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Nostaliga

coloring-booksThe radio version of my New Yorker story on South Korean literature airs this week in a special hour I’ve been working on for On the Media, which is all about the state of the publishing industry and the enduring presence of physical books in a digital world.

Check out Laura Marsh’s brilliant look at the subversive history of adult coloring books, Rob Salkowitz on why Amazon might be opening physical bookshops, Bob Garfield’s visit to a massive warehouse selling books by the foot, and more!

foldedclockI reviewed The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary Sarah Manguso– and reflected on my own diary-keeping habits– over at The Los Angeles Review of Books.  The essay starts like this:

TODAY I DUG OUT an old diary from one of the large cardboard boxes that my husband and I never unpacked after our last move. It’s a spiral notebook with a multicolored cover. Thin lines of text, written in a black Pilot Precise pen, fill its pages, and my handwriting is narrow and mostly neat. The diary begins in the spring of 2005, a few months before I moved to New York. Flipping through it, I hoped to find some observation from my first hours, days, or weeks in New York — some early impression of the city that might foreshadow how the place would shape me.

In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math.  Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.

One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen.  A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.

This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math.  Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.

I lucked out that day.  But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.

Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom.  That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan.  Listen to the piece that resulted here.

The more things change, the more the stay the same.  At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.

Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later.  For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”).  But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955: 

Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom.  There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true.  It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.

But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.

I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago.  “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,”  Chris Galloway said.  As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.

One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today.  But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.

(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).

To get a little perspective on Greg Smith’s “I quit” letter to Goldman Sachs while brainstorming at work today, I decided to call up Evan Harris.  Back in 1995 she was pretty much the poster-child for quitting.  She quit her job, boyfriend, and city, and started a zine called Quitters Quarterly.  She was featured in an episode of This American Life, and she wrote a book called The Quit.  Seventeen years later? She’s married with kids, back in her hometown. Here’s what she told me.

“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?

My review of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is now up at The Millions.