too stuffy and heavy a business for such delightful works—I nevertheless loved the book, particularly the way that its depiction of romantic (mis)understanding serves as a reminder that courtship—whether carried out by messenger or text message—is an eternally messy business. It helps to laugh at it.

In the late spring, I read two novels by Colum McCann concurrently: TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. I was disappointed by both for different reasons, as I tried to explain in this review.

Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them is a genre-defying send up of graduate school and the tortured souls of the great Russian novelists. The  hilarity is interrupted by moments of shattering beauty, a hallmark of Batuman's that keeps me looking out for her work.

James Wood's essay collection The Fun Stuff reminded me of all the ways that I find Wood simultaneously maddening and brilliant.

I took The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand's history of the intellectual revolutions of 19th-century America, with me to Ireland, and it proved a good companion on such a journey. If Menand's larger project occasionally gets lost in his inability to not pursue each side story far down the road, the portrait of a few great American minds grappling with the modern world is inspiring and humbling. The plane ride home allowed me the chance to read Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, my first Sherlock Holmes novel. Great fun.

Tom Bissell has become one of my favorite writers in recent years, and not just because he sent me a very kind reply to a letter I mailed him in the spring. I loved his collection Magic Hours last year, and his Vietnam War memoir-history-travelogue The Father of All Things was a highlight of this one. Bissell is a rigorous and honest thinker. 

Maira Kalman is one of our nation's most interesting and genre-defying artists. Her book And the Pursuit of Happiness should be read by every citizen. If you don't feel better about life at the end, then God save you.

A summer of unemployment gave me a chance to read Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1789. I've never read a book at once so dry and so fascinating. Wood's portrait of the intellectual revolution that preceded the political revolution was so gripping that I immediately picked up another Wood tome, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic. Much livelier than the earlier book, it nevertheless didn't stick with me quite as well. Still, a fine history of a period about which I knew little.

Tom Bissell says every American ought to read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, and I took him at his word. What to say about an exhaustive documentation of the folly, greed, fear, and misunderstanding that has guided American involvement in the Middle East since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan? Journalism as public service as its best.

John Updike, unfashionably, remains one of my favorite writers. I reviewed the Library of America's beautiful new edition of his short stories for The Millions, a piece that prompted passionate responses, favorable and hostile alike. I'm looking forward to the publication of Adam Begley's Updike biography in 2014.

I revisited yet another favorite novel for the third time in September: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Not much to say except it remains a favorite.

John Steinbeck's treatise America and Americans is as terse, pointed, and clear-eyed as you'd expect a Steinbeck essay on our national character to be.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a remarkable example of the most fervent belief coexisting with the most fearful atheism. I cried at the end, and will be thinking about the novel for a long time, in conjunction with Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a beautiful religious novel that anyone with a spiritual interest ought to read.

Finally, my contemporary selection for the year was Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors, which lived up to the warm reviews it received: an unhurried, meditative story of Westerners at Prague after the fall of Communism, the novel was probably best read, as its title suggests, at my juncture in life: unsure, unrooted, in need of a little faith, expectant, and grateful, very grateful.

Friday, December 6, 2013

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What I've Been Doing

I'm loath to pick a favorite novel, but if you press me, I'll probably settle on Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to write about it for the Saturday Wall Street Journal's recurring Masterpiece feature—certainly the thrill of my young writing career. You can find it here, though for the time being, it's available only to subscribers. Hopefully, that status will change soon. (You could also go to a library and look at last Saturday's paper, but who does that anymore?)

I will also have a piece on David Foster Wallace appearing in a forthcoming issue of The Hudson Review, one of the nation's most venerable literary journals. I continue to hope that this rolling stone is gathering some moss.

Thanks for reading.

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For What It's Worth

The New York Times ran a depressingly familiar article on Wednesday in conjunction with Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy saga. "Christie's Reveals Detroit Art Appraisal," ran the headline; in the first paragraph, we learn that the venerable auction house has assessed the value of the Detroit Institute of Arts's collection at somewhere between $452 million and $866 million—put another way, using the high end of that estimate, a total equal to about 4.8% of the city's $18 billion debt. Experts hired by the Detroit Free Press to do their own estimate said the collection could be worth as much as $2.5 billion.

Predictably, these sums have drawn the attention of the city's anxious creditors, some of whom, according to the Times, have argued in court that "the museum's collection is not an essential city asset and should be sold." It's not hard to see their point. The city owes them money, and it's hard to see how the city will pay them. Even the resurgent automakers can't put much of a dent in the city's overwhelming obligations. Given the extravagant prices in today's art market, no wonder the DIA's Bruegels and van Gogh's have attracted the creditors' attention.

It's also easy to see what they mean when they contend that the city's artworks aren't an essential asset. Great works of art don't keep anyone fed or prevent foreclosures or keep shareholders happy. They don't pick up trash or guarantee pensions or pay for anyone's prescription drugs. Only an idealist or a snob would argue that the DIA shouldn't be cleaned out for all it's worth, the proceeds handed over to the city's debt holders.

Well, brand me an idealist and a snob. I can't help but be saddened by the vulpine packs circling around Detroit's impressive art collection, slapping a dollar sign on every frame. It seems symptomatic of an American society that is no longer so interested in culture, at least on a macro level. As David Brooks put it in a recent column, "Now most TV and radio talk is minute political analysis, while talk of culture has shriveled," The apathy in America toward art and poetry and literature—at least art and poetry and literature that doesn't offer a return on investment, which is to say, damn well near all of it—can be found at all levels, from Congress (where calls to defund NPR and PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts are de rigueur) to universities (where STEM is ascendant and English departments are forced to make pathetic arguments about 'critical thinking' and 'hireable skills') to high schools (ditto). The dollar is always king in the United States, but especially so in these recessionary times, when economic value crowds out all of the other kinds of value that are so much harder to count but so much more fundamental to being human.

Again, I admit my privilege here. I was lucky enough to be in a position to study English in college without a whole lot of concern for what kind of job that degree could earn me. I was able to read works for their own sake, to think about big questions, to encounter beauty—all of the familiar activities that proponents of the humanities tick off one by one in their defenses against budget cutters and China-is-lapping-us hysterics. Invariably, these proponents sound pompous; they make art sound like the province of a few, a luxury to be derided in light of privation and suffering—in other words, they make art appear to be the thing that anyone who has had an authentic encounter with a painting or play or piece of music knows art is not. The ability to be moved is not restricted to a social elite, but rather belongs to all humans.

The artist will always feel anxious in the face of social problems. But we should not retreat from encouraging and prizing the arts simply because they fail to address our fiscal problems. Articulating the value that art and culture confer on a society inevitably results in mushy rhetoric and lots of gut feelings, but it seems hard to argue that a society without some higher aspirations—without some interest in the human mysteries that precede the forming of societies themselves—is a diminished society indeed. Here's hoping Detroit holds fast to its art, and thereby holds fast to a part of its humanity, however hard to define.

Monday, November 4, 2013

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Security and Liberty

Whenever I read an article like this, my mind immediately turns to this.