George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.
I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandy, at last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein
I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell
In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay
Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, just behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu—but his writing is generally neglected. Gibran’s most renowned work is The Prophet, a collection of twenty-six prose poems that delve into philosophy, spirituality, and religion. The Prophet has sold widely since its publication in 1923, but its inspirational voice has precluded it from critical acclaim. Some find Gibran’s poetry preachy and moralizing, but I find it plenty enlightening—it’s hard to object to the melodic, cosmic of mysticism of a line like “That which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.” —Yasmin Roshanian
I’ve been reading Iris Murdoch’s essays “The Sublime and the Good” and “The Sovereignty of the Good,” in which she contends, as so many do, that man is an essentially selfish creature; his narcissism distorts and thwarts reality. Murdoch’s elegantly simple prescription is to get the self to stop thinking about the self simply by looking around: at paintings, at ladybugs that land on us, et cetera. This type of basic observational experience, she maintains, is important for our moral lives—through it we cultivate a sensitivity to the particularities of the other. And once we have that, Murdoch says, we might become better people. —Parker Henry
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