What I’ve Been Writing, Reading, and Watching: January, 2021

I’ve Been Writing

For the Seattle Times, I wrote about all the weird things your subconscious brain does when you walk into a bookstore for the first time, and why Seattle’s newest bookstore, Oh Hello Again, is designed to throw your subconscious brain for a loop:

The philosophy for Oh Hello Again’s unique categorization was inspired, appropriately enough, by a pair of books. Ferguson was so enthralled by the thesis of Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s “The Novel Cure” and “The Story Cure” that she decided to build a whole shop around their concept of “bibliotherapy,” which posits that reading the right novel at the right time can help to console and guide people through moments of great emotional turbulence.

In my economics column at Business Insider this month, I’ve written about how the Trump administration failed to combat the coronavirus recession, the myth of deregulation, a bold idea to restart the American economy, and why President Biden has the opportunity to be a transformational economic figure

And on Twitter, I wrote a little thread about deplatforming and the proper use of social mediaHere it is, slightly expanded and adapted for the shift from Twitter to a newsletter:

When they permanently banned Donald Trump after the siege on Congress, Twitter proved without a doubt that deplatforming works. Trump immediately devolved from the most powerful man in the world to a mumbling, bitter ghost. Losing Twitter was a greater loss of power for Trump than losing the presidency; it instantly made him irrelevant. That’s why I was so disappointed to see that, after a few days of celebration over Trump being banhammered into nothingness, so many smart people on Twitter immediately returned to old bad habits—sharing misinformation and retweeting provocative bad actors in an attempt to dunk on them. Twitter is quantifiably better without Trump and his Q minions. So let’s not create a new version of them by continuing to amplify the worst people in the world.

We could all—and I include myself in this criticism—stand to do less retweet wisecracking on irrelevant bozos. Twitter isn’t your late-night talk show, and the world doesn’t need a hundred million fifth-rate Jay Lenos. If you really have to share your epic dunk, use a screengrab instead of a RT.And if you’re sharing a tweet or media clip that contains lies or misinformation, your tweet should offer truthful context that disproves what you’re sharing. Otherwise, you’re just doing their work for them.

And lastly, be liberal with the mute and block buttons. You don’t owe anyone your attention. If you see someone act in a trolly way to someone else, or unapologetically making an untrue statement, you can block them. It’s okay. If you only use Twitter to make fun of assholes and get into fights, you’re probably not contributing anything useful to the conversation, and you’d probably feel better if you just logged off.

I can already hear the responses: “But, but, but, you just want to make your Twitter feed into an echo chamber!” Listen: if your feed is an echo chamber, that’s your fault. Go out and find smart people who don’t hold your worldview and follow them. If they eventually turn out to be jerks, you can block/mute them, too.

I’m hopeful about the future of Twitter. I think there’s an opportunity here to make something nice. But we need to remember a few key points: Not every opinion is worth sharing. Not every conversation is worth having. Most internet fights are a waste of time. Life is short. Most importantly, as we’ve proven in the last few weeks, if you don’t give your attention to the worst people in the world, they’ll lose their power. (This isn’t the same as saying ‘don’t feed the trolls,’ by the way: online abuse is real abuse. I don’t want to minimize the experiences of so many people who have had nightmarish experiences of bullying. That’s very different from, say, Marco Rubio’s trash hot take.)

I’ve Been Reading

  • Probably the best novel I’ve read in the last few months is Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, a novel about a family that rents a vacation house far away from their home in New York City, only to find that the world seems to have ended. They’re detached from the world by traditional means of communication, and the glimpses they catch of the apocalypse are truly horrifying. But it’s not a horror novel, or a thriller. It’s just a novel about a family in a remarkable moment. Alam’s writing is a touch bro-y in the beginning—one early sex scene felt a tad Updike-y—but it’s remarkable that an essentially plotless book can feel so much like a page-turner.
  • Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony, is a dirty little thrill of a political novel. It’s about a self-hating Republican congressperson who receives a stuffed aardvark in the mail which eventually causes his downfall, but the book is much more ambitious than that—it begins with the Big Bang and the main story runs in parallel with a historical account of colonization in the name of science. This is not for everyone; it’s a dark, nasty book. But if you like a shitty main character who sets himself up for a fall, this might be your thing.
  • I listened to The Good Neighbor, Maxwell King’s biography of Fred “Mr.” Rogers, on audiobook, and it was just the kind of good-hearted read that I needed at the end of a year that felt like a parade celebrating the world’s most terrible people. And if the subject matter isn’t soothing enough for you, the book is read by LeVar Burton! It’s enough to remind you that there are good things in the world.
  • Reading Larry Marder’s weird alternative comic Beanworld (which is collected in two omnibus editions from Dark Horse Comics) is not always fun. Sometimes it’s work. Beanworld is a high-concept exploration of the kinds of ideas that comics can transmit to readers: it’s set in a universe where sentient beans eat, reproduce, create art, and socialize as members of one big ecosystem. Every time something changes or becomes more complex, there are rippled effects throughout the system. While Marder insists that Beanworld isn’t a metaphor for anything in particular, the environmental message seems too loud to ignore. And as the ecosystem gets more and more complex, by adding new twists to the procurement of food through the creation of technologies for instance, it becomes clear that Beanworld is a language of its own. I didn’t enjoy every single page of the book, but the journey is well worth it as an exploration of the limits of comics, storytelling, and understanding how the universe works.

I’ve Been Watching

  • I’m a little confused by all the reviews of Promising Young Woman that hate the movie because it’s not a hyper-violent revenge drama. While I suppose the movie might be marketed that way—I don’t watch trailers anymore, which is a decision that has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of movies—there’s nothing in the text of the movie that insists you should expect a, say, Kill Bill vibe. It’s a sad movie about a broken person, and I think it’s a remarkably well-told version of that story.
  • I don’t exactly know how I missed it for so long, but Pen15 is by far the funniest show I’ve seen since lockdown. I only wish there were more seasons to enjoy right now.
  • One Night in Miami is a triumphant movie: A conversation movie that feels vibrant and exciting, a multi-perspective story that gives equal time and respect to all four lead characters, a portrayal of Muhammad Ali that captures the humanity in the center of all the bluster. I love this movie, and—weirdly—I’m not at all sad that I didn’t get to see it in a movie theater. I think the susurrations of a movie-theater audience would have detracted from the dialogue and performances.

It’s the part of winter that feels like spring should be around the corner, but—at least here in Seattle—there’s at least two more months of brutal darkness and cold and wet ahead. This is going to be a tough one, I think. Hold on until your knuckles go white—there’s something better ahead; we just have to keep our heads down until then.

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