When I was a kid, I always wanted to inhabit the Wild West. It was the most exotic place. And now, I guess, I do.
I never had a definition of my country, or my identity. Everything has been a series of oxymorons. I grew up in Britain: savage and polite, a European island. Within that, I grew up in London: the British capital, and the pure international. But we also lived in the north London suburbs, neither countryside nor city, and I went to a private high school that was basically Jewish and Hindu, with perhaps the occasional Muslim or Sikh or very rare stray goy. We were rich but not exorbitantly rich: we were rich but intellectual. Moreover, if I was definitively Jewish, I was also definitively half Jewish. For me, this series of oxymorons represented a kind of ideal state: placelessness was my idea of a utopia. Read More
The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child feared the effects of electing “a blot upon humanity.”
“I am not yet prepared to believe that the people of this republic are corrupt enough to choose by fair and honest votes, such a blot upon humanity as Andrew Jackson,” Lydia Maria Child wrote to her new mother-in-law in the early months after Jackson’s election in 1828. When I stumbled upon this letter among Child’s papers at Harvard, I felt a pang of sympathy. The sorrow and despair behind Child’s reluctance to accept her fellow citizens’ choice were all too familiar. She did not contest the election: the votes had been “fair and honest.” Why, then, did she call her fellow citizens “corrupt”?
Child was only twenty-six when Jackson was elected, but she was already an established author, well on her way to becoming a household name as a crusader for justice. Her 1824 novel Hobomok had propelled her to literary fame with its sympathetic account of the plight of native Americans. Her 1833 treatise An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans was so progressive in the cause of abolition and so scathing against northern racism that she was temporarily ostracized from Boston society. Undaunted, she followed the Appeal with The Evils of Slavery, and the Cure of Slavery and the Anti-Slavery Catechism, as well as newspaper columns, children’s stories, and novels all with abolitionist themes.
Those published writings give ample evidence of her convictions, but the box of letters in front of me provided a more personal view. In 1862, twenty-four years after she’d lamented Jackson’s election to her mother-in-law, Child was writing to her nephew William Haskins, then serving in the Fifty-first Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army. (His brother, also enlisted, would die in the coming year.) By then, Child had penned any number of excoriating condemnations of slavery and diagnoses of its persistence. But the task here was different. How to describe to a young man whose life was on the line how it had come to this, that his country had engaged in an evil so radical that it required his life to right itself? Read More
- It’s time for our annual check-in on the mystery of human consciousness—have the scientists figured it out yet? Reader: No. No, they have not. The upper echelons of neuroscience remain baffled; the philosophers, also baffled; the unkempt man at the train station holding a cardboard sign that says MICROWAVES ARE BRAINWAVES, perhaps less baffled but still not terribly convincing. As the neuroscientist Robert A. Burton writes, every era gets the theory of consciousness it deserves—by using science to explain what philosophy and religion could not, we’re essentially just passing the buck, and soon it will pass again: “As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia … It’s dawned on me that the pursuit of the nature of consciousness, no matter how cleverly couched in scientific language, is more like metaphysics and theology. It is driven by the same urges that made us dream up gods and demons, souls and afterlife. The human urge to understand ourselves is eternal, and how we frame our musings always depends upon prevailing cultural mythology. In a scientific era, we should expect philosophical and theological ruminations to be couched in the language of physical processes. We argue by inference and analogy, dragging explanations from other areas of science such as quantum physics, complexity, information theory, and math into a subjective domain. Theories of consciousness are how we wish to see ourselves in the world, and how we wish the world might be.”
- Danuta Kean explores one of the lesser-discussed joys of reading: discovering typos. In a survey of literature’s biggest typographical blunders, she writes, “One of the best literary malapropisms in print appears in Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 classic, An American Tragedy … Two characters dance ‘harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music—like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea’ … But the king of all typo-riddled books is Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom. HarperCollins wound up pulping the entire first print run of 80,000 copies after it emerged that an early version of the book was sent to the printers by mistake. As a result, the book teemed with hundreds of mistakes in grammar, spelling and even characterization … The Corrections author discovered the catastrophe surrounding his eagerly anticipated book in a brutally public way. Recording a reading for the BBC current affairs show Newsnight, Franzen came to an abrupt halt and said: ‘Sorry, I’m realizing to my horror that there’s a mistake here that was corrected early in the galleys and it’s still in the fucking hardcover of the book.’ ”
I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.
It was no Alvin Ailey dance class. Several of us, with teeth in braces and hair pulled back into tight buns, lined up in the corner of the studio, with its splintered hardwoods and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The instructor put on Wham’s “I’m Your Man” and we cut across the space two by two, hoisting our legs on the beat in grand battements, compromising our posture and smacking gum.
I’ll be your boy, I’ll be your man … I’ll be your friend, I’ll be your toy, George Michael urges at the end.
Because I was young, naive, and lived in the Reagan-era South, I took these invitations into the world of heteronormative sex at face value. I missed any whiff of insistence, darkness, or double entendre. I readjusted my floral leotard, which had gathered somewhere unseemly, and high-kicked my way to the other side of the room. We came to the center of the studio for pelvic isolations, thrusting our hips side to side, then forward, trying not to laugh out loud as we caught one another’s eye. Read More
- Mainly writers are paid for cleaning your gutters, vacuuming under the seats in your car, and standing in line for you at the DMV. But sometimes, for reasons that few understand and even fewer are willing to discuss on the record, writers are paid to write. A new book, Scratch, collects essays about this legendary experience. Laura Miller thinks it’s in more urgent need of demystification than anything else in the profession: “Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money … For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment. Anyone can call themselves ‘a writer,’ but to be published (by somebody other than yourself) is to be a real writer. It’s indeed a significant testimonial when someone else wants to invest their own money in a writer’s work, so it’s easy to forget that a publisher is actually the writer’s business partner, not a conferrer of literary worth … Publishing isn’t literature: Literature is literature. Publishing is a separate, if related enterprise.”
- Mark Greif aspires to join the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau—examining the reasons behind our self-presentation and directing readers toward a moral good. Jon Baskin writes of the “new unfreedom” that Greif beliefs has captured us: “In the more privileged parts of the developed West, we have largely emancipated ourselves from biological necessities (hunger, disease) and even from moral ones (God, the old taboos), but, perplexed by our unprecedented liberty, we have fabricated a new set of necessities to take their place. We no longer suffer from food scarcity, so we devise a baroque maze of taboos regarding what we can consume. We no longer prohibit any one form of sex, and yet, in making sex an all-important component of our self-esteem, we bow down to a new set of norms (namely, that we should always want sex, and with different partners) nearly as coercive as the old. We squander our ‘free time,’ a relatively recent gift of history, at the gym, in ridiculous outfits, on primitive machines, in order that we may have a little more free time to spend in a future that perpetually recedes.”