1. 2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005. In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill. At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this. The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power. I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.” Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”: Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life. I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say. I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he's lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser. In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages. House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs. “I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.” Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover. 2. But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of '90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted? The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.” Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.” Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.” As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.” For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.” Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.” Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.” 3. The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.” There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages. “I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’” Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person. Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself. 4. When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online? Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.) Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts. Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.” I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating. Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.
I recently moved to a new apartment, which gave me an excuse to pursue, without guilt, my favorite procrastination activity: reorganizing my bookshelf. It also forced me to go through each and every one of my books and ask hard questions like, am I really ever going to read The Forsyte Saga? (Answer: It’s been up there for 10 years, but maybe? I kept it.) Or: will I ever reread Middlemarch, and if so, will I want to use this yellowed paperback with a taped spine that I got for free off of a stoop? (Answer: No. If a person returns to Middlemarch, they deserve a fresh copy, possibly a reissue with interesting new cover art.) On my old shelves, my books were organized into four broad genres: fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. Fiction was arranged by date published, nonfiction by subject area, and plays and poetry were not in any particular order. On my new shelf, I stuck with my broad genres, and within each one, I kept things simple and organized everything alphabetically. Boring, but effective. But part of the fun of reorganizing your books is considering all your options, so here are 10 organizational strategies for the next time you find yourself in the throes of moving, decluttering, or, if you’re anything like me, procrastinating. 1. Chronologically, by Date Published As I mentioned above, this is how I have arranged the majority of my books for the past decade. It’s kind of a pretentious way to shelve your collection, and to make it even more pretentious, I got the idea secondhand, from a literary memoir. (I can’t remember whose memoir anymore.) But this method ended up working for me for two reasons: 1) the act of putting my books on the shelf in order helped me to remember history, and to get a better sense of which writers were writing and publishing at the same time, and perhaps influencing one another; and 2) when I add books to my collection, they’re usually brand-new, published recently, and it's easier to just plunk them down on the end of the shelf rather than finding a place for them alphabetically. 2. By Color If you have a large number of books, this is an extremely silly way to organize your bookshelf. I know, because I tried it once. I have a good memory for covers and I thought it would be an intuitive way to find my books—and would look pretty, too. What I didn’t realize is that the spines of books are sometimes a different color from the front covers. I found myself spending a lot of time looking for, say, a book I was certain was red, only to discover that its spine was blue. But, if you really love putting things in rainbow order, and you have a small number of books that you know well, this could be a visually striking way to arrange your shelves. 3. Artful Piles I’ve seen this in design magazines and once when I was visiting a fancy Nolita loft, where tall stacks of art books were arranged in uneven piles on a long bench. It reminded me—not unpleasantly—of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway visits Gatsby’s library and discovers that none of the pages of the books have been cut for reading. So if you have a lot of beautiful books that are just for show, artful piles might be the way to go. 4. By Subject/Genre If you’re a collector of books on a particular subject, or a big fan of a particular genre, this is probably the most satisfying way to arrange your books. It’s also a good way to organize your books if you don’t have a good memory for titles and authors. I group my nonfiction books by subject because I don’t always remember nonfiction authors and titles as readily as writers of fiction. My subjects are: History, Criticism/Literary Interest, New York City, and Art/Design. (I debated giving memoirs, letters, and journals their own nonfiction subject area but ultimately decided to shelve them with fiction, since in many cases, I’m most interested in the memoirs of authors whose fiction I admire.) A handful of my books don’t fit into any of those categories, and they are stacked up vertically in a miscellaneous pile, near the art books. 5. Geographically I’ve never seen anyone organize books this way, but why not? The question is, when you’re organizing geographically, do you go by the author’s place of birth or the particular place that an author is associated with? For example, would Joseph Mitchell be a New York writer or a southern writer? What about Ernest Hemingway? The Midwest, Florida Keys, or Spain? Another option would be to organize by the geographical setting of a particular book, which is somewhat more definitive, though many books are located in multiple locations and/or fictional places. A compromise might be to devote a section on your bookshelf to one particular geographical area. 6. In Order of Importance and/or Goodness This could be a good way to start debates among guests. It also could be a good way to kill a rainy afternoon. 7. Secretively If you don’t want anyone to know what you’re reading and/or if you don’t care about being able to find your books, you can place them on the shelves so that the spines are facing the wall. This will give your shelves a soothing, monochromatic look. It will also make it difficult for people to borrow books from you. 8. Alphabetically This is the obvious, most boring method, but it might be the friendliest, too. Anyone looking for a book in your library will be able to find it. It’s kind of interesting, too, to see who ends up next to each other. 9. Randomly You don’t have to organize your books at all. You can shelve them in no particular order, like Pamela Paul, New York Times Book Review editor: “What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity.” Personally, I couldn’t stand to do this at home, but I do enjoy perusing the strange mix of books that you find in beach houses and summer cottages, for the way it always leads to an unexpected choice. 10. Autobiographically Credit for this idea must be given to the film High Fidelity (based on the Nick Hornby’s novel by the same name). Post break-up, a lovelorn record store owner, Rob, decides to reorganize his record collection autobiographically. He arranges his records in an order that only he can understand, the key to which are his life experiences and personal obsessions. He explains to a friend, “If I want to find the song “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.” It could be argued that every bookshelf, like every piece of writing, is autobiographical, even with its veneer of objective organization, but I admit I can see the nostalgic appeal in consciously organizing my books according to the stages of my life. I’m not sure how I would end up grouping my books, but it would be interesting to think back on all the people—family members, teachers, friends, writers—who have influenced my reading, the classes I’ve taken, the authors I’ve met, the booklists I’ve clipped, and the summers I’ve whiled away. I’d also have to reckon with some of the less flattering aspects of my bookshelf, like the fact that a certain number of books will always remain unread, and another, larger percentage will never be reread because my hope of returning to them “one day” has nothing to do with a desire to reengage with the author, but instead, to return to a certain period of my life, a frame of mind, or even a particular person or place. To shelve autobiographically is to embark on a journey of self-examination, which is why I’m saving it for when I undergo a midlife crisis—or maybe when I move to a bigger apartment. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. The problem with finishing Proust is that there’s nothing left to read. I’m sure Swing Time is just as excellent as everyone says, but it felt like a slog to me, and I stopped close to the end, with only 40 pages left to go. It sits on my bookshelf, unfinished. The same went for my book group’s March pick, a classic, Les Liasions Dangereuses. I tried some novels that I’d been meaning to read for months, but they didn’t matter anymore. Nothing seemed interesting. Apparently, this particular form of boredom is common for anyone who has finished In Search of Lost Time. Anne Carson describes it as “the desert of after Proust:” There’s a kind of glacial expanse that opens where nothing seems worth reading and all you want is for Proust to start over again, but of course he can’t and so you read, in a desultory way, things about Proust or criticism or biography, but it’s not the same and eventually you just give up and realize you’ll be in Proust withdrawal for a while and then life will sort of go on in a grayer level. Like Carson, I picked up criticism and biographies of Proust, as well as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton’s book was especially depressing, like reading the tour guide of a country you’d just visited, and wouldn’t be able to return to for many years. Knowing I might feel bereft, I stretched out the final volume, Time Regained, for as long as I could. For me, it was the most compelling part of the novel because it spoke so directly to the writing process. After years of frittering away his time at social events, Marcel has a strange and unexpected revelation when he’s on his way to yet another party. While crossing the courtyard outside the Guermantes mansion, he jumps out of the way of a car, nearly tripping on some uneven paving stones. The feeling of disequilibrium brings back a strong memory of Venice—a memory as strong as the one that famously came to him when he dunked a madeleine in a cup of tea and his childhood visits to Combray bloomed in his mind. All at once, Marcel understands the work he must do to write the book he has dreamed of composing. In a startlingly direct 200-page passage, Marcel describes what writing is, what memory is, and how writing and memory allows us to translate our experience of life—our consciousness—into art. He explains the way that our deepest-held impressions are accessed through our senses, by the sound of a bell, the feeling of paving stones beneath one’s feet, or by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In Proust’s philosophy of memory, the majority of our recollections are intellectualized narratives; these are voluntary memories. But involuntary memories are those that come to us when we encounter a physical sensation that seems to put us in two worlds at once: the past and the present. These types of memories dissolve time, and they also, Proust observes, dissolve the ego: These [memories], on the contrary, instead of giving me a more flattering idea of myself, had almost caused me to doubt the reality, the existence of the self. To forget oneself is one of the great joys of writing, possibly the greatest joy, but we’re not living in a moment when people are encouraged to forget themselves. Social media, our most popular narrative form, is all about intellectualizing memory, and crafting a narrative of self that gives a particular impression. But these curated memories don’t have much correspondence to what people actually think or feel. Furthermore, most of us aren’t aware of their most deeply buried memories, the ones that shape our experience of life. If you want to find out your true impressions, Proust says, you must push away the distractions of everyday life: As for the inner book of unknown symbols...if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book. I read those words on Tuesday in February. I know it was a Tuesday because my son has swimming lessons on Tuesdays, and, having read Time Regained for longer than I’d intended, I was in a rush to pick him up from school and take him to class. Still, I arrived at the YMCA pool in a spaced-out mood. Usually I bring my smartphone down to the observation deck, so that I can check emails and read the news while my son takes his lesson, but on that day, prodded by what I had read, I left my phone in the locker room. I brought my book group’s February selection—Bluets, by Maggie Nelson—but I didn’t open it. Instead I stared at the pool, occasionally searching for my son’s swim-capped head. The scent of the chlorine was strong and I drifted into memories: my lifeguard training as a teenager, an unhappy time when I swam lap after lap on Saturday mornings in a pool that left my hair greenish. I changed among girls I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to like me particularly. The bathroom smelled strongly of bleach. Later, I found out that I didn’t even enjoy lifeguarding, but I did like the confidence it gave me in the water. I love to swim laps in the ocean and out to the middle of lakes. I want my son to have the same love of swimming when he’s older, but I don’t know if that’s something you can actually pass on. My son finished his lesson and I dried him off with a white towel worn from industrial washings. We put his suit in the noisy drier that I’m certain is damaging to the fabric of his swimsuit but which he loves to operate. I wondered if he would remember any of it—the noise, the chlorine, the shower stalls—years from now. 2. That same Tuesday, my husband and I went to a lecture by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He was promoting his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, which addresses the evolution of human consciousness. As we waited to attend the lecture in a very long line outside of a warehouse near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, I noticed that the majority of the people in line were looking at their smartphones. It was an unremarkable observation, but waiting in a long line had gotten me nostalgic for my 20s, when free lectures were a way of life. Except, back then, no one had smart phones. Instead, you had a book, or a magazine, or you made idle conversation with your friend or the friend of your friend who arrived first. If you called someone on your phone, the people around you were slightly annoyed to be put in the position of eavesdropping on your one-sided conversation. Everything was a little bit awkward, and a little bit boring. But on that night in Gowanus, nothing was awkward. No one was bored. Everyone was on their phones, doing as they pleased: playing games, texting, posting, reading, scrolling, commenting, joking. It was great, maybe? Or it was sad? Were these even the right questions to ask? It was a mild night, for February. Above the sky was faded New York City black, with the streetlights glowing orange. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven and there were puddles at the curb, reflecting the lights. The gutters were dirty with trash and debris. People waved to approaching friends and companions, removing earpieces in advance of hugs and kisses. They showed each other images, lit by small glowing screens. They checked the time. Many human behaviors remained the same. But a certain lull was gone. There was also, harder to pinpoint, a disengagement from the physical world. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t just read Proust’s theory of involuntary memory, and the role of sensory input in the formation of thoughts and memories. I wondered how many people waiting were absorbing anything about waiting in line with these particular people at this particular moment in time. I wondered if it mattered. I wondered if the online world, that abstract place of arguments and images, comments and shares, likes and links, was becoming, or had already become, larger in people’s imaginations than the world of paving stones and dirty puddles, telephone poles and night skies, elevated trains and guard rails, dropped gloves, car horns, peeling paint, swiftly moving clouds, and strangers standing close enough that you can smell their floral perfume. I wondered if I was a foolish, stubborn person, willfully out of touch with a new social language, a new way of being human. During his lecture, Dennett discussed his theory that consciousness is a mental process that has evolved over time and exists on a spectrum across many living creatures. He argued that human consciousness is unusually powerful because it allows us to be aware of our capabilities. That is, a spider can make a complex web but as far is we know, a spider is not aware of its web-making skills. From our awareness comes an ability to be intelligent designers; we don’t have to wait on the slow-moving, trial-and-error process of biological evolution to grow our species. We have cultural knowledge, such as language, music, and cooking, to help us survive and thrive. When describing the transmission of ideas among humans, Dennett refers to memes, a word that originates with Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene. Dennett defines memes as "a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed." Words, Dennett writes, "are the best examples of memes." He likens memes to viruses, looking for a host in a human brain. He sees them as similar to genes in their ability to replicate. He’s deeply interested in artificial intelligence, which he sees as a new stage of human evolution. His ideas are controversial among philosophers, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through his very long, very dense book and don’t completely understand his theory of consciousness, nor the arguments of his detractors. But his book was the one that brought me out of my post-Proust reading drought, I think because he looks closely at human habits, the way that Proust does. After the lecture, there was a Q&A, and an attendee asked Dennett for his view on religion’s influence on culture. Dennett said religion was a meme, a way of behaving in the world, and like all memes, its chief goal was to spread among humans. He didn’t think there was a point in assessing religion as good or bad for humans. His verdict: “Religion is good for itself.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help applying the same formulation to social media: “Social media is good for itself.” There is really no point in deciding if social media is good or bad. It is now part of our cultural evolution and there's no going back. Like religion, it is sometimes a means for justice and compassion. And like religion, it is also sometimes destructive and divisive. I thought of all those people, waiting outside, their heads bent over their phones, as if in prayer. I realized that my discomfort with social media is similar to my discomfort with organized religion. I am sympathetic to its allure, and in awe of its power to organize communities and bring about social change, but I am alarmed by the way it creates a new reality for people. 3. That was February. Now it’s June and I’ve been taking a break from social media for the past few months. For me, that meant quitting Instagram, neglecting my Tumblr feed, and ignoring online comment fields. I also removed email from my phone, which made the biggest difference in my daily routine. I hadn’t realized how much I was checking email. I also wasn't aware of how often I was taking photos with the thought of posting them to Instagram. It’s a relief to have those small decisions—Should I check email? Should I take a photo? Should I post a photo?—removed from my life. There’s still plenty of distractions on my phone, but I stare into space more than I used to, and I pay closer attention to strangers, and passersby. My life feels quieter and more relaxed, but also lonelier. If I wasn’t living in a place with a busy street life, and where I know a lot of my neighbors, I think I might feel very isolated. I keep noticing how often people refer to things that have “happened” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and in the comments section. But do the things that happen on social media actually happen? Do they have any basis in reality? This is the question I keep returning to. I know that what happens on social media affects reality, and it affects people’s perception of reality, and maybe that’s enough. But I also know that when I meet people in real life after following them on social media, the online version of the person usually becomes irrelevant. A person’s social media profile is kind of like the publisher’s summary on the backs of novels. Maybe it draws you in, or maybe it turns you off, but it likely has very little to say about the actual experience of reading a particular book. It’s better to open the book at random and read a few pages, just as it’s more informative to meet someone in person. Even an extremely self-aware person, who is “good at social media,” has aspects of their personality or physical presence that they would never think to display. It’s also just very difficult to represent yourself on media platforms whose parameters are designed with the intent, above all, to grow and replicate a larger network. (Remember, social media is only good for itself.) The difficulty of knowing yourself is one of Proust’s central themes, and one I’ve touched on several times throughout my posts. For most of In Search of Lost Time, Proust explores this law of human perception through social life, as he gently exposes the hypocrisies and delusions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He’s so good on other people that you barely notice that his narrator, Marcel, is a struggling writer, a person who tries, and fails, repeatedly, to undergo the self-examination necessary to write. It’s only in the final volume that Proust addresses the difficulty of discovering (or rediscovering) a reality that is worth expressing: The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life. I underlined that passage with the passion of an undergraduate, feeling as if I’d discovered the secret of writing—of life, possibly. Yes, my true impressions were constantly being smothered. Because what else is social media but a process fueled by vanity, passion, intellect, and above all, habit? What else is so much of Internet content, with its barrage of hashtags, inspo, links, and #goals, but “a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life”? I feel naïve writing these things, and when I first started thinking about this post, I wanted to title it: How Proust Convinced Me to Give Up My Smartphone. But to write that essay, I’d have to give up my phone, and I don’t want to. My phone makes certain parts of life really easy, and it also makes it easier for other people to be in contact with me—important people like family members, friends, neighbors, and my son’s teachers and caregivers. There’s also the fact that I’m writing this essay on a platform that uses social media and mobile apps to distribute its content. I can be as morose and confused as I want about the proliferation of social media, but the reality is that I have become habituated to its many uses. This is the struggle of modern life, an irony Proust touches on throughout In Search of Lost Time, as he encounters new technology like telephones, airplanes, and motorcars. He loves the convenience of calling his grandmother, and yet he experiences new strains of melancholy when he hears her voice through the receiver. One can only imagine the new forms of jealousy he would have encountered if his beloved Albertine had been on Instagram. And yet he would have adapted. Habit, “that skillful and unhurrying manager,” would have interceded. Louis C.K. has a joke about how quickly we adapt to technology, the joke being that the first thing we do after achieving an amazing technological advancement—like flight—is to complain that it could be better. For Louis C.K., this is evidence of our fundamental ingratitude and unhappiness, but Dennett might say that our rapid acclimation to new technology is the special gift of our species, the thing that has allowed for our wild success in reproduction and survival. I think Proust’s observations on the power of habit bridge both views. Reading Proust became a habit for me, and it’s one I still miss, months later. Certain books, Proust writes, can be a lens for your life, a way to see more clearly. His novel certainly did that for me. Years from now, I’ll read it again, when I need to see the world with fresh eyes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. Several months ago, a commenter asked if reading Marcel Proust had affected my writing, and I’ve been turning the question over in my mind ever since. I thought it would make an interesting subject for a book club entry, and I’ve started this one many times, but I haven’t been able to write anything. One reason is that I’ve been working on a novel, and that’s taking up a lot of my time. A second reason is that my attention (like everyone else’s) has been dragged this way and that by the news cycle. A third reason is that the final volume, Time Regained, is so intelligent, so truthful, and so piercing, that there doesn’t seem to be any point in writing about it. I have nothing to add, nothing to analyze. There is also something incredibly delicate about this last volume. The narrative seems to be crumbling in my hands. The characters are suddenly much older, World War I has arrived, and the voice of the author is, for the first time, a little rushed. You can tell Proust is dying, truly writing on deadline, and it’s as if the book’s most important theme, Time, is taking over. (I have more to say on Proust’s treatment of death, but I don’t think I can write it until I’ve finished the book.) With 200-odd pages still left to go, it feels too early to reflect on how this past year of reading has affected my writing, in general. But I can speak to how Proust has aided me in my own fiction. In particular, reading In Search of Lost Time has helped me to refine my approach to characterization. The novel I’m working on now is almost completely character driven, and the premise is simple: here are three women on the brink of three different life changes; let’s see how they fare over the next five years. When I started making notes for this book, a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what these three women would do or if I even had a book. (To be honest, sometimes I’m still not sure, but that’s a topic for another day.) Small plots have emerged, but most of my technical focus has been on characterization. I want to keep showing different aspects of each woman, while at the same time giving the reader a consistent sense of who each character is and how she will behave. To put it more simply, I want readers to feel as if they know these characters, in a real, complex way. 2. My first -- and now that I think about it -- only formal lesson in characterization came from my 10th-grade creative writing teacher. He asked our class to come up with a list of ways that authors convey character without simply describing a person’s personal qualities, e.g. “kind,” “greedy,” “selfish,” “compassionate,” etc. First on the list were physical description, action, and dialogue. From there we moved to the environment that a character inhabits, and their social milieu: their family and friends; their clothing and possessions; their house, room, office, school, etc. Then we got into the more subtle aspects of physical presence: the sound of a voice, a manner of sitting or standing, particular movements or gestures. Finally, we considered a person’s inner, unseen qualities: their thoughts and beliefs, likes and dislikes, loves and hates, and their previous lived experiences, i.e. their “backstory.” This may seem like a blindingly obvious exercise, and maybe it was (we were 15), but as I recall, we got into a big discussion of personality and some students questioned the premise of the exercise. Why couldn’t you just describe a character as “nice” or “good” and get on with the story? Why did you have to show it? My teacher told us that it’s more memorable for a reader to decide that a person is nice, rather than being informed of their niceness. But he offered the following work-around: another character could say that a character was nice, and that would also be memorable -- though of course, character’s B’s testimony of character A’s niceness would be judged based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to: character B’s relationship to character A, character B’s motivations with regard to A, character B’s overall trustworthiness, and to whom character B is describing character A’s niceness. This is the part of the lesson that really stuck with me, because it made me see, first of all, how plot can arise from character. Even in this highly abstract set-up, you can’t help wondering if character A is really as nice as character B says. At the same time, it made me see how difficult it is to represent the intricacies of human interaction. What is said and what is done isn’t even half of the equation. We have a variety of social selves, and even the most straight-shooting, guileless person speaks differently to a parent than to a best friend. To properly reveal a character, you would need to show them in a variety of situations and moods and how on earth are you supposed to do that with any economy? One answer is: don’t write a novel. Instead, write something for the stage or screen and let the actors fill in all the subtle dynamics that action and dialogue alone cannot describe. Another answer: write a long novel or a series of novels with the same characters. It’s human nature to feel attached to the people we spend the most time with -- this is basically the premise of the American version of The Office -- and so even if the characterization is not subtle, you can’t help feeling close to a person you have followed for thousands of pages over the course of several books. At first blush, it would seem that Proust’s strategy is to write a very long book. The events of In Search of Lost Time take place over four decades. Characters grow up, marry, and bear children. Some become ill and die. This accumulation of events certainly contributes to a feeling of knowledge and intimacy. But the key to Proust’s characterization is, paradoxically, the way he shows that, when it comes to other people, there is no knowledge and no real intimacy. Our experience of other people is subjective, colored by our own fantasies and projections or dulled by habitual contact. As Proust observes in The Fugitive, at the end of his long, tormented affair with Albertine: “It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” Our subjective assumptions keep us ignorant of other people’s motives and proclivities, and certainly we know little of the inner changes taking place in other people. In addition, powerful outside forces are constantly shaping people in ways in which they themselves are often unaware: history, society, time -- to name a few. Throughout In Search of Lost Time, Proust illustrates this ambiguity by revealing new sides to his characters. The final chapter of The Fugitive is straightforwardly titled: “New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup.” 3. The character twist is a staple of thrillers, but Proust does not use character revelations to advance his plot (the plot of In Search of Lost Time, if there can be said to be one, is: how Proust came to write In Search of Lost Time). Instead he uses them to remind the reader that our observations of other people are subjective and incomplete. Here’s Marcel, in a scene from The Captive, reflecting on the unexpected kindness of an old family friend, a person who had generally been indifferent toward him: I concluded that it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens. Proust illustrates this “succession of different aspects” in a beautiful passage about Saint-Loup, one of the most well-developed characters in the novel, someone we see throughout the book and feel that we know. But after Saint-Loup’s death, it occurs to Marcel that he really didn’t know his friend very well, and that they rarely saw each another: And the fact that I had seen him really so little but against such varied backgrounds, in circumstances so diverse and separated by so many intervals -- in that hall at Balbec, in the café at Rivebelle, in the cavalry barracks and at the military dinners in Doncieres, at the theatre where he had slapped the face of the journalist, in the house of the Princesse de Guermantes -- only had the effect of giving me, of his life, pictures more striking and more sharply defined and of his death a grief more lucid than we are likely to have in the case of people whom we have loved more, but with whom our association has been so nearly continuous that the image we retain of them is no more than a sort of vague average between an infinity of imperceptibly different images and our affection, satiated, has not, as with those whom we have seen only for brief moments, during meetings prematurely ended against their wish and ours, the illusion that there was possible between us a still greater affection of which circumstances alone have defrauded us. To me, this paragraph is a miniature class on literary characterization. Marcel is saying that even though he does not actually know Saint-Loup very well, he feels that he does; there is an illusion at play. And that illusion is the result of having seen Saint-Loup for brief periods of time in a variety of different circumstances. Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship will certainly recognize this phenomenon. A dear friend recently visited me, or at least someone I consider a dear friend, though I have actually not spent much time with him. We have never lived in the same city and I know very little of his daily life. But we see each other every year or so, and I remember our meetings in greater detail than I do with friends in New York that I see on a regular basis. In some ways, this friend is more real to me than my friends who are “like family” -- the ones I text with daily and who wipe my child’s nose. I rely on my local friends for companionship and community but I don’t notice them in quite the same way. Literary characters are, maybe, like long distance friends. Your perception of them is brief, but intense. Even in a very long book, an author writes with the knowledge that there is a limit to the number of scenes he can write with a particular character, or the number of lines he can devote to physical description or psychological observation. An author is not trying to reconstitute an actual person, but to create an illusion of intimacy. And there are tricks -- many of them as described by my teacher, earlier in this entry. But the main trick is to abandon objectivity. That doesn’t mean that a novelist has to employ a subjective narrator. It’s not the mode of narration that matters, it’s the discipline of the author -- the precision it takes to leave aspects of a character unresolved and ambiguous. 4. In order to exert some discipline on this essay, I will not get into Proust’s philosophy of selfhood, which distinguishes between the parade of moods, states of mind, and social performances that constitute our experience, and a deeper, bedrock self. But in terms of literary expression, of trying to create the illusion of character, one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust is that a writer must attempt to show a character’s “succession of selves.” This is different from the classic storytelling advice: that a character must change or grow over the course of the narrative. I’ve never liked that presumed moral arc; it feels constraining and didactic. Also, it’s not necessary, because the passage of time will always reveal character. The poignancy of the final volume, Time Regained, is in seeing all of Proust’s character’s age. At a party attended by many of the novel’s personages, Marcel observes that he must study the guests with his memory as well as with his eyes. Some are so transformed that he doesn’t recognize them at first. Of his old school friend, Bloch, Marcel cannot even perceive him as middle-aged until someone else points it out: I heard someone say that he quite looked his age, and I was astonished to observe on his face some of those signs which are indeed characteristic of men who are old. Then I understood that this was because he was in fact old and that adolescents who survive for a sufficient number of years are the material out of which life makes old men. In Time Regained, the chronology is somewhat confusing as War World I begins and ends, Marcel retreats to a sanatorium for an unspecified number of years, and certain marriages are never fully explained. It’s hard to know if this was intentional, since Proust never had a chance to complete his revisions, but it makes psychological sense, because time doesn’t pass logically for us, especially when it comes to our friends. By embracing the subjectivity of perception, and of the passage of time, Proust created characters that feel as mysterious, fleeting, and precious as life itself.
To be a woman in a movie is usually to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you’re single, you’re probably in a romantic comedy en route to marriage, or you’re in an ensemble comedy, lamenting the fact of your singleness. If you have a job, you’re likely a journalist or an assistant, but if you happen to be the boss, it’s at the expense of your personal life, which you secretly prize more than anything else. You’re probably straight, and you’re probably white. You’re probably quite thin with great skin and a large wardrobe. Your living space is probably very clean and well decorated. You’re probably smiling. Or laughing. If you’re crying, you look really beautiful while the tears stream down your face, and men fall in love with you. Three movies I saw this year broke free of this mold: Certain Women, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures. Their titles could almost be interchangeable. They featured women whose characters, motivations, and desires were not defined by their personal relationships to men, but I can’t say I was aware of that while I was watching. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the films that I realized how radical their characterization was. While I was watching them, I simply reveled in seeing women that I genuinely admired and recognized from life. Certain Women almost had a different title. Director Kelly Reichardt originally planned to call it Livingston, after the Montana town where it was filmed. While I can see the merits of that title, especially for a film that looks closely at daily life, the small choices and compromises that the characters make are so specific to the female experience that the title Certain Women strikes me as just about perfect. The film, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is structured like a miniature short story collection, and contains three short films about three different women living in present-day Montana. Ancillary characters vaguely link the women, but what really links them is a sense of restlessness. These women have jobs, autonomy, and a certain amount of authority, but they don’t move through the world as freely as they would like. They are reserved because they have to be, in order to get what they want. But that same reserve also leaves them lonely. The screening I attended to was followed by a surprise Q&A with one of the film’s stars, Michelle Williams. In her conversation, she mentioned that Reichardt had insisted on a cinematography that did not include any “beauty shots” of the spectacular Montana landscape -- no gorgeous “big sky country” sunsets, no framing of perfect views. Instead, she wanted the dramatic landscape to exist as it did for her characters; something they lived with and enjoyed, but which did not symbolize freedom, adventure, or conquest. This gave the film a quiet, lingering beauty and a kind of defiance in its unwillingness to engage with or evoke Hollywood’s usual myths about the American West. In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening embodies quiet defiance in the character of Dorothea Fielding. A child of the depression, Dorothea marries late and has her first (and only) child, a boy, at age 40. The marriage doesn't last and so she raises her son, Jamie, on her own. This puts her out of step with her generation. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but she tries. She buys an old house in Santa Barbara and restores it. She takes in younger, more radical boarders: an earnest, new-age mechanic (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a 20-something photographer recovering from cervical cancer (Greta Gerwig). The film takes place in 1979, when Jamie is 15, and smack dab in his awkward teenage years. Dorothea listens to his records, Talking Heads and Black Flag, in an effort to understand him. Feeling at a loss, she enlists two younger women to help Jamie grow up and become a man. (Or is it to help her let him go?) One of the women is her housemate, Abbie, and the other is her son's unrequited crush (Elle Fanning). Both women end up providing Jamie with a sentimental education that Dorothea doesn’t necessarily welcome and/or entirely disparage. Every once in a while, a character in a movie reminds me so completely of my mother that I feel like I’m dreaming it. Dorothea is in her mid-50s, which is how old my mother was, the last time I saw her. She doesn’t really look like my mother, but her wardrobe reminds me of my mother’s, especially in the way she mixes comfortable shoes and pants with conservative blouses and jewelry. Dorothea’s demeanor also reminded me of my mother -- a mixture of idealism and impatience, curiosity and constraint, delight and disappointment. It’s all tempered by a reserved deadpan that the other characters in the film sometimes mistake for humorlessness. Jamie apologizes for her, saying, “she’s a child of the Depression.” It’s his way of acknowledging that she was born too early to reap the benefits of women’s liberation. But the younger characters were born too early, too, and the film seems to understand that for women, freedom is always hard-won. Which brings me to Hidden Figures, a film that tells the true story of the black women who helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, based on a book of the same title, by Margot Lee Shetterly. (And recently highlighted by my colleague, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in her Year in Reading.) If it's unusual to find a movie dominated by female characters, it's downright rare to see film with black women in lead roles, not to mention a mainstream Hollywood film. And Hidden Figures is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie, with a lot of Hollywood moments, including Kevin Costner demolishing segregated bathrooms with a sledgehammer -- a scene that was fabricated to show a white male character being a good guy. But the overwhelming message of this film, to borrow from a sign I saw at the Women’s March, was: Can you believe these women have to put up with this shit? In Hidden Figures, you meet three undeniably gifted people who also happen to be black women. One, Katherine Johnson, is a genius. The other two women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are mathematicians who do computations for NASA. They have a lot to offer to the space program, but they are given jobs at NASA only because the powers that be are so desperate to win the race to the moon that they are willing to ignore gender and race when seeking candidates. Even so, the "colored computers" are forced to work in separate offices, use separate bathrooms, lunch in separate cafeterias, and drink from separate coffee carafes. They also receive separate, smaller paychecks. It’s a blatantly sexist and racist situation, and there are a lot of show-stopping scenes to highlight that. Like when Mary (Janelle Monáe) petitions the court to attend night classes at an all-white school so that she can become an engineer. Or when Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) solves a crazy-long equation on a chalkboard to illustrate a new approach to a problem that has stumped her white male colleagues. Or when Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) earns a promotion by showing her white male bosses how to program the new, room-sized computer they’ve recently installed. I enjoyed these moments, but it was the smaller scenes of female solidarity that won me over. There’s the time when Katherine stays late and the other two wait for her to drive her home; the time when Mary is feeling down because she worries she’ll never be allowed to become an engineer and her friends throw an impromptu dance party to cheer her up; and then there’s the opening scene -- which you can see in at least one of the film’s trailers -- in which Dorothy fixes her broken-down car while the other two women deflect a nosy police officer. Finally, I loved the romance that blooms between Katherine and a veteran she meets at her church. Katherine is a widow with two small daughters. She lives with her mother and is not looking for love. But then the perfect man comes into her life and proposes marriage. It’s an utterly conventional subplot, but progressive in this scenario because Katherine is not asked to choose between her work and her personal life. She’s allowed to have both and is not conflicted by this dual identity. Hidden Figures has exceeded expectations at the box office. It outsold Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on its opening weekend, a film that also features a female lead. It’s a sign of progress that two recent, popular films star women, but it’s worth noting that even when women are the lead characters in film, they speak only slightly more than the male characters and receive less screen time. When women are not the lead, or when they co-lead with a male character, they are seen and heard even less. These findings are according to studies undertaken by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis founded the institute to fight unconscious gender bias, specifically in films targeted to children and families. She works with film executives to create stories that are more balanced between male and female characters. Her prescription is simple: put women on screen more often and allow them to speak. That’s it. The female characters don’t have to be role models or hold positions of power. Roles don’t even need to be created specifically for women -- more often than not, women can be cast in parts written for men. The point is for girls and women to be seen and heard on screen as often as boys and men are. It’s not a lot to ask and yet every time I see a movie in which female characters are allowed even half of the narrative, it feels like a small miracle.
I am writing this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and that has changed my reflections as I look back on what I read this year. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a book that I read early in January and which I reviewed on this site, Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. There was a political aspect to Fox’s book that I did not discuss in my review, but which now seems most important. For those who read my review, you will know that I focused mainly on the imprecise use of the word “pretentious,” especially in literary criticism and in social situations. Fox argued that the word is too often used as a vague, dismissive, insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.” Fox’s argument was well received, though I noticed that some critics pushed back against Fox’s whole-hearted embrace of pretentiousness as a kind of open-minded ambition, and felt compelled to point out the ways in which pretentious behavior can be obnoxious, smug, and self-congratulatory. But I think those reviewers missed Fox’s larger point, which is that “pretentious” and its supposed opposite, “authentic,” have become so politicized that they have lost any nuance of meaning. Rereading Fox’s book, I was struck by the prescience of this paragraph, which was written before Brexit and before Donald Trump was the Republican Party nominee: Politics is a game in which actors assert their authenticity in the face of other actors whom they accuse of bad faith. Think of the embattled conservative candidate who, faced with hard questions about policy or public gaffes, plays the 'biased liberal media' card. Appeals are made to a silent majority sitting in the stalls, drowned out by the hecklers positioned up in the Gods; socialists, liberals, gays, women, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, the BBC, 'the political correctness brigade.' A phantom 'cultural elite' is conjured onstage, working against what 'real,' 'ordinary' people wish. (As if 'real,' 'ordinary' people could not possibly be left-wing, or gay, or interested in equality, or hold different religious beliefs.) It’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a game of pretense, but the idea of the 'ordinary' person is a powerful rhetorical image. That pretty much sums up Trump’s political strategy, though Fox, a British writer, was likely thinking of his home country. In the wake of Brexit, I read Zadie Smith’s excellent “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” and then I read it again, after our election. I saw some of my New Yorker blindness in her description of her own “Londoncentric solipsism:” The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naïve and sentimental about working classes. One can accuse President-elect Trump of many things, but certainly not political naïveté or sentimentality. His vocabulary was always simple, direct, and emotional. He had no qualms riding ugly currents of thought: bigotry, envy, resentment, self-pity, bitterness, nihilism, and hatred. From his stint as a reality television host, he knew they would provoke action. I write these words in anger, and that’s the emotion I’ll probably always associate with this election cycle. Beneath my anger is a sadness that I am reluctant to excavate. The one book that forced me to do that this year was Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I read it in February and it has stayed with me all year. It’s a memoir about the author’s grief over the deaths of five young, black men that she knew in childhood. One of these young men was her brother. Ward grew up in a rural community in southern Mississippi. Her literary talent led her out of state to college and later, to graduate school in creative writing. But her departure was fraught with guilt and longing: ...I wanted to apply, to leave Mississippi, to escape the narrative I encountered in my family, my community, and my school that I was worthless, a sense that was as ever present as the wet, cloying heat. 'You can’t leave,' my mother said to me. 'You have to help me with your siblings.' When she said that, I felt all the weight of the South pressing down on me, and it was then that I resolved to leave the region for college, but to do it in a way that respected the sacrifices my mother made for me. I studied harder. I read more. How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me? Men We Reaped details Ward's visits home, the summers and holiday breaks destroyed by death. But this is not a gloomy book. Instead, it's as full of joy, youth, and love, as it is of grief, mourning, and heartbreak. The amount of life in this book makes the amount of loss all the more tragic. Finally, regular readers of this site will know that I’ve spent the year reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and occasionally writing about it here. Rereading one of my favorite books has not only been a pleasure, it’s also forced me to set aside more time for reading, and that has brought a certain amount of calm and perspective into my life. The day after the election, in an attempt to find some equilibrium, I returned to In Search of Lost Time. The scene I read happened to be one in which Baron de Charlus misreads a social situation and as a result, loses the person he loves most dearly. His error is a familiar one: he doesn’t observe or even suspect the simmering resentment of someone else. I found myself underlining many sentences, including this one: “We picture the future as a reflection of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.” More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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The shopping season, er, holiday season is upon us! The Millions is here for you, once again, with a gift guide catered to the readers, writers, and literary folks in your life. Enjoy! Book Perfume This “fresh, woodsy scent”, actually called “Book”, is for both men and women. According to its perfumer, Book is meant “to recapture the experience of yesterday; turning the pages and breathing in the smell of dry paper mingling in with the open fresh air.” (There are also perfumes inspired by Whiskey, Gin, and Tea, some other things popular with writers.) If perfume is too risky, another option is this “Book” candle, inspired by the “mellow, comforting fragrance of aged paper, ink and leather.” A Literary Map of the United States This clever map places authors in the regions they write from, and will undoubtedly inspire you to check out some new writers. Discerning readers may quibble with the placement of writers, but that’s part of the fun of it. A Postcard From a Favorite Author The literary magazine The Common is hosting their annual author postcard auction, where you can bid for a chance to win a postcard from a favorite author, handwritten to a person of your choice. This year’s authors include Millions favorites Samantha Hunt, Lauren Groff, Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Ann Patchett, and George Saunders, among many others. Please note, the auction closes Dec. 9, so you have to act fast for this one. Writers Tears Whiskey This is the booze to have on hand when you’re watching the inauguration, weeping over the cruel irony of having one of our country’s most literary presidents followed by a president who has, at best, “an unusually light appetite for reading.” Politics aside, this Irish whiskey, “gently spiced with a burst of ginger and butterscotch,” is perfect for those dark nights of the soul, when the words won’t come, or the rejection notes just won’t stop coming. Laptop “Skin” Decorative laptop covers and decals remind me of the beginning-of-the-school-year ritual of covering your textbooks. (Do the kids still do that?) Like bumper stickers or temporary tattoos, they are a low-risk decoration, and an easy way to rejuvenate an old laptop or personalize a new one. Ear Muffs Millions staffer Claire Cameron sent this gift idea to me with the wise observation, “I’ve come to believe that ear muffs are the greatest gift for writers and anyone who values sanity.” They’re also good gifts for friends who work from home and live in neighborhoods that are besieged by noisy construction projects, not that I’m speaking from personal experience. Reading Glasses When you get to a certain age, you need reading glasses. Around that same age, you start forgetting where you put everything. So really, you need three pairs of reading glasses: the pair you wear, the pair you keep on hand for when you can’t find the pair you wear, and the pair to keep on hand for when you can’t remember where you put the back-up pair. Short Story Advent Calendar We’re big fans of literary subscriptions here at The Millions, and in the past we’ve recommended e-book-of-the-month services like Emily Books, and the perennially useful Journal of the Month, which sends its subscribers a different literary magazine each month. Like those services, The Short Story Advent Calendar provides a curated reading experience: one short story every day until Christmas. Each day’s story is a surprise, and is printed in a sealed chapbook. This year’s contributors include Sheila Heti and Katie Coyle, to name just a few. Christmas-Themed Books For those who like the idea of an advent calendar, but want stories that are explicitly about Christmas, look no further than A Very Russian Christmas, which collects the Christmas stories of classic Russian writers like Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as lesser-known authors whose works are translated into English for the first time. There’s also Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Tales: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days, a brand new collection of stories, inspired by Winterson’s annual tradition of writing a new story every Christmas for friends and family. This book includes her 12 favorites, as well as a personal essay about her own Christmas memories. Babysitting I’ve recommended this in past, but since affordable childcare remains a pie-in-the-sky feminist dream (at least in America), I’ll say once more that a few hours of childcare is a dream for working writers. You can’t read Marcel Proust with a four-year-old in the vicinity (unless you turn on Octonauts) and you definitely can’t write essays, even silly listicles like this one. So this year, instead of getting your writer/critic/bookish parent-friend a gift certificate for a massage, offer to pick up her kid after school, or take the kids to a park on a weekend afternoon. You can also purchase gift certificates from websites like urbansitter.com and care.com. A Home Printer It’s hard to edit without printing a hard copy and yet many writers go without home printers, either making do with public printers or by simply not printing very often. A quality printer is a great, practical gift, especially for a student. Subscription to an Audiobooks Service Even the most devoted reader has trouble finding time to read. Audiobooks are a simple way to incorporate a little more reading into your life. You can listen while you commute to work, when you’re folding laundry, or when you’re just too tired to focus on a page. There are a variety of competing subscription services, among them audible.com, audiobooks.com, Downpour, and Simply Audiobooks. An Open-ended Plane Ticket Take it from one of the greatest travelers of all time, Ibn Battuta: “Traveling -- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” If you have deep pockets, this would be an amazing gift. For those who fear flying, try an open-ended Amtrak ticket. Bibliotherapy There’s nothing like reading the right book at the right time -- it’s the drug that all devoted readers seek as they scan library and bookstore shelves, hoping to intuit what book will speak directly to their current state of mind. Bibliotherapy aims to provide readers with the most personalized of book lists, and to connect readers with the books that will speak to their particular situation. Most therapists specialize in fiction, but will also recommend poetry, philosophy, and creative nonfiction to inspire and enrich. You can buy gift vouchers for a session with a Bibliotherapist from The School of Life. (Need a little more info on Bibliotherapy? Check out our recent essay HERE.) A Donation to a Public Library Public libraries are under threat and needed more than ever before -- more than 30 percent of percent of American households don’t have Internet access at home, and use library computers to apply for jobs and educational opportunities, print documents, and prepare taxes. Many libraries also provide free after-school programs, story hours, and research help. Make a donation in your friend’s name to their local library. Please also consider donating to prison libraries, which are always in need of fresh reading material. Try charities like Books Through Bars, NYC Books Through Bars, and the Prison Book Program. Image Credit: Flickr/JD Hancock.
1. My son was in a good mood, ready to walk to school with his father, and then suddenly, he was crying. He’s four. The ostensible cause of his tears had to do with some last-minute renovations on a Lego house. He made an adjustment to the chimney, I said “Good enough!” and he got mad. “But I’m not finished!” He threw himself on the floor. He’s not given to tantrums and I knew immediately that he was upset because I had slept in, was still in my pajamas, and would not be walking him to school. He had already accused me of not being nice, an hour earlier, when I pulled the covers over my head and told him I was a hibernating bear who would prefer not to be disturbed. And you know, he’s right. That wasn’t nice -- especially when I said I was the type of bear who ate little boys. But I was sleeping so well! I felt like a hibernating bear. I was cocooned in sleep, layered in sleep. I couldn’t bear to be unraveled. On the whole, motherhood has reshaped my life and habits in ways that have made me a lot happier, but the one thing I really miss from my childless life is waking up slowly. I have never been someone who jumps out of bed, eager to get started with my day. Instead, I like to lie in bed for a while to soak in the dream residue and listen to the radio and to the sounds coming from outside of my window. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but there is something uniquely relaxing about sleeping in after the sun has risen. Marcel Proust’s narrator, Marcel, a connoisseur of sleep, claims that morning sleep “is -- on an average -- four times as refreshing, it seems to the awakened sleeper to have lasted four times as long when it has really been four times as short. A splendid, sixteenfold error in multiplication which gives so much beauty to our awakening and gives life a veritable new dimension...” That observation is from The Captive, the volume I’m currently making my way through. As you might well expect from an invalid, Proust brings a wealth of personal experience to the subject of sleep. On the experience of awakening slowly, he writes: “Often we have at our disposal, in those first minutes in which we allow ourselves to glide into the waking state, a variety of different realities among which we imagine that we can choose as from a pack of cards.” On dream residue: “I was still enjoying the last shreds of sleep, that is to say of the only source of invention, the only novelty that exists in story-telling, since none of our narrations in the waking state, even when embellished with literary graces, admit those mysterious differences from which beauty derives.” On the elusiveness of sleep: “Sleep is divine but by no means stable; the slightest shock makes it volatile. A friend to habit, it is kept night after night in its appointed place by habit, more steadfast than itself, protected from any possible disturbance; but if it is displaced, if it is no longer subjugated, it melts away like a vapor.” The slightest shock makes it volatile. I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, lately, as I decide what television show to watch before bedtime, or when I pick up my phone to check the news one last time. The election, especially, has wreaked havoc on my ability to relax at the end of the day. It’s not only that it’s been so dramatic, unpredictable, and vile, it’s also that it calls for so much analysis. I can’t stop listening to podcasts and reading think pieces even though I know they rarely satisfy, and can’t provide a definitive answer to the question of how we got to this ugly place. Certain disgusting phrases and epithets stick in my mind; the week that Donald Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood tapes were released, I kept remembering incidents of sexual harassment and aggression that I’d put up with over the years. From conversations with other women, I wasn’t the only one having these late-night reckonings. Sleep is the perfect balm for these kinds of obsessive thoughts; the catch-22 is that you have to achieve calmness before you can pass into the even calmer regions of sleep. 2. Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, I look in on my son, sleeping peacefully. Often I lie next to him for a few minutes, listening to his breathing, and stroking his soft cheek or holding his hand. I miss the days when he was a baby and he would sleep in his carrier with his head on my chest. When he was around two, my husband and I went through a phase of waking him early from his weekend afternoon naps, when he was still very groggy and tired, because he would snuggle in our laps and fall back asleep. It was the only way we could enjoy the particular peace of mind that comes with holding a sleeping child. I found myself thinking of my son’s peaceful sleep when I read one of the most famous passages in The Captive, that of Marcel observing Albertine while she is napping. Albertine is Marcel’s frustratingly unknowable mistress, a woman Marcel has fallen out of love with by the end of Volume 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah), but who we find living with Marcel at the beginning of Volume 5 (The Captive). Marcel is too jealous to give her up, and so neurotic that he confesses to installing her “in a bedroom within twenty paces of my own, at the end of the corridor, in my father’s tapestried study.” What’s more, he tries to control her social life, sending her out with his chauffeur, who is instructed to keep tabs on her comings and goings. His biggest fear is that she is in love with another woman, or perhaps, several women. He suspects her of lying, and interrogates her acquaintances about her activities outside of his apartment. When that fails, he finagles invitations and manipulates her plans so that she cannot go anywhere alone. And yet for all of Marcel's controlling behavior, Albertine remains elusive, both to the narrator and the reader. You never feel you know her, which is odd, because one of the hallmarks of In Search of Lost Time is how well you feel you know Marcel’s friends and acquaintances. When Swann died, I felt personally bereft. When Robert de Saint-Loup appears, I brighten up at the thought of his charm and good looks. Even Bloch, who appears very little after the first volume, feels like an old friend when he makes an occasional cameo. But Albertine frustrates me. All I really know of her is what she looks like, and what she seems like. Marcel is always comparing her to other people and things, always trying to reconcile his present, complicated, neurotic understanding of her personality with his memories of the athletic, fresh-air girl he fell in love with in Balbec. But her portrait never comes into focus, in part because he knows her better than he used to -- that is, she’s more than just an idealized image -- but also because he’s too suspicious of her, too busy analyzing her words and behavior for signs of betrayal. It’s only when Albertine is asleep that Marcel can enjoy her company, a discovery he makes one day when he happens upon her, napping: “stretched out at full length on my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminds me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there.” A few sentences later, he continues with the botanical analogies: She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me. Her personality was not constantly escaping, as when we talked, by the outlets of her unacknowledged thoughts and of her eyes. She had called back into herself everything of her that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping her in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely which I never had when she was awake. Her life was submitted to me, exhaled toward me its gentle breath. This passage is unsettling, and becomes more troubling as it continues, and as Marcel fondles and kisses Albertine while she is asleep, without her knowledge or consent. And yet I could relate to it, as a mother. The first sentences, especially, reminded me of the feeling of wonder I get when I watch my sleeping son -- that sense of him germinating in a secret, slow, plant-like way that is impossible to witness moment to moment, but which I know will hit me later on, when, scrolling through photos on my phone, I wonder what happened to the chubby-cheeked baby boy who used to fall asleep in my arms. Is it correct to read this passage in a maternal light? This is what I asked myself as I read and re-read the long and incredibly beautiful descriptions of Albertine’s resting body, the long musical sentences in which Albertine’s breath is compared to sea breezes, her hair to moonlit trees, her movements to that of the tides. One sentence, in particular, struck me as exactly what I feel, late at night, when I check in on my son as a way of curing my own insomnia: “I savored her sleep with a disinterested, soothing love, just as I would remain for hours listening to the unfurling of the waves.” 3. Of course, it’s easy to love a sleeping child, easy to idealize him as innocent and adorable, easy to forget the whining and the interrupting and the sudden, frustrated tears; easy to believe that he will always be safe, healthy, and above all, close -- that he will never do what he is supposed to grow up and do, which is to thrive independently, with thoughts and desires unknown to you and unsatisfied by you. It’s as easy to idealize a sleeping child as it is a sleeping woman, to simplify her personality, to forget that she has multiple and often conflicting desires, social roles, friendships, and responsibilities. It’s easy to believe, when looking upon the closed eyes of a beautiful mistress, that you possess her, and that everything about her is known, or at least possible to know. Later in The Captive, in a separate passage about Albertine’s sleep, Marcel acknowledges that there is something maternal in his obsessive, neurotic love: Her sleep was no more than a sort of blotting out of the rest of her life...This calm slumber delighted me, as a mother, reckoning it a virtue, is delighted by her child’s sound sleep. And her sleep was indeed that of a child. Her awakening also, so natural and so loving, before she even knew where she was, that I sometimes asked myself with dread whether she had been in the habit, before coming to live with me, of not sleeping alone but of finding, when she opened her eyes, someone lying by her side. But her childlike grace was more striking. Like a mother again, I marveled that she should always awaken in such good humor. Reading this passage, 50 pages or so after the first description of Albertine’s sleep, I not only felt assured in the parallels to motherhood that I had previously drawn, but also that Marcel was, like a mother, aware of the futility of his efforts to control another person. The scene that follows is actually quite tender and easygoing, as Albertine, in a reversal, sits with Marcel when he is just waking up. Together, they listen to the sounds of the street vendors passing by Marcel’s open window, and they plan their meal based on the foods advertised. It’s in this scene that Marcel rhapsodizes about the particular, heavy sleep of morning, the sleep that is “four times as refreshing.” He’s also quite honest, for the first time in many pages, about the troubled nature of his love for Albertine, and how he suspects they will both be happier when they have parted. But in the moment, there is only the sensual pleasure of waking slowly, a zone of ambiguity that somehow keeps you from acknowledging the more destabilizing uncertainties of life.
I’m not sure when Lauren Collins’s New Yorker byline first began to stand out to me, but over the years some of my favorite pieces in the magazine have been written by her, including a much-shared article about IKEA’s creepy/cozy ubiquity, a “love app” in South Korea, and profiles of Bill Cunningham, Michelle Obama, and Nora Roberts. She’s generous to her subjects but not soft; her observations are precise, witty, and often include quirky bits of research. Above all, what shines through in Collins’s reporting is her curiosity, which takes her profiles and essays in surprising directions. Her first book, When in French, about learning French, is very much in keeping with her reporting, although this time, Collins is her own subject. In a charming mix of memoir and reportage, Collins tells the story of moving to London and falling in love with a French man whose name she couldn’t even pronounce properly. (He couldn’t say hers, either.) After a few years in London, communicating in English, the couple moved to Francophone Geneva, where Collins finally began to learn French. Her memoir opens in Geneva, where Collins, unable to understand the instructions of the chimney sweep, worries about causing a dangerous fire. It’s one of many funny yet frustrating situations that Collins encounters in her struggle to learn a new language in a foreign place. Collins wrote the book while living in Geneva and learning French, but has since moved to Paris -- a flight she alludes to at the end of When in French. I spoke to her via Skype, shortly before her book was published, on the eve of her September book tour. The Millions: This is your first book, but you’ve been writing long pieces for The New Yorker for years. How was the process of writing a book different from writing an article? Lauren Collins: It was totally different. I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go crazy sitting alone in a room, in a small neutral country for a year. It was cool for me because every single thing I know I’ve learned from The New Yorker -- and I’m sure I’ve absorbed and profited from the house style over the years -- but for me it was nice to have the chance to take myself off the leash for a little bit, to roam a little freer and sniff at dirty old tennis balls and get into trouble on my own -- you know, taking some more risks, trying things that may or may not have worked. TM: How did you come up with the structure of the book? Each chapter is named for a different verb tense, and is written in that verb tense, at least partially. When you start learning French, you go into the present tense -- that’s actually when I first really noticed the structure. LC: It kind of came to me organically. Because I was writing a book and learning French in parallel, I think it was just toggling back and forth. I would be writing one day and then going to French class, and I thought, wait a minute, this section where I’m writing about my childhood, that’s all imperfect, repeated action in the past. And I thought, this section where I’m writing about meeting Olivier in London, that’s passé compose. It was just this felicity and I decided to go with it. TM: Has learning French made you think about your English prose style differently? LC: Definitely, definitely. I don’t know if I can claim that I’ve thought about it consciously, but I just know that the French seeps in. Sometimes to good effect, sometimes to ill effect. Sometimes you find yourself using unwieldy Latinate nouns when a nice, punchy Anglo-Saxon one would do. But at the same time, there are turns of phrase or even metaphors that I would not have come up with had French not entered my life. You can also pilfer from another language. Things that are complete cliché in French -- like there’s a phrase, “casting error,” that people use a lot in French -- it’s not a clever original thing to say -- but I’ve used it in English before, and it’s just straight larceny. Like, you can say, “her new boyfriend is kind of a casting error.” Stuff like that is really, great, just adding a little bit of vigor to your first language. I wrote about this a little bit, the way that even British English really helped invigorate my American English, my writing. You get this whole other roster of verbs, a rhythm even. It’s just nice to have that 10-degree remove. TM: Yes, I love reading contemporary British novelists for that reason. There’s just a slightly different rhythm to their prose. LC: There’s a great quote -- I’d have to look it up -- but it’s something like, “until you master (in my case, attempt to master) a foreign language, you never really know your own.” TM: Your book definitely made me want to learn another language. Going back to the structure for a minute, you don’t really begin learning French until halfway through the book. That was surprising to me. I kept waiting, and I was wondering if you did that on purpose, to build suspense. LC: I don’t know that I necessarily did it on purpose! But I wanted to give a sense of what a plodding journey it was for me. And also, the reason I opened where I did in Geneva, with kind of a rant, is that I feel like, often, depictions of life abroad in France or French have this very rosy view. And I wanted it to be the dystopian ex-pat memoir. Because that was how I had come to it. I hadn’t just come to this language that I loved and absorbed the language by osmosis. I wanted to give a sense of all the kind of preamble to learning a language, and how far you have to go to get the place where you’re ready to do it. There’s just so much windup. And also, that I was kind of an improbable candidate for this metamorphosis. And so it felt important to establish my background. My French is still a work in progress. I mean, I can tell you the words I learned today. Today the words I learned were s'envoler, “to take flight,” affoler, which means to drive crazy, and “ravaged” -- that one I looked up in English. I wanted to know if you could say ravager in French. Every single day, I’m still learning stuff. So, when I was writing the book, it wasn’t like it was a done deal. I wasn’t sure if I would emerge proficient enough to actually say that I’d learned French. TM: Are you hearing these words and then looking them up? LC: S'envoler I saw written on a poster in the Metro, and I thought I knew what it meant but I just wanted to check -- and I did. Affoler, same thing. Ravaged was just something I wanted to say...The horrible thing about trying to learn another language is that it just totally colonizes your inner monologue. You’re constantly rehearsing every conversation you’re going to have. I mean, people do that in their first languages, too, but it really goes to another level. But, I don’t know why, I was having some conversation with an imaginary friend/neighbor/postal clerk and I wanted to know if ravaged would be the correct adjective. I can’t remember what I was trying to call ravaged...I think it was, my feet? Because I’d been walking around in an uncomfortable pair of shoes all day. TM: When did you know that this was going to be a book? When did the idea come to you to turn this experience into a memoir? LC: After I moved to Geneva and I realized that it was really going to happen. And I was asking myself a lot of the questions that you’ve asked me: How is this going to affect my actual language? Can I do it? Why is it important? Will it change me? All those kind of things. And, actually, I realize this now looking back: the things I had been writing in The New Yorker were actually a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to this. I couldn’t see the trail at the time. But this was just really what I was consumed by. It was what I was jazzed by and interested in. I was spending a lot of time already trying to decipher this language that was hieroglyphics to me. I think your passions or preoccupations so often lead to writing. It was just where my head was. At a certain point it became obvious that I was going to write about it. TM: Now that you’re more fluent in French, I assume it has opened up new stories for you to pursue as a reporter? LC: Yes! In February or March, I had a short piece, a "Talk of the Town," that I reported entirely in French, so that felt like a big milestone. I’m still not ready to petition the president for an interview. But I’m trying incrementally to work my way into doing a lot more reporting fully in French. I mean, I’ve always done some reporting using an interpreter or going back and forth between French and English. But yes, the better my language skills get, the more I’m aware of, the more I’m able to penetrate. It’s fantastic. It’s been unlocking this secret cave full of riches I could never access before. It’s a midlife gift -- both as a person and as a reporter. TM: I have another process question for you. You’ve been a reporter for years; you try to write with objectivity about people. What was it like to turn that reporting voice on yourself? Did you think of yourself as a reporter of your life? How did you think about it? LC: Again, I was slightly hesitant because I had never done anything like this before. And I was totally lying to myself at the beginning, saying there wasn’t going to be very much of me in the book. I mean, at the very, very beginning, I wasn’t even sure this book was a memoir. I thought, maybe I just want to write this reported investigation of language. But, as it turns out, I’m more narcissistic than I thought! It was really fun. Because when you’re writing about people, sometimes every fifth word, you’re thinking can I really say that? Is that really what happened? It was great being my own source, because I had all the information. All the research was there, and from the perspective of pure writing, it was just so great to be able to take that and run with it. As a reporter, you write some beautiful sentence and then it turns out that there has to be a qualifier in it. Or you think about it and you think, well maybe that’s not fair, or whatever. There are considerations. So it was really nice that on a lot of the things, I only had to answer to myself. TM: At one point early in the book, you write: “language, as much as land, is a place.” I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that and say what French feels like to you at this point in your development? LC: I’m really glad you brought that up because that was one of the things I really wanted to do. Because I wasn’t even living in France, I was living in French -- that’s the distinction. And I wanted to try to write, almost like a travel guide, I was thinking of this as travel writing, I wanted to describe the terrain of French, the kind of landscape and its physical features and its hills and valleys. I was thinking of it that way. To me, it feels like an older place, it feels like a colder place, often, but at the same time there are these nooks and crannies and hidden alleyways and therefore vistas that have been opened. I imagine French as being in the streets of a medieval city. That’s also kind of my physical environment right now. TM: What is English like as a place? LC: English is like, you know, lying on the couch with your favorite blanket and some pizza and watching a great movie -- not even watching it, not having to pay attention. English is comfort. Another way I think of it, is that English is like one of those really enjoyable unchallenging vacations where you do nothing and get tan and drink a lot of drinks with umbrellas in them. Whereas French is the vacation where you go to a lot of museums; it’s the vacation where you’re actually trying to have something to show for yourself at the end of it. I’m a person who likes to do both. TM: Just to wrap things up: How are you feeling on the eve of publication? What’s going through your mind? LC: You know, you spend so much time alone in your room that it’s just beginning to dawn on me that, well, hopefully, there are readers out there. I published an excerpt in The New Yorker and I got some letters and they were so interesting and engaging. This one guy wrote me this great letter. He said: “I read your article and I just wanted to share with you this little anecdote.” He said, “I can’t remember which movie it is, but I swear to you, there’s a movie out there where John Wayne goes into a saloon and says, ‘Barkeep, give me a shot of rotgut.’” And the man who wrote to me claims that this was translated in the French subtitle as "Un courvoisier, Monsier, s'il vous plait." Which was really funny! So yeah, I’m just really looking forward to hearing what real life readers think. I’m also just excited to spend two weeks in America. I mean, I come back to America often, but you’re always tagging the bases of friends, family, work. You have no time to explore. For instance, I moved to Europe in 2010, and I haven’t been anywhere since then except New York and North Carolina. People are always like, “What do you miss about New York? And I’m like, California! When am I going to go there again?”
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these diaries. I have to be honest: I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult for me to find time to read. It’s strange, because I’m reading more than I have in years, and yet I struggle for those hours of solitude. I schedule them, I turn on Freedom, I turn off my phone, I go to bars alone, I give up on critically acclaimed TV shows, I unsubscribe from podcasts, and every afternoon I sit my son down in front of Octonauts so that I can sneak into his room and read novels and magazines. I like to read in my son’s room because he has a single bed like the one I had in college, and it is covered by a quilt that my mother made for me. Sitting on that little bed, surrounded by toys, I feel as if I have permission to read solely for the fun of it -- not because I need to, for an assignment, or because it will be beneficial, in some indirect way, for my writing. When I started reading In Search of Lost Time at the beginning of the year, I planned to read 10 to 20 pages a day, which I thought would be a reasonable and attainable goal. At least one commenter recommended that I throw page numbers out the window, because Marcel Proust’s prose style does not really bend itself to "reasonable." Those commenters were absolutely right. Counting pages was frustrating; as soon as I found myself sinking into the book, I would reach the end of my daily allotment. It seemed foolish to limit myself just to make the book easier to digest -- or, more likely, because I felt guilty cutting into my “work time” for more than 20 minutes. Likewise, if I really only had 20 minutes for reading on a particular day, there was no point in reading Proust. Better to wait until I could block off at least 45 minutes. For a couple of months this summer, when my son was at day camp, I went to a coffee shop after drop-off and read there for an hour or so. It was a wonderful way to start the day, and I liked it so much that I can’t figure out why I don’t make a point of doing it every day. Then again, why don’t I do 10 minutes of yoga every morning or drink two glasses of water with lemon, upon rising? Those things make me feel great, too, and like reading, they are cheap and accessible. The only thing that stops me is my indolence. There is no one like Proust to force you to examine your habits, and lately I’ve been thinking about how and why I find time to read books -- and not only Proust. I actually feel like I’ve got a handle on In Search. I am now about halfway through Sodom and Gomorrah, which means I’ve crossed the border of my previous attempts. I don’t feel any desire to quit, which is not to say that there haven’t been boring parts. There have. But I’ve discovered that I really like having a long-term reading project. It brings a continuity and effort to my reading life that I was missing. Before this Proust project, my reading was disciplined mainly by my book group’s selections, which I generally read at the last minute, a few days before the group meeting -- so it’s fresh in my mind, I tell myself. Really, I’ve fallen into a binge reading habit, in general. Because it is so hard to find time to read, and because we live in an age when reading time must be planned, I gravitate toward books that force me to read them, making me forget my to-do list. Books like volumes one and two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I read those when my son was two and I remember tipping over the recycling bin and letting him play with the forbidden plastic and glass bottles so that I could eke out 20 more minutes of reading time. But I lost interest halfway through book three, and have left the series alone for the time being. A similar thing happened with the first two Elena Ferrante novels. I lost interest after book three -- only to be taken by storm, a few months ago, when the fourth book suddenly seemed to take on a special glow on my bookshelf, and I just had to finish the series. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with abandoning a book or taking a break from a series, but reading Proust all year has reminded me of the particular pleasure of focusing on one author for an extended period of time. I used to do this a lot, when I was a teenager, in part because I didn’t know what to read, so when I found an author I liked, I read everything I could find. But I also did it out of a desire to be close to the writer, to notice obsessions and preoccupations, favored words and phrases, repeated motifs and situations, and of course, to observe the way his or her storytelling changed over the years. For a writer, it’s slightly embarrassing the way a reader can track your development (as both a writer and a human being), but for a reader, it’s intoxicating, and reading In Search of Lost Time has reminded me of that feeling. It's probably too early to start thinking about what I'm going to read when I'm finished with In Search of..., but I think I'd like to choose an author and read all of his or her works in a systematic way -- and then maybe keep doing that, until I've exhausted my favorites. For the first time, I see the appeal of being a completist. Sometimes I think that In Search of... is about reading, more than anything else: reading people, reading art, reading memory. Reading people, especially. The most incredible thing about Proust’s novel is his characterization, which I appreciate even more in this reading, now that I am a little older, and have seen the way people change (or don’t change) over time. It is almost magical, the way you get to know Marcel’s friends and witness their transformation over the years. At least some of this involvement has to do with the book’s length. You’re spending a lot of time with these people. There have been some dull passages, usually party scenes in high society, where I’ve wondered what on earth Proust is up to (and sometimes, he will interrupt a passage to assure the reader that this will all be relevant, later) and then 100 pages later, a character from the party will reappear, someone I hadn’t even realized I’d gotten attached to, and I will feel like I’m seeing an old friend. And as Marcel reports on their lives, and the changes in their behaviors and appearances, I will feel as if I am noticing these changes, because I’ve become so steeped in Marcel’s (and, by extension, Proust’s) sensibility. To be steeped in sensibility. For me, this is the pleasure of reading. In real life, it would be hazardous to take on another person’s point of view so completely, but in reading, you can be reckless -- and this is what I’ve been reminding myself, lately, when I feel I have no time to read. Am I really going to fill up my days with productive activities? Or am I going to leave some space for recklessness?
Since Bill Cunningham’s death last week, I’ve been thinking that he was New York City’s Marcel Proust. He captured the people of this city, and the special, sometimes hard-to-see beauty of its streets, just as Proust immortalized certain stylish Parisian women, and the particular seasons and moods of Paris's parks and sidewalks. I’m not the first to make this comparison: the fashion writer Cathy Horn made a connection between the two artists in a lovely remembrance for The Cut. She notes that Proust’s eye was different from Cunningham’s, because he was constructing a fictional world, whereas Cunningham was a journalist who recorded the world. Yet Cunningham and Proust have a similar sensibility when it comes to clothing. Both have a love for eccentrics, and for elegance. They go wild when the two converge. One of my favorite passages in all of In Search of Lost Time has to be when Marcel sees Robert de Saint-Loup for the first time. Saint-Loup, who will soon become his good friend, is wearing a beautiful summer suit: ...along the central gangway leading from the beach to the road I saw approaching, tall, slim, bare-necked, his head held proudly erect, a young man with penetrating eyes whose skin was as fair and his hair as golden as if they had absorbed all the rays of the sun. Dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material such as I could never have believed that any man would have the audacity to wear, the thinness of which suggested no less vividly than the coolness of the dining-room the heat and brightness of the glorious day outside, he was walking fast. To me, that passage is like one of Bill Cunningham’s photographs in the way it magically captures a season, a moment in time, and a person, all at once. It’s easy to imagine Cunningham taking a photo of Robert de Saint-Loup in his white suit and then enthusing over it during one of his weekly “On The Street” videos. He might even use the word “audacity” to describe Saint-Loup’s style. More likely, he would simply say, “Isn’t it mahvelous?” One of my favorite Sunday pastimes was to watch Cunningham’s videos, which were both a window to Manhattan and a fashion lesson. In a recent video from this spring, when the weather was still iffy, he extolled fluffy, white fake fox collars: ...you talk about a glamour frame for this face: that’s it! It always has been, and as a matter of fact, in the 1920s, they had what they called "summer fox" -- same fox people wore in the winter, but they put a name on it. And people carried it or wore it. It’s hilarious how fashion captures people’s moods... With that little snippet, you can get a sense of what made Cunningham’s eye special, and Proustian. He had a sense of history, and a sense of humor. Like Proust, he understood how clothing was a reflection of the wearer’s mood, and the season. Other New York novelists have tried to capture specific fashion moments and trends, but too many of them focus solely on status, the way that clothing can express a character’s aspirations and anxieties. Take someone like Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities is full of 1980s fashion. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, obviously cares about clothes and is very good on the subject, especially the perfectly coifed appearance of the “social X-rays” -- a wonderfully memorable phrase. And yet Wolfe did not catch the humanity of his female socialites the way that Cunningham, who photographed them, often did. Cunningham understood that clothing is about more than just personal identity. Fashion is a mirror of the culture, with links to the past and arrows pointing to the unknown future. On its most basic level, fashion is related to the weather, to variations in the color of the sky and the quality of the light. It’s almost too obvious to say, but what people wear has to do with how warm or cold it is outside, how wet or dry the streets are, and for how long people have been stuck in a season, how hungry they are for change. It has to do with collective desires, not always conscious, brought on by the physical environment, as well as emotional factors having to do with the news or the holidays or even something as frivolous as the sudden appearance of daffodils in public parks. Cunningham had a sort of naturalist’s sense for fashion; he was interested in learning how people adapted clothing to fit their environments. Just as you can see in the evolution of the peppered moth, that textbook example of adaptation, how the color of the moth changed after the Industrial Revolution, Cunningham’s photos showed how women’s fashion changed to accommodate their changing daily lives. For instance, the fact that women began to commute meant that women needed more durable and practical outerwear. Cunningham was very interested in commuters. He paid a lot of attention to coats, utilitarian objects that can be quite beautiful and striking if worn with style. One of his famous early photos was of Greta Garbo, though he didn’t realize he was photographing Garbo. He just noticed a woman in a coat with a beautiful shoulder and he photographed that coat, that stunning shoulder. More recently, in another one of his weekly videos, Cunningham observed that pale pink coats were making an appearance, noting that a pale pink coat is luxury item that is very difficult to clean. I love him for remarking on this, because he wasn’t saying it to be a killjoy. Instead his comment was to emphasize that women must really want to wear pink, they must need pink in some way, if they are willing to go to the trouble of wearing it. In another recent video about a trend in black and white clothing, he noticed the way that white clothing was giving way to silver, a subtle metamorphosis that seemed to point to an increasing focus on technology. Cunningham was wonderful on color, in general. Through his photos I learned to see the way certain colors rippled through the city. Meryl Streep taught Anne Hathaway the same lesson in The Devil Wears Prada, with her lecture on "cerulean," but her speech emphasized the power of the media and the marketplace. Cunningham understood the power of designers, manufacturers, and materials, but he wasn’t as interested in their influence. His great insight as a photographer was that fashion evolves on the streets, because that’s where the people are. It's such a simple observation, but it became powerful, and then, profound, in the way that he executed it, day after day. Even before Cunningham’s death, I found myself thinking of him while reading In Search of Lost Time. There’s a moment toward the end of Volume I in which Marcel describes pigeons as group of birds “whose beautiful, iridescent bodies have the shape of a heart and are like the lilacs of the bird kingdom.” I read that and thought, only Proust would see the beauty hidden in something as common -- and potentially annoying -- as a flock of pigeons. But then I thought: Bill Cunningham probably feels this way about pigeons, too. He could see the sublime in the most everyday aspects of city life. He often said he was looking for beauty, and he believed that it could be found anywhere. Like the great novelists, he taught us how to see other people, and the world. Image Credit: Flickr/Bicycle Habitat.