I wrote last month about Schulz’s excellent pieces for the New Yorker, and I’m here to tell you that Being Wrong is every bit as well researched, witty, and graceful. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m fascinated by failure, but hey—everyone has a story to tell about wrongness petty or vast. Schulz’s catalog of errors includes explorers undone by mirages, buyers beset by remorse, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment, the impossibility of saying “I am wrong” (as opposed to “I was wrong”), and the ’Cuz It’s True Constraint (a name I love). She dips into cognitive psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion; Newsweek called the book “intellectualism made fun!” and it is.
I listened to the audiobook, and immediately discovered that I’d been wrong for ages about the pronunciation of the author’s last name. It rhymes with pools, not cults.
I’m finally getting around to reading The Coddling of the American Mind, the 2018 book by Gregory Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt that details how, as the subtitle puts it, “good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” The book, which expands on a 2015 essay in The Atlantic, got some snarky reviews when it was released (Pacific Standard, now defunct, called it “sort of brainless”; The Guardiancriticized the authors’ “narrow perception of history.” I’m sticking with it, though, because Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, is high on my list of “books that changed how I think.”
But what I’m interested in today is that word coddle, which sounds like it’s ancient or onomatopoetic or related to cuddle. It’s none of them.
This month’s book recommendation is The End of October, by Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer best known for his deeply researched nonfiction (The Looming Tower, about Al-Qaeda and 9/11; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief). This new book, however, is a novel, although you’ll be forgiven for mistaking it for journalism.
It’s set in a time very much like the present (the US president is “self-conscious about his girth” and keeps a tanning bed in the White House Cosmetology Room—an actual room in the actual White House), in which a viral pandemic spreads from Indonesia to the hajj in Mecca to a submarine under the Atlantic to North America and beyond. Our hero, epidemiologist Henry Parsons, scrambles to decode the virus and prevent its spread while civilization’s institutions crumble on every continent. If the plot is a little overstuffed and the dialogue speech-y, you’re unlikely to care, because the story is so eerily prescient and timely. (Wright began writing the book in 2015 and turned in the manuscript in 2017, long before COVID-19 broke out.) Wright’s journalistic background serves him well: you’ll learn a lot—painlessly—about viral reproduction, cytokine storms, and the workings of submarines. I listened to the audiobook, which is well narrated by Mark Bramhall: it’s the audio equivalent of a page-turner.
Fourth in a series of posts about US brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around the end of March, a couple of weeks into California’s shelter-in-place directive, I used up the last of my flour on a batch of Marion Cunningham’s raw apple muffins—a recipe I’d first tasted, years earlier, at Cunningham’s house in Walnut Creek, where I’d gone to interview her. (I’ve forgotten what story I was writing, but I’ll never forget the warm muffins and strong coffee she served me. As I was leaving, she gave me her well-worn and annotated copy ofThe Breakfast Book, which I still use.)
When I ventured out to buy more flour, all of the shelves were bare. I’d had the bad luck to run out of provisions during a pandemic baking boom; flour mills had been caught short. I was late to this realization: In early March, King Arthur Flour—the oldest flour company in America and the country’s fourteenth-oldest manufacturer—had noticed a 600 percent jump in grocery-store sales of their products virtually overnight. “It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot,” writes David H. Freedman in an engrossing story for Medium about the King Arthur company.
Finally found some!
The problem wasn’t supply—there was plenty of wheat available—but logistics. Until the pandemic, home baking had been in decline for years; flour mills like King Arthur stayed in business by supplying restaurants and commercial bakeries, which bought in huge quantities and which were now shut down.
Freedman’s story reveals how King Arthur quickly adapted to meet the new market demands. It’s also full of other interesting tidbits. For one, the company has been employee owned since 1996. For another, employees call the Vermont headquarters “Carbohydrate Camelot.”
But the story doesn’t delve into the history and significance of the company name. So I did my own investigation.
This month’s book recommendation is The Plague and I, published by Betty MacDonald in 1948. The book is a lightly fictionalized account of MacDonald’s nine-month stay in a Seattle tuberculosis sanatorium in the late 1930s, when TB was known as “the white plague”; there were no effective vaccines; and treatment entailed rigorous bedrest, hearty meals, and an occasional session of artificial pneumothorax, in which gas was injected into the pleural cavity. Survival was far from certain and recovery times were long: many of MacDonald’s fellow inpatients remained at the sanatorium for years.
Sounds grim, right? Here’s the thing: it’s a hoot. MacDonald is sadly overlooked now—she died in 1958—but she was one of the foremost comic writers of her era, and The Plague and I is sharply observed, un-self-pitying, and downright chipper. (One of the chapters is titled “I’m Cold and So Is the Attitude of the Staff.”) I guarantee it will make you feel much more upbeat about our own current predicament.
This month’s book recommendation is I Like to Watch (2019), by the Pulitzer Prize–winning television critic Emily Nussbaum. The book collects a decade’s worth of Nussbaum’s reviews and essays for the New Yorker and other publications, including one written especially for the book. Nussbaum is such a good writer that she made me care about shows that hadn’t appealed to me (I’ve watched exactly one episode each, for example, of “The Sopranos,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Lost”). And she made me care even more deeply about subjects I was already drawn to, like the complicated career of Joan Rivers and the way the 2016 presidential election made “jokes” unfunny. (You can read the jokes essay—one of the best pieces of writing to come out of that twisted season—here.)
This month’s book recommendation is Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, by Anna Wiener, who, as a twenty-something in 2012, left a low-paying publishing job in New York to work in the world of San Francisco tech startups. Until she moved across the country, she writes, it had never occurred to her “that I might someday become one of the people behind the internet, because I had never considered that there were people behind the internet at all.”She goes to work for company founders even younger than she is, managing millions of dollars of seed money and wearing “startup twinsets, branded hoodies unzipped to reveal T-shirts with the same logo.” Wiener’s voice is original and unforgettable: a mixture of skepticism and gullibility, of clarity and befuddlement. San Francisco is “an underdog city struggling to absorb an influx of alphas.” (Perfect.) San Franciscans, “living in neighborhoods where every other storefront had a pun in its name, were corny.” (True, alas.) Notably, Wiener declines to identify by name any of the companies she works for or near: they are, instead, “the social network everybody hated,” “an app for coupon-clipping,” “the online superstore” with the “chelonian” founder (a word I had to look up).
For more on the “uncanny valley” of the title—in tech, it refers to the dropoff in humans’ acceptance of robots when those creations’ appearance becomes eerily lifelike; in Wiener’s book, it also refers to Silicon Valley—see my December 2009 post.