“Some products of the eighties are immortal, I realized the other night, while I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys and thinking about Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Careful.’ ” Here’s my essay for the Paris Review’s Redux newsletter about Carver and PSB, in case you haven’t seen it yet. The link here is kind of makeshift, and I suspect it will only work this week, so go for it now, if you’re interested.

“You need a human to check that the AI is being fed the right type of data and maybe another human who checks its work before passing it to another AI that writes a report, which goes to another human, and so on. ‘AI doesn’t replace work,’ he said. ‘But it does change how work is organized.’ ” —Josh Dzieza on AI in New York magazine

“I arrived here on Friday night from London. I’m staying at the Hotel Artist for $30 a night. Most of the plugs don’t work, so I can’t put my apple juice in the refrigerator. There’s a stool by the window with an ashtray. The shower isn’t bad. The room could use a desk, and the wifi from the router in the hall a floor down is spotty.” —Christian Lorentzen checks in from Tirana, where he has briefly settled as he “walks the earth”

“H. P. Severson (1921) tells of a nest that was placed on a trolley wire; ‘cars passed under this nest every few minutes, their trolley being only a few inches below it. On each occasion the Robin stood up, then settled back on the nest.’ ” —Winsor Marrett Tyler, “Eastern Robin,” in A. C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Thrushes (1949)

“It’s an impressive feat, in its way, to write novels spanning four decades in which style and characterization remain entirely stagnant.” —Claire Lowdon on Richard Ford in The TLS, taking no hostages

“Each written thing a response to a particular stimulus. That may be why you think you’ll never write anything else—because you finished responding to that particular stimulus.” —Lydia Davis, “Selections from Journal, 1996,” in the Paris Review

“Laurence Tribe, the Harvard professor, put an even finer point on it: ‘This wasn’t something that had an organic development in the law. It was, frankly, something that was pulled out of somebody’s butt, because they thought it was a convenient way to fulfill a short-term partisan agenda.’ ” —Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker on the Independent State Legislature Theory, which is the idea that state legislatures can award their Presidential electors to whoever they want, regardless of how their constituents voted

“An engineer at the dam describes a situation so chaotic they didn’t even know if the site of the command center was safe from flooding if the dam failed.” —Christopher Cox in the New York Times Magazine on whether California’s dams are ready for a storm as big as one the state had in 1862

Off center

“The Ellipse Maker,” a new short story of mine, is in the spring 2023 issue n+1magazine. Check it out! Subscribe! If you’re within striking distance of Brooklyn, there’s a reading/party for the issue at the n+1 office on Tuesday, May 16, 7pm.

Also, I sort of did a free-standing handstand for Insta.

More entries in an online commonplace book

“The difference between the artists’ work is like the difference between a grand aristocratic portrait and a psychologically nuanced character sketch. Audubon gets the dress and regalia right, and his birds project a powerful, self-fashioning sense of their own presence and importance. Brasher’s birds live contentedly in their own world and don’t need to perform or impress the viewer.” —Philip Kennicott on Rex Brasher in WaPo

“Writing had always been slow and agonising—she called it ‘the most loathsome of all activities’—but that was before the decline in her health made it all but impossible. Perhaps she also disliked the implied finality of ‘collected works.’ She took her friend’s copy of the book, picked up a pencil and added a word to the cover. It was now The Collected Works of Dead Jane Bowles.” —Joe Dunthorne on Jane Bowles in the LRB

“Where the mainsail should have been, four rigid sails stuck straight up into the air, like window blinds turned vertically; each one had the shape of an airfoil and generated forward thrust. They also allowed him to carve the wind with more control than a cloth sail would allow: instead of turning the entire boat at an angle to catch the wind, by either tacking or jibing, Walker could simply spin a crank, and the wings above his head would swivel into a configuration that would drive the boat forward, sideways, or even in reverse.” —Pagan Kennedy in the New Yorker on the possible return of the Age of Sail

“As a writer, while his recurring subject is himself—he continues to probe his self-doubts and proclivities, always finding some new angle from which to contemplate the vagaries of his own thought process—he somehow keeps himself at a distance, an object of detached contemplation in a world of other objects, other bodies. His self-disclosure provides a relief from the burden of self.” —Geoffrey O’Brien on Joe Brainard in the NYRB


“To see a painting or a statue, he thought, and then to look out of the window, is to see how fresh and richer life itself is. He had read this a few weeks before in the volume of a German philosopher, and because Ezekiel had always felt so, the sentence had significance.” —Charles Reznikoff, By the Waters of Manhattan

Does anyone know which German philosopher Reznikoff’s hero was reading? I had the impression that the idea in question was originated by Muriel Spark, but Reznikoff’s novel was published in 1930, so this can’t be Spark in German drag. I bought (from Better Read than Dead) and read By the Waters of Manhattan because, shallow person that I am, I thought the cover of the paperback, by Amy Drevenstedt, was gorgeous, and as usual, my superficiality was rewarded. It’s a solid page-turner. The first two-thirds is about a Jewish woman growing up in eastern Europe in a family full of idealistic and often hapless men. The second is about her son starting a bookstore on the Lower East Side and venturing into a somewhat amoral romance with one of his customers.

A book cover, with the title and author's name hand-lettered, and an illustration of New York's Lower East Side with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop

“Haven’t smoked for three days. Busy night and day not smoking. Already I can climb stairs better but that’s not much of a life. With smoking one has a life while dying. How did the Greeks ever run a whole culture without it? Maybe that’s why there was so much homosexuality.” —Russell Hoban, Turtle Diary

“Car horns serve the same purpose as birdsong—to warn away rivals, or to express annoyance.” —Sparrow, The Princeton Diary

This isn’t quite the case, of course, or anyway not exclusively—birds also use song for courtship, spooking prey, begging, and staying findable to mates and colleagues—but I lolled. I wrote a post about Sparrow’s previous novel, Abraham, a couple of years ago, and so far the new one is also very quotable (“Princeton is what New Jersey would be like without the mafia.”)

Years ago, soon after I landed my first real job, as a senior (sc. junior) editor at Lingua Franca, I bought a set of the old Houghton Mifflin / Riverside Press edition of Thoreau’s journals, which happened to have belonged to the late critic Alfred Kazin. I had read “in” Thoreau’s journals a fair amount in grad school, and I read “in” them some more when I did a Thoreau-related review soon after buying the set, but it was only last year that I sat down with the intention of reading them through. Having started birdwatching myself makes it more plausible, somehow. Sometimes I cross-check with the new Princeton edition, which I have many but not all volumes of, but I seem to prefer the old Riverside Press edition for actual reading, just as I seem to prefer the more-edited editions of John Clare. It turns out I’m not a purist and appreciate punctuation. Adding to the pleasure of the copy of Thoreau’s journal that I have are Kazin’s copious pencil annotations. I particularly liked this one, of Thoreau’s entry for October 14, 1851:

Alfred Kazin has written "Me" in pencil, beside this passage in Thoreau: "'Some men's lives are but an aspiration, a yearning toward a higher state, and they are wholly misapprehended, until they are referred to, or traced through, all their metamorphoses.'"
Me, too, by the way.

“She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that critics should say was good.” —Trollope, The Way We Live Now


[Also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

“Had I devoted myself to birds, I might have produced something myself worth doing.” —Ruskin, quoted by Katherine Rundell in an essay on hummingbirds (London Review of Books)

“Mourn the past, mend the present, beware of the future.” —Jan Hus, quoted in Claire Sterling’s The Masaryk Case (1969)

“Puss grew presently familiar, would leap into my lap, raise himself upon his hinder feet, and bite the hair from my temples. He would suffer me to take him up, and to carry him about in my arms, and has more than once fallen fast asleep upon my knee. He was ill three days, during which time I nursed him, kept him apart from his fellows, that they might not molest him (for, like many other wild animals, they persecute one of their own species that is sick), and by constant care, and trying him with a variety of herbs, restored him to perfect health. No creature could be more grateful than my patient after his recovery; a sentiment which he most significantly expressed by licking my hand, first the back of it, then the palm, then every finger separately, then between all the fingers, as if anxious to leave no part of it unsaluted; a ceremony which he never performed but once again upon a similar occasion.” —William Cowper, describing one of his three pet hares in a 1784 letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine

When you search for the name of a specific domestic duck breed, Google tells you that people also asked, “Are they friendly?” and “How do they taste?”

“There are no real hedgehogs in those woods, only foxes, who do well in the margins of our dominion. Perhaps there’s an alternative parable in there.” —the novelist Christopher Brown, on armadillos real and stuffed (Field Notes)

“For one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened. Because for a short while, these people were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started.” —the composer Morton Feldman, quoted by the musician Damon Krukowski in an essay on that we’re-all-just-figuring-it-out feeling

“There is an aftermath in early autumn, and some spring flowers bloom again, followed by an Indian summer of finer atmosphere and of a pensive beauty. May my life be not destitute of its Indian summer, a season of fine and clear, mild weather in which I may prolong my hunting before the winter comes, when I may once more lie on the ground with faith, as in spring, and even with more serene confidence. And then I will wrap the drapery of summer about me and lie down to pleasant dreams.” —Thoreau, journal, 8 Sept. 1851

I dreamed I got a postcard from a graduate student, who wanted to know, If you don’t have anything to do, how do you do it?

“Individual artists and writers, however deeply they influence their peers, seldom think of themselves (at least after the age of thirty) as part of a movement, though they are too polite to object when critics and historians praise them for their membership in it.” —Edward Mendelson on Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War (Book Post)

“I feel tender for you tonight, walking the wet streets of Portland in your tent of a black coat. Reading the taped-up neon flyers with everyone else’s happenings, readings, meetups, shows; halting on the sidewalk outside a corner bungalow because you hear OK Computer playing inside; offering your arm to the ghost of Elliott Smith every time you pass one of the streets, Alameda or Division, that he named in his songs; yourself haunting the door of the café where once, during rain, a girl shared your table, you exchanged two sentences about the novels you were reading and never met again; letting go your last dollars on someone’s new novel, a Sibelius LP, a cup of Stumptown because those transactions are the only connections you know how to make. I wish I could take you out for that cup of coffee. I know what a gift you’d find it just to be taken out for an hour, especially by a woman. By another woman, I ought to say, but you’re in no place to receive that.” —the novelist Pauline Kerschen, writing a letter to her younger self, on the eve of gender-affirming surgery

“But why—I asked myself at numerous points over the last five years—was this such a productive era for experimentation? Apart from the opportunities provided by the phenomenal pace of change in the era, it occurred to me that the German Empire was, as perverse as it sounds, just repressive enough. Which is to say it was a semi-autocratic state with a reactionary mainstream culture so there was definitely something to rebel against, but it wasn’t so repressive that it silenced radical voices entirely. Yes, some writers were censored, fined or even jailed for lèse-majesté, blasphemy, obscenity and other infractions, but it’s remarkable how many more weren’t when you consider the extremity of their positions. The countercultural vigour of the age, it appears to me, dwelt in this narrow gap between widespread antipathy and blanket repression.” —the publisher and translator James J. Conway, reflecting on the neglected classics of Wilhelmine Germany that he issued in new English-language translation during the five-year run of his small press, Rixdorf Editions

“I wonder when again that lovely old tune was whistled in that cottage, and when again that jig was danced under that roof, for those who danced are dead, and he who whistled the tune is dead, and I think that those who live in that cottage now have forgotten these old things, as soon all will have forgotten them. So we lay another night in the great bed, and slept in each other’s arms, slept the sound sleep that lovers sleep, so sound and yet so light that like a dream the consciousness of the other is always there—the only dream that enters the deep sleep of lovers.” —Helen Thomas, As It Was (1926)


[Also available as an issue of my newsletter]


“Vicki experienced the small prickle of power that comes to the one who rides in the back seat.” —Helen Garner, The Children’s Bach

“Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct; to frame these, that is the art of writing.” —Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, 22 August 1851

“To care about individuals and the complex relations they have with their intimate surroundings and local ecosystems (the only relationships that matter to the wild things themselves, after all), is to be accused of being subjective, or worse, sentimental.” —Richard Mabey, Nature Cure

“Like every other individual writer, he had unlearned all literary influences.” —Walter de la Mare on Edward Thomas

“It was a misfortune to him, trifle as it might have been to another. For, while all that was hard and stern in his recollection, remained Reality on being proved—was obdurate to the sight and touch, and relaxed nothing of its old indomitable grimness—the one tender recollection of his experience would not bear the same test, and melted away.” —Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

“. . . those that love the world serve it in action,
Grow rich, popular and full of influence,
And should they paint or write, still it is action:
The struggle of the fly in marmalade.”
—W. B. Yeats, “Ego Dominus Tuus”

Electric vehicles don’t have front grilles because they don’t need to take in air. So they look like sharks, whose mouths are hidden beneath their snouts, instead of mammals, who are always grinning at you.

“If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.” —Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

“We walk through dead autumn leaves. I comment on how nice it feels to walk through the leaves and Lucian [Freud] says ‘Yes, the ones like breakfast cereal are the best.’ ” —Celia Paul, Self-Portrait

“ ‘Isn’t that the trouble with most books? They look so good on paper.’ ” —Gavin Lambert, The Goodby People

“An old poet comes at last to watch his moods as narrowly as a cat does a mouse.” —Thoreau, Journal, 28 August 1851


“The two-ness of the professional, as both worker and expert, could not be sidestepped through a mere act of decision. It does not matter if you decide that you have an inner truck driver, if you have not lived the life of a truck driver; this is a laughable form of escapism unworthy of the historical materialist tradition. Rather, the contradiction can only be resolved if it is met head on.” —Gabriel Winant, for n+1, on the intellectual legacy of Barbara Ehrenreich

“His ability to see the many facets of every person and every issue—“He felt and understood the opposite sides of life,” in the words of Henry James, who got to know him in Paris—served him well as a novelist. But this ability was less desirable in a political ally, or even in a pal.” —Keith Gessen, for the New Yorker, on Turgenev

“In a Christian setting, it’s tempting to see [the kora’s] blend of grit and grace as a mirror of the Incarnation—not the Word made flesh but the Note made fruit and hide.” —Julian Lucas, for The New Yorker, on a Senegalese monastery’s championing of a traditional calabash harp

“One of Carver’s particular pleasures, and the quality that’s made her first-person work since early Rollerderby so compelling, is the frequency and panache with which she makes the sorts of decisions that for most of us feel paralyzing and life-defining: marriage, pregnancy, divorce, and cross-country moves occur in her work as regularly as other memoirists describe their furniture or dreams. Reading most of her work, you’re reminded that it’s possible to live extraordinarily densely — that a life, even a very difficult one marked by repetitive domestic and economic struggles, can be dynamic and multiple, punctuated by frequent reinventions.” —Lisa Borst, for n+1, on Lisa Carver, a 1990s zine memoirist who has kept at it

“In ‘Recording Angel,’ in Cosmo Cosmolino, somebody plays a record of that Schubert quintet, the one with two cellos. That’s how I’ve always felt when I’m with a family that has a cozy life—­I’m the second cello. I once heard Rostropovich play that piece, and it was marvelous—­his droning, ferocious roving around the quartet. I hear that extra cello as a lost soul that’s prowling and roaming out there in the cold, and I recognize it. It’s me.” —Helen Garner, interviewed by Thessaly La Force for The Paris Review

“He [Harold Bloom] told me he was the model for Mickey Sabbath, which is nuts.” Joshua Cohen talks to Leo Robson about The Netanyahus.

“The fever pitch of opposition to debt cancellation among conservative and centrist elites reflects a different fear: that debt’s utility as an instrument of social control may be weakening.” —Astra Taylor, in the New York Times, on Biden’s jubilee of student debt (next up: cancelling medical debt to veterans’ hospitals)

“Travolta was describing his house in Florida, which is part of a fly-in community with its own runway, and said, ‘Wait, let me show you some pictures.’ But instead of going to the photos on his phone, he just googled ‘John Travolta house.’” —Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, for Harper’s, on the Travolta lore he collects while in Maine during the off-season

“There is at once a cynicism and an innocence in asserting that the existential problems that bedevil humans can best be ameliorated by denying the possibility of insight into a reality that can’t really be said to exist, anyway.” —Marco Roth, for Tablet, on Rachel Aviv’s new book on narrative and psychiatry

“Srinivasan’s sexual have-nots—the luckless men of Grindr, the trans lesbians being rejected by cis lesbians—are not asking for access to sexual services or assigned partners. They want to be found hot. They want to be wanted. They want what truly can’t be compelled. And we can’t make ourselves want someone we don’t for the sake of the social good—can we?” —Elaine Blair, in the New York Review of Books, unconvinced by Amia Srinivasan’s proposed distinction between liberal and radical sexual freedom