What I Read This Week - 20th January

Outside, snow's falling on the garden, so it's a good day for reading. - In House (Sonya Chung at The Common)

And yet, the idea of pilgrimage—of seeking your artistic development, your peak, in a place—is irresistible. If I go there, something will happen. If I leave here, I will create something that I have not been able to create before. Or, there, I will have more money. Or, there, I will have less money but more time. Or, if only I was surrounded by other artists, by people who understand me.

-My Misspent Youth (Meghan Daum)

It was around this time that I started having trouble thinking about anything other than how to make a payment on whatever bill was sitting on my desk, most likely weeks overdue, at any given time. I started getting collection calls from Visa, final disconnection notices from the phone company, letters from the gas company saying "Have you forgotten us?" I noticed that I was drinking more than I had in the past, often alone at home where I would sip Sauvignon Blanc at my desk and pretend to write when in fact I'd be working out some kind of desperate math equation on the toolbar calculator, making wild guesses as to when I'd receive some random $800 check from some unreliable accounting department of some slow-paying publication, how long it would take the money to clear into my account, what would be left after I set aside a third of it for taxes and, finally, which lucky creditor would be the recipient of the cash award. There's nothing like completing one of these calculations, realizing that you've drunk half a bottle of $7.99 wine, and feeling more guilt about having spent $7.99 than the fact that you're now too tipsy to work.

This was written in 1999, when Daum was 29, saddled with great debt, and about to leave New York City for the cheaper pastures of Nebraska. It is, I think, one of the best (or at least the most honest-like-a-slap-in-the-face) things I've read in a long while. Though take that with this very large grain of salt: I have an unhealthy obsession with reading about writers' finances, if only because writers, or a certain breed of them, have an equal obsession with their own finances. (I'm inadvertently working on collecting enough material for a book on this. See, to begin: the letters of P.G. Wodehouse, Geoff Dyer on D.H. Lawrence, every article in ten on sites like The Millions or Full Stop, etc etc. Even Sherwood Anderson, below, advising his teenage son that "The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living.")

- Sherwood Anderson's advice to his teenage son, 1927 (Brain Pickings)

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

In which Anderson reflects on some of my favorite themes: deciding what (and how) to be, the tricky business of making a living, especially in the arts, the compulsion to make with one's hands, and so on.

- Turns Out I Feel Like Print is More Real and I Can’t Stop It ( Sarah Wanenchak at Cyborgology)

I think this highlights something interesting about not only the deep cultural assumptions we still make about the nature of reality and about the relationship of the digital and physical, but also about how we as artists understand our creations to accumulate value. When I write a manuscript, it should be real to me; I brought it into being, shaped and manipulated it until I was happy with it, put it into the words that I chose. And yet it’s not really real to me until someone has paid me money to publish it, and it’s still not as real as it could be until it’s in physical, tactile form. A lot of this, again, is about external validation, but most of it is how I personally navigate what I perceive as different orders of real. Not necessarily physical/digital and real/unreal, but rather a spectrum along which this thing that I made moves.

Funny thing. I've held my book. It exists as a hardback, but not yet as an ebook, so I've nothing to compare it to, but I'd say that holding it is pretty special, and that if all I'd done was see it on the screen of my iPad I'd be thinking, but it isn't A Book yet. But this spectrum, it's a dangerous thing. I might be tempted, for instance, to say that although I've held my book, and smelled it to make sure it smells properly of book (it does), it's not as real to me as it could be until it's in bookshops, which it won't be for another few months. And so on.

On the other hand, I spent a large part of yesterday reading Jane Eyre on my iPad. I've never read Jane Eyre before and I've never read a book on an iPad before, so it was a day of pleasurable firsts, and I can't claim that I ever wished that I was holding a paperback. I enjoyed my day of reading Jane Eyre on the iPad. I'll never give up buying and owning books but I don't reject the idea that it's perfectly possible to read something on a screen and gain as much from it as you might if you read a leatherbound copy of it. When it comes to consuming books, it's fairly simple, because it's all circumstantial. There are some books I need to hold, or write in the margins of, or read in the bath, and some I don't. The tricky bit is making; the tricky bit is trying to understand what it is you've made.

- No One Knows (Jeremy Gordon at The Classical)

The opiatic comfort of believing in something, and wanting to believe in something, is at the heart of what can make sports so powerful. "We Believe," the shirts announce come the postseason, and even non-fans do—if not in a given team than in something transformative and elevating and occasionally transcendent at work. Sports are a distraction, or a type of popular art, but the way they play with belief can make the stories they tell so slippery, so fast-growing: belief metastasizes, need and want are conflated, and we wind up someplace weird.

Most of what I've read about the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax (and admittedly, it's not a lot) has been couched in weird digital-dualist language (oh God the internet has destroyed everything sacred!) and this piece is not like that (with exception, perhaps, of the last sentence, which I'm still not sure how to read: it's gentler, but it could be construed as an urging to get offline and into the 'real world' once in awhile, but I'm choosing to think that's not really what it means). Anyway the thing I'm interested in here is nothing at all to do with Te'o specifically - it's to do with the way Gordon writes about sports, about the power of sport even when it's ugly (and sometimes it's very, very ugly), the way we interact with it.

- Semi-Charmed Life (Nathan Heller at The New Yorker)

Well, whose twenties? Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest (the teen-age years are usually written up in a spirit of damage control; the literature of fiftysomethings is a grim conspectus of temperate gatherings and winded adultery), and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life. Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working sixty-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus in college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Iceland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there. The twenties are when we turn what Frank O’Hara called “sharp corners.”

I haven't read any of the "Fuck, I'm in my 20s!" literature Heller mentions here, nor have I read any of the accompanying guidebooks (for which I'm very grateful - “Late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier,” apparently, is one piece of advice (?) proffered in the uninvitingly titled The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now, for instance). But Heller's a good guide anyhow. It's a good piece, if one that made me feel a touch uncomfortable, like maybe I wanted to tell everyone to shut up about being in their twenties, or not being in their twenties anymore but knowing how we feel and how we should live, and to remember that we're all just a bunch of messy humans muddling along.

- Drawings of Five Writers’ Photos (Joanna Walsh at berfrois)

Miranda July takes a good photo. She’s made for other women to hate. I think it’s something to do with her refusal to encounter her beauty. It annoys me, but I feel badly about it. A film maker, she knows the photographer is there, but she acts like she never expected it to be. Camera-shy, the lens transfixes her: she looks terrified, or she looks away, her avoidance of the camera perfectly posed. If it wasn’t such a way to look I’d almost believe her.

This is mainly for the pictures, though the words are very good, too.