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.”

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