Saturday, March 7, 2020

Wild Nights with Emily


Emily Dickinson in 1847, at age 16. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Was Emily Dickinson, for decades, the lover of her sister-in-law Susan? Emphatically yes, is the answer provided from the first moments of writer/director Madeleine Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily (2018). Olnek is drawing on scholarship from the past 25 years by Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart and others that has complicated the view of Emily as a "virgin recluse" (as she was described by her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson [1]). The film's title comes from Emily's impassioned poem:
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

[2]
In fact, even though she and Susan (who was married to Emily's brother Austin) lived next door to one another for 30 years and could see each other virtually every day, Emily wrote more letters to Susan—by a factor of two—than to any other correspondent. Her missives were filled with poems and poem fragments; Susan was often Emily's first and most trusted reader.


Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, undated portrait (detail). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. https://id.lib.harvard.edu/ead/d/656cd02e-3e8e-4a9b-837f-bc1e0689aea1/catalog

After Emily's death at age 55 in 1886, Susan spent several years trying to put together a selection of what she called Emily's "letter-poems." That edition would have placed many of the poems in their original contexts, but evidently Susan, faced with a vast amount of material, found it too difficult to choose what to include. An example of a letter-poem:

Morning
might come
by Accident,
Sister -
Night comes
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt -

       Sister -
Show me
Eternity, and
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
package lain
And lifted
back again -

Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -

[3]
Image source: Emily Dickinson Archive
Where does letter end, and poem begin?

"She feels a little baffled by my possession of so many [manuscripts] of Emily's," Susan wrote of Emily's younger sister Lavinia after Emily's death. [4] Lavinia, concerned about the lack of progress Susan was making on her edition of the letter-poems, and perhaps also wanting a more conventional editorial approach, eventually asked Susan to return the dozens of small, hand-sewn books of poems that Emily had created. In a fateful decision, Lavinia passed the books on to Mabel Loomis Todd, so that she and Higginson could prepare their own edition of Emily's poetry for publication.

Todd was a strange choice, not only because of her lack of any obvious qualifications for the job, but because of her role in the Dickinson family: she had been carrying on an ill-concealed affair with Austin since 1882. Emily's feelings about Todd may be guessed, perhaps, by noting that although Todd visited Emily's home many times, she was never able to meet Emily face-to-face.


Mabel Loomis Todd, around the time of her arrival in Amherst [ca. 1881-82]. 
Image source: Emily Dickinson Museum

If Emily had misgivings about Todd, they were justified. Todd edited Emily's writing with a heavy hand. She cut apart Emily's hand-sewn books, destroying the groupings of poems that Emily herself had painstakingly placed together. Instead she categorized the poems by assigning them broad (not to say banal) themes such as "Life, Love, Time & Eternity, Nature." [5] Emily did not title her poems, so Todd supplied titles of her own invention. She also changed Emily's line-lengths and punctuation, removing the characteristic dashes that provided rhythm and emphasis. She and Higginson produced two volumes of Emily's work, Poems (1890) and Poems: Second Series (1891), after which Higginson withdrew because of disagreements with Todd's editorial actions.

Those actions were especially damaging when Todd edited Letters of Emily Dickinson (1894). She omitted any mention of Susan, Emily's chief correspondent. Worse, someone—Todd is the likely culprit, although Austin may also have lent a hand—went through the writings in which Emily referred to Susan and erased, scribbled over or literally cut out mentions of her. As Martha Nell Smith writes,
. . .the erasures, cut-aways, and blottings-out have gone, until the last decade, practically unremarked in critical study. For most critics and editors, these have not been worthy of critical examination. In fact, of particular interest for critical inquiry is that these elisions—both those that can be restored and those forever out of our grasp—have been and continue to be compulsively reenacted and recycled rather than rigorously examined in Dickinson studies. [6]
Of course, critics may just have overlooked the subtle alterations Todd made to Dickinson's manuscripts. Here is part of the surviving manuscript of a poem to Susan that begins "One sister have I in the house / And one a hedge away":



This poem ends:
I spilt the dew,
But took the morn -
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers -
Sue - forevermore!

[7]
It is one of many love poems addressed to Susan; here is another:
Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a "Diver."
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home -
I - a Sparrow - build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

                         Emily. [8]
On the back of the manuscript the name "Sue," written by Emily, has been erased. In the 1894 Letters, Todd falsified the poem's addressee, claiming that it had been sent to editor Samuel Bowles and had been written as though addressed by him to his wife. Todd heterosexualized other references, as well. In a letter to Austin just after he and Susan had become engaged, Emily wrote, "Miss Susie was here on Friday, was here on Saturday, and Miss Emilie, there, on Thursday. . .Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I am something of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love [S]us[ie] just as well as we can." [9] The first and last letters of "Susie" were erased by Todd or Austin so that the phrase read "we both love us just as well as we can"—Emily's wry acknowledgement to Austin of their similar interest in Susan could not be allowed into print.

Despite Todd's elisions, Emily's letters to Susan were omitted from the 1894 edition of the letters because they were filled with language "too personal and adulatory ever to be printed." [10] Susan herself destroyed many of these letters after Emily's death, but some escaped.

May 1852: . . ."Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor can the heart conceive" my Susie, whom I love. These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among those silent beds!. . .I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still.  Emilie [11]

June 1852: And now how soon I shall have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home. I dont know why it is — but there's something in your name, now you are taken from me, which fills my heart so full, and my eye, too. . .

God is good, Susie, I trust he will save you, I pray that in his good time we once more meet each other, but if this life holds not another meeting for us, remember also, Susie, that it has no parting more, wherever that hour finds us, for which we have hoped so long, we shall not be separated, neither death, nor the grave can part us, so that we only love! Your Emilie — [12]

"Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say -" Image source: Emily Dickinson's Correspondences

11 June 1852: Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say - my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me; If you were here, and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — [13]

27 June 1852: And very, very often when I have waked from sleep, not quite waked, I have been sure I saw you, and your dark eye beamed on me with such a look of tenderness that I could only weep, and bless God for you.

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?. . .

I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you - that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast - I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday, and "never a bit" of you. . .

Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon - and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him. [14]

January 1855: I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you. I wrote you many days ago - I wont say many weeks, because it will look sadder so, and then I cannot write - but Susie, it troubles me.

I miss you, mourn for you, and walk the Streets alone often at night, beside, I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from that silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die. [15]

Not many letters from Susan to Emily still exist, but one that does, from the early 1860s, suggests how profoundly their feelings were shared:
Private
I have intended to
write you Emily to-day but the
quiet has not been mine. I send
you this, lest I should seem to
have turned away from a kiss –
If you have suffered this past
summer I am sorry[.] I
Emily bear a sorrow that I
never uncover – – If a nightingale
sings with her breast against
a thorn, why not we [!]
When I can, I shall write —
                                                        Sue – [16]
Was the sorrow that Susan never spoke of that she was married to a man she didn't love? If so, was her marriage to Austin a strategy to remain close to Emily—literally next door—or was it a displacement of her feelings for Austin's sister?

I want to be careful not to assume too much about what these letters are saying Emily and Susan may have done in bed together. However, they could not be more clear about how they felt about one another. As Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith write in the introduction to Open My Heart Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, there are two factors that have led scholars and critics to minimize the significance of the love between Emily and Susan. The first is the image—assiduously promoted by Todd and Higginson, and aided by Austin Dickinson—of Emily as "the recluse spinster belle of Amherst."
The second factor is the view of intimate female friendships in the nineteenth century.  According to this view, women of Dickinson's time often indulged in highly romantic relationships with each other, but these relationships were merely affectionate and patently not sexual.  Such same-sex attractions, so the popular wisdom goes, had the character of an adolescent crush rather than a mature erotic love.  As this correspondence shows, however, Emily and Susan's relationship surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the "intimate exchange" between women friends of the period.  The ardor of Dickinson's late teens and early twenties matured and deepened over the decades, and the romantic and erotic expressions from Emily to Susan continued until Dickinson's death in May 1886. [17]
Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily vividly and at times humorously portrays the intensity of the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler). And, quite rightly, Olnek feels free to imagine aspects of the love between her characters that the letters only imply. Her film offers a much-needed corrective to the image of the irascible, ill-mannered, and unrequitedly heterosexual Emily of Terence Davies' recent film A Quiet Passion. In that film Susan (played by Jodhi May) hardly appears, and the deep emotional connection between her and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is not even hinted at—another "reenactment and recycling" of Susan's historical erasure. Wild Nights is a very welcome, funny, and moving restoration of Susan to the emotional center of Emily's life and work.


Molly Shannon (Emily Dickinson) and Susan Ziegler (Susan Dickinson) in Wild Nights with Emily
Image source: AfterEllen


  1. Quoted by Lilia Melani, "Emily Dickinson -- Love." http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/wild.html
  2. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44087/wild-nights-wild-nights-269
  3. https://www.edickinson.org/faq#5 
  4. Martha Nell Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters," in Wendy Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 51.
  5. Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 56. 
  6. Smith, "Introduction," Mutilations: what was erased, inked over and cut away, http://archive.emilydickinson.org/mutilation/mintro.html
  7. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998, p. 76.
  8. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 91.
  9. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 5.
  10. Susan Dickinson, quoted in Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 54.
  11. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hb173.htm; dates of this and other quotes from Emily's letters to Susan follow those determined by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998.
  12. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl20.htm
  13. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl2.htm
  14. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl7.htm
  15. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl1.htm
  16. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 101.
  17. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith "introduction," Open Me Carefully, p. xiv. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/classroom/spring99/edition/hart-smith/h-s-letters.htm

Saturday, February 1, 2020

In memoriam: Andy Gill


Andy Gill and Jon King onstage, Hof Ter Lo, Antwerp, Belgium, 2nd May 1981. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images. Source: NME)

Andy Gill's death was announced earlier today. He was the guitarist for the Gang of Four, who emerged in Leeds in the late 1970s inspired by the first wave of punk. By joining the dance beat of funk and disco (both highly suspect genres to most punks) to the squalling feedback of Andy Gill's guitar, they created a sound that was as radical as their anti-capitalist politics. I remember laughing in sheer disbelief the first time I heard Gill splattering jagged chords over the steady beat of drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen in "At Home He's A Tourist," while vocalist Jon King chanted the typically smart, bitter lyrics about how we are made to collude in our own oppression. ("She said she was ambitious / So she accepts the process.")

Gill's guitar was simultaneously rhythm and lead, but as with some other punk and post-punk bands he didn't play traditional guitar solos. Instead he filled his guitar breaks with the aural equivalent of a scream.

I saw the Gang of Four in Chicago after the release of Songs of the Free, when Sara Lee had replaced Dave Allen. It amazed me that four people dressed like young Thatcherite investment bankers on casual Friday could produce such a wall of sound. While Songs of the Free seemed like their subversive attempt to produce an ironic pop hit, live they had lost none of their visceral rawness; their sound seemed powerful enough to shake the foundations not only of the hall, but of a bankrupt social system. Alas, it turned out not to be.

Although the three primary instruments in the band carried a more-or-less equal weight in their sound, it turned out that Gill was the only irreplaceable member. "To Hell With Poverty" tells you why:




"In this land—right now—some are insane, and they're in charge." Andy Gill is dead; let's get drunk on cheap wine.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Suggested reading: Think again edition

This edition of "Suggested reading" takes another look at some assumptions and finds that there's often something unexpected to be discovered. In this post I'll be thinking again about:


Image: Alexander Coggin/New York Times

1. The Spice Girls microgeneration

In the mid-to-late 90s the Spice Girls were inescapable. That they were a mashup of Madonna's commercial feminism-with-eyebrow-raising-elements and pseudo-Riot Girrl slogans ("Girl Power") drained of actual politics, with music that lacked the innovation of the first or the anger-fueled power of the second, seemed too obvious to be worth stating at the time. I mean, the roles they embodied included "Posh" and "Baby," neither of which seemed like they were exactly advancing the cause of women's equality. And why was the sole black Spice Girl "Scary"?

But then, I was an adult male in 1996 when their first single came out. Had I been a 10-year-old girl I think I would have found it irresistible. For women born in the mid- to late 1980s, the Spice Girls were often their first pop crushes and the BFF-celebrating "Wannabe" their anthem.

Love of the Spice Girls, writes Caity Weaver in "The Rise of the Spice Girls Generation" (New York Times, 19 July 2019), "spans borders, races, income levels, sexual orientations, political parties, religions, and all other aspects of adult identity, demarcating a distinct microgeneration."

As she reports on the audience of 30-ish women attending the Spice Girls' 2019 reunion concert in Dublin, Weaver reconsiders the Spice Girl phenomenon, then and now. She shows that more than just marketing was at work:
  • The basis of their appeal was that "the Spice Girls were never meant to pass as kids; their skill was in depicting a young girl’s idea of adulthood. . .Being a Spice Girl seemed so easy and fun even a child could do it."
  • Members of the Spice Girls generation "are human bridges between two eras [i.e., pre- and post-internet]. . .Their ancestral parallels are the earliest drifters of the Lost Generation, born in the mid-to-late 1880s"—those born just before a sweeping social upheaval, and for whom the new world can't quite be taken for granted because they remember the old. It's nice, also, that this comparison is not belabored or overexplained, which would perhaps make it seem less true. Like a beer bottle set down on the sidewalk in the midst of a moving throng, it's dropped and then quickly left behind.
  • Speaking of which, Weaver uses a concert-goer's sidewalk "disposal" of her beer bottle as an illustration of the "breezy apologies particular to young women wherein the apology—often mistaken by other demographics for an expression of guilt—is in fact an announcement that the speaker is about to say or do whatever she wants. 'Gonna place that just there, sorry!'"
  • After the concert, the crowd exiting the stadium becomes a de facto Take Back the Night march: "At 11 p.m. on that May evening, after the concert let out, they floated by darkened alleyways, uncowed by the prospective dangers that, were they not traveling en masse, would have forced them onto less direct, better-lit routes. There was not just safety, but joie de vivre in numbers. Marketing ploy or not, 'Girl power' had become a self-fulfilling prophecy." At least for one night.


Image source: Southern Living

2. Microphones and women's voices

One of the barriers that women pop singers and other public figures have to overcome may be sound technology itself, which is not gender-neutral. As Tina Tallon writes in "A Century of 'Shrill': How Bias in Technology Has Hurt Women’s Voices," (New Yorker, 3 September 2019), as microphone and broadcasting technologies were being developed a century ago lower frequencies were favored. Women's voices tend to be in the higher frequency ranges, and so were less intelligible unless the volume was raised—but that made them sound strident, since our ears are more sensitive to higher frequencies than lower ones. As Tallon writes, this problem has persisted: "Even today, many data-compression algorithms and bluetooth speakers disproportionately affect high frequencies and consonants, and women's voices lose definition, sounding thin and tinny." The next time a woman politician is accused of being "shrill," consider "how the design of the technology that transmits human voices has shaped this gendered invective since the dawn of the broadcast era: everything from microphones to modes of transmission have been optimized for lower voices."



Image source: Vulcan Post

3. Dating apps and data sharing

In "Wannabe" the Spice Girls sing, "If you want my future, forget my past." Forgetting the past has become virtually impossible thanks to widespread data "sharing" (i.e., selling) by web-based commercial services. Dating apps, where users share intimate information, are among the worst offenders. The Norwegian Consumer Council found that dating apps such as Grindr and OkCupid transmitted personal data to multiple corporate "partners," each of which in turn could send the data to dozens or hundreds of other companies.

As reported by Natasha Singer and Aaron Krolik in "Grindr and OkCupid Spread Personal Details, Study Says" (New York Times, 13 January 2020), the system is not limited to dating apps: app developers routinely incorporate software from ad tech firms in order to display ads to users. The ad tech firm software tracks app use, location and other data using a tracking code unique to each mobile device, and sends that information to advertisers. Even without real names, your identity and location can be determined because the same tracking code is used over multiple apps and sites.

And the data shared is sometimes highly personal:
Grindr, the world’s most popular gay dating app, transmitted user-tracking codes and the app’s name to more than a dozen companies, essentially tagging individuals with their sexual orientation. . .Grindr also sent a user's location to multiple companies, which may then share that data with many other businesses, the report said. When The New York Times tested Grindr's Android app, it shared precise latitude and longitude information with five companies.
Being involuntarily outed can still have harmful or fatal consequences in many places. And it's impossible to determine exactly where the data is going:
Grindr's app, for instance, includes software from MoPub, Twitter's ad service, which can collect the app's name and a user's precise device location, the report said. MoPub in turn says it may share user data with more than 180 partner companies. One of those partners is an ad tech company owned by AT&T, which may share data with more than 1,000 "third-party providers". . .
And so on, and so on. The data is not limited to the name of the app and the user's location:
. . .the OkCupid app sent a user's ethnicity and answers to personal profile questions—like "Have you used psychedelic drugs?"—to a firm that helps companies tailor marketing messages to users. The Times found that the OkCupid site had recently posted a list of more than 300 advertising and analytics "partners" with which it may share users' information. . .
As that psychedelic drug use question suggests, data about users' medical histories and health status can be involved: "In 2018, another Norwegian nonprofit group found that [Grindr] had been broadcasting users' H.I.V. status to two mobile app service companies. Grindr subsequently announced that it had stopped the practice." The article doesn't say what remedy was proposed for all the people whose H.I.V. status was exposed without their knowledge or explicit consent before Grindr changed its practice.


Image source: ZDnet

4. Consumer surveillance and its consequences

Women of the Spice Girls generation may remember quaint pre-internet concepts like privacy. As the dating apps examples show, the consequences of the disappearance of privacy are much more serious than our potential embarrassment about the contents of our iTunes library. The vast and unprecedented appropriation of our personal data by both profit-seeking corporations and governments can determine how we are able to live our lives.

ZestFinance, a company founded by Google's former chief information officer Doug Merrill, considers that "all data is credit data." In "Stained in Red" (London Review of Books, 4 April 2019), a review of Josh Lauer's Creditworthy: A history of consumer surveillance and financial identity in America (2018), Rachel O'Dwyer writes that ZestFinance compiles thousands of details about our technology use and online activity, and has incorporated them into an algorithm that is used to instantly determine our creditworthiness:
These details include the content of text messages; online browsing behaviour and purchases; education history; records of online money transfers; data use; phone type; and activity on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. . .For example, people who fill out the ZestFinance loan application in capital letters are deemed to be riskier borrowers than those who write in a combination of upper and lower case. . .Others have discovered that such categories as browser type and screen resolution play a role in determining credit scores. . .And a mathematical 'score' is harder to contest than a decision made by a person.
Particularly a score generated by a proprietary algorithm where the data used to generate the score, together with the inner workings of the algorithm itself, are a trade secret.
The maths behind the assessment of our worth is becoming harder to untangle and dispute at the very time it is playing an increasing part in shaping our future. Facebook is experimenting with a 'trustworthiness score' for its more than two billion users. And the Chinese government is developing a 'social credit' system that will assign a score to each of its 1.4 billion citizens based on an aggregation of economic and social factors. While it remains unclear what kinds of 'social' behaviour will be rewarded or penalised (one journalist wondered whether women would be penalised for remaining single or not having children), the government has made it clear that poor scores will affect people’s access to public transport, employment and basic social services.
John Lanchester wrote in his LRB article about Facebook, "You are the product," that "Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens." Intrusive governments are doing their best to catch up.


5. Facial recognition software and bias

As algorithms make more and more decisions affecting fundamental aspects of people's lives we should be very concerned about their built-in biases. As O'Dwyer writes,
. . .studies of machine learning algorithms show that they mirror historical forms of racial, economic and gender discrimination. Critics point to the inherent biases of those who write the code, and note that the machine learns from historical data riddled with prejudiced inferences. . .this automated bias could have a huge impact.
A case in point is ImageNet, a database of over 14 million photos downloaded from the Internet by Stanford researchers. In "'Nerd,' 'Nonsmoker,' 'Wrongdoer': How Might A.I. Label You?" (New York Times, 20 September 2019), Cade Metz reports,
ImageNet was a way of training A.I. systems and judging their accuracy. By analyzing various kinds of images—such as flowers, dogs and cars—these systems learned to identify them.

What was rarely discussed among communities knowledgeable about A.I. is that ImageNet also contained photos of thousands of people, each sorted into their own categories. This included straightforward tags like "cheerleaders," "welders" and "Boy Scouts" as well as highly charged labels like "failure, loser, non-starter, unsuccessful person" and "slattern, slut, slovenly woman, trollop". . .
ImageNet is just one of the many data sets that has been widely used and reused by tech giants, start-ups and academic labs as they trained various forms of artificial intelligence. Any flaws in these data sets have already spread far and wide. . .The fundamental truth is that A.I. learns from humans—and humans are biased creatures. "The way we classify images is a product of our worldview,"[artist Trevor Paglen] said. "Any kind of classification system is always going to reflect the values of the person doing the classifying."


Image source: Minnesota Public Radio

6. A.I. and white-collar jobs

There's one way in which developing A.I. technology does not discriminate: it may replace people who have higher-income creative or managerial jobs as well as those doing lower-wage repetitive manual labor. Stanford graduate student Michael Webb was able to show correlations between declines in employment and wages in sectors where the language in technology patents could be cross-referenced with descriptions of occupational tasks used by the Department of Labor. As Sheelah Kolhatkar writes in "Could New Research on A.I. and White-Collar Jobs Finally Bring About a Strong Policy Response?" (New Yorker, 14 January 2020), Webb's latest analysis of patents
found them using verbs such as "recognize," "detect," "control," "determine," and "classify," and nouns like "patterns," "images," and "abnormalities." The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. . .The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. . .(Notably, jobs at the very top of the earning scale, such as C.E.O., are not shown to be deeply changed.) 
(Notably, we might say instead, the only people who seem to be insulated from the effects of A.I. are those who make decisions about its deployment.)



Image source: Business Insider

7. What are we there for?

Technologies have consequences not only for individual lives, but for whole societies. A question that may have occurred to you: why, if the United States exports almost as much oil as it imports, has it spent so many years, so many lives, and so much of its wealth to maintain troops in the Middle East? Tom Stevenson, in "What are we there for?" (London Review of Books, 9 May 2019):
United States Central Command is based at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, the largest air force base in the world, with more than ten thousand US troops. Bahrain is the permanent dock of the Fifth Fleet, as well as having a US airbase and seven thousand US military personnel. The US has five thousand permanent troops, two naval bases and an airbase in the United Arab Emirates. In Kuwait, it has access to three army bases and an air force base. In Oman, it has four airbases and two naval bases. In Iraq, the US still has troops stationed at al-Asad airbase north-west of Baghdad. . .In Saudi Arabia itself, the US operates a military training mission based in Eskan village. Only Iran, which broke away from the US system in 1979, houses no American military bases.
The vast US military presence is certainly not there to promote democratic values: Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia are all hereditary absolute monarchies, and UAE is a federation of hereditary absolute monarchies. No, the answer is exactly what you think it is—oil—but not because of US consumption. The US exports nearly five times as much oil as it imports from Persian Gulf countries. Together those countries account for only 16% of US oil imports, while Canada alone provides 43%. But, strangely, there aren't any US military bases in Canada.

Military control of Middle Eastern oil gives the US, as the head of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs division stated in 1945, "a stupendous source of strategic power" over oil-importing countries. The leading oil-importing country is now China; according to one source, in 2018 China's oil imports from states bordering the Persian Gulf amounted to over $100 billion, or over 40% of the country's total.
Three-quarters of Gulf oil exports go to Asian economies, and the five largest importers of gas from Qatar are Japan, South Korea, India, China and Singapore. US dominance in the Gulf gives it decisive strategic influence over any potential Asian rival. 
That's not the only benefit for the US. "Saudi Arabia and the other five members of the Gulf Co-operation Council are collectively the world’s largest buyer of military equipment by a big margin," most from the US. "The deals are highly profitable for Western arms companies. . .Arms sales are useful principally as a way of bonding the Gulf monarchies to the Anglo-American military. Proprietary systems—from fighter jets to tanks and surveillance equipment—ensure lasting dependence, because training, maintenance and spare parts can be supplied only by the source country."

There's more: as David Spiro has documented in The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony (1999), in the early 1970s Treasury Secretary William Simon made the US guarantees of military "protection" to Saudi and Arab Gulf states "conditional on the use of oil sales to shore up the dollar. Under Simon’s deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy massive tranches of US Treasury bonds in secret off-market transactions. In addition, the US compelled Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC countries to set oil prices in dollars, and for many years Gulf oil shipments could be paid for only in dollars." After the end of the gold standard in 1971, "a de facto oil standard replaced gold, assuring the dollar’s value and pre-eminence."

Could one reason for US technological and political foot-dragging on sustainable alternative energy sources be the strategic and economic leverage it enjoys due to the control of fossil fuels? Just asking. . .

Speaking of global technological consequences:


Image source: The Guardian

8. The data are "irrefutable."

The burning of fossil fuels, of course, is the major reason for the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which in 2018 averaged over 407 parts per million (ppm); in May 2019 it was measured at 414.7 ppm. The last time carbon levels were this high was 3 million years ago, when seas were 50-80 feet higher and average temperatures were at least 2-3 degrees Celsius hotter.

Average surface air temperatures for the first 5 months of 2019 put it on track to be the third warmest year since 1880, often taken as the baseline year for comparison of global climate records. The warmest year was 2016, and the second-warmest was 2015. In fact, the past five years are the hottest on record; if the 2019 numbers hold up, nine of the ten hottest are from the past ten years, and all are from the past two decades.

But average surface air temperatures are not the best measure of planetary warming, and the news is actually worse than these disastrous statistics would indicate. As Damian Carrington writes in "Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates" (The Guardian, 13 January 2020), about a new study performed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other collaborators,
The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.
"The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming," said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. "Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news."
"We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated," said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.
The average rate of ocean heating since 1987 is four and half times greater than the average rate over the previous three decades. Warmer oceans cause bigger and more destructive storms, more intense droughts, higher sea levels and the accelerated melting of sea ice. Warmer oceans hold less oxygen, impacting marine biodiversity and threatening the marine food supply. And finally, warmer oceans are less able to absorb carbon dioxide, increasing the amount that remains in the atmosphere, which further increases warming.
"The data we have is irrefutable, but we still have hope because humans can still take action," [Abraham] said. "We just haven’t taken meaningful action yet."
Actually, Prof. Abraham is wrong. We have taken meaningful action, just in the wrong direction: we've increased the rate at which we are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the 1960s atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing by about 0.6 ppm each year. In the decade following James Hansen's 1988 Congressional testimony warning about carbon dioxide and climate change, the rate averaged 1.3 ppm. In the first decade of the 2000s the average increase was 2.0 ppm; in 2017 it was 2.2 ppm; in 2018 it was 2.5 ppm. If through heroic efforts we are able to hold the annual increase at this level instead of increasing it still further, average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 500 ppm 37 years from now. And this is a highly optimistic scenario; the latest (2012) edition of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050 anticipates crossing that threshold much sooner, sometime around 2040.

To bring this post full circle, if either scenario unfolds the Spice Girls are likely to still be around to see it. The oldest, Geri Halliwell, would turn 68 in 2040, and 85 in 2057. When she was born in August 1972 the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 326 ppm; within her lifetime it is likely to increase by more than 50%. The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were above 500 ppm was 25 million years ago. As the OECD report states, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide to such levels "might also exceed some critical 'tipping-points', causing dramatic natural changes [such as the release of methane from thawing tundra or the disappearance of ice from the Arctic in summer] that could have catastrophic or irreversible outcomes for natural systems and society."

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorites of 2010-2019: Books

FICTION

For my favorite fiction first read in the past decade I couldn't bring myself to limit the choices to a mere ten. So what follows are my favorite 15, all of which are from the 18th or 19th centuries, plus five more from the last 100 years. In alphabetical order by author:

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (first published 1814)

While my favorite Jane Austen novel is Persuasion (1818), I didn't encounter it (or Mansfield Park) for the first time in the past decade. But I thought Mansfield Park deserved a place on this list because my understanding of it was transformed when I re-read it as part of my "Six Months with Jane Austen" project. I learned that its heroine Fanny Price may have been based in part on Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave who was raised as a gentlewoman; that the very name of the Mansfield Park estate derives from William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over two key legal cases involving the rights of slaves; and that Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves owned by Sir Thomas Bertram on his Antigua sugar plantation. Fanny Price is one of Austen's most affecting heroines and Mansfield Park one of her most underrated novels.
Charlotte Brontë: Villette (first published 1853)

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.
Fanny Burney: Cecilia (first published 1782)

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: Les liaisons dangereuses (first published 1782; translated by P. W. K. Stone, Penguin, 1961)

Les Liaisons dangereuses is told in letters mainly between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil as they plot to debauch the innocent Cécile Volanges and the virtuous Madame de Tourvel. Of course, these ruthless libertines are also scheming against one another. The novel has lost none of its power to shock and seems only to gain in relevance with the passage of time. It was impossible to read in 2019 without thinking about recent public revelations of women's sexual exploitation by powerful men. The Marquise de Merteuil's account (Letter 81) of the stratagems she has learned to adopt in order to survive in a man's world is as searing today as when it was written. 
Charles Dickens: Bleak House (first published 1853)

The endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce pits family members against one another, souring natural affections and drawing even those with good intentions into obsession and self-destruction. A harrowing vision in which the all-enveloping miasma of the legal conflict is reflected in the murk of fog-bound London, where the air is full of "flakes of soot. . .as big as full-grown snowflakes" which have "gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun."

In 2005 Bleak House was made into an excellent BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring Gillian Anderson and E & I favorites Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin.
George Eliot: Middlemarch (first published 1872)

Eliot writes with an almost painful psychological acuity and unsparingly dissects the emotional dynamics of love and marriage. The characters of Middlemarch are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged.The 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch was listed in my Favorites of 2010-2019: Movies and TV.
Susan Ferrier: Marriage (first published 1818)

The Scottish writer Susan Ferrier shares many of the virtues of her near-contemporary, Jane Austen: dry wit, vivid characters, and sympathetic young heroines negotiating the perilous marriage market. Ferrier not only shares Austen's virtues, she also borrows and reworks some of her characters and plots.

In Marriage, rather than marry a man she doesn't care for, the young, beautiful but heedless Lady Juliana elopes with her penniless lover Henry Douglas. Quickly disillusioned, they soon separate, but not before Lady Juliana gives birth to twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Adelaide grows to young adulthood in London under her mother's influence; she is beautiful, but selfish and vacant. The unwanted Mary is left with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout.

Adelaide faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly, dull, but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own? Meanwhile, Mary falls in love with Colonel Lennox, a gentleman of small fortune, but her mother strenuously opposes her choice. Will Mary be able to find happiness with the man she loves?
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857; Eleanor Marx, translator, 1886)

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, Emma Bovary takes poison.

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, the first English translator of Madame Bovary, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, took poison.

Eleanor Marx felt deep empathy with Flaubert's heroine. As she wrote in her translation's introduction (which is omitted from most later reprints),
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven.
Eleanor Marx, too, strained after an unattainable heaven, and saw her hopes crushed—which makes her translation of Madame Bovary almost unbearably poignant.

Elizabeth Gaskell: Wives and Daughters (first published 1866)

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters deserves to be placed in the company of the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, some of the greatest novels ever written. The 1999 BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters was listed in my Favorites of 2010-2019: Movies and TV.
Charlotte Lennox: Henrietta (first published 1758)

Charlotte Lennox was most famously the author of The Female Quixote (1752), a parodistic novel about the dangers of too much novel-reading. Henrietta (1758) is about dangers of a different kind. Henrietta, an orphan, travels to London, where she is made the object of multiple unscrupulous schemes on her body and her reputation. She must rely on her wit and steadfast principles to escape the many traps set for a young woman living in the city without family protection or fortune. Henrietta was clearly a strong influence on Jane Austen, and particularly on Pride and Prejudice.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (first published 1881; translated by Gregory Rabassa, Oxford University Press, 1997)

The appealing narrative voice of Machado's great novel is lightly ironic, but the novel illustrates the limitations of approaching life ironically. While passion and commitment are shown to be absurd—delusional when not hypocritical—the alternative is a life of detached bemusement.

Like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the Posthumous Memoirs calls attention to its own constructedness as literature—the narrator refers to previous events in his life by chapter number, for example, or engages in self-conscious typographical experiments. Chapter CXXXIX, "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," for example, consists entirely of a lengthy ellipsis. The next chapter—titled "Which Explains the Previous One"—begins, "There are things that are better said in silence. Such is the material of the previous chapter."

But apart from his wit, what makes Brás Cubas such an enjoyable companion is his unflattering honesty about himself and his motives—greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar.
Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (first published 1833; translated by Charles Johnston, Penguin, 1979)

Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and his novel in verse Eugene Onegin is his greatest work. Onegin, wealthy, disdainful and a bit smug, is able to skate through life, and does (sometimes with tragic consequences for those he encounters)—until he comes face-to-face with lost opportunities. Pushkin's masterwork has inspired many other artists, including Tchaikovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and Vikram Seth. Like Seth, I recommend Charles Johnston's faithful, readable and elegant translation.
Charlotte Smith: Celestina (first published 1791)

Like Fanny Burney and Charlotte Lennox, Charlotte Smith was another influence on Jane Austen. In Celestina the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family whose son falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby. There are many other parallels to Austen outlined in the full post linked above, but Smith's novels can be read for pleasure on their own terms.
William Thackeray: Vanity Fair (first published 1847)

This "Novel Without a Hero" follows two heroines, the good-hearted Amelia Sedley and the delightfully unscrupulous Becky Sharp. Becky is the orphaned daughter of a disreputable artist, and—realizing that the game is rigged against those of her parentage, class and gender—uses all her wiles to make her way in society among the wealthy and socially connected. Meanwhile, the sincere Amelia marries for love, only to discover the shallowness of her husband and the depth of her own self-deception. The fates of many of the characters as well as that of nations will be decided at the battle looming near a Belgian village named Waterloo. . .
Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her? (first published 1864)

It's extraordinarily difficult to pick a favorite Trollope novel because the quality of his work is so consistently high. If I were to recommend a place for someone to start I might choose The Way We Live Now for its still-trenchant story of financial and political corruption, or Barchester Towers for its depiction of the fierce power struggles occurring beneath the apparently placid surface of a quiet English town.

But I chose Can You Forgive Her? not only because it was the first Trollope novel I read, and inspired me to go on to read another two dozen or so, but because it introduces Lady Glencora Palliser. Before her family intervened to compel her marriage to the emotionally reticent politician Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Glencora loved the unworthy but alluring Burgo Fitzgerald. Their mutual attraction persists even after her marriage, and Fitzgerald makes plans to run off with her on the night of a gala party. As Lady Glencora dances in his arms she finds herself faced with making a final, fateful choice.
'. . .But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Ch. 47)
Lady Glencora is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies.
Plus five novels published within the last 100 years:

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (Victor Gollancz, 1938)

The producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to the director Alfred Hitchcock that "every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind." I would expand Selznick's observation by noting that anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us—will feel a deep sympathy with Du Maurier's nameless heroine. My post linked above includes a defense of Hitchcock's adaptation, which I've come to feel is among his best films.
Emil Ferris: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One (Fantagraphics, 2017)

In Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, 10-year-old horror comics fan Karen Reyes begins to discover some of the secrets of the adults around her—and to harbor a few of her own. Rendered as Karen's sketchbook diary, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novel that is part coming-of-age story, part cancer memoir, and part murder mystery, while every page is an homage to the saving (and disturbing) power of art. Be forewarned: once you read this you will be desperate to read Book Two, which is not scheduled for release until September 2020.
Javier Marías: The Infatuations (Knopf, 2013)

A man is murdered on the street in an apparently random act of violence. But then it turns out that perhaps the violence wasn't so random; and then, that the murdered man may have been harboring a secret. As the narrator María explores further, the motives and culpability of the man's wife, his best friend, the mentally disturbed murderer, and the victim himself become ever murkier. The only clarity is that, when it comes to the human heart, nothing can be certain. 
Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009)

Kemal begins a passionate affair with his beautiful 18-year-old niece Füsun that shatters his complacent existence. After the affair ends abruptly, Kemal turns the apartment where he and Füsun had their afternoon trysts into a shrine to their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by her presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012).
Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf, 2017)

This, only Roy's second novel after 1997's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, is almost Dickensian in its outrage at injustice. Roy peoples her story with striking characters, such as Anjum, a Hijra who raises an abandoned child and makes her home in a graveyard, and Tilo, a woman who, caught up in larger conflicts, tries to remain true to herself.

The unhealable wound at the novel's center is Kashmir, a beautiful land where thousands of people have died and no side can claim the moral high ground. But it is not only in Kashmir that there is injustice and violence.

The title of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not entirely ironic. There are moments of joy and of human connection and solidarity. A community of misfits, of the rejected and the rejecting, forms in spite of the relentless social, political and economic pressures that pit people against one another. Roy's clear-eyed and dispassionate dissection of the hypocrisies, deceptions and brutalities practiced even by those who claim to be fighting for justice makes for harrowing but urgent reading; her powerful prose and vivid characters make her work emotionally compelling as well.

NONFICTION

Ten of my favorite works of nonfiction first read in the past decade, in alphabetical order by author or (in the case of biographies) subject:

Paula Byrne: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (HarperPress, 2013)

The Real Jane Austen is a fascinating (and very entertaining) examination of a series of objects—among them a family silhouette, an Indian shawl, and a pair of topaz crosses—that illustrate key aspects of Austen's life, work and world. While Byrne has a tendency to write "must have" and "certainly" where she should have written "may have" and "possibly," her engaging book inspired me to spend a richly rewarding six months with Jane Austen.
Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: Letters (first published 1899)

At half-past three on Saturday afternoon, September 19, 1846, Elizabeth Barrett left her family's house in Wimpole Street, London, to go to Hodgson's bookshop around the corner in Great Marylebone Street. Barrett, who suffered from chronically poor health, had spent most of the past six years in virtual seclusion in her bedroom, seeing only a few regular visitors and venturing out of her room infrequently. As usual on her rare expeditions outside the family home she was accompanied by her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, and her dog Flush.

She never returned.

Barrett was secretly meeting Robert Browning, who had been corresponding with and visiting her for the past two years, and who, a week earlier, had married her in a clandestine ceremony. After meeting in Hodgson's bookshop, the couple left together for Paris. While back in London Barrett's dictatorial father raged at the news of their elopement (he disinherited Elizabeth and never spoke to her again), the couple travelled on to Italy, where they were separated only by her death 15 years later.

It's an astonishing story, told through the letters Browning and Barrett exchanged almost every day during their courtship. Their letters, together with incidents from their twice-weekly personal meetings, became the basis for one of the most beloved sonnet sequences in English literature, Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Brontë (first published 1857)

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me. . .I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."
Frances (Fanny) Burney: Journals and Letters (Penguin, 2001)

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
. . .to whom dare I reveal. . .my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina (1778). Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.
Jane Glover: Handel in London: The Making of a Genius (Pegasus Books, 2018)

Though born in Saxony, George Frideric Handel composed most of the works by which he is known today in London. The English capital was, as Jane Glover's subtitle has it, the making of a genius. Glover is a well-known conductor specializing in the music of the Baroque. Her discussions of Handel's operas and oratorios offer insights that come from deep exploration, made accessible for readers (like me) who lack a musicological background. She makes the offstage drama affecting Handel's opera companies and the political upheaval in Hanoverian Britain admirably clear, but always keeps the focus on Handel's magnificent music.
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)

There are two modes of thought that we each employ: we use the fast "System 1" for things like emotional responses, intuitions, or snap judgments, and the slow "System 2" for things like calculation or logical argument. But this division of mental labor often leads us into error when we use System 1 for tasks that really require System 2. We confuse familiarity with truth, allow random suggestions to affect our judgments, assume small samples are representative, and focus on the details of a problem to the exclusion of important information from its larger context. And advertisers, politicians, and others who want to manipulate us take full advantage of these cognitive failings. After reading Thinking, Fast and Slow you'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing. This very entertaining book is a must-read for anyone who thinks.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Selected Letters (selected and edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997)

Lady Mary eloped with a man she tolerated to avoid a forced marriage to a man she despised; travelled with her husband and children to Turkey, where she learned of smallpox inoculation, went to the public baths, and was entertained in a harem; may have had love affairs before and after her marriage with both women and men; and in her late forties left her husband, home and country to follow the man she loved to Italy, only to discover that he did not love her in return.

Her introduction of smallpox inoculation to Britain saved thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture. Her letters are emotionally revealing, sometimes uncomfortably so, and her adventures read like a novel. Also recommended as a companion to the letters: Isobel Grundy's excellent biography of Lady Mary (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Michael Reynolds: Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016)

Michael Reynolds shows that the Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Der Rosenkavalier owes its existence to a third, uncredited collaborator, Count Harry Kessler. In co-writing the scenario for the opera, Kessler drew extensively on his memories of a little-known French operetta, L'ingénu libertin (The young libertine, 1907), itself based on Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray's risqué eighteenth-century novels about the amorous adventures of the youthful Chevalier de Faublas. Reynolds has uncovered a treasure trove of production photos, programs, scores, and other materials that illuminate the opera's sources and the contributions of Kessler. If you love Der Rosenkavalier, Reynolds' book is essential—and fascinating—reading.
Patti Smith: Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)

In the summer of 1967 the 20-year-old Patti Smith arrived in New York City with $32 and a battered copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations in her pocket. By chance she encountered Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two began a romantic and artistic partnership that transformed both of their lives. Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling.



Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009)

In her essay "Dead Man Laughing" Zadie Smith affectingly describes her relationship with her father and her inherited love of British comedy (The Goon Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and a name new to me, Tony Hancock—"a comic wedded to despair"). As her father lies dying in a hospital,
I did all the usual, banal things. I brought a Dictaphone to his bedside, in order to collect the narrative of his life (this perplexed him—he couldn’t see the through line). I grew furious with overworked nurses. I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.
"Dead Man Laughing" is gently but keenly observed, sad, and very funny. It's collected here, along with many more of her smart, insightful and beautifully written pieces, including her appreciation of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment "the scales fall from our eyes": how we can achieve what we think we most want, only to realize that we've mistaken our own desires. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this essay is that it made me urgently want to read Middlemarch, which you'll find enthusiastically recommended in my "Favorites of 2010-2019: Fiction" list above.
Other Favorites of 2010-2019: