What Our Writers Are Reading This Summer

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Summer issue to write about what they’re reading. 

From the cover of A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs.

Some books are like strange strong drinks: you know from the first sip if it’s your kind of thing. Elia Kazan’s memoir, A Life, is mine—relentless, bitterly funny, extremely unboring. Kazan, one of the most celebrated figures in midcentury filmmaking (he directed A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and more), was born in Turkey to Greek parents, and moved to New York as a child. A restless man, he maintained several sets of clothes and small bank accounts all over the world, into his seventies (when the book was written), in case he felt an urgent need to flee. He is a generous narrator and gossips freely about himself. On page six, he admits that, moments before a press conference for Splendor in the Grass, he received a cable, in code, reporting that he “had a new son by a woman not my wife.” A few dozen pages later, he writes, “I consider myself rigidly moral—moral enough, in fact, to admit this: There is one thing I’ve lied about consistently, and that is my relationships to women out of wedlock. I’ve again and again lied to my wives about this.” (Marilyn Monroe was one of his many girlfriends.) He gives himself extraordinary permission and somehow makes you feel it’s earned. He writes, “People have often accused me of being selfish and self-centered. They’re quite right. All artists are. They protect like all hell what’s most precious for them—the privilege to exploit the full range of their curiosity.” —Dana Goodyear (“In the Middle of My Life”)

Peter Cole’s Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations cannot be recommended strongly enough. I’m working through it as slowly as I can stand to, which is not very slowly, because the poems—whether translated from sixth-century Arabic or twentieth-century Hebrew or written by Cole himself—burst with brilliance and vitality. One doesn’t read the poems so much as ride them as they soar across the ages and the spheres. Shmuel HaNagid (who lived in Spain in the eleventh century and served as vizier to the Berber king) is just one of many voices I was awestruck to discover: “On couches stretched out at the treasury, / where the guards’ vigilance knows no relief, / you fell asleep without fear by the window / and time came through like a thief.” Elsewhere, Cole’s own “Song of the Shattering Vessels” is a Kabbalist mystery made lucid: “Now the lovers’ mouths are open — / maybe the miracle’s about to start; / the world within us coming together, / because all around us it’s falling apart.” Am I the only one imagining this incanted by Leonard Cohen? Hymns and Qualms is a wise and radiant collection; we are lucky to have our path lit by the light it gives. —Justin Taylor (The Art of Fiction No. 235 with Percival Everett)

Among the many memorable stories that Allyson Hobbs tells us in her excellent book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, is the one about the pink hat. The story, written by Radcliffe-trained anthropologist Caroline Bond Day and published in 1926 in the Harlem Renaissance journal Opportunity, is a semi-autobiographical tale about “Sarah, a ‘Negro woman of mixed blood,’ ” whose life is reconfigured when she wears a hat that conceals her curly brown hair and highlights her ruddy skin: “A gentleman offered her a seat on the train, a young man helped her off a railway car and retrieved her lost gloves, and a salesgirl addressed her as ‘Mrs.,’ a respectful title reserved for white women only. ‘Lo! The world was reversed.’” But when Sarah breaks her ankle and her black family members lovingly care for her, she decides that she doesn’t need or want her pink hat after all. Hobbs, a Stanford historian, populates her book with figures from the past who expose the motivations for “passing” as white, and the costs. Necessarily, Hobbs writes, passing involves erasure: gradations gone, subtleties of color and culture reduced to black and white. What’s lost in the process: families and friends, a sense of belonging. A Chosen Exile illuminates those losses with acuity, rigor, and compassion.—Julie Orringer (“Neighbors”)

I walked an old friend around New York the other day and realized most of what I was trying to show her wasn’t there anymore: the bookstores I haunted, the diner I parked at most Saturdays, the corner where my friends and I stood waiting for the Voice to be dropped in its big zip-tied bundles. Some of that came zooming back to me this week as I reread Jamaica Kincaid’s Talk Stories, a collection of her “Talk of the Town” pieces from The New Yorker. They date back to the 1970s, when New York was broke but a lot of fun. The city rises up as a place of lonely walk-ups and Friday-afternoon dance parties, groovy soul musicians, and little-known pleasures. Like how happy one can be taking a ham sandwich into a sack-lunch theatre. Kincaid speaks frankly and loves a good list; one fantastic piece simply rattles off the many things Richard Pryor tells her in a hotel interview when he is on one of his vegetarian kicks. She approaches the city with a similar sense that what she is doing and how she sees it is right. She attends a launch for a make-up brand, the opening of the Roosevelt Island cable car, and a party at Sardi’s for a cat who’d edited a book for cats. She makes fun of bad people with their own words and when something is good she likes it very much indeed. I could not say that and get away with it: I like this book very much indeed. But I do—it’s a nearly perfect collection of stories about what is good in New York, and even if it’s no longer there, you’ll be happy to know it was once.  —John Freeman (“The Money”)

Wrestling with my addiction to and loathing of the Internet, I’ve been taking notes from In the Swarm, a pamphlet by Byung-Chul Han, a Korean-born German philosopher, published by MIT Press in April. “Sovereign is he who commands the shitstorms of the Net,” Han declares. Sound timely? Han believes the Internet is “a narcissistic ego machine” that cashiers traditional democratic politics. Once upon a time, it may have been possible for rage to inspire the people of a nation into action, but that was because mass media, like radio, taught citizens how to surrender their individuality and become a people. Today, online, there is no collective soul but only a swarm of isolated individuals, through whom political indignation ripples like a wave—and dissipates. Some of Han’s aphorisms sound very translated from German—“The new man will finger instead of handling”—and he’s a bit too orphic for a pragmatist like me to take him without a grain of salt. But his pessimism feels salutary. —Caleb Crain (“Envoy”)

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