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Essays

Not long ago, I attended something called the Web Summit, a massive tech-industry conference held in Dublin over the course of a couple of days. The event had a two-tier structure: on one level, it was a vast, teeming trade show at which early-stage start-ups were given the opportunity to set out their stalls and sell themselves — to venture capitalists, angel investors, media people — and to network with one another; but on a more elevated plane, it was a grand conclave of the tech industry’s high priests, who came from all over the world (though mostly Northern California) to deliver talks and public interviews to audiences of several thousand.

Read the rest at The New York Times Magazine

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At the time of this writing, there are sixteen thousand two hundred and seventy-seven days remaining in my life. I know this because an app I have installed on my phone tells me so. I downloaded it about a week ago, back when I still had sixteen thousand two hundred and eighty-four days left to live, a number that strikes me in retrospect as an embarrassment of riches, days-wise. By the time you read this, I will have even fewer days left to live. Depending on the turnaround time for this piece, I could be down to a number as low as sixteen thousand two hundred and seventy. I’m running out of days here, is what the app is telling me, in its bluntly literal way.

Read the rest at The New Yorker

Illustration by Isabel Greenberg.

For evidence of our species’ tendency toward complacent self-regard, you don’t have to look very much further than the name we’ve given ourselves. (My Latin is a little rough, but Homo sapiens basically translates as “clever man.”) We see ourselves largely in terms of our knowing; our place in the natural order of things is at the top, as the ones who have it figured out. And it’s pretty obvious, too, that it was a biologist who got to do this naming because the name reflects our conception of ourselves as knowers and understanders of the world—as scientists by nature. There’s another way of thinking about what defines us, though, that is just as reflective of our essential qualities: We are creatures of narrative, makers and consumers of stories. And the things we don’t understand about the world and our place in it—the areas that remain dark to our scientific sapience—have always provided fertile territory for that narrative inventiveness. We understand the world by making it up. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion famously put it; we’re a species of Scheherazades, narrating for our lives.

Read the rest at Slate

Does reading fiction make you a better, less self-absorbed person? You read because you are interested in the broad sweep of human experience, and because you want to gain access into the narrow sanctum of specific otherness—to feel Anna Karenina’s recklessness and desperation, or know the shape and weight of Ahab’s obsession, and thereby something of humanity itself. But in order to make any headway with a novel, you need to grant yourself a leave of absence from human affairs, to sequester yourself in a place where you are sheltered from the demanding presence of other people. Opening a novel might be a kind of exposure to the world beyond the self, but it’s one that necessarily involves a foreclosure against it too. A life spent reading is, among other things, a life spent alone.

Read the rest at Slate

In her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.

Read the rest at Slate

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Recently, a close friend sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Things I’ve Noticed As I Get Older.” The ten numbered observations ranged from the mundane (politics is getting stupider) to the poignant (the distant melancholy of Facebook’s News Feed, with its dispatches from lives that were once, and now no longer, close to one’s own). But with all due respect to the observational chops of my correspondent, it wasn’t so much the content of the message that impressed me as its form. It was an e-mail in the shape of a listicle, a personal correspondence structured for the purposes of frictionless social-media sharing. At some level, it seemed, my friend intended his e-mail to go viral within the highly targeted demographic of me. I couldn’t help feeling that some basic epistolary protocol had been breached, that I was seeing an early sign of what could be a shift in the way people communicate. In the not too distant future, all human interactions, written or otherwise, might well be conducted in the form of lists—for ease of assimilation, for catchiness, for optimal snap. I imagined myself, some decades from now, nervously perched on the papered leatherette of an examination bed, and my doctor directing her sad, humane eyes at me a moment before clearing her throat and saying, “Top Five Signs You Probably Have Pancreatic Cancer.”

Read the rest at The New Yorker

Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.

Read the rest at The New Yorker

If you’re already familiar with the work of the Canadian music journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette, please forgive me for stating the obvious: Nardwuar the Human Serviette is one of the greatest living practitioners of the art of the interview. If you’re not already familiar with his work, and you decide to check up on that claim by watching a few YouTube videos of his interviews for Vancouver public radio station CiTR-FM, he might not at first seem like all that noteworthy a figure. Or rather, he might seem noteworthy only for the most shallow and inconsequential of reasons. His style of dress, for one thing, is peculiar, occupying a sartorial no-man’s-land between first-wave punk and PGA Tour. His style of interviewing is even odder: a frenzied staccato catechism in which he bombards his interviewees with a succession of questions and prompts in the excitable, high-pitched speaking voice of the stock geek in a teen comedy. And since 1986, he’s insisted on concluding every interview by saying “Keep on rockin’ in the free world! Doot-doola-doot-doo,” to which the interviewee must reply “Doot-doo!” The whole setup, in other words, looks like a gimmick. But Nardwuar might in fact be the most revelatory interviewer of musicians in the world.

Read the rest at Slate

 

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One Saturday afternoon the summer I was 16, a couple of friends and I were sitting on a bench in our hometown of Kilkenny, smoking cigarettes and enduring the agreeable boredom of one another’s company, when the actor Bill Murray materialised on the other side of the street, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and clutching an off-white drawstring laundry bag such as you would ordinarily see in the hands of people who were not major Hollywood stars.

Read the rest at The Independent

When Richard Dawkins was named the world’s “Top Thinker” in a poll recently published by Prospect magazine, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the world—or at least that part of it that votes in such polls—must have an impoverished sense of what constitutes a vital or transformative intellectual figure. Any list of “thinkers” that doesn’t feature one woman in its top 10 (Arundhati Roy opened the scoring for the gals at No. 15) probably shouldn’t be taken completely seriously anyway, but the fact that it was the result of public voting does offer an insight into the kinds of ideas contemporary Anglo-American culture values most highly.

Read the rest at Slate 

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