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Archive for the 'Original Essays' Category

Powells.com interviews and original essays

Love 101: A College Sophomore’s Attempts to Learn the World

When I was a college sophomore, I thought everything I needed to know could be learned from a book. My best friend, Claire*, and I decided to create an independent study on the topic that most fascinated and confounded us at that age: love. We spent hours planning the syllabus in her second-floor single, with its faux sophisticated college dorm décor — Christmas lights and black and white postcards of Debbie Harry and Louise Brooks — Claire with her asthma inhaler nearby, and me with my pack of Marlboro reds at the ready, so I could dip outside to smoke.

My theory about books wasn't without supporting evidence. After struggling in high school for two miserable years, while being persecuted by classmates who felt at home in our quaint Maine town and didn't care for my dramatic black eyeliner and bad attitude, I'd been miraculously released from all of this by the work of Plato. I'd been asked to write about his essay, "The Allegory of the Cave," for my application to Simon's Rock; the piece of writing itself, and the invitation to pen a response, convinced me ...


Voracious

In the summer of 2012, I got a contract for a book about language, based on my experiences of more than 30 years as a copy editor at The New Yorker. I was thrilled, because now I had license to buy all the books about language that I wanted.

That September, I was driving on Route 9 along the southern border of Vermont, when I spotted a bookstore and slammed on the brakes. Inside, a young woman showed me a small selection of reference books, and I picked out Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabetter Juice; or, The Joy of Text, a collection of funny takes on all kinds of disputed usages, in alphabetical order. The book was apparently a sequel to one called Alphabet Juice, which I would look for down the road. I didn't need to read these things in order. Could I help it, as a serial devourer of language books, if the universe served up dessert first?

The following winter, during a sojourn on Cape Cod, I stopped in the Provincetown Bookstore — the one that John Waters used to work in — where ...


Selfies, Memoir, and the World Beyond the Self

When I was a teenager in Colorado during the late '90s, I liked to climb 14ers — 14,000-foot mountains. I'd often hike with friends, and at the top we'd take a photograph of ourselves standing on the summit. We'd set the camera on a rock and use the timer function, or, if another hiker happened to be at the top at the same time we were, we might ask her to take the shot. When I hiked alone, I'd sometimes take my camera out and point it at myself, to capture an image of me floating in the clouds.

That was before selfies. Of course, people had been taking self-portraits for years, but the concept of the selfie was not part of the culture yet. Now, it's inescapable. Everyone takes selfies. On top of mountains, at the grocery store, at school, in the bathroom, at the Oscars, inside the White House.

Perhaps we live in the age of the selfie, a time of insecurity — about jobs, about the future, about our place in the world — but also a time of extreme self-regard.

We are no ...


The Book That Refused to Write Itself

I first heard of Fritz Haber in 1998, when I caught a snippet of a TV documentary about 20th-century scientists. The camera zoomed in on an image of a bald man in a military uniform, a pair of pince nez clamped to the bridge of his nose. He looked like a stereotypical German nationalist circa World War I, and that's exactly what he turned out to be: a militaristic Prussian, this chemist whose devotion to the fatherland was so unwavering he had no qualms about creating and deploying the first chemical weapons used in battle. What difference did it make whether someone died from a bullet or from the long, cruel death that ensues after inhaling gas?

"Dead is dead," said Fritz Haber.

The documentary also mentioned Fritz's wife, Clara. A chemist, too, she was kept out of the lab and relegated instead to a life of Küche and Kinder. She spent her last years railing against her husband's deadly work until, unable to sway him, she killed herself. The morning she died, Fritz Haber obeyed the Kaiser's orders and traveled to the eastern front. The Habers' 12-year-old son ...


All Signs Point to Atlantis

When I tell people I've spent the last three years working on a book about Atlantis, they usually have two questions. The first almost always goes unspoken: Are you nuts? (I don't think so, but perhaps I'd be the last to know.) The follow-up question — which almost always does get asked — is where I got the idea to write about Atlantis.

If an author is lucky, he or she will be chugging along working on one book when some detail pops out that is hard to shake off. In my case, I was researching the major events of 1911 while working on the book that became Turn Right at Machu Picchu — 1911 is the year the Peruvian citadel was rediscovered — when I came across a rather unusual headline in the New York Times: GERMAN FINDS ATLANTIS IN AFRICA. Not exactly the sort of thing one expects to see in the paper of record, but when I read the article, it turned out that a German explorer had indeed made a discovery that he believed proved that the famous sunken city had once existed in ...


One in the Oven; or, Why You Should Suck It Up and Meet Your Favorite Author

At first, I was dead set against it. I would not try to meet Nicholson Baker while I was writing a book about Nicholson Baker. I had a good reason for this. I didn't want to meet Baker because Baker, in U and I, his fretful, hand-wringing account of his literary relationship with John Updike, spends a great deal of time trying to meet John Updike. This is peculiar because U and I is sometimes very critical of Updike, though in general it lauds his work, and why would you set out to meet an author, repeatedly and with only minimal success, when you were also in the process of criticizing him? Indeed, the impulse to meet Updike was one of the very few things I stumbled across in Nicholson Baker's career that sent little bolts of pain through my teeth, and this worried me because what I intended to do, for the most part, was laud Baker's widely known, yet, in my opinion, inadequately heralded, career.

There are other good reasons not to meet authors, too. If you're like me, you've had the experience of ...


Being John: On Sorrow, Writing, and Transmigration

November was cold that year. I dreamed of a blue snow closing around me like a fist. I was 12 and had few friends; I wore tragically misguided clothes, avoided the eyes of boys, told exorbitant lies. On Tuesday afternoons, I walked from the middle school to my grandmother's house in town, so she could give me piano lessons. I lived for those days, for the regal piano with its dusty runner and arrangements of cloth flowers, for the world she would build up around us — I used to go to Woody's Nook, to dance until three in the morning — I'll take you there sometime; you'll see, it's still the same. Now, tell me about all of the parties you've been going to. She never seemed to notice I went nowhere, lisped, had buckteeth. A bird alighted in the rose bushes and she pointed — Look, she said, he's landed there for us.

One Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving, I arrived at my grandmother's house. The door was unlocked but no one was home; I let myself into the eerie quiet. I had never been forgotten before. I ...


The Coffee Shops I Have Loved

"Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" – Albert Camus

In the five years it took for me to complete my book, The Monopolists, I wrote in more than 50 different coffee shops in six different states. They ranged from airport Starbucks to local roasters near my home in New York City to, yes, even the café at Powell's in Portland, a venue I began frequenting as a child.

The relationship between writers and coffee shops can be complicated, but I felt compelled to thank these coffee purveyors in my book's acknowledgements because they played a critical, often understated role in helping make a lump of ideas into a book. They inspired and empowered me, kept me warm and positive in dark hours with the manuscript, and prevented me from arriving at my book party in a straightjacket.

Thank you.

The nexus between coffee shops and ideas has a tense history. In 1675, King Charles II of England was so angered by the political activity taking place in such beverage meccas that he made a Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses, shunning the ...


Is Shame Necessary?

Is Shame Necessary? is my first book, so I am far from having earned the right to discuss writing a book in general. But I can say something about what it was like to write this book specifically. The main struggle was to keep momentum in the text, which, as for any book, seemed to fall to either plot, force of personality, or argument (or some combination).

It might be obvious from the title that my focus was argument. People who felt guilty about large-scale issues like climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and unfair wages have been misled into engaging with their guilt primarily as consumers (leading to the rise of eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and fair-trade products). However, individual purchases often wind up being minor compared to what is needed (organic foods, for instance, only represent four percent of the U.S. food market).

In contrast to guilt, shaming can lead to relatively quick, lasting, large-scale reform because it can work on groups and institutions, and is therefore a better stopgap on the way to regulation. One of the many examples of shaming's success is ...


Be Happy, Be Cheerful, Be Joyful, Be Anything But Gay

My new novel, Welcome to Braggsville, is a satire about four college kids who perform an "intervention" at a Civil War reenactment, and quickly discover that even the best of intentions can cause a world of hurt as they find themselves caught between the academic theories that have stoked their indignation and the harsh realities of race in contemporary America. As a writer, I tend to avoid the autobiographical, but, sadly, the comedic elements aside, this novel is inspired by one true event, a situation I could not have imagined, even if I were to crack my brain straight into a frying pan (like that famous breakfast commercial of yesteryear).

This event is one that required little remembering because it had always troubled me deeply. As my character Quint might say, it burned like a boil on a bunion. Now that, folks, is a real hive of discomfort.

Here it is: Near Bradenton, Florida, in the earliest of the '90s, there was a K3 rally. Lest ye be confused, a dash of disambiguation: This was not the Bosnian skating club (Klizačko Koturaljski Klub), the fraternity at Dartmouth (Kappa Kappa ...


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