Au Courant

“People talk of keeping au courant, and no doubt an intellectual cannot ignore the human race, nor be indifferent to what is written in his special field; but take care lest the current should carry away with it all your capacity for work, and, instead of bearing you onwards, prevent you from making any headway against it….

What you must principally cut down is the less solid and serious kind of reading. There must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels. One from time to time, if you like, as a recreation and not to neglect some literary glory, but that is a concession; for the greater number of novels upset the mind without refreshing it; they disturb and confuse one’s thoughts.

As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings!…

A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.”

—A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., from The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (first published in 1921)

(Via Alan Jacobs.)

Sunday 8.17.2014 New York Times Digest

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1. Playing Soldier in the Suburbs

“In the name of local preparedness, Washington has been bestowing antiterror grants and Pentagon surplus on communities barely touched by major crime, let alone by terrorism. Tanks and aircraft, helmets and armor, guns and grenade launchers have flowed to police departments from Des Moines (home of two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots) to Keene, N.H. (population 23,000, murder rate infinitesimal and the proud custodian of an armored BearCat).”

2. Deep Tensions Rise to Surface After Ferguson Shooting

“As African-Americans moved into the city and whites moved out, real estate agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country, conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants. But by the 1970s, some of those barriers had started to fall, and whites moved even farther away from the city. These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.”

3. In Push to Shorten Games, There’s No Time to Waste

“Attention spans are getting shorter while games are getting longer.”

4. In the Sharing Economy, Workers Find Both Freedom and Uncertainty

“In the promising parlance of the sharing economy, whose sites and apps connect people seeking services with sellers of those services, Ms. Guidry is a microentrepreneur. That is, an independent contractor who earns money by providing her skills, time or property to consumers in search of a lift, a room to sleep in, a dry-cleaning pickup, a chef, an organizer of closets.”

5. Authenticity, Repurposed, in a Mason Jar

“Until several years ago, the simple Mason jar was more likely to be found in the nooks of grandmothers’ pantries than on retailers’ shelves. It was salvaged from near extinction by businesses eager for a homespun aesthetic in a sturdy, affordable package — many of them hoping to lure the millennials who have fetishized the jars in photographs on Instagram and Pinterest.”

6. Download: Nadya Tolokonnikova

“I also listen to Doris Day. My father played for me when I was a child. ‘Que Sera, Sera.’ Whatever will be, will be. Yesterday we listened all day to Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.’ It’s about conceptual femininity and I like to think about it and reflect on it.”

7. The Disappearing Volunteer Firefighter

“What was once an iconic part of American life is losing its allure, in part because the work — some would say the calling — is a lot less fun than it used to be.”

8. Playing the Numbers in Digital Dating

“What if it turns out that relying on algorithms doesn’t make dating less chaotic, but more so, in a whole new way? What if, instead of finding our way to a partner, following certain algorithms leads us only further away?”

9. Teaching Is Not a Business

“The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate.”

10. The Obituary Lottery

“It is a cruel thing, this wheel of obituary fortune. You can never be assured that your passage to eternal bliss will get the attention it deserves.”

11. Should We Teach Plato in Gym Class?

“The training of the body is directly related to the development of a fundamental aspect of the human psyche: what Plato, that pre-eminent teacher of teaching, called thymos. In English we don’t have a word for this concept, but it encompasses both bravery and the urge for glory. Perhaps the closest we have is ‘spiritedness,’ as in ‘a spirited competitor.’ Plato knew that thymos is a marvelous quality that needs to be developed and strengthened, especially in those who represent the community as soldiers. But Plato also knew that thymos can be dangerous. The spirited part of the soul can take control and turn what would have been an admirable man or woman into a beast.”

12. The Wisdom of the Exile

“Uprooting is a devastating blow because you have to separate yourself overnight from something that, for as long as you can remember, has been an important part of your identity. In a sense, you are your culture, customs, language, country, your family, your lovers. Yet exile, should you survive it, can be the greatest of philosophical gifts, a blessing in disguise. In fact, philosophers, too, should be uprooted. At least once in their lives. They should be exiled, displaced, deported — that should be part of their training. For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas.”

13. Pioneer in France and on the Frontier

“Here, as in Paris Blues, Mr. Poitier embodies historical memory. His understated empathy for the Garner and Andersson characters is the film’s tacit reminder that ours is a nation stained by the sins of slavery and ethnic cleansing. Duel at Diablo is another reminder: The demise of the Hollywood western eliminated a genre that once served as an arena where popular artists debated the nature of the national past.”

14. Generation Nice

“Why this microscopic attention paid to a generation whose oldest members are only now entering the prime of their adult lives? One answer is that millennials, the first people to come of age in the 21st century, with its dizzying rate of technological change, have been forced to invent new ways of navigating it.”

15. A Makeover for the Hijab, via Instagram

“Muslim women in their 20s and 30s are making their own mark on hijab culture, while propagating it in a way particular to the ‘selfie generation’: by posting pictures and videos of themselves on various social media sites.”

16. Them Dames

“The story is a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity. It is a story about stories, the myths we have to create in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

17. In the Rearview Mirror

“The car birthed or fostered not only highways, motels, drive-through restaurants and drive-in movies, municipal parking garages and innovations in home architecture to accommodate the one-car garage, but also mail-order businesses, holidays, campgrounds, ski resorts and destinations like Vermont, which was ‘a quiet, remote backwater until the car and its highway came along.’”

18. How to Monetize Your Cat

“Just kinda go with it.”

19. The Rise of Beefcake Yoga

“The curious Venn diagram overlap of battered war vets, couch potatoes and former wrestlers was not lost on anybody in Page’s camp. Jake Roberts, in some sense, was its center point — an athlete who had taken a severe physical beating and had also given up on himself. When Page heard that his old friend was squirreled away in Gainesville, smoking crack and boozing, he decided that he wanted to help him.”

20. Inside the Dark, Lucrative World of Consumer Debt Collection

“Siegel struck out on his own, investing in distressed consumer debt — basically buying up the right to collect unpaid credit-card bills. When debtors stop paying those bills, the banks regard the balances as assets for 180 days. After that, they are of questionable worth. So banks ‘charge off’ the accounts, taking a loss, and other creditors act similarly. These huge, routine sell-offs have created a vast market for unpaid debts — not just credit-card debts but also auto loans, medical loans, gym fees, payday loans, overdue cellphone tabs, old utility bills, delinquent book-club accounts. The scale is breathtaking. From 2006 to 2009, for example, the nation’s top nine debt buyers purchased almost 90 million consumer accounts with more than $140 billion in ‘face value.’ And they bought at a steep discount. On average, they paid just 4.5 cents on the dollar. These debt buyers collect what they can and then sell the remaining accounts to other buyers, and so on. Those who trade in such debt call it ‘paper.’”

21. Should You Fear the Pizzly Bear?

“The creation story … begins during European colonization, when the Eastern wolf was hunted and poisoned out of existence in its native Northeast. A remnant population … migrated to Canada. At the same time, coyotes, native to the Great Plains, began pushing eastward and mated with the refugee wolves. Their descendants in turn bred with coyotes and dogs. The result has been a creature with enough strength to hunt the abundant woodland deer, which it followed into the recovering Eastern forests. Coywolves, or Eastern coyotes … have since pushed south to Virginia and east to Newfoundland. The Eastern coyote is a study in the balancing act required to survive as a medium-size predator in a landscape full of people. It can be as much as 40 percent larger than the Western coyote, with powerful wolflike jaws; it has also inherited the wolf’s more social nature, which allows for pack hunting. (In 2009, a pack of Eastern coyotes attacked and killed a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer named Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.) But it shares with coyotes, some 2,000 of which live within Chicago’s city limits, a remarkable ability to thrive in humanized landscapes.”

22. A Mother’s Journey Through the Unnerving Universe of ‘Unboxing’ Videos

“Unboxing is not so much a craze anymore as a genre — a manifestation of a new world of consumer expression.”

Sunday 8.10.2014 New York Times Digest

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1. A Cathedral Under Siege

“That word, sacrilege, may sound a bit overblown — but only to the ear of someone who has never been afforded the chance to grasp, firsthand, what makes this place so utterly unique, a landscape without antecedent or analog. Although it is not the first, nor the largest, nor the most popular of America’s national parks, the Grand Canyon is nevertheless regarded as the touchstone and the centerpiece of the entire system. And rightly so. Because nowhere else has nature provided a more graphic display of its titanic indifference to the works and aspirations of man.”

2. 50 Years an Exile

“The very conditions under which we live incite us to insubordination.”

3. Living Like the Kardashians, via Smartphone

“In some ways, she may represent a new generation of celebrity entrepreneurs, those who don’t merely write checks or appear on billboards next to products, but who treat their own lifestyles as the products that fans will want to buy. The Kardashian game is marketed as an invitation to experience her world, even if only as a cartoon fantasy.”

4. Where Have All the Truckers Gone?

“Trucking companies are turning down business for want of workers.”

5. Download: Nina Hoss

“I’m not such a fan of the concept of social media, though I don’t have anything against it. I still love to call the people I want to be friends with.”

6. Britain’s Drinking Problem

“British history floats on a sea of booze.”

7. Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain

“The summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time, mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains.”

8. Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers

“The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.”

9. Swimming Against the Rising Tide

“How do we bridge the distance between our own seemingly insignificant lives and actions and the scale of climate change, so global and so slow?”

10. This Is Reform?

“If you separate off the 65 schools in the Big 5 conferences — plus a few others like Boise State in football and the University of Connecticut in basketball — and allow their athletic departments to become ever richer and more powerful, they will be more easily seen for what they are: a form of professionalized and commercialized entertainment that has very little to do with higher education.”

11. Screen Voices, Banished but Not Silenced

“Our past is preserved in our films, predicated on shared fantasies and projected larger than life.”

12. CrossFit Flirting: Talk Burpee to Me

“Perhaps more than disciples of any other type of exercise, people who participate in CrossFit can’t help being drawn to people who do the same.”

13. Facebook’s Change of Face

“Some people are taking to Twitter to bemoan a surfeit of foreign policy chatter on Facebook.”

14. Restoring Acadia’s Trails

“America experienced a naturalist revival in the late 1800s, a belated enlightenment inspired by the likes of Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau. Mountain tourism boomed in the Catskill and White Mountains, and walking became a required activity on weekend getaways. A decade after Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School painters returned from Mount Desert with plein-air paintings of the island, the first tourists arrived. And they wanted to walk.”

15. Garrison Keillor: By the Book

“Ecclesiastes tells you all you need to know about Minnesota. ‘Whoever increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ You can say that again. ‘The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor bread to the wise nor riches to men of understanding, but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ That’s got Minnesota down to a T. You run fast and you trip on a gopher hole, you are heavily armed and well trained and you shoot yourself in the foot, you’re so smart you go broke. ‘The thing that has been is the thing that shall be; and the thing that is done is that which shall be done: There is nothing new under the sun.’ This is the sum and substance of the prevailing philosophy in my state. The optimists among us are either running for public office or on strong medications; the rest of us are skeptical.”

16. The Interpretation of Freud

“From birth to death we are, every last one of us, divided against ourselves. We both want to grow up and don’t want to grow up; hunger for sexual pleasure, dread sexual pleasure; hate our own aggressions — our anger, our cruelty, our humiliations — yet these are derived from the grievances we are least willing to part with. The hope of achieving an integrated self is a vain one as we are equally divided about our own suffering; we do in fact love it and want — nay, intend — never to relinquish it.”

17. On the Record

“Even the keenest strategic minds are inevitably imprisoned in inherited frameworks of perception and understanding.”

18. You Mean It’s Not Dead?

“Schmidt, one deduces, sees the kind of literary criticism sponsored by the ­Anglo-American academy as blighted by restrictive field specialism and the critical monograph — by writing expertly about one thing. A withering exiguity of scope, he would argue. Fiction, for Schmidt, is a gestalt, a field whose vast totality gives meaning to its single elements. You must think big, he implies, if you want to think to any purpose.”

19. Winged Victories

“Despite the putrid menu vultures favor, their excrement is sterile. In fact, letting the waste run down their legs can clean off germs from the gore; it’s their version of freshening up with a moist towelette after a barbecue. Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses, who spend 95 percent of their lives over open ocean, are thought to be able to shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 m.p.h. For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction. And if bird breakups are seen in human terms, flamingos’ behavior — their divorce rate is 99 percent — fits their flashy profile. Albatrosses, by contrast, really do hang in there for the long haul, staying together till death.”

20. How to Know When to Unfriend Someone

“We all spend so much time focusing on the outflow of our digital lives, but we should also focus on the inflow. I keep a tally in the Notes app on my iPhone: If I find that seven, eight or nine times out of 10 I see a status from someone that makes me feel jealous or insecure or uncomfortable or sad or frustrated or angry, I’ll unfriend them.”

21. The Brazilian Bus Magnate Who’s Buying Up All the World’s Vinyl Records

RECORD COLLECTIONS. We BUY any record collection. Any style of music. We pay HIGHER prices than anyone else.

22. Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?

“Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.”

23. Who Knows How This Column Will End?

“Endings are hard.”

Add Your Own Sauce

“I grew up in a subdivision in Baton Rouge. I had no connection to the business at all. But I felt like it’s going to happen to somebody. I was like an athlete who didn’t have any extraordinary skills, but had basic skills, but worked really hard. That was me. I’m a grinder. I’ll beat you because I will not sleep. Whenever I go and talk to aspiring filmmakers, I go, ‘Look, at the end of the day, I can talk about craft, whether you have a soul of an artist, I don’t know.’ Your take on things is what is either going to make you somebody we talk about or no. You have to have a take on shit. It’s got to be specific and engaging. We’re all standing on the shoulders of what other people have done. But you’re supposed to take that and add your own sauce.

Steven Soderbergh

Sunday 8.3.2014 New York Times Digest

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1. The Squeeze on the Middlebrow

“In 1949, if you were eating avocado, you were most likely at an upper-middlebrow dinner party. Today, you are probably at Subway.”

2. How Facebook Sold You Krill Oil

“With its trove of knowledge about the likes, histories and social connections of its 1.3 billion users worldwide, Facebook executives argue, it can help advertisers reach exactly the right audience and measure the impact of their ads — while also, like TV, conveying a broad brand message.”

3. Jiminy Cricket! Bugs Could Be Next Food Craze

“There are, like, thousands of insects crawling over one another.”

4. Shattering Myths to Help the Climate

“Reducing CO2 emissions would actually be surprisingly easy.”

5. An Appeal to Our Inner Judge

“Every day, our biases determine what we see and how we judge those around us.”

6. How South Korea Enslaves Its Students

“Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying.”

7. Facebook’s Gateway Drug

“The goal of providing universal, affordable Internet access is a laudatory one. But there’s more to the nonprofit-tinged ‘dot.org’ agenda than meets the eye, and its subtext is indicative of a bigger problem with Silicon Valley ‘solutionism’ — the belief that the tech industry could and should solve all of life’s problems.”

8. Three Myths About the Brain

“Myths about the brain typically arise in this fashion: An intriguing experimental result generates a plausible if speculative interpretation (a small part of the lobe seems sufficient) that is later overextended or distorted (we use only 10 percent of our brain). The caricature ultimately infiltrates pop culture and takes on a life of its own, quite independent from the facts that spawned it.”

9. ‘Fury,’ Starring Brad Pitt, a Raw Look at Warfare

“American fighters were not saints.”

10. Delayed Zombification

“I was reading a lot of Jacques Derrida at the time, writing Beth. He actually talked about zombies. Zombies sort of typify this ambiguity, that they’re not dead and not alive.”

11. Sci-Fi Beats With a Pacific Flavor

“While outsiders might think the city’s hip-hop scene revolves around the ubiquitous white rapper Macklemore, the reality is more idiosyncratic and diverse. Shabazz Palaces are part of Black Constellation, a collective of visual artists (Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin and Nep Sidhu, who creates their stage clothing), fashion designers and musicians, including the rapper OCnotes and the avant-R&B duo THEESatisfaction, who host a series of parties called Black Weirdo in Seattle, Toronto, New York and Minneapolis.”

12. Tell Me What You See, Even if It Hurts Me

“People at my school and camp say I’m the most ugliest person they’ve ever seen and I could be the ugliest person that could ever be living. Be honest and tell me if I am ugly or not. I can take it, but please don’t say really mean stuff.”

13. Immortal Beloved

“Swafford repeatedly points out the way Beethoven cunningly derived pieces from a single, simple idea. This is not news — but it’s worth meditating on. Beethoven preferred musical ideas of almost unusable simplicity, things that seem pre-musical, or ur-musical, like chords, or scales — not music, but the stuff music is made of. Imagine a building constructed of blueprints, or a novel based on the word ‘the.’”

14. Mind Ablaze

“Poems and first paragraphs came to him with ‘every word in place, every comma, every period fixed.’ His synesthesia endowed sounds with colors; he had a prodigious memory and a seer’s empathy. In a span of 10 productive years, Crane wrote five novels, two books of poems, several classic stories and many journalistic sketches.”

15. Best Exotic Kingdom

“In Hollywood, she spurned Errol Flynn, whose plan for a film version of the original rajah’s exploits was, she decided, vastly inferior to her own. During her heyday, between the two world wars, she presided over a kingdom the size of England whose subjects greeted her arrival with 21-gun salutes and elaborate parades. Marooned in New York in 1941, with little to sustain her but hot dogs and gin, she was reduced to telling fortunes in a bar called Leon and Eddie’s, ‘where I was known as “Toots.”’”

16. War Comes to America

“The president could be secretive and manipulative. As it turned out, he also had better instincts than the military men who served him.”

17. Head Count

“The biggest problem with Malthusiasm, as Mayhew addresses at length, is that Malthus was wrong.”

18. Math

“We still need math.”

19. The Kids Who Beat Autism

“A small but reliable subset of children really do overcome autism.”

Sunday 7.27.2014 New York Times Digest

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1. No Time to Think

“You can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them.”

2. Race in Toyland: A Nonwhite Doll Crosses Over

“The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that’s really big for them. And I think a lot of other kids don’t see her color, and that’s wonderful as well.”

3. ‘Rule Followers’ Flock to a Convention Where Fake Violence Reigns

“Nowhere is violence in entertainment more prominently on display than at Comic-Con. And yet, historically, all of the attendees have been strikingly well behaved.”

4. Heads or Tails? Either Way, You Might Beat a Stock Picker

“Over the last five years, actively managed stock mutual funds have performed even worse than would have been predicted if the fund managers were flipping coins instead of picking stocks.”

5. The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less

“The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline.”

6. If Marriage Moves Beyond Our Means

“Only the upper tiers of Americans have the money and time to reasonably hope that their offspring will succeed.”

7. Steering His Own Schedule

“There’s a time-honored tradition in Hollywood of people doing all sorts of odd jobs while waiting to be discovered.”

8. Heard on the Street: E-I-E-I-O

“A growing number of New Yorkers who are turning their personal plots into micro farms. In a metropolis where ‘back to the land’ does not usually apply as a descriptor, New Yorkers are raising hens for eggs, rabbits for meat and bees for honey. They have turned tiny slivers of open space into productive vegetable gardens that often also capture rainwater and compost waste.”

9. Repeal Prohibition, Again

“The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

10. The New Instability

“Since the 1970s, families have become more egalitarian in their internal relationships. But inequality among families has soared. Women have become more secure as their real wages and legal rights have increased. But families have become more insecure as their income and job instability have worsened.”

11. We’re Missing the Story

“Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves.”

12. Failure Is Our Muse

“Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.”

13. Why the Beach Is a Bummer

“Sixty-one percent of Americans don’t live anywhere near a beach. We spend a surprising amount of time hearing about this place we will hardly ever see. We watch commercials, TV shows and movies in which nubile young women and their strapping male counterparts frolic on sand, their hair golden and sun-streaked. Long walks on the beach are the supposed holy grail of a romantic evening. The beach becomes a kind of utopia — the place where all our dreams come true.”

14. Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins

“Praying in an ancient language you don’t understand is fine; praying in tongues (not a human language, but thought to be a spiritual one) anathema. A god who has a human son whom he allows to be killed is natural; a god with eight arms and a lusty sexual appetite is weird. You believe in the Holy Spirit, but you draw the line at exorcism. You take for granted that Christ will come again to earth, but riding on a white horse and wearing a robe dipped in blood? That’s obviously a prophet’s besotted fantasy.”

15. Powerful and Coldhearted

“Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).”

16. Goofy Guy Takes a Galactic Leap

“The draft beer he had ordered (though not before saying: ‘I hope you don’t mind? I don’t work tomorrow’) sat before him, untouched. Five weeks earlier, he and a reporter from Entertainment Weekly spent an afternoon together doing shots of Jack Daniel’s. Not so this week. ‘I don’t know why I ordered this,” he said. ‘Turns out I don’t like beer anymore.’ Instead, he did a 180, and asked for camomile tea.”

17. His Own Godfather

Brown, who died on Christmas Day 2006, began his career in the ’50s under the spell of Little Richard and ended it as a major influence on current singer-dancers like Usher and Chris Brown. Michael Jackson and Prince, of course, were acolytes. Reared on gospel, blues and jazz, Brown was a dominant force in the soul ’60s, created funk, inspired disco and laid hip-hop’s foundation with his beats.

18. Passing of a Video Store and a Downtown Aesthetic

“For a time, you could go treasure hunting at the Strand for books, the vintage hot spot Antique Boutique for clothes, and Kim’s for videos.”

19. To Pop Legends, He Was a Guitar Hero

“Maybe they don’t look like rock stars, or their voices aren’t accessible enough, or they just don’t have the merciless drive and ambition it takes to top the charts. Instead, these musicians contribute to a kind of shadow history of rock, adding not only songs that become best known through cover versions, but also passing along some particular, unique approach to playing or arranging that reverberates to the world through their peers.”

20. The Emoji Have Won the Battle of Words

“An emoji-only version of Moby Dick, called Emoji Dick, was recently accepted into the Library of Congress.”

21. Devilish Audacity

“Several traits make a worthy biographer. (1) Affection for his subject, but not blind adulation. (2) An interesting personality with a winning style. (3) Neither excessive brevity nor tiresome long-windedness. (4) A judicious sense of what ­matters and what doesn’t. (5) Awareness that a portrait requires a suitable frame, i.e., attention to context and background. (6) A far-ranging erudition. (7) Maybe most important: a sense of humor.”

22. The Wealth of Ideas

“Fawcett aims to make liberalism comprehensible to contemporary readers. To do so, he takes a commendably liberal approach, bringing as many within the tent as possible. Liberals, he insists, do not argue from a doctrinal checklist so much as they understand that conflict is unavoidable, distrust unjust authority, hold faith in progress and respect all, or at least most, people.”

23. Radical Inquiry

“There’s a striking difference between those pages and the penetrative depth of Willis’s thinking — the result of a painstakingly slow writing process and scrupulous self-questioning that gave her work moral and intellectual authority. That disparity may lead one to wonder if such thinking is even possible at a time when discourse is shaped by the Internet, which demands self-congratulatory clique-building and fresh outrage every hour on the hour.”

24. Much Ado About Everything

Stuff Matters is about hidden wonders, the astonishing properties of materials we think boring, banal and unworthy of attention — paper, concrete, glass, plastic. They are given what the sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘civil inattention,’ lumped together under the ample but unilluminating category of “stuff,” even though some varieties of that stuff have been so important, historically, that eras have been named after them: Stone, Bronze, Iron.”

25. When It Comes to Fiction About National Tragedy, How Soon Is Too Soon?

“Although many people have strong feelings about historical tragedies, few have the ability to process them in a way that makes them intellectually or artistically meaningful.”

26. Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

“The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.”

27. What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?

“Cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. Of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now, perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat.”

28. Manhattan’s Secret Pools and Gardens

“You wouldn’t know it, but they’re up there — those turquoise oases, invisible to those of us who cope each day with sour summer smells, sweltering subway platforms and scorching sidewalks. More than any other city, New York converts the graph of its income inequality into a vertical urban plan, with most people spread out at street level — conniving to linger for just one extra second before an air-conditioned storefront when its door swings open — and the lucky few in their secret aeries and tiny triangle bikinis, lolling poolside.”

James Garner (1928–2014)

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James Garner played cowboys, soldiers, detectives, astronauts, and race car drivers. He was, as Brandon David Wilson said on Twitter, “American manhood personified,” “a kind of ideal midpoint,” as Ned Raggett tweeted, “between laconic cool and comic vulnerability – like Steve McQueen plus Cary Grant.”

In a great piece for the Atlantic on the dearth of charm among American men, Benjamin Schwarz basically designates Garner – with his “casual wit,” “good-natured ease,” “liking for and appreciation of women,” and “quizzical detachment” – America’s last charming man. He writes, “Garner had a magical ability to convey his offscreen persona of red-blooded, hardworking, plain, and thorough decency, even as his charming onscreen persona didn’t fully gibe with it. He thereby made a light touch and an ironic stance qualities that men found not just appealing but worthy.”

Of the three mid-20th century male TV stars who made the jump to movies – Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and James Garner – Clive James likes Garner the best, mainly because, unlike the more taciturn McQueen and Eastwood, Garner had a facility with words, a crucial component of charm. It doesn’t hurt that Garner was also, by all accounts, a pretty nice guy: married to the same woman since 1956, civil rights advocate, lifelong marijuana smoker.

Garner’s oft-remarked-upon charm is present from the beginning of his career in the late 1950s. Unlike Cary Grant, who didn’t hit his stride charm-wise until well into his career, Garner’s charm appeared more or less fully formed. This, I hypothesize, is partly due to the fact that he did stuff before becoming an actor. He lived life. The New York Times explains:

Mr. Garner came to acting late, and by accident. On his own after the age of 14 and a bit of a drifter, he had been working an endless series of jobs: telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant. While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he met a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent.

Years later, after Mr. Garner had served in the Army during the Korean War – he was wounded in action twice, earning two Purple Hearts – he was working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building, and Mr. Garner, on a whim, pulled in. He was 25.

The rest, as they say, is history, but Garner never really shed his “regular guy who works odd jobs” persona. I think this accounted for, insofar as it gave him a certain world-weariness, a fair chunk of his charm. World-weariness is, in fact, a key ingredient of charm according to Schwarz, who writes that “Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism.” “I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really,” Garner told the New York Times in 1984 in a quote reproduced at the end of their obituary for him yesterday. “It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living.” Now, some of this may be false modesty on Garner’s part, but at a time when it seems like everyone and their mother wants desperately to be famous, Garner’s “take it or leave it” attitude, and the life experience that led to it, strikes me not just as indicative of charm, but of virtue. It’s usually stupid to try to emulate actors, but James Garner might be the exception to the rule.