Comforting reading for troubled times

March 19, 2020
Bookshelves. Photo: Adobe Stock

We sit marooned on our couches, or with our backs to our bedroom doors as the kids on the other side demand to know whether we’ve been to New Zealand, or propped at whatever angle will expose us to the greatest possible natural light without making out laptop screens unreadable. And we worry.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has already made daily life difficult, especially when our intake of news is mediated by tech platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which reliably elevate news stories cherry-picked for “engagement.” Too often, that means stories that upset and disturb.

As an antidote, the CJR staff has pulled together its favorite comfort-food nonfiction: Stories that are fun and satisfying to read and vividly composed. Here they are.

“The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine, 2014: Sullivan goes searching for Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two women whose three records made in 1930 and ‘31 are titanically influential. “There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent,” Sullivan writes. With the pair as his lodestar, Sullivan writes a rich account of a period in musical history—and its obsessives—that feels like a palimpsest under the whole of American culture.

“Blue Bloods” by Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, 2014: “Horseshoe crabs are aliens from another planet, if we allow that the other planet was Earth about five hundred million years ago.” Frazier’s stubbornly magisterial account of the weird little trilobite-looking creatures who live on our beaches examines their remarkable age, their terrible flavor, the near-magical properties of their blood, and the people who are trying to protect them.

“Long Distance,” parts I and II by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, Reply All, 2017: Everybody’s gotten the ubiquitous half-threat, half-sales pitch from a call center claiming to represent “Apple;” a slightly lower number have watched YouTube pranksters entertainingly string along the would-be thieves. Nobody else, to our knowledge, has taken the trip to Delhi to personally confront the scammers.

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“The Whale Hunt” by Jonathan Harris, 2007: Harris’s experimental photo essay, which lives on its own dedicated website, follows him and his crew to Alaska, where a group of Inupiat hunters takes part in a traditional whale hunt. The hunts are strictly limited by the government, Harris writes in an explanatory note accompanying the piece, but they also make up the Inupiat’s food supply. The photos are viewable in a slideshow, a huge mosaic, a wheel, and, of course, individually, and they track Harris’s trip from Newark all the way to the butchering of the second whale caught on the expedition.

”A Long Walk’s End” by William Browning, SBNation, 2015: People who hike the Appalachian Trail sometimes take “trail names”—handles they use during their long journey. Browning’s yarn includes a guy named Bismarck, $8.7 million missing from the Pepsi distributor where Bismarck used to work, and a guy who writes the Appalachian Trail guidebook—and gets updates from Bismarck for years. And Bismarck’s wife. She’s dead.

”What Is Code?” by Paul Ford, Bloomberg Businessweek, 2015: “I began to program nearly 20 years ago, learning via oraperl, a special version of the Perl language modified to work with the Oracle database,” Ford writes modestly near the beginning of his mammothinterrogation of the nature of computers and how they talk to each other. “A month into the work, I damaged the accounts of 30,000 fantasy basketball players. They sent some angry e-mails. After that, I decided to get better.” It’s both a virtuosic essay about the nature of the machines that make the world work and a how-to for people who want to get better at communicating with and through them. The story itself is years old, but it’s still a riveting explanation and it’s still marvelously useful.

big wonderful thing by Stephen Harrigan, University of Texas Press, 2020. Texas Monthly writer and bestselling novelist Harrigan has written a massive history of a massive state; his place of work published two generous excerpts from the enormous tome, one about the Texan-against-Texan bloodshed of the Civil War; the other about the complex and racialized conflict that gripped Texas through the early 20th century.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog, 2010-2017: For the greater part of this decade, until her death in 2018, one of the best opinion columnists and press critics in the country was Ursula Le Guin, the Oregon-based science-fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She wrote movingly about religion, politics, her own work (and occasionally the work of collaborators like the illustrator and cartoonist Charles Vess) and with great insight about the huge changes wrought by corporations that rewrote copyright law. She wrote when she got around to it and not before; as a consequence, her writings weren’t always timely by the standards of the perennially distracted internet, but they were never half-baked, whether they were about her cat, technology creep, or the refusal of the press to call a lie a lie.

“Brad Pitt and the Beauty Trap” by Manohla Dargis, The New York Times, 2020: Dargis strikes the delicate balance between detached observation and humorous buy-in with her precise meditation on a profoundly attractive movie star who also, incidentally, happens to be one of the most gifted actors of his generation. “Beauty can be a trap as much as a benediction, including for men. Some of his earlier choices didn’t help, like “Legends of the Fall,” a risible dud that turns him into a golden sex pony.” It’s a short piece, but its craft is remarkable.

”What Would Happen if All Matter on the Earth Was Replaced by Blueberries?” by Dan Kois, Slate, 2018: Two years ago Kois, one of our funniest daily journalists (Dan: this is a high compliment, I swear), found an academic paper by Oxford scientist Anders Sandberg that purported to answer a simple question raised by the world’s great scientific minds in idle chatter on the messageboard site StackExchange: What if the earth was made of blueberries? The premise is already pretty good, but Kois’s questions are half the fun. “Your paper posits a kind of blueberry hell planet, with geysers of boiling jam spurting up everywhere,” he asks. “Would the jam at least be delicious?” “That depends a bit on your taste,” Sandberg answers. So much does, Anders.

Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.