“The Whole Thing is Really a Dazzling Illusion”

Me: That makes me think of that Philip Roth passage, the one from American Pastoral.
John: I don’t like that dude.
Me: Oh right, you went to Vassar.
John: I think he’s a misogynist.
Me: Well, he has misogynistic viewpoints but I choose to see that as one of his many parts.

I’ll always stan Philip Roth. I realize he has his detractors, but he is smooth as glass and his observations just cut right to the heart of things, don’t they? John and I were chatting about something that went down with his wife, which reminded me of the beloved American Pastoral passage that flattens me every time. It’s about unpredictability, and never really knowing how our relationships will unfold, because the people in our lives are essentially unknowable:

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”

RIP Philip Roth

“Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

—-Philip Roth, in his novel The Plot Against America, 2004

New Reading Resolutions

Part of the problem with being a professional reader and writer is that you spend all your time reading and writing, but often it’s not really the kind that you want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great privilege that my job is to straight-up read a lot, then travel around, discover ideas and people, or history as it’s happening, ask questions of the person/idea/event, then tell the story. I mean, that is a ridiculous vocation for which to be paid.

But after reading way too many periodicals during the hellish and hateful 2016 election, I found my psyche exhausted and altogether pissy by year’s end. I decided I need to recommit to reading about “bigger” ideas, themes, connections, etc. To get my head straight, if you will. So I am resolving to read more books, recommended by the smarty pants I get to call friends. I’ll track the recommendations (and by year’s end, the progress) here. If you have thoughts or additions, please let me know in the comments or all the other ways to reach me.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Recommended by work friend Scott Detrow

Scott’s take: “So basically, it’s fiction but Charles Lindbergh runs against FDR. FDR runs a really serious issues campaign and Lindbergh just flies his plane from state to state entertaining people. He wins in a landslide, and immediately appeases Hitler. It goes by especially quick once you’re gripped by the horror of it becoming reality.”

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by work spouse Matt Thompson

Matt’s take: “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction. But it’s feel good post-apocalyptic fiction that will remind you of all the things to appreciate about life and living.”

Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Recommended by Reeve Hamilton of the now-defunct Breakfast Club

Reeve’s take: “I like it so much, I bought myself another copy. It’s about relationships and how they are complicated and affect each other. It’s really about group dynamics, which you would like. If you’re reading blurbs about how it’s about regrets, it’s about a totally different kind of regret. It also captures teen boyhood of a certain variety better than just about anything else, which I’m sure you will find to be a big selling point.”

Mao’s Last Revolution, Rod MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Recommended by John Delury, China historian and our Seoul friend

Delury’s take: “It’s a quick read. Once you understand the dynamic of ‘working toward the Chairman’, the pages fly by as your heart sinks. Its the best treatment of the Cultural Revolution’s high politics, the Mao-eye view.”

Born a Crime
Recommended by Liz Taylor

Liz’s take: “There are parts that are super poignant, makes some great observations about race, and also parts are totally hilarious. Go with Born a Crime.”

I like that a lot of these friends know me really well and emphasize the “quickness” of the reads, because I have a pretty short attention span. But we have a lot of weeks left in this year so keep your ideas and recommendations coming …