Essays

  • We Gon’ Be Alright

    Jeff Chang

    Essays on race arguing that inequality impacts everyone. Jeff Chang whittles big concepts down into a manageable book — it’s a petite volume, but I marked it up a lot. I’m gonna be lazy and just share a bunch of excerpts here since I took so long to get around to writing something up, and his words are more succinct than mine would be.

    In “Is Diversity for White People?” Chang questions who the notion of diversity serves, at one point stating:

    Diversity allows whites to remove themselves while requiring the Other to continue performing for them.

    “What a Time to be Alive” is about student protest, where he quotes from Mari Matsuda before digging into some ideas on resegregation:

    “Tolerance of hate speech

    ...more
  • Too Much and Not the Mood

    Durga Chew-Bose

    The title of this book comes from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary, where she wrote about being tired of the “cramming in and cutting out” to please readers. I wanted to really love this book, expected it even, from the context of the title and the blurb that references Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Lydia Davis’s short stories, and Vivian Gornick’s “exploration of interior life.” So I built up its possible impact too much, and then the first essay “Heart Museum,” which takes up almost half of the small volume, was a slog that I struggled to get through, even though I was on vacation and had no distractions to keep me from getting enmeshed. While I generally am all for...more

  • Float

    Anne Carson

    First, this is an intriguing object: a clear box filled with twenty-two chapbooks. Each cover is printed in a similar texture in shades that to me represent the range of hues of bodies of water at different times of day and in various types of weather: blues, deep blues, grays, greens. Inside the text has similar variance whether verse, prose, lecture, play. The themes also range about from the classics (Carson’s field of scholarship) to “a chorus of Gertrude Steins performing an essay about falling” to philosophical studies of translation in “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.” She prefaces it with a John Cage quote, who of course did his own explorations into the framework of silence, before...more

  • Hope in the Dark

    Rebecca Solnit

    Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

    ...more
  • The Selfishness of Others

    Kristin Dombek

    My friend Athena wrote a review of this essay on “the fear of narcissism” that suggested the writing fell a bit flat to her at the end. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wound up feeling almost exactly the same way. A brief history of clinical and cultural understandings of narcissism, with sections focused around concepts like The Bad Boyfriend, The Millennial, The Murderer; the turning point is The Artist, where the focus shifts to Dombek’s self-reflection. As Athena said, it was perhaps intended as “some kind of experimental practice of writing as a selfish/other-centric dialectic,” but I was disappointed that everything built up to be so personal, self-centered. But it’s appropriate within the essay’s lens of...more

  • After the Tall Timber

    Renata Adler

    One of the downsides of my technique of requesting lots of popular books from the library and then reading them as I progress through long hold lists is that I sometimes get books when I’m not truly prepared to delve into them. Most likely I would have picked something lighter after just reading a long non-fiction book than another long non-fiction book. But there was no dallying when my turn came, as this clocks in at about 500 pages and plenty of library users were in line behind me; I only made it through about half the book before opting not to rack up fines to try to finish it. I’ve read mixed opinions about whether the first third...more

  • Citizen

    Claudia Rankine

    You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headaches begin then. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, the world says, though they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you.

    I’ve been having a hard time writing about Citizen and the experience of reading it, as it would be so easy to blandly describe it — the topics it covers, its blend of text and images — yet in no...more

  • Men Explain Things to Me

    Rebecca Solnit

    Rebecca Solnit wrote the first and titular essay in this collection in 2008, after which it was posted on TomDispatch. Since then it has taken off and been reposted several times, along the way inspiring the portmanteau “mansplaining.” It was worth rereading that one for a second or maybe third time, but the other six essays in this book aren’t just filler to make a book version of a viral sensation.

    Despite giving a feminist eye to some bleak topics — as in the one where she connects Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault of a hotel maid with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries — there’s a recurrent sense of hope across these essays, for me most palpably in “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the...more

  • Loitering

    Charles D’Ambrosio

    In some people (usually willful or grandiose or highly defended types) there’s only a very small difference between talking incessantly and saying nothing. I vaguely remember a quote from Roland Barthes, who claimed his rhetorical needs alternated between a little haiku that expressed everything and a great flood of banalities that said nothing.

    I expected that I would really like this collection of essays, reading about it first through D’Ambrosio’s interview with Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker. I was especially curious about their discussion of his work being “marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold.” In actuality, while I appreciate the style of his writing, the overarching themes of the book felt too bleak for me...more

  • The Unspeakable

    Meghan Daum

    Meghan Daum opens her second book of essays by explaining how she hoped that all together they would “add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” This examination of the disconnect with how one is “supposed to feel” compared to our actual feelings succeeds best in the opening essay, “Matricide,” largely about her mother’s death and complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Some of the other apparently “unspeakable” topics — like loving dogs and Joni Mitchell and not being a foodie — ring rather false in comparison. But by that point, I was also less inclined to find common ground with Daum, since these all came after the essay on her being an “Honorary Dyke.”...more

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