Nothing if not self-aware, Biss does lay claim to some measure of difference from her demographic peers. She takes a distinct pride in loving “the New York of Harlem and Inwood and Washington Heights,” and notes in an aside that the word “gentrification” agitates her husband because it is used negatively by the very people—artists, students, and so forth—that benefit from it. Still, despite this desire to differentiate herself from other white folks who may be less preoccupied by how the other half lives, she understands that fairly or not, it is nature, and not nurture, that often plays the bigger part in defining what a person is.

And that, ultimately, is why Biss can write this book. Traversing an isthmus between white America and non-white America, she notes her own, ample opportunities, yet refuses to relinquish the struggle for racial identity to those that have traditionally been more oppressed. This willingness to walk back and forth on that thin strip of land is both her vulnerability and her greatest strength.

The concluding essay in the collection is called “All Apologies.” It’s a series of apologies (and non-apologies) issued throughout history: the Hartford Courant apologized for having accepted advertisements for slaves; Korean War veteran Ed Daily apologized for the massacre in the village of No Gun Ri, even though he hadn’t himself participated; F.W. de Klerk apologized for apartheid; Reagan signed a bill apologizing to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II, but resisted apology all the same, calling it a “mistake.” At the end of the essay, Biss writes, “I apologize for slavery.” It’s less an admission of wrongdoing than a classic apologia—a formal defense, and implicit examination, of her own conduct, which is what underpins this entire book. The reader is once again reminded of those telephone poles at the turn of the twentieth century, which served as both gallows and technological thruway. That nexus implicates all of us, and Biss puts it in plain view: for a moment, at least, we see even what is unseen.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.