What I’ve Been Reading

1. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (editors). This is a collection of original essays: one about each state in the United States, each written by a different heavyweight writer. William Vollman, Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sarah Vowell, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Ha Jin, George Packer, to name just a handful of the boldfaces.

Overall I was disappointed. Taken together I feel I possess no greater panoramic understanding of America other than the well-hammered-in-by-now idea that this is a very diverse country. Individually, only a few of the essays struck a cord. The best essay is Lydia Millet’s on Arizona. She explains her abrupt decision to move from New York City to Arizona cactus land. The last two paragraphs are lovely:

At night, the Milky Way streaks overhead; I can stand in the yard and gaze up at its soft infinitude as a mild breeze moves the branches of the palo verdes and bats flit through the warm air.

I know my presence here is no boon to the place. It would do far better without all of us — without me, self-conscious and trying to walk softly, without my harder-living compatriots; without the ugly hubbub of all of us bringing our litter and noise and concrete to paradise. But I can’t help myself. This, to me, is the closest I’ve ever come to the eternal and the sublime; this valley tells me that when it’s time for me to die I don’t need to be afraid. I can die happy, because the world is stunning and the sky will go on forever.

2. Oh, The Things I Know by Al Franken. This is a funny, light book of wisdom delivered by mocking the usual wisdom offered at commencement speeches among other places. Good as an audiobook on a long drive when you want something humorous and light — this was what I was looking for when I listened to it.

3. Emergency by Neil Strauss. A survival guide in the event of nuclear attack, the demise of America as a country, or apocalypse in general. Except instead of just specific, tactical emergency preparedness advice we get a not-very-engaging narrative covering the author’s attempt to become a citizen of another country. Special excerpts like how to survive a dog attack or break free from handcuffs reinforce the book’s cheesy appeal to the Special Forces-wannabe inside every male under 35.

4. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture by Grant McCracken. This is an academic treatment of the idea of “re-invention” — when a person seeks to transform his identity in some way. While certain tidbits grabbed me, overall I found it impenetrable.

Few favorite lines:

“The swift self is driven by two things: a brute curiosity that asks, “What is possible?” and a brute urge that asks, “Can I do it?”

“The signature of the Protestant self: the production of understatement where overstatement would have been forgiven.”

Lionel Trilling called “sincerity” the “note-perfect performances of the social self and the careful observation of its roles, responsibilities, and obligations in the theater of social life.”

One Response to What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Toli Galanis says:

    Completely agree with you on the Strauss book Ben. It’s a step down for him, and the cheesiness factor probably ensues because he’s trying to force it into the same narrative that worked for The Game.

    There’s also a mishmash of interesting threads that he starts but that don’t coalesce at the end. Although useful for some of the information, he could have done much better. Shame.


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