Welcome to the sixth newsletter! So what’s new? Anything out of the ordinary happening? I have been very absent for a long time, and I am sorry, and this is just a brief note to say hi.
- This week’s letter:
“Everyone else seems to have so much to say about everything that’s happening, but I’m afraid I don’t.”
- This week’s selection from the archives:
My favourite travel memory. Because right now we’re all travelling in our minds.
Siberia and the life-saving importance of being bored. Because boredom isn’t only to be feared.
Old Believers. Because I often think of Agafya, the Old Believer, and because in some way we’re all Old Believers now.
- I’m reading:
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. In her late 40s, when her children were grown, Sara Maitland decided that “I have lived a very noisy life”, and moved into the countryside to be alone and to be silent. This is a book exploring her fascination with silence, how it nourishes her like food, how it can scare but ultimately delivers her a transcendent bliss. The book explores silence through the cultures and ages, the silence experienced by explorers and monks and castaways, sailors and mystics and saints. It is a book about our civilization and a very powerfully personal and intimate book about what a person is deep silence might be tempted to call the soul.
An Odyssey, by Daniel Mendelsohn. Daniel Mendelsohn is a classics scholar and a subtle and elegant reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. I first encountered him through his lovely and exquisitely titled collection of essays How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can be Broken. This book is an extraordinary hybrid – part memoir, part loving discussion of Homer’s The Odyssey, that great story of fathers and sons, presence and absence, voyaging and coming home. At the age of 81 Daniel’s partially estranged father enrolled in the course his son teaches on The Odyssey, and afterwards the two of them undertake a journey through the Aegean to retrace Odysseus’ long voyage home. It is a book genetically engineered to appeal to me.
Have you read Stephen King’s The Stand lately? I first read it in high school and I loved it then. A terrible airborne plague devastates the world, and the survivors seem to have been spread for a particular purpose. Go on, allow yourself to dream that you have have been spared for a particular purpose.
Finally, if you are tempted to join in the hollering and hooting on social media, trying to urge people to do this or thing or that thing, especially now, it might be worth considering this article, about the power of positive modeling and behavioural nudging, and the counter-productivity of, well, what everyone is doing right now:
- I’m watching:
In Los Angeles I watched a programme of LA-themed movies: Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Short Cuts, Chinatown, Swingers. Everything you learn about LA from the movies is true, and yet it’s still not quite enough. They led me, naturally enough, to Chandler and Noir – LA is a perfect place for Noir, with its bright sunlight and sharp dark shadow and its sense of width and shallow. I have decided to dedicate the next three weeks to brushing up on Noir classics that I haven’t seen or haven’t seen for a while. I shall start with Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), and once I’ve drawn up a watchlist, I’ll post it in case anyone else is interested in watching with me.
The Trial of Christine Keeler (a TV series distributed by Keshet, created by Amanda Coe, first flighting on BBC 1). The story of the Profumo Sex Scandals that nearly brought down the Tory government in the 1960s. I’m a sucker for a British political sex scandal. There is always something so every absurd about them, and absurdity always plays well with a posh accent and a great deal of polite hypocrisy. A Very English Scandal was my fix last year, and this is a good successor.
- I’m listening to:
Jason Isbell – the albums Southeaster (2013) and Something More than Free (2017). They aren’t new albums but by God they’re terrific. What genre would you call them? Americana, I suppose – country music for people who don’t drive trucks or wear cowboy hats. It’s heartbreaking and heartening and unflinchingly personal and honest and it makes me happy. Listen to the Carver-esque short story that is “Elephant”. Weep over his duet with his wife, Amanda Shires, “If We Were Vampires”. Just read these lyrics, from the first stanza of “Songs That She Sang In the Shower”, in which he describes the final straw that caused his wife to give him the ultimatum to quit drinking, and tell me you don’t want more:
On a lark, on a whim,
I said “There’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them”
And his fist cut the smoke
I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke
In the car headed home
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone
Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but this one is quite fabulous. I know it’s fashionable to sneer at Malcolm Gladwell and to dismiss him as insufficiently this or that, not woke enough, too popular, too entertaining, but I think he is one of the great sane humanist voices of our time, and this is an unusual audiobook – it’s not just that it’s Malcolm reading the text, although it’s that too. It’s produced like a podcast, like a long fascinating episode of his Revisionist History (to which you should also be listening). There are sound effects and news clips and song samples and extracts from TV shows and news broadcasts. Whenever there’s a quote from someone, it’s that person you hear speaking. The book itself is about the difficulties in understanding each other – why we rush to judgment of others and why that judgment is so often wrong, told through the case studies and fascinating stories from history. It is a sheer delight.
- What is making me happy this week:
The website explore.org is a collection of animal cams: static cameras fixed at natural locations, where one can merely sit and watch what’s happening. Very often nothing is happening, and that is lovely, because in the world for long periods of time nothing does happen except the Earth moves and nature exists.
The cams at African waterholes are of course lovely, because there is the sound of the bush and the birds and the wind in the trees and the calling birds, and the movement and snuffling and blowing and sloshing of the elephants as they wallow and wade and see off zebras and jackals, but I am particularly attached to the feed at an eagle’s nest in Decorah, Iowa, where a mother Eagle sits day and night on her eggs, in her nest. The breeze ruffles her feathers and the rising sun paints her orange and every so often she looks around with her beak and her eyes, and you have the privilege of watching the smallness and extraordinariness of a life.
- This week I discovered:
Some interesting facts about libraries at time of crisis.
1) During the Blitz in the Second World War, the UK government considered it very important to keep the libraries open. Their hours were slightly shortened, but they stayed open even through the dark days of bombing, and all fines and charges for lateness and damage were diligently levied and enforced. “In times of emergency,” said the chief librarian of Liverpool’s Picton Library, “rights and responsibilities remain.”
2) In the year leading up to Prohibition in the US, when it became increasingly obvious that the sale of alcohol was going to be banned, every book in the Los Angeles Central Library related to or describing the home brewing of alcohol was checked out of the library, and none of them was returned. Human nature, the librarians ruefully concluded, isn’t something you can wish away.
Keep in touch, and Hey! …