Anne Helen Petersen's semi-regular collection of writing, links, riff-raff, piddlewinks, Paul Newman, celebrity gossip, stories from the reporting trail.

digital reading hygiene

I spent the weekend in Seattle, eating a delicious meal here and spending time with friends’ babies (this gift was a MASSIVE hit) and piddling around on the proposal for my next book. I published a piece on Square One, a PBS show near and dear my micro-generation of Old Millenials; I went on On the Media to talk about last week’s newsletter; I guest edited The Sunday Long Read, one of my go-to sources for the pieces that go on to fill my Pocket for the week to come. (You can read my edition here and subscribe to The Sunday Long Read here).

I’ve been asked a several times over the last few months about my “work flow” and how I organize what I want to read/have read. I find my answer pretty unsatisfying, but people have also told me that their all-time favorite newsletter was when I laid out all the small dorky ways I make my life easier when traveling for work, so maybe my “digital reading hygiene,” for lack of a better phrase, will also prove weirdly satisfying.

In short: I abuse Pocket. If you don’t have Pocket, it’s free and available as a Chrome plug-in here; if you want to live your best Pocket life, you should also download it on your phone. When something comes across your digital life (your social media feeds, your newsletters, emails or slacks from friends or colleagues) that you want to read but know will just hang out in an open browser tab haunting you, you press the little “Pocket” icon in the upper right hand corner of your browser, and it’s put away for later. If you open it on your phone, there’s always a way to click on it (as if you’re copying the link) and the Pocket icon shows up. If it comes via Facebook, which tries to keep you in-app and won’t let you pocket directly from there, just copy the link, then open Pocket, and it’ll prompt you to save the last link you copied.

Pocket has a lot of features I don’t use — you can tag a piece the way you would a blog post, so that all pieces tagged, I dunno, “Montana” would show up when you click on that tag. But I find Pocket to be great for all sorts of saving — the sort formally reserved for old-fashioned web browser bookmarks. I pocket recipes, I pocket vacation advice, I pocket hotel information and PDFs of academic articles. The beautiful thing about Pocket, after all, is that it’s not just a repository, but one that’s also available offline, so you can still look at the ingredients to your recipe even when the LTE in the grocery store is atrocious.

That’s a detour from my main use of Pocket, which, again, is a means to store all the interesting longform and shortform stuff that comes my way. I actually read very little during the work day, which is largely spent writing, editing, scrolling Twitter and shooting the shit on Slack, where I accumulate more things I want to read. The vast majority of my Pocket reading then takes place (this is embarrassing!) at the gym. People tell me that you’re not working out hard enough if you’re able to read at the same time, which might be true — there are things at the gym (like the rowing machine!) that make it impossible to read and are, indeed, harder. But you can train yourself to read while spinning and the massive stair-climber (which I believe is called a “step mill”), and reading makes exercising inside far less mindnumbing.

When I get to the gym first thing in the morning, I immediately torture myself by reading Axios. It’s great to start the day with a briefing that also demonstrates just what kind of reading and contextualization you don’t want to do for the day. Then I read the morning newsletter briefings from the New York Times Politics section and BuzzFeed News. I next go to Nuzzle, an app that shows you the articles that have been tweeted the most by the people you follow, and catch up on basic news (usually each of these takes just a few minutes to read; longer stuff I Pocket). And then I go to Pocket, and work my way through what I’ve filed away over the last day. Sometimes I’ll run out of stuff, which means scrolling down to something from the week before I didn’t get to, etc etc.

Because Pocket “scrapes” an article and then stores it, when I read in the app, I don’t have to deal with ads crashing my browser, or the fact that signed me out of my subscription for the fifth time that week, or the rare chance that I run up against a paywall (it can still scrape the text). (To be clear, I believe in paying for journalism and accidentally click ads on sites all the time when I’m on my laptop; I also pay for many subscriptions, but not for every last thing in the digital universe).

If I like a piece, I generally tweet it or post it. It’s almost a compulsion, and I think it stems from how much I appreciate discovering things I might not find on my own vis-a-vis others’ recommendations. I love talking to people about what I just read, and if I can’t do that as I used to — in the classroom, with my students, with my classmates — then a (non-toxic) internet community (a good Facebook group, a Slack room, email replies to this newsletter) will do.

Pocket has seemingly unlimited storage. If I wanted to, I could scroll back to 2012 and the first things I saved. Like all internet technologies, I’m terrified that it’ll one day go away and leave me with no straightforward way to transfer all I’ve filed away. But it’s better than the alternative: cataloging nothing of my digital reading trail, or keeping browser windows open until they accumulate to the point of paralyzing my computer.

My entire reading history isn’t on Pocket — I also, uh, read books (not on Kindle, unless I’m on a vacation that makes lugging books difficult) — but the vast majority of my digital reading trail is. If I haven’t Pocketed something, I’ll remember something about an article five months later, try Googling key words, find nothing, and resort to querying Twitter to try and find what I’m looking for. If I did Pocket it, its search component is fairly robust, and searching by those same key words always brings results.

Clearly I am a Pocket evangelist, which means that the last thing I do every night before falling asleep is say a prayer that it doesn’t go the way of Google Reader, my last truly beloved internet function. But there are other small things I do to organize myself/my knowledge: I never have more than ~eight browser windows open. I use this Leuchtturm1917 Academic Weekly Planner, because it has slots throughout the day, a place for my To-Do List at the bottom, and I can’t handle Google Calendar open in my browser. I use Scrivener for long writing projects, and Google Priority Inbox for my work email. I have a beloved setting on Instagram that reminds me if I’ve been on it for 15 minutes. I follow under 1000 people on Twitter but follow thousands and thousands more through Lists (like “Mountain West”) that are always open in my Tweetdeck. I put books I want to read into my cart on Amazon and then buy as many as possible at the local bookstore. I use “Notes” on my desktop for supplemental To Do lists and to store a running list of potential future story ideas. I don’t have many apps on my phone but I swear by Sleep Cycle to guilt me into sleeping at least eight hours a night. If I actually want to follow a group/site on Facebook I click the setting that puts all new posts as “See First.” I followed these incredibly simple directions to make every screenshot go into a folder on my computer desktop. I pay Apple 99 cents a month to back up the photos on my phone so I don’t have to worry about them. I avoid Facebook messages (and refuse to install Messenger) and still forget that Instagram messages exist. And finally: I stopped being so allergic to the phone. Reporting as much as I do reminded me it’s not so horrible — and if can take care of an item on my to-do list with a phone call, I just do it first thing and feel fucking great about myself.

Hopefully you’ll either find all these tips helpful or hilarious, and if one of them proves useful, I’d love to hear about it. But for now —

Things I Read & Loved This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow Three Leg Pegs on Instagram here. You can reply to this email with comments or questions, and you can excuse any weird sentences or typos, as tolerance for them — on my part and yours — is what makes getting this thing out every week possible.

the cumulative effect is 'lying'

When people ask me what I do, I’ve recently found the most satisfying answer for everyone involved in “culture reporter, broadly defined.” Culture, under this definition, means everything from celebrities to how people engage with larger cultural ideas (politics, public land, religion, etc. etc.) That explains why my political reporting is a bit different — I’m always more interested in talking to the volunteers and crowds than, say, political analysts.

Which, in turn, helps explain my reaction to the death of President George H.W. Bush, who has been roundly remembered, at least in political circles, as a highly decent (even “prudent,” to use the word that, thanks to Dana Carvey’s impersonation of him, I’ve always associated with him) leader, the last of his political kind. As my editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, put it in his obituary for Bush, he died “every Democrat’s favorite Republican.” He resigned from the NRA when it became too extremist and ideological; nearly twenty years after that resignation, when Americans were clamoring for a conservative who was not beholden to the NRA, that resignation letter went viral. His “restraint” while intervening in Iraq is favorably compared with his son’s; as Smith points out in his piece, Obama compared his own “traditional, bipartisan, realistic” foreign policy strategy to that of HW Bush’s.

But the main thread of appreciation for HW Bush, in this moment, is not tethered to the whole of the historical record. Instead, it’s largely rooted in appreciating who he was not: he was not his son, and most importantly, he was not Donald Trump.

That’s why the artifact that began to circulate more widely, after his death, was not the NRA resignation, but the letter he wrote to President Clinton on the occasion of the transition of the presidency. CNN called it “a lesson in grace,” highlighting HW Bush’s belief that “Just because you run against someone does not mean you have to be enemies . . . Politics does not have to be mean and ugly.” (Secretary of State Colin Powell: “I wish we could get some of that back in our system now.”) USA Today calls it “gracious”; the Washington Post’s Alex Horton labels it “an artifact of political humility”; CBS News declared that it demonstrated President Bush’s “civility.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an important letter, and it is all of the things for which it’s been lauded. But the main reason that the letter has guided the overarching note of remembrance is, again, because of the contrast between its tone and posture and that of the current leadership. The sentiment driving its virality is the same sentiment driving the appreciation for Bush’s son sharing candy with Michelle Obama. Look at these men in power, not being Trump!

Part of the magnetism to the letter stems from nostalgia for a leader who does not embarrass his country on the national and international stage; part of it is a yearning for “civility” which is another way of saying the “non-polarized, non-hyper-partisan politics” whose decline started right around 1994, just two years after Bush’s loss to Clinton. (For more on that point, I strongly recommend Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment)

That means that many are remembering Bush partly for who he was — but largely for what many wish the current president would be. It’s significant, too, that the primary point of remembrance centers on an interaction between HW Bush and another person in power. And while it makes sense that other politicians and political reporters would look to such a moment — that’s their world! — that doesn’t mean that it’s an adequate or even fair representation of Bush’s legacy. As historian David Greenberg explains, of course, in our attempt to grapple with Bush’s death, there should be respect for both the president and the family that mourns him. And yet: “respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record.”

Writing for Politico, Greenberg offers a clear-eyed look at Bush’s legacy on the right. But another strain of that legacy was highlighted by the timing of Bush’s passing — just one day before World Aids Day. When The New Yorker tweeted that Bush “had irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, parody-begging goofiness, and boy-next-door bonhomie,” author Alexander Chee responded with a YouTube clip of the ACT UP Ashes Action from 1992, in which hundreds protested Bush’s inaction on fighting AIDS by sprinkling the remains of those lost to the disease on the White House lawn.

Politicians are challenging figures to eulogize — they are people, and thus have family and others who react to their deaths as one would react to any other death. (When I say eulogize, I don’t mean the actual eulogy at the burial; I mean how they’re eulogized within public discourse). But in addition to their status as humans, politicians are also symbols: the cumulative sum of the actions as leaders. To remember them solely in terms of how they interacted with the powerful and the privileged, without consideration of how they ignored or elevated “the least of these,” to quote the Book of Matthew, who were most acutely affected by their decisions as a leader, strikes me as both ahistorical and incomplete.

Yes, that means that every politician’s remembrance is complicated and mixed. That means remembering that Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and did little to stop the AIDS epidemic in America until it was associated with an “innocent” boy instead of gay men. Which is another way of saying that a leader should be remembered politically, but they should also be remembered culturally. And to acknowledge their cultural legacy isn’t to attack them. It is to do them justice.

“Using the occasion of a person’s death to attack them isn’t edge or cool, it’s childish and cowardly,” political journalist Olivia Nuzzi tweeted after John McCain’s death. “You’re not Christopher Hitchens, you’re an asshole.” The sentiment was retweeted more than 11,000 times. And while I agree that “attacking” isn’t necessarily the right angle, I also think that the word mischaracterizes most of what’s actually happening, either to McCain or Bush “Most figures do bad things and good things,” Texas journalist Chris Hooks responded yesterday, when the tweet began circulating again. “When saccharine hagiography is permitted but not its counterbalancing opposite, the cumulative effect is ‘lying.’”

The problem with eulogies and remembrances is that they are history absent historical training. A historian recognizes how spectacularly easy it is to craft a narrative of a person or event or group vis-a-vis the present: the object of analysis becomes what society needs them to be, in order to fit a certain socio-psychological gap, not what they actually were. Historians are trained to resist that impulse — both in the way they perform research and they way they transmit that research to the public. Good historians are also keenly aware of the limitations of their vantage point: that the sphere of a presidential historian is separate from, but should, in this case, overlap, with that of a gay rights historian.

But pundits and journalists are rarely historians, even if they are versed in history. Remembering a leader is remembering how power was wielded — which means it’s ultimately also always a remembrance of how their power affected, ignored, or elevated the powerless.

Things I Read and Found Compelling This Week:

Odds and Ends Recs:

  • This very good Buddha bowl recipe (I substituted farro for quinoa and added tofu) and this thread of go-to-I’ve-made-100-times recipes

  • The Korean film Burning (reviewed here by Manhola Dargis)

  • The Paul Dano-directed Wild Life (trailer here) based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, set here in Montana. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are mesmerizing.

  • This week’s “aerial view” book, mentioned above, is Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment. It’s somewhat less readable than Uncivil Agreement, which I wrote a bit about two weeks ago, but for someone without a background in political history, it was deeply enlightening — and explains so much about the current reaction to Bush’s death. I threaded some highlights here.

  • Sufjan Steven’s massive collection of Christmas songs (Spotify link here), including the most beautiful arrangement of Holy, Holy, Holy I’ve ever heard.

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can get Montana Instagrams of dogs and trees here. You can buy my book (WHICH JUST EARNED OUT!) here or here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences (I realize there were WAY TOO MANY last week; my apologies, I fixed them); the lack of hyper-vigilance is what allows me to write this every week. I received so much incredible feedback from last week’s newsletter on “certain vs. seeking”; you can always send your own by simply replying to this email. Until next week, thank you for reading and finding all of this [GESTURES WILDLY] as important as I do.

certain vs. seeking

“You Can’t Get Conservative Women to Change Their Minds.” That’s the blunt headline of a recent Katha Pollitt piece in The Nation. The piece that follows makes the now familiar point that Democrats should stop obsessing over converting Trump voters and focus instead of getting the millions of voters who already support their policies (but don’t vote, either out of apathy or various modes of disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, many of which then lead to apathy) to get on board.

Strategically speaking, this is sound advice, and precisely how Democrats will win places like Texas, where the electorate (aka, the people who vote) is so disparate, demographically, from the actual population. There are a number of ways of making that point, and attention to the increased political intractability — on both sides! — is one of them. But take a look at how Pollitt frames the issue:

“Why is it so hard to believe that Trump supporters really do support Trump? The New York Times is always checking in with folksy rural conservatives in search of cracks in the wall. Remember the article just a few weeks ago with the white evangelical woman who put a Beto O’Rourke sticker on her car and drove it to church—and there, in the parking lot, was another car with a sticker for Beto?”

For almost three years now, reporters have been begging tired farmers and miners eating their pancakes at Josie’s Diner in Smallville, Nebraska, to say they’ve seen the light. They never do. White evangelical women sneaking away from the Republican Party make for a good story—but they didn’t stop Ted Cruz from getting 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in Texas.”

There’s a compelling argument here, and one that publications have only recently started to heed: stop with the “have you changed your mind yet? What about now? What about NOW? OKAY BUT WHAT ABOUT NOW?” It’s akin to a kid asking their mom if they’ve changed their mind about whether or not they can have a package of Skittles: the more the kid asks, the more the mom cannot lose face by changing her mind. Not changing one’s mind becomes a point of principle, not actual position. And the principle becomes more hollow, more of a posture, the more outsiders — literal outsiders, urban people, journalists — push them on it.

They’re not changing their mind on Trump, and part of the reason is that journalists kept asking them when they would. Even if they do develop doubts, who wants to admit, ON THE RECORD, to being snookered by a political image and its promises? Very, very few people! No matter if they’re Conservative or Progressive! Those are the “tired farmers and miners” Pollitt describes here as hanging out at Josie’s Diner in Smallville, Nebraska (which is not a real place, just a caricature of ruralness). But that’s a very different type of person than the one’s she’s grouping them with — “the white evangelical woman who put a Beto O’Rourke sticker on her car and drove it to church—and there, in the parking lot, was another car with a sticker for Beto.”

One of the women featured in that Times article is Tess Clarke, who went on to participate in a lengthy interview with The Daily about how the beliefs she grew up with in the evangelical church began to shift following her marriage to her husband and their work with the refugee community in Dallas. The episode closes with some of the most compelling audio I’ve heard in some time: a ten-minute conversation between Clarke and her father, an avowed conservative, about politics and Trump and the intersection of both with their faith and the teachings of Jesus.

I highly recommend listening to it all the way through — in part because it illustrates a crucial difference between two types of Trump voters, one that gets lost in groupings like Pollitt’s. On one side, you have Evangelical voters like Clarke’s father, people I think of as ideologically and ethically and politically certain. They are certain that their interpretation of the bible and its connection to the contemporary world are righteous. They are certain, as well, that they made the right decision in electing Trump, and as a result, certain his policies are righteous.

On the other side, you have women (and they are largely, but not exclusively, women) like Clarke herself: ideologically and ethically and politically seeking. They have either long been seekers — always questioning any suggestions of certainty when it comes to explaining the world — or have become so, either through education or first-hand experience or an event that shifted their understanding of the world. They went on a trip to another country. They became friends with an actual Muslim person. Their son or daughter came out as a queer. They came out as a queer. They married someone who was a seeker, or a close friend or relative became a seeker. They went to the border, or started working with refugees, or someone or something they trusted — a pastor, a spouse — proved they shouldn’t have been. Many of these women became seekers when President Trump was elected and they watched the church alter its standards for the sort of leadership it would endorse.

I think it’s easy for those who’ve never been close to evangelicalism (or deeply engrained within any holistic ideological tradition) to dismiss women like Clarke. They were conservatives before, the reasoning goes, and knowingly voted for a bigot — why should I care if they’ve slightly reoriented themselves? If they’re asking questions? Why should I care so much about this white woman, part of the oft-cited 52% (since revised to 47%) responsible for Trump’s electoral college win?

It’s a fair point! No mainstream publication is in danger of under-covering white ladies! But white ladies are a powerful force, and to mischaracterize them is to misunderstand that power, and how it can be wielded.

(It should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I will say it: that doesn’t mean not writing pieces about people who are not white ladies; it means being precise when you do write a (hopefully more proportional) number of white lady stories).

White ladies like Clarke may not have swung Texas to Beto. But they were part of the larger coalition that produced unprecedented Democratic gains in the state, especially in the suburban areas where white ladies love to live.

I met white ladies like that in Dallas when I was working on my piece on the Christian groups that help make the city one of the most refugee friendly in the nation. I met others in Abilene, a city in the very buckle of the Texas Bible Belt, where you really do figure out who someone is by asking which (Christian) church they attend. I talked to them at Beto events and DM’ed with them after the midterms. They still think of themselves as conservatives, but that doesn’t mean that they embrace Republican policies or reject Democratic/Progressive ones. Appealing to them doesn’t necessarily entail becoming a centrist. It just means making the case for Democratic policies — when it comes to the border, or health care, or trans rights — as Christ-like.

what we actually missed

There was a feeling, after the 2016 election — different from, but clearly related to, the depression and fear that washed over so many. For me, it felt like a frenzy, especially within journalism. We’d missed something — so how could we make sure we wouldn’t miss it again? Or, more frantically, how could we make up for what we’d missed?

What was the thing we’d missed, as journalists? TRUMP VOTERS. We hadn’t taken them, or the candidate they’d voted for, seriously enough. We’d missed their “economic anxiety,” their despair, their resentment. Or so the early narrative, the one that felt most readily graspable, went. We missed that white women, 52% of them, would vote for him. We missed that rural people loved him; we missed that the rural Democrat was dead and gone and we’d just forgotten to print the eulogy. We — and by “we,” I mean the national news media — missed that the country had become something very different before our eyes.

In hindsight, this response was just as irresponsible as the (relative) inattention to the strains of Trumpism that sparked it. It was imprecise, overinflated, and self-flagellating in a way that didn’t invite extended introspection. In hindsight, here’s what happened in 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. In three states (Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) that her campaign did not consider to be as contested as they were, she narrowly lost the popular vote, thus swinging the presidency to Donald Trump. And while Clinton’s neglect of those three states had to do with mistaken perception of the working class/union “gravel road Democrat” vote, the reason Trump won those states seems to have far more to do with his appeal to middle class/upper-middle-class white people. As countless articles have demonstrated, it wasn’t about economic anxiety. It was about status anxiety — and by “status,” I mean the status of white people at the top of the racial/societal hierarchy.

I think of this shift in terms of best-selling nonfiction: immediately after the election, the industry — and the people who looked to it — glommed to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In the month after the election, I remember hearing Vance — who managed to personalize and rationalize voting for Trump in way that was immediately appealing to those seeking answers — on at least four prominent podcasts in one week. But Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland offers far more complicated non-answers to the question of what’s going on at the intersection of class and politics — and rejects the narrative that rural working class Americans were the ones who accepted Trump’s narrative without question.

But it’s hard to parse the larger ideological story with any sort of precision immediately following an election, especially as other factors (Russian bots! Russian collusion! Wikileaks! Coverage of the emails!) makes it difficult to isolate any cause. Exit polling is unreliable (later analysis of actual voting data showed 52% of white women was actually more like 47%) but we flock to it because it’s often the only data we have, and few things are scarier in the information age than an information vacuum, even a temporary one.

Even my own election-night take, entitled “This is How Much America Hates Women,” feels too blunt for its own good. I still think most Americans — including and especially women — have internalized the notion that women aren’t as valuable as men, that bad behavior towards women is either earned or not a problem, that most problems women do face are of their own doing, not the result of systemic and discriminatory policies and practices. I think there were many valid reasons to disagree with Hillary Clinton’s policies, but the dislike and abject hatred that accumulated around her had more to do with her gender and age. (As an experiment, consider what would happen if a man with a similar past and policies were running in her stead — and whether the chants of “lock him up” would ring out quite the way they did).

But you know who didn’t vote for Trump? The majority of voting Americans. But “This is How Much the Majority of Voters in the States That Decided the Electoral College Have Internalized and/or Rationalized Misogynistic Attitudes Towards Women” is not a very catchy headline. Good analysis is patient. It builds on years of knowledge and reading. It is precise yet adept at synthesizing myriad modes of reporting: from data and theory to interviews with normal people and specialists and authorities. Good analysis, in other words, takes wisdom — and wisdom takes time.

Which is why it took so long to accumulate wisdom about what happened in 2016, and why, in the week after the midterms, I’ve watched organizations attempt (sometimes more successfully than others) to hedge their immediate analysis of what happened, and what it means. Sure, people on cable news were talking about “a blue ripple” as returns filtered in — but that’s because cable news operates almost exclusively in extremes. It was either a tsunami (if, say, Beto O’Rourke won) or a ripple (if he didn’t); there was nothing in between.

Cable news is entertainment, whether people want to conceive of it that way or not, and all entertainment attempts to provide its viewers with some sort of narrative. CNN/Headline News first rose to prominence precisely because of their ability to map narrative — available, for the first time, 24 hours a day — onto what was happening in Iraq and Kuwait during the first Gulf War. In times of crisis, we look for narrative, especially narrative that provides legibility: things that are good or bad, right or wrong, tragic or uplifting, huge or tiny. There’s very little room within that narrative calculus for nuance, or hedging, or patience — or, let it be said, wisdom.

It’s not that the people on these programs aren’t smart, or don’t demonstrate wisdom in other arenas. But wisdom requires more than soundbites, more than Hollywood Squares death-match debates, more than well-paid punditry. But like any media object, part of the reason cable news has become what it has become = because we, as audience members, proved that there was an audience for it. If we want better analysis, we have to be patient, and demonstrate our willingness to pay for it, either with our dollars or our attention span. (On the flipside, we, as creators and sources of analysis, have to be able to look at the different forces that create demand: do our audiences actually crave immediate analysis? Or do we just think they do because that’s what we’ve trained them to expect?)

Thinking through these questions demands….wait for it….wisdom. And in an attempt to accumulate some of my own, I’m transitioning from months of continuous on-the-ground reporting (which is part of accumulating wisdom as a reporter, I think!) to reading, thinking, synthesizing, and writing about some of the bigger ideological currents and societal shifts informing what’s happened, what’s happening, what will happen.

That process involves being precise with the language we use to describe results and areas of the country and voting blocs (something I’m writing about right now); it involves admitting what we do and don’t know and can’t know for some time. But for me, any attempt to accumulate actual wisdom always entails reading a lot of books, a pile of which are currently stacked on my desk, starting with Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement (Amazon link here; Indiebound link here) which is the smartest (no, actually, wisest) thing I’ve read on polarization and political identity. (It’s just 140 pages, academic but by no means inaccessible, has a ton of charts — you can probably read it in an afternoon).

I’ll be talking about each of the books I read over the course of the next few months — in part to keep myself accountable, but also because I’d love to talk about the issues with the audience I keep in my mind every time I write. If you have suggestions for big picture/aerial view texts that you’ve read and clicked things into place for you, I’d love to hear about them (on anything American culture related, really, but especially looking for focus in religion, whiteness, polarization, suburbanization, you get the picture).

And for now, here’s some other stuff from this week I read and loved:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox every week or so, forward it this way. If someone forwarded it to you, here’s how you subscribe (it’s free and easy!) Please excuse typos and weird sentences; allowing myself slight imperfections is what makes it possible for me to make time for this every week. And if you have feedback or good books or liked any of the recommendations, just reply to this email.

the face of julia

The very first paper of my very first semester in graduate school was a sprawling, 65 (!) page examination of Julia Roberts’ star image. In hindsight, that paper was both incredibly ridiculous (seminar papers should be ~20 pages, certainly not SIXTY FIVE) and fortuitous: I’d written the paper for a class in “Female Stardom,” which introduced me to the theorists (and stars!) that would guide the remainder of my academic career. In undergrad, I’d written three types of papers: short, 4-5 page ones for lower level classes; longer, 10-12 page ones for upper level classes; and my thesis, which I spent the semester fine-tuning. It made sense to me, then, that a seminar paper — the only thing I was supposed to write for the entire semester! — would be that long.

So I poured myself into researching it, excavating every corner of Roberts’ star image: her rise to fame, her establishment as a superstar with Pretty Woman, her relationships, HER MARRIAGE TO AHP FAVORITE LYLE LOVETT. I watched all of her movies. I read a billion academic articles tying her/Pretty Woman to the rise of postfeminism. I went deep into the collected magazines in the University of Oregon library to read back copies of Redbook. But most interestingly, I tracked the discourse around her as she made a series of choices — artistically, personally — that baffled the media. After Pretty Woman, Roberts starred in pulpy thriller (Sleeping with the Enemy) and a schlocky melodrama (Dying Young), both of which did fairly well simply based on the Roberts bump.

But then Roberts started making some (ostensibly) mystifying choices, donning a pixie wig as Tinkerbell in Hook, dying her hair black in I Love Trouble, wearing it straight and somewhat dowdy in Something to Talk About, bleaching her eyebrows in Mary Reilly, bobbing it short in Michael Collins. The focus was on her hair, but it was really on how different, how divergent, those roles were from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold from Pretty Woman. And no one, at least then, wanted to see her in those types of roles. They didn’t want to see her sad, or in a historical drama. Her comeback didn’t arrive until My Best Friend’s Wedding, when she explained (I’m paraphrasing! Don’t make me find my notes from 2005!) that “my hair is red and curly like you guys like it, please come see this movie.” She returned to type. Erin Brockovich was a continuation of that type, just through a Soderbergh filter.

And then she got weird again. There were exceptions to that weirdness — Duplicity, Ocean’s Eleven, Eat Pray Love — but Full Frontal, Charlie Wilson’s War, Closer, August: Osage County, Money Monster, even Wonder (which seems very schlocky but is secretly quite good?!?), all were doing something different, and periodically deviant, with her star image. Which isn’t to say they were all good movies, just that they refused to hew to the parameters of how audiences had been trained to like Roberts. They allowed her to have different types of hair, but they also allowed her not to coast on her smile. They allowed her not to frown, exactly, but to face with the world with something that wasn’t cheer and charisma.

Like so many of the massive stars of the past, Roberts is beautiful in a specific, un-replicable way. The difference of her face — and specifically, her smile — is part of what makes her so exquisite. I’ve long been obsessed with watching exquisite faces like hers age: Marlene Dietrich’s, Gloria Swanson’s, Bette Davis’s, Jane Fonda’s. The only time it feels monstrous is when there’s a total rejection of the aging process. But the best and most interesting stars seem to be fascinating by what aging can do to their performances, how it allows them to lean into, explore or explode the cocoons of youthful beauty that were woven around their original stardom, with or without their permission.

That’s why I’m so obsessed with Roberts’ performance in Homecoming, a bewitching, hypnotic noir that just debuted on Netflix. (Don’t worry, no spoilers below). It’s based on a Gimlet podcast of the same name, only that version featured the voices of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, but both are written/adapted by Eli Horowitz (who I profiled a billion years ago) and Micah Bloomberg. (The plot, in short: Julia Roberts is a counselor at an experimental treatment program for vets returning home from war in 2018. At some point in the future, a Department of Defense investigator is trying to piece together what went down at that facility. The two narratives intertwine throughout).

The adaptation from audio to visual reminds me so much of the early television “teleplays” of the ‘50s — most of which were themselves adapted from radio serials. There’s a different rhythm, a different way it cedes to audio cues, a different embrace of silence and ambient sound. And I can’t quite articulate how yet, but the visual aesthetics seem to echo and extend the aural ones; the construction of the Homecoming facility in particular feels straight out of one of those illustrations of “if sound had a color and a shape.” Even the way it relies on two different aspect ratios to toggle between past / future recalls the aesthetic bluntness with which radio shows / plays / teleplays signaled major changes in time or place.

The series is directed by Sam Ismael, best known for Mr. Robot, and there’s some of Robot’s uncanny sensibility woven throughout. But it avoids the incoherence that afflicted Robot as it unfurled, in part, I think, because of Horowitz and Bloomberg’s tight plotting — which also condenses the action into 24-32 minute chunks, instead of the more unwieldy and indulgent 45-65 minutes of prestige television. Each episode feels tantalizing, propulsive. But not manipulative. I don’t feel used by it. Just in thrall.

I’m two episodes away from finishing, but right now, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year — and Roberts’ performance (bad wigs and all) is major reason for it. People might still be yelling at her to change her hair and play a rom-com lead. But as an executive producer, with an incredible level of financial security, she can also do whatever she wants. Including, in this case, letting us observe, very closely, what her smile, and the lack thereof, does to her face — and our reaction to it. I found myself noticing just how willing the camera was to stay close to her unsmiling face, often to the point of unsettlement — which says less about Roberts, and more about the compunction, no matter a woman’s age, to comport oneself, first and foremost, with a smile.

Just a few recs this week, since I unloaded so many in the previous newsletter:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe directly here. And if you love Julia’s face in Homecoming as much as me, tell me about it (just respond to this email).

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