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Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs

By Sally Mann

If you are—as I am—a photographer whose work focuses on your own children, it is more or less impossible to escape the shadow of Sally Mann. Mann was not the first artist to turn her lens on her family, but she was unquestionably one of the best. She is to the family genre what Ansel Adams was to black-and-white landscapes: the progenitor (or at least the catalyst) of a whole family of photographic tropes, an inspiration to generations of following artists, imitated to the point of cliché but seldom equaled, let alone surpassed.

It’s not exactly accurate to say I’m a fan of Sally Mann’s work. Rather let’s say that nearly everything I’ve done photographically is somehow informed by, inspired by, measured against her work. Her family work, of course, but her landscapes as well, her obsession with rootedness, with legacy, with personal history, with connection, with decay. If there’s ever been any single photographer in whose work I most saw my own ideas and emotions reflected, it’s her. (I can feel a slight sneer from an imaginary reviewer at this revelation. Of course some Dad With A Camera, some guy with his portfolio of longing-filled images of beautiful, serious-eyed children, of course he would cite Sally Mann as his biggest influence. Is it a cliché? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it any less true.)

There was never any question that I would read her memoir.

What does one look for when reading the story of one’s hero, told in her own words? (Is that the right word for what she is to me? My hero?) Affirmation, perhaps? Some sign of convergent evolution, some hint that I’m on the right track? Or maybe just the same thing I hold so dear when I look at her photographs: that inkling that someone, somewhere, thinks and feels the way I do. The little spark of recognition that makes me feel a little less isolated.

Did I find that? Did I ever.

On mark-making and legacy:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form, but when I gently press my hand into the rabbit’s downy, rounded meuse it makes me wonder: will all the marks I have left on the world someday be tied up in a box?

On the pain of place:

In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

On self-confidence (or the lack thereof):

Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am that exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?

On beauty and sadness:

As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.

I could go on and on. If I were the type to write in books, my copy of Hold Still would be underlined and highlighted on nearly every page. She says not just the things I would say, but she says them the way I would say them (if I might flatter myself to be nearly the writer she is).

What stands out to me even more than the similarities, though, are the differences. Mann and I both come from a rural area, but she grew up on a Virginia farm while I grew up in a woodsy California neighborhood. She describes herself as a young girl as “feral” and “naked,” while I was straight-laced and buttoned-up. She was raised in relative wealth and privilege; when I was a child, we had to make do much of the time. It was no surprise that she went to school for the arts; it was no surprise that I studied engineering. Somehow, though, we both seem to have arrived at the same set of obsessions. How does that happen? What does it mean?

It’s not a perfect book. Or rather, it didn’t sit perfectly with me. At times when she speaks in defense of her family images she seems to want things both ways. To be sure, I agree when she argues that her children shouldn’t be judged by the photographs, because photographs aren’t people. But then, she also comes close to saying that critics shouldn’t say that her photographs don’t show “mean” or “cold” children because her children aren’t mean or cold.

And though I find it admirable that she tries to reckon with the racial legacy of the South she loves, and with her own history with race and privilege, I can’t help feeling a certain ambivalence about how she approaches the topic. She admits the hypocrisy of the situation, but can’t quite extricate herself from it:

Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raise by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly †insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untained by guilt or resentment?

I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me.

She is open in her criticism of the system of racial segregation she grew up in. She acknowledges her part in it, how she benefited from it, how her biases blinded her in her youth. But I’m torn between finding her candor laudable and seeing some bit of self-congratulation in it. At that, though, I felt the same ambivalence in her, a desire to see herself in a good light tempered with a hint of self-loathing in having to make the story about herself. Where that leaves me, I’m not sure. I might squirm a bit at a white, affluent Southerner talking about race from a position of power, but I’d likely find it odd, too, if she simply didn’t bring it up at all. You can draw your own conclusions; I’m sure she’d want no less.

And in that, perhaps it’s no different from the rest of the book. Mann never presents herself as anything other than the same sort of fallible human that we all are. Her art, not to mention the deeply insightful and lyrical writing in this book, might raise expectations for those of us in her audience, and so often those expectations are borne out. But looking for The Answers from any person is on some level a fool’s errand, and what we get from this book is still remarkable and resonant, even if the person painted by its portrait isn’t perfect. Hold Still is an exceptional articulation of the inner life of an artist who, though she wouldn’t admit to it, is a genius. After this book, I continue to labor in her shadow, and I suspect I always will. I hope someday I’ll be able to contribute something half as meaningful.


Started: 10/28/2015 | Finished: 11/21/2015

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The Land Across

By Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has written some of my favorite books, books that I consider to be among the finest American novels in any genre. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are fantastic works that I have returned to many times, each time finding something new. And his three-series, twelve-volume epic starting with The Book of the New Sun is truly a masterpiece. But as much as I love some of his stories, others—like 1984’s Free Live Free or the 2004 duology The Wizard Knight—left me flat. So I always look forward to reading a new Wolfe novel, but I’m also always a little apprehensive about which experience I’m going to get. The Land Across, unfortunately, was in the latter category.

The story follows its narrator—a travel writer whose name is eventually revealed to be Grafton—as he journeys to an obscure Eastern European country, intent on being the first person to write a travel guide about the place. He is immediately taken into custody by the Stasi-esque national police as he crosses the border, and as the book continues he finds himself involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot involving forces both political and apparently supernatural.

Because this is a Wolfe novel, nothing is ever quite spelled out, and it’s clear that Grafton isn’t telling us the whole story. I ended up as impressed as I always am by the technical skill of Wolfe’s writing, but still fairly confused about what the hell actually happened. I haven’t read Kafka before, but that name has been thrown around a lot in other reviews I’ve seen, referencing the style and dialogue and intrigue, and the pervasive feeling of strangeness throughout the book—the writer I was most strongly reminded of was Milan Kundera. (I’ve only read one Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened in that book either.)

But this is how it goes when a Wolfe book doesn’t land for me: I end up assuming that I must have just missed something, or didn’t work hard enough to figure it out. So in terms of a recommendation, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but it nevertheless still struck me as good. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.


Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage

By Haruki Murakami

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. I’m not sure exactly what I got from it, either. This was my first time reading anything by Murakami, though I have been aware for a while of his enormous popularity in Japan and the high regard in which critics around the world hold him. In the first few sentences of Colorless Tsukuru we are dropped right into the depths of the title character’s depression, a depression brought on by his rejection and ostracization from his group of friends. The reasons for that rejection are not made clear at first, but the effects are: cut off from the closest people in his life, Tsukuru Tazaki is left adrift, feeling no reason to continue existing. It’s a pretty bleak way to start a book, enough so that I put it down after the first page twice before finally getting through it. Was it worth it to put in the effort? Well, I’m not sure. A lot of the dialogue felt very clunky to me, though that could just have been due to the translation. More than that, Tsukuru himself is mostly unappealing, self-deprecating to the point of disappearing, despite the fact that he appears to be held in high regard by just about everyone else in the book—at a certain point, his repeated insistence that he is without color, that he has no special or even noticeable qualities, just comes off as whiny. On top of all of that, I also found the book’s portrayal of women to be uncomfortable, sometimes downright creepy. Still, despite all of that, there were moments—and more than a few—where it felt like the story was right on the verge of something profound. There was a lyrical, haunting quality to it that hinted at some insight which was never quite expressed.


Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015

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How to Be Both

By Ali Smith

It’s a little surprising how well this book worked for me, given how, well, gimmicky I would normally find it. It’s written in two parts, one about an adolescent English girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother, the other about the talents and secrets of an up-and-coming painter during the Italian Renaissance. Both parts are written in a dense, oddly punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style. What’s more, the book was released in two different versions, in which the order of the two parts is switched. Normally, I would find all of that off-putting, and, honestly, it wasn’t easy for me to access the story at first. What drew me in, though, was lines like this: “It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it?” Can you remember what it felt like to be a teenager in love for the first time? The feeling of being given a song and having it speak straight to your soul? How to Be Both is full of richly observed descriptions of the emotions of life. The relationships between a mother and daughter, a father and daughter, a brother and sister, between lovers, between friends. It was really quite breathtaking, and I’m not sure it could have done all it did with a more straightforward style and structure. So, on top of just being a great, emotionally resonant read, How to Be Both also made me re-evaluate some of my positions on what does and doesn’t constitute literary gimmickry. So that’s something.


Started: 9/24/2015 | Finished: 10/1/2015

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Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Reading Cloud Atlas, I was struck by how structurally and thematically ambitious it was, but mostly what I kept coming back to was that I just can’t believe that anyone ever thought it would make a good movie. I’m not sure what to say about it, really. To be honest, I’m not even really sure I can explain what it was about. Each chapter not only introduces a new cast of characters, but also switches style and even genre. One chapter is an Age of Sail travelogue while another is a 70’s thriller, and still another is a dystopian science fiction. The connections between each are not immediately obvious, and the transitions from one to the next are quite jarring—indeed, the first chapter ends in the middle of a sentence! By the midpoint of the book, though, the complexity comes together and the structure becomes apparent. At the end of it all, I found myself impressed but still somewhat perplexed. Mitchell’s craft certainly can’t be denied, and I’d say I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t really say what the point of it all was. Sprinkled throughout the book, various characters comment about or ponder the nature of experience, time, and memory, and it does feel as though Mitchell intended Cloud Atlas to provoke questions along those lines. Yet if he had any coherent statement to make, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps it’s enough that the book was well-made and engaging. Not every piece of art has to be about something in order to be worthwhile. Still, I can’t help feeling that there was something I missed here. If you figure it out, let me know.


Started: 9/7/2015 | Finished: 9/23/2015

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Hyperbole and a Half

By Allie Brosh

There was a point at which I was reading Allie Brosh’s highly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half several times a week. Sadly, those days are over (for now, at least) as she’s only written eight posts in the past five years. Brosh’s blog was one of those wonderful things that seems now like it could only have existed in the late ’00s, back when blogging was still new and shiny. Hilarious, personal, sometimes achingly honest, Brosh had a way of relating (and drawing) her stories and recollections that always felt both singular and familiar. Well, fans of the blog will surely appreciate her 2013 book of the same name, as will, well, most people who aren’t dead inside. The book continues her signature MS Paint cartoon-style and self-deprecating humor, combining some new essays with past hits. I do find myself wishing sometimes that she’d write for her blog again, but from everything I’ve heard, she’s doing well and taking care of herself, so the book will have to be enough for now. And, you know, it does a pretty damn good job at that.


Started: 9/5/2015 | Finished: 9/6/2015

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The Grace of Kings

By Ken Liu

2015 has been, for me, something of a watershed year in terms of race. Not only in how I think about and engage with race and identity and representation, but also in terms of the availability and visibility of diverse art and entertainment. This was the year of Between the World and Me, of Fresh Off the Boat, of #ActualAsianPoet and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It was the year that I realized that despite the fact that I've read hundreds of books since I started this blog, precious few were written by people of color.

I had all that in mind when I picked up a copy of Ken Liu's debut novel, The Grace of Kings. Now, if a desire to read more diverse fiction brings you to this book, as it did for me, that's fine. But it's not the only, nor even the main reason that you should read it. You should read it because it's interesting and well-written, a compelling, different take on epic fantasy.

The overwhelming majority of fantasy stories, particularly epic fantasy, can trace their roots back to the European medieval romance traditions. Springing from Malory's Morte d'Arthur and filtered through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, we've seen all manner of iterations and variations, refinements of and reactions to these concepts, and, to be sure, there have been some real gems produced in the genre. But it's nevertheless refreshing to read a story that clearly has a different cultural basis.

From what I have been able to gather, The Grace of Kings is largely a retelling of the history and legends of the founding of China's Han dynasty in the late third century BCE. As the story opens, the aging Emperor Mapidere is touring the sprawling empire he forged through conquest. Though Mapidere is able to maintain control through reputation and force of arms, the constituent kingdoms he subjugated chafe under his rule, and after his death things fall apart again as his former subjects vie for power. In this context, we're introduced to Kuni Garu, a low-born but charismatic gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, the last son of one of the noble families brought down by Mapidere's wars. At first separately and then together, the two men rise up and lead their followers to overthrow the empire, only to find themselves enemies when it comes time to decide how to establish a new order.

The book has drawn many comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but as I haven't read Luo Guanzhong's classic (yet) I can't comment on whether the analogy is apt. What I will say is that the style and structure of The Grace of Kings makes it feel more like a fable than a modern novel. Rather than utilizing the close third-person perspective that we've become accustomed to, Liu keeps everything more distant, resulting in a story that feels more narrated than immediate. That may not sound like high praise given the familiar admonishment "show, don't tell" but consider that highly influential texts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales to Gabriel García Márquez's novels to the Bible all have a similar feel. Here, it works wonderfully, heightening the legendary quality of the story and characters.

This is the first book of an expected trilogy, and here the comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms bring up some interesting possibilities. As I mentioned, The Grace of Kings mirrors the beginnings of the Han dynasty, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms—a book I've long wanted to read but still haven't gotten around to—is set in the end of that period of Chinese history. It may be that Ken Liu has plans to diverge from his historical inspirations, but if not, he's got plenty to work with. I'm certainly curious to find out.


Started: 8/28/2015 | Finished: 9/4/2015

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The Price of Inequality

By Joseph E. Stiglitz

There's a well-known psychological phenomenon where people tend to give more weight to arguments and evidence that supports their beliefs, and tend to discount or even forget information that contradicts those beliefs. This is called "confirmation bias." The reason I bring this up is because Joseph Stiglitz's book The Price of Inequality so strongly supports my beliefs about social and economic justice that I can't help but question whether my reaction to it might be the product of just such a bias.

Over the course of 360-some pages, Stiglitz—far as I can tell—completely dismantles the prevailing myths of both the inevitability of our current economic situation and the idea that supply-side policies are the answer. If I might be allowed to sum up his argument, it would go like so:

  1. The United States currently has an extremely high level of economic inequality, both in comparison with other contemporary developed countries and with its own history.
  2. The current level of inequality cannot be justified by any sort of meritocracy, nor can it be attributed to inevitable, natural events.
  3. Rather, the current level of inequality is largely the result of a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top, and that transfer is largely due to the manipulation of both market conditions and government policies by the wealthy elite.
  4. Furthermore, the current level of inequality is unsustainable because
    1. inequality lowers economic growth and efficiency,
    2. inequality undermines democratic government, and
    3. the conditions driving the current levels of inequality are damaging to the environment.

Not only does Stiglitz base his arguments on data (and he provides copious references to the studies he cites), but he also directly responds to just about every criticism of his position that I've ever encountered. Indeed, after finishing this book, I was so thoroughly convinced that I immediately became skeptical of myself. I spent an hour or so sifting through Google results to try to find a coherent rebuttal to Stiglitz's points, but everything I found boiled down to either name-calling or a flat insistence that he simply couldn't be right.

Rather than simply ending with an analysis of how we came to be where we are, or even an explanation of the results should we continue on this course, Stiglitz goes further and provides a number of concrete recommendations for how we could improve the situation. Granted, it's a long shot that a jaded (or forcibly disenfranchised) constituency and a captured government would be able to implement any of the policies Stiglitz describes, but things are not irreversibly bad.

In this country, the discourse around the proper role of government often seems to be preoccupied with the possibility of future tyranny, and the necessity of structuring government so as to protect the people from itself. But in my view—and I think that Stiglitz would likely agree—a government that does not also protect weaker individuals (which is to say, less wealthy individuals) from the rapacities of those who would take advantage of them, is merely subsituting one form of tyranny for another. We can do better. I don't know if we will, and often when contemplating that possibility my cynicism gets the better of me. But there is a way forward if we choose to take it, and Joseph Stiglitz might just be able to show it to us.


Started: 8/11/2015 | Finished: 8/27/2015

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Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve had ample opportunity to think about race and racism in my life. Growing up with an Asian face in a mostly-white town, my otherness was something that was consistently reinforced by my classmates, whether it was the revulsion I heard about the nori in my lunch as a kindergartener or the beatings I took in high school from kids who called me a chink. By the time I reached adulthood I had a lot of opinions about race and racism, and I thought I had good reasons for them. I thought I understood these phenomena. I was wrong.

The most insidious deception that life shows us is that, having lived, we know what life is like, that we understand the world. But this is a lie. The truth is that the world is big and life is varied, and in our short, narrow existences we see only a very small part of it. Experience, the thing that is supposed to bring us wisdom, the kind of knowledge that most of us exalt above all others, is a trap. It lulls you with the supremacy of your own story, but does not and cannot show you the things to which you are blind.

Over the past year or so I have been revisiting many of my thoughts and assumptions about race (and gender and class and privilege and bias of all sorts), poking at the edges to try to find where I am limited, considering the core to try to see how strong it really is. What I’ve come to is this: the single greatest barrier to social, political, and economic justice is the essential solitude of human existence, the fact that we do not and cannot truly know the living of someone else’s life.

But if we are incapable of literally seeing through another person’s eyes, we nevertheless have the opportunity to come close by means of communication. Through writing, speech, art, one person can show herself to another, and by opening ourselves to the possibility, we have the chance at something like communion. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates does with his remarkable book Between the World and Me.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from Coates to his son, Samori, one in which he lays out his hopes and fears for the kind of man that his son will be, and in which he tells the story of his own journey to manhood, growing up as a black boy in Baltimore. Taken solely on this level, the book is still powerful, because the impulse to teach one’s children and to be known to them, to have them see how you became the person you are and have them understand, surely this must be universal. As compelling as that narrative is, though, the true impact of this book comes from its ability to show Coates’ world to the rest of us.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out in one of her reviews of this book that the struggles that Coates describes, ones which I found so viscerally gripping, are ones that are hardly unfamiliar, let alone shocking, to most black people in America. In many ways, she says, this book is really written for a white audience. Or, to put it as Coates so often does: people who believe themselves to be white.

And here is the most dismaying thing about this book: that the people who would most benefit from reading it most likely will not do so. Or, reading it, will reject it. It is impossible to read this book as anything but an indictment of an America that is blind to both the historical scale of its racism and the ways in which that racism continues to be perpetuated to this day. The most natural thing to do in the face of criticism—especially unexpected criticism, or criticism that feels undeserved—is to defend oneself. I have spent so much of my life examining and re-examining myself and my beliefs, constantly digging and scratching to try to discover my own foibles, and yet often in the course of reading Between the World and Me I found myself automatically beginning to argue with Coates, to try to find the holes in his reasoning. But it was wrong of me to do that.

Partially it was wrong because much of the book is Coates describing his own life, which is to say, the things that he experienced and how they affected him; how can I meaningfully argue that he didn’t experience what he says he did? But more than that, it was wrong because the only reason I really had to argue was that it would allow me to feel good about myself. This is important: if the only time we will accept an argument is if it makes us look good, it means that we hold ourselves completely immune from criticism, encased in the armor of our own ignorance. This isn’t to say that we must accept any criticism without challenge, but I believe that it is our responsibility to always begin by asking, honestly, whether this criticism may be valid.

Coates, himself, knows this sort of reaction well enough:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

Think about the lengths to which we all go to be able to think of ourselves as good people. Listen to the parents’ voices in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s revelatory recent episode of This American Life . “This is not a race issue,” one mother shouts. But if it is not a race issue, then what is it? The word “racist” has become so evil in our minds, so tied to images of lynch mobs and burning crosses, of the slaveholder’s whip and of fire hoses turned on peaceful protesters, that most people will twist and contort themselves to avoid having that label applied to themselves. But what is the difference between racism and something that just “happens” to be functionally identical to racism, to have the exact same outcome as racism? There is no difference, and we are all complicit. As Coates puts it:

Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.

That last phrase, “the Dream,” is something to which Coates refers over and over again throughout Between the World and Me. In America, of course, when we speak of dreams it’s hard not to think of the “American Dream,” the aspiration to be found in the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger. But Coates isn’t talking about goals or the future. When he speaks of a Dream, he’s talking about a fantasy which does not reflect reality. Something in which we can only live by keeping ourselves insensate to the waking world.

It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all of the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

The Dream is safety. It is the belief that hard work always pays off. That any of us pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unhelped and unbeholden to anyone who came before or after. That we are the unconquerable masters of our fates, captains of our souls. “People who believe they are white” can live in this Dream; people who are told they are black may not.

(I wondered, at times, whether Coates would think I believe myself white. I do not, nor do white people, and yet I grew up believing I could get ahead by my own efforts. I believed so because I was told so by the adults in my life, some of whom had, in their youths, had their livelihoods confiscated and their bodies imprisoned by a government that assumed they must be enemy sympathizers. Do I believe myself white? No, but who is to say that one day people who look like me won’t do so? As Gene Demby wrote last year for NPR’s Code Switch blog, the definition of “white” at one time didn’t include Jews or Italians or Germans or Irish. Perhaps some day it will include Asians.)

Coates offers no easy answers, no happy endings. He rejects comforting platitudes and myths. He refuses to speak about abstractions like rights or souls; racism is not merely wrong because of ideals, but because of the effect it has on the body. The body is fragile and breakable, and most importantly, it is singular. He implores his son to remember that each of us has only one life, and when it ends, a universe ends:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. That is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ultimately, though he finds nobility in the struggle to understand, to see, to live both unencumbered and unshielded by any Dream, Coates cannot offer his son any hope that through their own efforts, black people might achieve equality. For that to happen, the Dreamers would have to awaken to the real world, to reckon with the true scope of what racism has wrought in this country, what it continues to create. Each of us has to choose to open our eyes, to be willing to challenge our assumptions, to confess our sins, and then translate that awareness into action. I don’t know how to make the world a better place, what policies must be enacted or what reparations might be made. But if, as I suspect, it is blindness that keeps us from acting, then one place to start might be to read this book.


Started: 7/30/2015 | Finished: 8/10/2015

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Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

By John Paul Stevens

Over the course of my life I have spent quite a lot of time thinking and arguing about various social and political topics, most of the latter having taken place online. The people I’ve talked to about these issues have ranged from writers to lawyers to business owners to artists, and of course a whole bunch of laypeople like myself. But I’ve never really gotten the chance to discuss anything like gun control or free speech or gay marriage with anyone who actually works with policy, so when I heard that former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens had written a book proposing six ways the US Constitution ought to be amended, I immediately put it on my list. I hoped that this book would be a measured, insightful, rational discussion of the issues it addressed, and in that I was not disappointed.

In this slim, very accessible volume, Stevens addresses the death penalty, gun control, campaign finance, gerrymandering, sovereign immunity, and the “anti-commandeering rule.” Most of those topics were familiar to me, though the latter two were not. In any event, I suppose it should come as little surprise that when one of the more liberal justices of my lifetime writes a political treatise, I would find myself agreeing with most of it. And yet, there we are. Even where I found myself less sure—the “anti-commandeering rule” is one, for example, that has on the one hand been used to support racist and homophobic state laws, but has also allowed states a certain amount of leeway in determining their own drug policy—Stevens’ arguments were well laid-out and persuasive, and showed a deep understanding of both the historical and current contexts of the issues.

Considering that most of Stevens’ positions were ones I already held, I can’t say that reading this book changed my life or opened my eyes in any particularly large way. And I’m not sure, either, whether someone on the other end of the political spectrum would find his arguments as compelling as I did. Even so, I think this book is worth reading if only to see an example of political discourse as it should be: thoughtful, calm, and rational.


Started: 7/26/2016 | Finished: 7/29/2015

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