I was impressed and moved by Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Poetic, searching, deeply affecting. Highly recommended. Related reading/listening: Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker; Kat Chow in The Atlantic; and this Politics & Prose conversation with the author (genuine, exacting, deeply intelligent).
From the novel:
Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?
Any new Paul Ford piece is a must-read for me. No one else I know of writes about technology with such a combination of literary style and wit and hands-on knowledge. (Once the Web Editor of Harper’s, he’s now the CEO of the digital product studio Postlight.)
Here’s the opening to Ford’s latest Wired cover story, “Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry”:
Nerds, we did it. We have graduated, along with oil, real estate, insurance, and finance, to the big T. Trillions of dollars. Trillions! Get to that number any way you like: Sum up the market cap of the major tech companies, or just take Apple’s valuation on a good day. Measure the number of dollars pumped into the economy by digital productivity, whatever that is. Imagine the possible future earnings of Amazon.
The things we loved—the Commodore Amigas and AOL chat rooms, the Pac-Man machines and Tamagotchis, the Lisp machines and RFCs, the Ace paperback copies of Neuromancer in the pockets of our dusty jeans—these very specific things have come together into a postindustrial Voltron that keeps eating the world. We accelerated progress itself, at least the capitalist and dystopian parts. Sometimes I’m proud, although just as often I’m ashamed. I am proudshamed.
Packer’s recent cover story for The Atlantic — “Elegy for the American Century” — is an exceptional piece of longform reporting and vivid narration. Excerpted from his new book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.
Really enjoyed this substantive recent conversation on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast. At one point, Tippett quotes Cole’s Blind Spot, one of my favorite books from the last few years: “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?” She tells Cole, “I find that useful language.” The ruminative Cole responds:
Well, thank you. I find it very fortifying as an idea, to think about what is not evident, what’s not apparent. I have a real struggle, especially when I’m writing for the Times. I have a very sympathetic, understanding, and encouraging editor, who lets me get away with all kinds of things, but I’m always trying to lower the volume of my essays. Very often, I’m trying to write and not say more than can justly be said. I want to reduce the number of sparks. I want to embed hesitation and lack of certainty in it.
While not personally a blues guy, I loved every paragraph of David Remnick’s terrific New Yorker feature exploring Buddy Guy’s long career, the change of blues’s place in culture and what the future holds, if anything, for the genre as Guy’s been playing it. Toward the end of the piece, Remnick turns to his magazine’s own poetry editor — poet and essayist Kevin Young — for this insightful description of the form:
The blues contain multitudes. Just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways.
Typically great episode of “Design of Business, Business of Design.” Tsien is the co-founder of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, whose stellar project list includes The Barnes Foundation and the new Obama Presidential Center.
Finished “What We Lose,” the debut novel from Zinzi Clemmons about a young woman living through the death of her mother. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a debut with four-plus pages of major press kudos at the start — good for Clemmons. I was not as thoroughly wow’d as some of the reviewers, but I was definitely impressed (strong voice, ideal format) and I’m glad I read it.
Enjoyed this interview with an executive recruiter working at the highest levels, particular in tech.
Fantastically interesting and smartly plotted New Yorker profile of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and his new Gerhard Richter-related project.
In an episode of the company’s “Rework” podcast, Basecamp staff look back on their five-hour outrage in November. Savvy framing of one of the company’s worst days.
From the wine importer’s crisply written and life-philosophy-framing book Reading Between the Wines, a favorite of mine from last year:
Such wines are not easy to find. We drink them just a few times in our lives. But we never forget them, or the places they lead us to. A few weeks before writing this, I dined with my wife in the Austrian Alps, in a restaurant whose chef worked with wild local herbs. We drank two stunningly brilliant dry Rieslings that buzzed and crackled like neon, and then we drank a '93 Barolo from Bruno Giacosa, a so-so vintage but fully mature. To go from giddy, giggling clarity of those Rieslings into the warm murmuring depths of that Barolo was moving in a way I grope to describe. It was as if the Riesling prepared us somehow, it reassured us that everything was visible, and then that smoky twilight red wine ... like the moment it gets too dark to read, and you get up to turn on the light and see a tiny scythe of moon low on the horizon and you open the window and smell the burning leaves, night is coming on, and there will be dinner and the sweet smells of cooking, and then at last the utter dark, and the heart beating darkly beside you.
I did something I seldom do — got just a bit plastered that evening, for which I blame the altitude, though I knew better. But I wasn't letting a drop of that Barolo go to waste. It stirred the deepest tenderness because it possessed the deepest tenderness. Tenderness is different from affection. Tenderness has a penumbra of sadness, or so I have always felt. Tenderness says there is an irreducible difference separating us, although we might wish to dissolve it. But we can't quite, however close together we draw; it is there as a condition of being. And then we see the sadness that surrounds us, wanting to merge into one another and finding it impossible; and then comes a compassion, it is this way for all of us sad hopeful beings; and then the membrane melts away, even without touching it melts away.
I don't know how it is for other people, but I myself know a wine is great when it makes me sad. Not a bitter, grieving sadness, but the thing the Germans call Weltschmerz, "the pain of the world," a fine kind of melancholy.
I came to reading Theise only last year, but, interestingly, my life overlapped with his wife’s years ago. Odessa Piper founded and ran L'Etoile, a Madison, Wisconsin, farm-to-table all-star years before that became an established phrase. Tamara and I had a special-occasion meal there during our time in Madison (2005-06), living together for the first time just before we got married and really settled into life together. While we were able to venture upstairs for a proper dinner only once, most weekends we would nibble fantastic croissants and sip terrific coffee in the building’s first-floor café, a stop during our morning walk around the Capitol.
Ah, memories of that simple time in our lives... A fine kind of melancholy, indeed.
Following a tradition I’ve held since 2000, I’m pleased to wrap up the year I had, primarily in terms of my favorite cultural experiences. A more personal note is saved for the bottom.
Sight, Jessie Greengrass
Design and Content, Abbott Miller
Reading Between the Wines, Terry Theise
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates
My Struggle: Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgård
The Odyssey, Homer (Emily Wilson, translator)
Paula Scher: Works
Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith
Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy, Ben Sonnenberg (repeat)
Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form (Pulitzer Arts Foundation)
The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes
Obama: An Intimate Portrait, Pete Souza
Architecture's Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, Hugh Howard
Yes We (Still) Can, Dan Pfeiffer
Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business, Ken Auletta
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, Michelle White (The Menil Collection)
The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, Garrett M. Graff
Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe, Kimberly K. Arcand
A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, Ian Buruma
Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
An Equation for Every Occasion, John M. Henshaw
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Michael Chabon
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath
Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Noah J. Goldstein
Books I didn’t connect with: Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord; Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success by David A. Aaker; Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (though I enjoyed the author on Ezra Klein’s podcast); and Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgård (I suppose he can do wrong in my book).
The 900-page William H. Gass Reader is not listed in my book list above, since I’ve already read everything in it. But as a new release in 2018 — and a brilliant one — it needs to be called out.
Two of my all-time favorite novels are William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and JR, both giant hills to climb. Throughout 2018, I listened to parts of the complete audio recordings in the car. If you’ve read these novels, you know how difficult narrating them might be. Nick Sullivan does an incredible job, particularly with JR, which is basically non-stop, almost-always-interrupted dialogue for 900 pages.
A Ghost Story
The Death of Stalin
The End of the Tour
The Big Sick
Meh: Baby Driver; Chris Rock: Tamborine
The Americans (Final Season!)
Atlanta, Season 1
Succession, Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 3
Bojack Horseman, Season 1
Silicon Valley, Seasons 1-3
Beyond the many hours of classical music I listened to at work through the headphones, the the albums I most enjoyed this year were Jonny Greenwood’s sublime soundtrack for Phantom Thread (nearly a daily listen for me), as well as new/newish records from Julien Baker, Boygenius, Jeff Tweedy, Pusha T, Earl Sweatshirt, Cat Power, Damien Jurado and Lomelda, whose song “From Here” has a final third that lifts off in a way that always makes me smile and sing along.
Close to home:
Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (curated by my wife and called “the year’s most beautiful exhibition” by the Washington Post)
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma at the Pulitzer
Lola Álvarez Bravo: Picturing Mexico at the Pulitzer
Amy Sherald at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis at the Saint Louis Art Museum
During a wedding trip to Chicago, I enjoyed diving back into the permanent collection of the Art Institute Chicago and doing quick cruise through the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
While attending and speaking at a conference in D.C., museum highlights included:
Watching “Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death,” an unforgettable, gut-wrenching video work by Arthur Jafa at the Hirshorn
Baselitz: Six Decades at the Hirshorn
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
A trip back to The Phillips Collection
Less happy note: Excitedly took a morning cab to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, but there were no tickets to be had. Great for the institution, though I was bummed.
During a day-and-a-half trip to NYC, I was able to see a remarkable amount of world-class art, including:
The stunning Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim
Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at MoMA
Charles White: A Retrospective at MoMA
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at MoMA
Delacroix at the Met
Jewelry: The Body Transformed at the Met
Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance at the Met
Martha Rosler: Irrespective at The Jewish Museum (plus the permanent collection)
Odds & Ends:
During that same short NYC trip, Tamara and I were able to get rush tickets to Kenneth Lonergan's play “The Waverly Gallery,” starring Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera, Joan Allen and Elaine May. Small theater. What a treat.
For our living room we bought a used piano from the wonderful folks at STL’s Jackson Pianos. Leo’s starting lessons in 2019, and I hope to get back to it after several decades away.
Amid lots of technology, Mac OS Mojave’s new screenshot feature — where you can drag a just-taken shot into use without it being saved to your computer — is something I’m grateful for daily.
While I still read Twitter, I didn’t post much this year, particularly the last six months. I tried to spend a bit more time posting what I would have shared there on my website, which had previously grown very quiet.
Speaking of web publishing, I spent a few months trying Micro.blog, which I found to be a wonderful, light-weight micro-blogging service. I was tempted to move entirely to the system, since so many of my posts are short links to content of note, but I’m going to stay with the system I have. I’m not much interested in the social/timeline aspect. But I’m keeping an eye on it.
It’s been inspiring and humbling to be part of the 2018-19 Leadership St. Louis class, the 43rd since this program began. I hope to post some reflections on the program when it ends this coming spring.
For whatever goodness 2018 brought, it’s been a sad year for our family. This summer, my father-in-law, Omer Huremović, died after battling cancer for several years.
Tajkic, as I called him, was perhaps the bravest, most resourceful and resilient man I’ll know.
He was also an artist. Little made him happier than hand-making and shipping off one of his wire-tree sculptures — some massive, others that could lay in the palm of your hand — to buyers around the country, improving their lives one sculpture at a time.
We miss him daily. We live with his art, and all that he taught us.
Thought-provoking framing of “what’s ahead for the future of business, technology and design.” From #2, “Silence is golden”:
We’re seeing a dramatic escalation in the rate at which people disconnect, unsubscribe and opt out to stem the barrage of content and messages that clutter daily life. As consumers, we’ve come to realize that it’s no longer simply a lifestyle choice, but a serious mental health issue. As we put up more barriers between ourselves and digital technologies, organizations must learn how to offer value to users who crave quiet in a noisy world.
Thoughtful piece at Wired from someone who’s been thinking and writing about this subject for quite some time: “We have arrived to the once imagined Future Book in piecemeal truths.”
At the close of Coates’ recent interview with Chris Hayes, the host asks him if he’s working on a new book. The dodge Coates gives, not wanting to discuss a project-in-process, ends up being a terrific toast to the necessity of sharp, tough early readers and editors:
I do, I do have a writing project and I love you people so much, let me tell you how much I love you. I was due on this writing project two weeks ago, it was like two weeks ago and yet I'm here with you. How much love is in my heart? Here I am. I do, man and I do and what I'll say is, I love it and it's the hardest thing ever. Writing is so ... I want to talk really, I don't know if they're people who want to be writers, who are writers in the building. But I just want to talk really quickly about that process. And about specifically working with [my editor] Chris [Jackson], who is magnificent. I give him shit all the time but he's actually magnificent, best editor and publisher, excuse me, make sure I get his title right.
I have a note that one day, we should have put it in "We Were Eight Years in Power," and the note is, I wrote "Between the World and Me" four times. And every time I would submit a draft to Chris and he'd be like, "Hmm, I don't know. I don't know, I don't know." Basically, I had to go and rewrite before we even got to the level of actual line by line editing. So he sent me a note after what must have been the second or third draft. And it's just like 2,000 words about why this does not work. And it was so depressing. I remember getting it at the time, I think you have to understand about "Between the World and Me" is, it's a book that came out of my head. I had artistic inspiration in the sense of James Baldwin, the fact that I had been working through the death of my friend for 14 years at that point.
I had the fact of a black president which was sort of swirling around but I didn't know what that was. Even the idea of a letter came at the very end of the actual process of us working together. And man, I got that note from Chris, 'cause every time you're like, "Okay, I think this is it, I think I got it, I think I got it." And it's go again, go again. And I feel like at that point, I was well-known enough and this is how the industry works. Somebody would have published that draft. It's an inferior draft, it's not the same book. And this is, I've been blessed because this is actually the relationship we have even on this book, man. I turned in a draft about this time last year. Oh, I'm done, we're gonna go to line edits. And Chris took forever to read it as is his way.
But when he did, he wrote, he did a little bit of line edit but he came over to the house and he talked to me about it and it was clear that I had to rewrite the whole thing. This is my third time, I've been writing this book for 10 years, this is my third time rewriting it. But he's not gonna let me embarrass myself. You understand? I think I'm good as a writer, but I actually have much more confidence in the people around me because the people around me, they just gonna tell me, "It's not time. It's not time, don't embarrass yourself." I think a lot of writers, listen, I think talent is really important but I think what I have been blessed with, from the time I was in my mom and my dad's house, you know what I mean? From the period of working for David Carr. From the period when James Bennett ran The Atlantic. I had hard people around me. You know who just pushed. Do it again, go again, go again, go again, go again.
So if you like what you see, and this is why I'm always a little uncomfortable with this, what you are seeing is not some innate thing. What you are seeing is, go again, go again, go again. And that's the spirit I think of certainly good writing and any writing that hopes to be great. The bleeding on the page. And then bleeding again and again. I just tell him this all the time, I'm thankful to have a reader like that who push you in that sort of way.