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When I was about 10 or 11, my father took me to a nursing home one summer evening. As a pharmacist in the small Irish city of Kilkenny, he sometimes visited customers and other elderly acquaintances who were hospitalized or bedridden, and I would insist on going with him, as in those days I insisted on accompanying him wherever he went, relishing even the prospect of a trip to the dump if it meant spending time alone with my father, whom I idolized. This nursing home, a low and dreary building, was a place I’d never been to before; known locally as “the poor house,” it was a state-run institution for elderly and senile patients whose families could not afford to pay for their care.

In a bed next to the woman my father and I were visiting was another woman, a woman who struck me as impossibly ancient and decrepit, and who kept trying to requisition my father’s attention away from her neighbor. She was deranged with senescence and loneliness and other unknowable sorrows remote from my childish understanding. The woman we were visiting kept telling us to pay her no mind; she never got any visitors and was merely starved for attention.

Read the rest at The New York Times Magazine

was in a bookshop a couple of months ago, browsing the nonfiction section, when the idle rightward flick of my gaze was brought to a halt by the hardback spine of a new Geoff Dyer book. It was called The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China. My initial pleasure at discovering that Dyer had a new book out was quickly undercut by a creeping sense of doubt about the title and the topic, both of which seemed fundamentally un-Dyeresque. I then immediately dismissed this doubt, because Dyer is exactly the kind of writer—perhaps the writer—for whom no topic or title could be said to be out of sync with its predecessors, precisely for the reason that each of his books is out of sync with every other. Being fundamentally un-Dyeresque is, to put it maybe a little too Dyeresquely, the most fundamentally Dyeresque thing a Dyer book could possibly be.

Read the rest at Slate

Arthur Schopenhauer—the 19th century German philosopher for whom human existence was a perpetually swinging “pendulum between suffering and boredom,” and the world itself a hell in which “human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other”—tends to get pigeonholed as a fairly downbeat guy. But the author of such elegantly corrosive essays as “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life” and “The Fullness of Nothingness” is also apparently responsible for the quote that probably appeared on the inside of the card you gave your dad on his 50th birthday: “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”

Read the rest at Slate


Whenever I read the work of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, I get distracted here and there by a preoccupation with the fact that he worked for most of his life as an academic. Probably this is because I’ve spent many of my years in a similar environment, and I often wonder about the formative pressures this has exerted, over time, on my own writing and thinking. His relationship with the academy was not that of the standard contemporary writer, who is typically housed within the disciplinary annex of “creative writing” and who does not concern himself with the business of academia per se. Sebald, although he did also teach creative writing, was a full-blown scholar, a company man of long standing who lectured in the department of German literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001. In ways that are both subtle and pronounced, this shows through in his writing—in his essays and novels (which he preferred to call his “prose narratives”).

Books like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, for instance, are, in much of their content if not their form, works of deep research. The Sebaldian narrator—let’s just go ahead and call him Sebald—is a meandering presence, of course, picking his way across the secluded routes between landscape and subject; but there is always the sense of him emerging into the world after a long tenure in the artificial light of libraries and lecture halls, breathing the fine dust of scholarship. It’s always tempting to compare Sebald to Borges—among other narrative oddities, The Rings of Saturncontains a detailed synopsis of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—but where Borges’ fiction tended to use the apparatus and affectations of scholarship in service of a kind of structural irony, Sebald’s art is scholarly in a much more fundamental way. As Adam Phillips has put it, he was “more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist.”

Read the rest at Slate.

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

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