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Books in Brief: Ducks, Newburyport

I finished Ducks, Newburyport. I started in September 2019 and finished today, four months later. It’s a singular, unique, and amazing work that shows a whole human being in the right now.

I’ve never read a novel that so accurately depicted the sensation of living in an environment where every day brings fresh horrors that don’t directly impinge on our lives, even as they gnaw at our well-being. More powerfully still, I’ve read nothing that so thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.

Thinking Through the Clutter, a book review by Levi Stahl

I’ve never read anything like it. A lot of the time when I began reading it on a given day, I would get overwhelmed in the way the narrator felt overwhelmed, which is why I think it took me four months to read. I read other things during that time, too, because too much of it, especially in one sitting, felt like too much. But there are some passages where twenty pages will go by and you will feel sucked completely out of time and into the narrator’s head.

I have said elsewhere reading Ducks, Newburyport was a restorative, even a reparative experience. I felt healthier for reading it. Each night, incrementally, it was making me better. And it might be because of this I am not really fit to make any grand claims for it: masterpiece, miracle, genius etc., although I am certain it is all these things. What I will say, however, is that like other great works of art, I believe when we reflect back on Ducks, Newburyport we will think it strange that the world once existed without it. This is one definition of timelessness. Not so much that a work of art is perennially relevant, but that we feel it has always been with us, somehow in its newness we recognise it. This is why I picked it up on that Saturday morning, weary and depressed as I was: it was already part of me. 

What we have is a person, a book review by Neil Griffiths

The book deals with a lot of contemporary anxieties, which means it can induce those anxieties by bringing them up. Of particular significance is the amount of attention paid to gun violence. The narrator is in the midwest, and her anxieties over open carry, 2nd amendment people, and the entire narrative of individualized libertarian responsibility for defense is an anxiety I share and think about a lot. Another way of saying this is that if you also feel these anxieties, this will make you feel both saner as you see them reflected in such a fleshed-out person and more anxious as it becomes the subject of the narrator’s thoughts as we follow them.

If you are at all interested in reading this book, I’d recommend you to read it sooner rather than later, as it will feel different reading it in ten years than it will now. But it will be an important and relevant book forevermore.

Arvo Pärt – And Then Came the Evening and the Morning

A new light must come.

And you won’t know it,

it must be your own fruit,

the fruit of your flesh.

For otherwise you can’t make contact with it.

Arvo Pärt

This is my favorite film I’ve seen all year. It’s a documentary about Arvo Pärt, the most performed living composer, made in 1990. He has created all kinds of different types of music, but for me he’s most closely associated with the holy minimalist movement, which, if I’m being honest, is my favorite kind of sound, the kind that relaxes my soul, then sends it soaring.

The film starts off as though it’s an abstract and artsy music documentary, but it goes to a different and magical place. If you watch nothing else, please take eight or so minutes to watch from 45:00. You won’t have all the context, the emotional tone, that builds to that moment, but that moment is special, and worth your time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of language, and about how art—the means by which we communicate our inner universes to others—can share things, even using language itself, that direct description through language cannot grasp. In this moment, Pärt gestures toward something beyond even that, something that can’t escape our own inner universe, but is nonetheless real—that is part of the exigencies of experience, and magical, and divine. And it seems like this the wind that guides him, the firmament that moves him to make what he does, all in the service of gesturing toward something that is not subject to language, or is even possible to share. But we can try.

The Scope of the Night

Night time is for narrowing my scope. It’s for closing the horizon, for donning blinders, for setting the limits of my suite of concerns to fit between the walls of my bedroom. That is the only danger the phone poses; it can punch holes through space-time. It’s no different from a wandering thought that nags and scrapes at a sleeping mind. But focus on breath. Focus on the body. It’s here, so you’re here. Now: read the novel. Its vast infinity will lull you away. And everything that matters will still be there in the morning, like you.

Fiction in the Morning

Something in me has become somewhat cattywampus because I cannot decide between writing or reading in the morning, and am starting to prefer to read, over nonfiction—usually depressing or at least soberly descriptive of the world and currently Surveillance Capitalism—the fiction I usually read before bed, currently Within a Budding Grove. Reading the fiction over the nonfiction starts the day with a dreamy context. I think it goes back to what I wrote above, where what I’m interested in is the removal from time. It’s like what Lazenby said about philosophy in his “gun to my head answer“, that it, at least to his interpretation of the ancients, was to find a permanent present from which one could seek a kind of refuge from any one given time or occurrence, a permanent present which by virtue of its permanence affords a kind of endurance and allows a respite from any situation as isolated in time.

That’s not entirely what he said, but that’s my reading of it now. And in the morning novel, like the evening I look for something like that. It’s not quite there because its descriptions of situations and relations isolated in time, rather than a set of declarations or assumptions about the world that allow a kind of consistency through or despite time, but it moves me away from the storm winds and vicissitudes that the demand of emotion can cry out for in a moment and puts me—especially with Proust—in a kind of extended meditation within a moment, where we have all the time in the world to go over the emotional content present in a relation and luxuriate in that in a way reality could almost never afford.

Of course, today, I started writing. Which I think is healthiest, like a constitutional.

“We’re the ones you cannot touch because we are too near.”

Let the record show that the American Dream is so many nightmares that some Americans dream of death for comfort; and what are we doing to make it better? The profiles that paint this man’s life as some kind of literary fairy tale marred only by the political climate, are lies. Gay and Black and famous and beautiful and walking over the edge every day, James Baldwin longed to leave this world as much as he worked to save it from evils like race prejudice, homophobia, capitalism and imperialism—let the myth of the jovial cultural servant die at last, that he may live.

Preface to James Baldwin’s Unwritten Suicide Note

Content warning for suicide. This article is powerful.

(Photograph by Allen Warren.)

MACK Photography Books

This publisher does something I haven’t seen before: they show most of the book. You can read it. You can look at most of the pictures. The value of a book of photography comes from the physicality, the quality of the print, the presence of the artifact in the hand. Flipping through blurry non-retina images is not the same. But it does let potential buyers shop as they would in a bookstore. I like it.

This one stood out:

Majoli’s photographs result from his own performance. Entering a situation, he and his assistants slowly go about setting up a camera and lights. This activity is a kind of spectacle in itself, observed by those who will eventually be photographed. Majoli begins to shoot, offering no direction to the people before his camera. This might happen over twenty minutes. It might be an hour or so.


Perhaps the people adjust their actions in anticipation of the image to come. Perhaps they refine their gestures in self-consciousness. Perhaps they do not. The representation of drama and the drama of representation become one. The camera flash is instantaneous and much stronger than daylight. But all this light plunges the world into night, or moonlight. The world appears as an illuminated stage. Everything seems to be happening at the end of the day. Just when the world should be sleeping, it offers a heightened performance of itself.

MACK – Alex Majoli’s Scene

“It is certainly a bumptious one”

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feel at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.

Whittaker Chambers 1957 Review of Ayn Rand

This is good. While of the evaluative phrases are sexist (e.g, “shrill”), this review cuts to the quick of her project. Thanks to Phil Christman for sharing it.

As a teenager I read a lot of Ayn Rand’s work. I agree with The Relentless Picnic’s diagnosis that she appeals, like Strauss’ neoconservatism, to the kind of person: “You feel inferior, told you should be equal, but your emotional response says ‘I’m superior.'” [at 21m 25s]. That was me around that time, dripping in unrecognized privilege. It took a lot of exposure to a lot of different ideas from a lot of different people to bring the recognition.

© 2020 Jordan T. Thevenow-Harrison, all rights reserved.