Staff Picks: Dreamers, Dealers, Kidney Donors


This Week’s Reading

An illustration by Gustave Doré for Poe’s “The Raven.”

The two things I like most about annotated classics are the annotations and the pictures—which are really the point, if you think about it: you can read the text itself in any edition. Truth be told, sometimes the annotations aren’t very interesting, but the pictures rarely disappoint. Such is the case with the new Annotated Poe from the Belknap Press. Some are illustrations that were made to accompany Poe’s works: there’s great stuff from Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, and Gustave Doré, such as his very cosmic (very Little Prince) depiction of a line from “The Raven”: “Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” But the book also includes art that was influenced, sometimes obliquely, by Poe: a still from Batman in 1966 shows Adam West quoting a line from Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise”—a nod perhaps to the fact that Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, came up with the idea for the masked detective while visiting the Poe Cottage in Fordham, New York. And still other art in the book feels simply like a wonderful excuse to draw connections across time: a moody photographic close-up by Lisette Model of a pair of legs striding the nighttime pavement made the cut because Poe’s description of a man’s “agitated restlessness” in “The Man of the Crowd” prefigures Model’s candid street photography, which appeared a century later. —Nicole Rudick

As a child, I understood the harrowing effect of my sullen and unloving behavior on my parents, yet continued to behave rottenly anyway. Ben Marcus’s story in this week’s New Yorker, “Cold Little Bird,” about a ten-year-old boy who suddenly begins to withhold affection from his parents, is a chilling evocation of the pressure-cooker tension that can arise in family life. Marcus teases striking images out of dense thickets of metaphor; here his writing is spare, the story proceeding in a series of clipped passages. He captures the subtle features of relationship maintenance; one of the best scenes involves the advance-and-retreat dynamics of tactical apologies. In its refusal to diagnose, the story offers no release valve. I persevered to the end and felt uncomfortable, then guilty, then gladdened by the knowledge that I had never been as bad as this little shit, then embarrassed by that thought, then terrified of my own (nonexistent) child; then impressed that Marcus had been able to provoke in me a parent’s anxiety I had never known existed. —Henri Lipton

From The New Yorker’s spread for Ben Marcus’s new story.

At the recommendation of our Southern editor, I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I was supposed to read part of it in school, but if I did, I don’t remember anything like this. In the first place, Franklin is a decidedly shady character and a sharp dealer, the kind of person who always seems to be getting drawn—as if helplessly—into other people’s complicated scams and practical jokes. His slyness comes through in his prose. Here he is dismissing a man named Osborne (whom he had tricked, the page before, in a literary contest): “Osborne went to the West Indies, where he became an eminent lawyer and made money, but died young. He and I had made a serious agreement, that the one who happen’d first to die should, if possible, make a friendly visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate state. But he never fulfill’d his promise.” What makes the sentences funny (and to my ear, unmistakably American) are the bland adjectives—eminent, serious, friendly, separate—held up like insincere little pillows against the hard facts of money and death. —Lorin Stein

Colin McGinn’s Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity is a strange little book, not quite philosophy, not quite science. With its sweeping inductive leaps and adventurous, imaginative style of reasoning, it reads like an Enlightenment treatise—in this case, one that tackles nothing less than the evolution of humanity. Beginning with Darwin, McGinn sketches an inventive, uncanny, and persuasive account of the significance of the grasping, tool-wielding, highly educable hand in the progression of human cognition, language, and social organization. With odd, wry sentences scattered throughout its pages—“man is an ex-brachiator, an expelled tree dweller, a hand specialist, a recent (and unlikely) biological success, a touch-and-go proposition for much of his early existence, and a creature still very much in the making”—Prehension (from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp”) delights and educates. It’s best read when one’s cynicism about the humankind is running hot—perhaps on a stuffy, seething, rush-hour train. —Joshua Maserow

Ignore its gentle jacket and workmanlike subtitle—Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is a far more inquisitive, capacious, restless book than those signifiers suggest. Strangers is a study of do-gooders in the most extreme sense of the term: MacFarquhar immersed herself in the lives of people for whom every decision, no matter how small, is an opportunity to do what’s best for the world and everyone in it. There’s a reason we often loathe these people. Their life stories read like thought experiments from your college ethics course turned into fraught, frightening realities: they adopt literally dozens of children, give kidneys to strangers, and found leper colonies at the risk of infecting their kids. These are utilitarians of the purest order, Benthamites, really, obsessed with maximizing good. And nothing scares me more than a practicing utilitarian. It’s a flawed philosophy, as John Gray argued in a review of Peter Singer’s new book from earlier this year, and in MacFarquhar’s book it seems to go from noble to delusional and back again on every page—which makes Strangers as real and provocative a study of working ethics as any I’ve read. I can’t stop thinking about it. —Dan Piepenbring

Ernest Hemingway’s certificate of identity. The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

America’s great noble falsehood is that the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Just about the only way it’s any of those things is in a theatrical sense. Lewis Lapham’s latest essay, “Bombast Bursting in Air,” considers political theater, how it benefits the rich, and what exactly makes this early phase of the presidential election look so messy. Lapham’s approach is, as you’d expect from him, a kind of throwback jeremiad; we don’t see much of this kind of nineteenth-century American rhetoric being published anymore, and he does it well enough that it almost feels fresh. No one whips me into a righteous lather quite like he can. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Morgan Library’s exhibit, “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars” was packed last Friday evening. It’s thrilling to look at manuscript pages of Hemingway’s early stories, and read his handwriting—bold and vigorous, as you might imagine—crammed into little cahiers d’exercice. I’ll take the nostalgic, almost domestic Hemingway of A Moveable Feast (sipping plum brandy in Miss Stein’s salon, taking refuge in the Alps with Hadley and Bumby, or wandering hungrily through the Jardin du Luxembourg) over his bullfighters and soldiers any day, which is to say that I guess I’ve always found his machismo a bit silly. The first thing I looked at in the exhibition was Waldo Peirce’s 1929 portrait of Hemingway “Alias Kid Balzac,” and the last was a page from the end of an early draft of A Farewell to Arms that read, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” Between the swagger of this portrait and those bleak words, I thought Hemingway’s personality—with all of its intensity, bluster, humor, and despair—shone through nicely. —Hannah LeClair