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Three years ago I quit my job and started writing this newsletter full time. Every year, as the anniversary of the date approaches, I try to make some space to return to that time, in August 2020, when everything felt in flux. Donald Trump was still president! There was not yet a vaccine! Across the country, there were protests in big and small towns demanding a racial reckoning. So many of us were deeply isolated and yet intensely connected through our phones. The internet felt like a live wire. Everything and nothing felt possible.
That was the backdrop for the start of this newsletter, or at least the start of the Culture Study iteration of this newsletter. You can feel that electricity, the mix of hope and doom, in those early posts. I didn’t quite know what I wanted the newsletter to be other than really fucking interesting. I wanted to write about things because they mattered, even if the reason why they mattered couldn’t be summarized nearly in a single paragraph. I wanted to just let people speak for themselves and periodically go deep on the meaty stuff from whatever book I was reading. Most of all, I wanted to be conversational and curious instead of declarative and intractable.
Over time, I also figured out that I also wanted to do interviews with people who aren’t famous but spend their days deep in the trenches of a particular subject — something that started with this first interview with Garrett Bucks about white women and QAnon. I figured out how to make the newsletter sustainable, both in terms of making enough money to match my old salary and publishing on a schedule that doesn’t chain me to my computer. Every day I keep learning how to resist the ethos and rewards of the burnout work culture that defined me for years. And that’s all possible because of you.
You made it possible at the beginning, when it was unclear what this newsletter would be — and you make it possible now, even as my interests shift and rotate and periodically surprise or bewilder you. Believe me, they periodically surprise and bewilder me as well — but I think that’s part of my continued evolution as a scholar, thinker, writer, human, all of it. It’s at once invigorating and discombobulating to throw yourself into subjects that are messy, or unknown, or labyrinthian, or that make you question what you thought you understood about the world in your place in it. I love it! I’m terrified by it! And that mix of pleasure and fear is the engine that keeps me doing this work, just as I think it’s part of why you return to it.
Last year, I wrote that I have been blown away by this readership’s willingness to engage in arguments (mine or others) in good faith — which is a marked difference from the reading posture of the vast majority of the internet. That observation holds, but this year I’m additionally struck by a willingness to engage with topics that usually turn into hate-spewing volcanos elsewhere. Divorce feelings, how you want to be parented, the pros of renting, your childless/free experience, how you came to understand “hard work,” how you understand the economy — these topics are difficult to discuss anywhere, let alone the internet. But just as you expect a different sort of thoughtfulness and consideration from me, I think you’ve come to expect it from yourself and each other in the comments, too.
This strikes me as all the more essential as the so-called “social web” has transformed (and, in the case of Twitter, absolutely degraded) over the last year. I mourn the loss of discoverability and the best aspects of the public square that made Twitter a place I wanted to spend my time, but I don’t miss the bad faith and bigotry that defined my experience and so many others.
The newsletter allows us to do what the social web did not. It is beholden to the anxieties that rule your relationship with your inbox, but it is unbeholden to the algorithm. It is not the same as a newspaper, but it facilitates the same sort of discovery as a physical magazine: you open the newsletter because it’s there, and might find yourself reading about something your lizard brain never would’ve clicked on.
That’s part of why you subscribe. Maybe you also subscribe because the book threads ensure your TBR pile is always eight feet tall and your library holds completely maxed. Maybe you subscribe because you, too, have gone deep on a grandparent hobby, or because (as many people have told me) the holiday gift concierge is worth a year’s subscription. Maybe you appreciate interrogating renovation culture or unpacking Barbie or grappling with what to actually do about an unequal partnership or thinking about why you do or don’t live close to your friends or questioning the logic of layoffs. Whatever the reason, you’re here because you think this work matters. And I’m so grateful — grateful in a way that alludes adequate description — to be able to do it with you.
Depending on when you first subscribed, you might be receiving a notification that your annual subscription is up for renewal. I know there are all sorts of reasons why people who want to be part of this community might no longer be able to pay, and if that’s the case for you, just email me, no explanation necessary, and I’ll extend your subscription. Crucially, if you do have the means to pay, your help makes that scenario possible.
In closing, here’s a handful of my (and your!) favorite newsletters from the year:
And a few of my favorite threads (that weren’t already mentioned above):
I don’t use affiliate links on Culture Study save for one site: Bookshop. This year, I’m donating those funds — earned every time you click on a link to a book here and buy it on Bookshop — to Books to Prisoners, which does incredible work fulfilling individual book wish lists and has been doing it since 1973.
You can see my donation receipts above, and you can learn more about Books Prisoners and make your own donation here.
And in the spirit of following me down weird wormholes…..
Sunday’s newsletter is going to be all about Alabama RushTok. I’ve been posting TikToks and commentary in my Instagram stories for the past few days and will continue to do so throughout the week. You can find my account here — just look for the pinned stories on #RushTok (and set aside a solid hour of your day).