This is Let It Be! You are the first people on earth to hear this song!

There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):

Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.

I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.

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Advent Vespers

I crack open the blinds in the kitchen. It is still dark outside, streetlamps glowing like spaceship landing lights in the fog of a December morning. I shamble around trying to secure a cup of coffee. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and sit down at the kitchen table, bleary eyed, restless. The house is quiet, the rest of my family still asleep upstairs. I cautiously take a sip of my still too hot coffee. This is me at home in the world, as much as I ever am. It is Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and so I sit and wait.

Advent is a way of finding my place in the world. It situates me in a story – one of a returning king, of hopeful expectation. It’s a season that’s both linear and cyclical, a spiral through the timeline of my life since childhood, coming around each year with its rituals and repetitions as I grow older, my hair starting to go gray at the temples, the frown lines on my forehead deepening. I will, as I do every year, give disappointing gifts (I am a terrible gift giver), I will eat too many gingerbread chocolate cookies, and a blood toxicology test will reveal an unhealthy volume of mandarin oranges in my diet. I will look back over the year and try and figure out where exactly I am in my story so far.

There are many ways of finding one’s place in the world. Here is Helen Macdonald, in her lovely essay, “Vesper Flights” (found in her essay collection here – one of my favorite books of the year):

Often, during stressful times when I was small – while changing schools, when bullied, or after my parents had argued – I’d lie in bed before I fell asleep and count in my head all the different layers between me and the centre of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, lower mantle, outer core, inner core. Then I’d think upwards in expanding rings of thinning air: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, exosphere. A few miles beneath me was molten rock, a few miles above limitless dust and vacancy, and there I’d lie with the warm blanket of the troposphere over me and a red cotton duvet cover too, and the smell of tonight’s dinner lingering upstairs, and downstairs the sound of my mother busy at her typewriter. This evening ritual wasn’t a test of how much I could keep in my mind at once, or of how far I could send my imagination. It had something of the power of incantation, but it did not seem a compulsion, and it was not a prayer. No matter how tightly the day’s bad things had gripped me, there was so much up there above me, so much below, so many places and states that were implacable, unreachable, entirely uninterested in human affairs. Listing them one by one built imaginative sanctuary between walls of unknowing knowns.

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Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2021)

Here we are again at the close of the year and I’m picking some favorite reads from 2021 (past years are here). There has been no consuming obsession like my Knausgaard binge last year (although his newest novel does show up on the list below – the “Me and Karl Ove” series which kicked off my blogging year was my attempt to deal with my aesthetic hangover) but it was still a good reading year. My favorite from the list below, the arbitrary favorite of favorites, is probably still Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard is True (I wrote about it here). Sometimes you just can’t beat the right book at the right time. And, to those of you who have been following along on the blog over the past year or two: thanks for reading. Sincerely. I am embarrassed to admit how much the kind word here and there about what I’ve written has encouraged me.

Ok, on to the list. I have picked a quote from each book to try and give a taste of what you might find if you decide to pick it up:

What You Have Heard is True (Carolyn Forché): “‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘I know nothing about military dictatorship.’ His elbows were on the map, his folded hands pressed against his mouth. I saw myself in his glasses, two of me, and the girls’ laughter was sieved through the kitchen screens. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘At least you know that you know nothing.'”

The Morning Star (Karl Ove Knausgaard): “‘God, give me a sign!’ I said into the air. Did I really say that? I asked myself in the very next instant. Was I, a grown man, really standing there in the woods asking God for a sign? Embarrassed and ashamed, I forged on, burying my lower face in my thick, wide scarf, my woolly hat pulled down to my eyes. Suddenly all I wanted was the sofa, bed, sleep, darkness.”

Gringos (Charles Portis – I read a bunch of Portis this year – I wrote about Dog of the South here – but Gringos was my favorite): “You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say—today I will change the oil in my truck.”

The Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg – a new discovery for me – my LinkedIn short story this summer was at least partially an attempt to try and steal some of the magic of her voice): “We refuse to suffer; we hear suffering approach us and we hide behind the armchair, behind the curtains, so that it won’t find us.”

In (Will McPhail – first ever graphic novel on my end of year list, I think):

Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford): “Old sorrows she thought were long worked through—no, more than that, which she thought were actually abolished by her having had different desires fulfilled—turn out to be still capable, still bitter, able like ghosts to billow up and start talking, if given a drop of blood to feed upon. She stumps up the hill, and the unquiet ghosts say: Why only this? Why this life and not the other? Why this ending and not another?”

God in the Rainforest (Kathryn Long): “The overarching argument [of this book] is that the global expansion of Christianity as it happens on a case-by-case basis is complicated, even messy, much more so than either mythmakers or critics are willing to acknowledge. Missionaries make decisions with unintended consequences; indigenous people exercise agency in unexpected ways.”

4000 Weeks (Oliver Burkeman): “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”

Be Holding (Ross Gay): “we in here talking about joy”

Piranesi (Susanna Clarke – wrote about it here): “It is the Statue of a Faun, a creature half-man and half-goat, with a head of exuberant curls. He smiles slightly and presses his forefinger to his lips. I have always felt that he meant to tell me something or perhaps to warn me of something: Quiet! he seems to say. Be careful! But what danger there could possibly be I have never known. I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child.”

Jack (Marilynne Robinson): “He said, ‘Look at the life we live, Della. I have to sneak over here in the dark just to steal a few words with you. Is that language, or is it noise?’ She said, ‘It’s noise that you have to do it, and language that you do it, anyway.’ She said softly, ‘Maybe poetry.'”

The Apostles’ Creed (Ben Myers): “Theological thinking does not add a single thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. So this small book is an invitation to happiness.”

Vesper Flights (Helen Macdonald): “And we stop in front of the cage. The bird and the boy stare at each other. They love each other. The bird loves the boy because he is entirely full of joyous, manifest amazement. The boy just loves the bird. And the bird does that chops-fluffed-little-flirting twitch of the head, and the boy does it back. And soon the bird and the boy are both swaying sideways, backwards and forwards, dancing at each other, although the boy has to shift his grip on the plastic sea lions to cover both ears with his palms, because the bird is so delighted he’s screeching at the top of his lungs. ‘It is loud!’ says the boy. ‘That’s because he is happy,’ I say. ‘He likes dancing with you.’”

The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Kierkegaard): “So let us then consider the lily and the bird, these joyful teachers. ‘The joyful teachers,’ indeed, because you know that joy is communicative, and therefore no one teaches joy better than a person who is joyful himself. The teacher of joy really has nothing other to do than to be joyful himself, or to be joy.”

Studying with Miss Bishop (Dana Gioia): “For five years I had even stopped sending out poems. I was dissatisfied with what I had published. I kept writing in private. Whatever it was I sought I had to find myself. I gave over my nights and weekends, month after month, to the slow discovery and refinement of my own voice. I survived by living in the future tense.”

Cool Internet Stuff (Dana Gioia Writing Advice, Harvest Moon, etc.)

  • I really enjoyed Dana Gioia’s Studying with Miss Bishop when I read it earlier this year. My only complaint was that I wanted more: specifically more about how Gioia sustained his writing practice as he grew older and worked a demanding job as an executive, became a father etc. I’m still hoping that Gioia will write more memoirs at some point, but in the meantime, he’s posted a short “Becoming a Writer (when you have a full-time job)” playlist on YouTube. Nothing earth-shattering (small goals, consistent effort, setting aside a particular time and space), but Gioia has the power of conviction (and a CV which supports the validity of his advice).
  • Craig Mod is doing a new walk and pop-up newsletter: Tiny Barber, Post Office. I find the model of the constrained, focused, pop-up online writing project attractive/intriguing.
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T. Singer, Child of God

… my writings concern the people in my time period and my cultural circle, and that counts not least for T Singer. What you call ‘internal neglect, or rather obscurity’, and which I most likely would have called something else (did you know that I considered naming the novel about T Singer Child of God?), is meant as an attempt to find an adequate expression for precisely this.

Interview with Dag Solstad

I remember reading a book when I was younger, a sort of self-help spiritual memoir kind of thing that sought to offer advice on how to live a good life. It made an analogy between making a movie and living your life and one of the punchlines was that nobody would watch a movie about a guy who wants to buy a Volvo. Don’t be the Volvo-buying-guy, it said, but live a better, more interesting, more exciting life: live the life that would make a good movie.

I thought about this earlier book, with its life-is-a-movie-so-make-it-a-good-one message, after I finished Dag Solstad’s puzzling, funny, infuriating, uncomfortable, T. Singer. It is a novel that could be described as “aggressively boring” (James Wood provides an excellent introduction to Solstad’s work here). It would not make a good movie.

When I was that younger man, reading self-help spiritual memoir kinds of things, I would not have thought to question the idea that my life was a movie in which I played the starring role (as well as providing the direction and script). The idea that life is essentially a series of plot choices which I control is a comforting one. It is also a delusion. It conveniently turns everyone you encounter into supporting actors and actresses for your starring role, for example. It fails to account for the non-sequitur of suffering and the way it can run your carefully revised script through the existential shredder, for another.

Partway through the novel, the narrator of T. Singer pauses and confesses: “… it has to be admitted that at this point in the story it may seem mysterious that Singer could be the main character in any novel at all, regardless of quality, but here it can be divulged that it’s precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel, and attempts will be made to turn this into reality.” Really, truly, you have to trust me when I say this book would not make a good movie. James Wood describes Solstad as writing about “people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives.” I think this is true, and the question the reader confronts after finishing a Solstad novel is whether any of us are protagonists of our own lives.

In the life-as-a-movie book the author described a variety of different stories that strike me now as slightly more upmarket ways of buying a Volvo. I remember cool experiences, cool relationships – it was all very cool, cool, cool. Packing school lunches in the morning and paying the residential sewer bill by the fourth of the month did not come into it. I should confess that my memories of the book may be distorted by the proliferation of life affirming hashtags attached to exotic vacation photos that has occurred in the intervening years.

While T. Singer could be described as a book where nothing happens, that is not quite right. Instead it is better described as a book where nothing meaningful happens. There are significant events, but Singer does not experience them as significant. It is Camus without the figure of the existential hero to provide solace to the reader. There is no Dr. Rieux visiting the reader’s bedside to soothe our anxiety when confronted with the absurd. It is Dostoevsky without Father Zosima’s speeches to make the case for God and his good creation.

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The Year of the Albatross

I’m exploring the misty halls of Susanna Clarke’s (excellent) Piranesi below. While I think what follows is mostly spoiler free (especially if you’ve read the novel’s epigraph, and say, the first 5-10 pages), if you are especially spoiler averse, you may not want to continue.

To keep track of time, the narrator of Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, uses a personal calendar arranged around events that have occurred in his life while living in the (literally) otherworldly House. Wandering among the statues and birds that fill the halls of the House the narrator keeps a series of indexed journals. On an early volume, “November 2012” has been crossed out and is instead referred to as a “The Year of Weeping and Wailing.” The subsequent year is the “Year I discovered the Coral Halls,” followed by the “Year I named the Constellations” and so on. The year in which the events in the story mostly take place is the “Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls.”

The use of this idiosyncratic calendar is an early clue for the reader seeking to unravel the mystery of the House and its occupants, but it is also one of the ways in which the strangeness of the world of the House is created. Each journal entry that makes up the book is marked by the date stamp of “the X day of the Y month of the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”, reminding the reader that we are in the world of the House (at the end of the book, the entries return to a standard calendar).

The repeated mention of the albatross as a date marker almost makes it invisible to the reader. But, maybe I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. One of the other things readers will note are the many references and allusions to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia stories. There are numerous connections to The Magician’s Nephew from the epigraph onward. For The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fans, the narrator describes his favorite statue early in the book: a faun with his finger pressed to his lips (“I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child”). It is not for nothing that one of the entries in the index of the narrator’s journal is “Outsider literature, see Fan fiction” (although the allusions and references aren’t all straightforward: Clarke gives some of C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on “chronological snobbery” to one of the story’s villains, for example).

All this to say a reader could be forgiven for expecting a statue of a great lion to appear at any moment among the collection of animals, people, and mythical figures that fill the house. And yet no lion appears (although there is an impressive gorilla). But, just because there is no statue of a lion does not mean that C.S. Lewis’s Aslan (known by another name in our world, as he tells the children in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is entirely absent. So, back to the albatross.

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Campfires and lasers

There is a scene in the 2011 movie, Moneyball, where Brad Pitt, driving alone in a black pickup truck at night, silhouetted by streetlights, breaks the silence by muttering to himself: “What the hell am I doing?”

In one sense, that’s it, that’s the post. That scene on a loop fills in for a bunch of sentences started and then deleted over the past few months. I drive a hatchback manufactured in Korea, but lately I have been there in the darkened cab of that truck, driving around alone, pondering the “what-the-hell-am-I-doing-ness” of my life. Which includes this, what I’m doing right now, writing on the internet.

Robin Sloan had a post back at the start of this year making an analogy between writing and uncollimated and collimated light. Writing on the internet, he suggested, is uncollimated like a campfire (diffuses in multiple directions, fades fast, is simpler to produce); a book is more of a laser beam (the material points in a particular direction, is focused, is more durable, more difficult to create). I like the analogy.

How is the ability to build a campfire related to the skills necessary to construct a laser? In the broad sweep of history sense you can draw a developmental line between prehistoric campfires to a lab at MIT. But, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of overlap between the skillsets of the contemporary wilderness survivalist and a physicist in a lab coat.

So, what am I doing here. The problem with trying to produce collimated light is that you risk becoming a sort of mad scientist crank with a big hunk of metal in your basement that produces no light at all. On the other hand, being a weirdo setting off bonfires in the middle of your suburban street will just make people pull the curtains and call the cops. I have some hunks of inert metal in my basement. I have made some fires in the street.

There’s successful versions of both modes – the roaring fireplace around which friends gather during a crisp autumn evening; the laser that cuts a hole through the carapace of the buffered self (the whole axe to the icy sea thing). Do I need to be building a fireplace? Should I be diagramming circuits and diodes? Do I actually have the skills for either? How about the fires in the street? Continue with those? Keep connecting wires in the basement and seeing what sparks fly?

I am still driving around in that truck – no grand announcements or insights here other than that things may be even more haphazard than usual around here (and I am open to suggestions).

Writing in an Age of Universal Access

I always prefer reading collections of authors’ letters to published diaries. Like diaries, letters can offer a glimpse of intimacy, but because they are addressed to an interlocutor, they (often) avoid the self absorption and enclosure that can plague a diary or journal. The back and forth of a dialogue can draw each conversation partner out of themselves, spark new perspectives and threads of thought, but in a medium (writing) where authors thrive (as opposed to other sorts of conversations the reader might have access to – interviews etc.).

I read Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee’s collection, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 this summer (I read Knausgaard and Ekelund’s Home and Away last summer – so something about the summer months makes me want to dig into collections of letters, I guess?). I am less familiar with Auster than Coetzee, but Coetzee is about as open as he ever is in public in the collection. There seems to be a genuine fondness between the two, and the collection includes gems on friendship, travel, writing, and sports (along with some rather cranky old man complaining, and stretches on the mundane details and frustrations of ordinary life … at least ordinary life for famous authors in their 60s/70s). Parenthetically, sports seems to run through so many male friendships as a sort of minimal “friendship glue” – even among those who have other shared external interests, as Coetzee and Auster do (it’s there in the Knausgaard and Ekelund collection as well – but please note: “many” not “all”).

The mechanics of the exchange seem … complicated. Coetzee faxes his letters from Australia, with Auster responding via physical letters sent in the mail – although every once in a while Coetzee emails Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, who (I think) prints off the emails for Auster’s perusal. All this is due to the fact that Auster does not have an email address or use a computer. Auster’s choices prompt a brief exchange between the two authors about the use of technology in fiction. Coetzee asks:

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What I think I’m doing here: Some more short fiction (in the form of a single long sentence).

In case you missed it, just in case you happened to miss my last missive, I am reaching out, following up, I am inquiring to see what the status might be of my message, the one I sent you, the one I am afraid you might have missed in the Sturm und Drang of your inbox, in the welter of other correspondence, all important, I’m sure, all essential, of course, but including my own, my own carefully crafted communication, my metaphorical message in a bottle, my attempt to connect, the connection that I fear has been missed in the confusion of your busy and meaningful life, although my concern is, my anxiety is, that perhaps this earlier email was not simply missed but seen and forgotten, read and ignored, delivered to the trash bin with no response necessary, perhaps even deleted, blocked and reported as spam, with a sneer, with rolled eyes, with a sigh of frustration, which seems entirely possible, is definitely within the realm of imagination, given the nature of our last interaction, our final conversation, which I did not think was final at the time, but perhaps was, given the lack of response to my previous 137 attempts to contact you via various means, including hiring one of those planes pulling a giant banner, which, I am afraid, you may have missed, perhaps having just spilled your coffee on the way to an important meeting when the Piper PA-18 Super Cub reached cruising altitude, banner streaming in the wind, and sopping up the spill with a handful of paper napkins and cursing, your attention diverted by the spreading stain on your blouse and the importance of your upcoming meeting, you failed to look skyward and note the bright banner pleading “Come Back Monica” circling the city and so did not reply, did not show up on my doorstep, did not call me on my phone, did not send me a letter or an email, or engage the services of a singing telegram company, did not send a DM or IM or MSN Messenger message, and so I suspect that you may have missed it, although if you did see it, please know that I wanted to include “PLEASE” but the pilot was concerned about the increased drag created by this all-caps appeal, the additional linear feet of fabric required, and it also would have cost an extra $350, but I think the “PLEASE” was implied anyway and I suspect its absence was not an issue, more likely you did not see the banner at all, more probably it flew through the clear summer sky unnoticed except by young children who, clutching the hands of their caretakers, pointed and made engine noises, and all this brings me back to the original reason for this message, which was just to check in, in case you missed it, my earlier message.

Cool Internet Stuff (Craig Mod, Stephen Gill and more)

  • I can’t remember how I discovered Craig Mod’s work earlier this year (a video of a Japanese coffee shop was involved somehow), but I am glad I did. I signed up for his recent pop-up newsletter, Where Are All the Nightingales, and became hooked. Lots of walking, photography, Japan, and a nice dose of off-the-beaten-pathness:
From Season 01 of Craig Mod’s Huh newsletter
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