Today is the first day of a new semester. Somebody ordered up 4 inches of snow to greet us all on campus here in upstate New York.
The beginning of the semester marks the end of winter recess, which marks the end of a time for reading, writing, and as much walking as I have been able to squeeze in.
I did my best these last few weeks to schedule all meetings as walking meetings. When possible I located those meetings in Central Park and walked 120 blocks south along the Hudson just to get to the meeting. Those were good days.
Walking traverses space. It also creates space: space for thinking, praying, dreaming, space for idle speculations and surprise insights. It created space for revisiting a few old favorites: the wonderful audiobook editions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (both books about the transformative powers of finance, one set in Tudor England and the other in a NYC flooded by rising seas, where Canal Street has become a literal canal.) While walking, I hummed along to Shaina Taub’s silly, sophisticated musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, performed by the Public Theater, and rediscovered the magic of TLC’s 1994 CrazySexyCool. Also, everyone was talking about Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and that is because it is an amazing (audio)book about friendship.
Happiness is a slippery concept. It is a sensation seldom achieved by design. But walking reliably brings me, if not happiness, then contentedness, satisfaction, or even peace. The more I walk, the better.
I guess you could say I pursue happiness, at an amble.
If I’m in Central Park, I might as well drop in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have a membership. (Thanks Mom!) It’s free for New Yorkers anyway, but it takes some courage to assert the public right to those free tickets.
In this glass pitcher, I see the tracks of a railroad and the soaring lines of a skyscraper. The pitcher was, according to the curators, crafted from blown and cut glass in New York State sometime between 1885 and 1900. That means it pre-dated the Flatiron Building or Metropolitan Tower, but not the first generation of very tall towers, which I can’t help but see as some sort of inspiration for the way the design races up this pitcher.
The Museum’s American Wing is special to me. I’ve spent many an afternoon sitting, looking, and writing in front of its really rather absurd entrance: “the 1823 Branch Bank facade in the Charles Englehard Court, a space bright with winsome marbles and burbling with fountain sounds” as Lucy Ives describes it this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly. (That piece draws out the implications of the American Wing, which was founded to memorialize an Early American past at precisely the moment that the country imposed its strictest limitations on immigration in the 1920s.)
I first encountered Ives through her novel, set in the Met, called Impossible Views of the World. It evoked and lovingly ribbed the museum. Ives crafted a compelling and fully-conceived protagonist, Stella, and lets us see the museum in a new way through her eyes. Reading that book, I found a thinker who loved a place that I loved, and who loved words, as I did. So I wrote Ives a fan letter and she replied. (I do this sometimes, and I always hope for a reply, but never expect one. When it happens, when a note of appreciation blossoms into an acquaintance, it is a blessing.)
Ives’ Loudermilk is an even better novel and I loved it, despite myself. It is an academic satire, a genre I usually cannot stomach, and the title character really works hard to be repellant. And yet, Ives crafts characters who each possess their own ungainly dignity. They inhabit bodies prone to cracks and leaks. They were easy to fall in love with. (And the book’s epilogue is even better: Ives suddenly appears to lead us in a seminar/book-club discussion of the book; a turn as surprising as it was enlightening.)
I’m halfway through Ives’ newest, Life Is Everywhere. I am trying to wrap my head around it still, but for now let’s just say it is a brilliant, bonkers book.
Museums offer a place to practice looking for and acknowledging beauty. This is, mostly, why I visit them.
As I wander from room to room, a pose diverts me, a glance attracts me, or a flash of color draws my eye. And then I look, and look, and look, and then move on.
Outside the museum, I find that this training sticks. I wander from subway car to platform, from park to city street, and a pose diverts me, a glance attracts me, or a flash of color draws my eye. People of no particular beauty reveal themselves to be beautiful. It feels as though I never left the museum, and now everything, all around me, is art.
This way of seeing persists, sometimes for days on end. It resonates with and reinforces my political commitment to the equal value of each of my neighbors. It vibrates with my belief in the divine spark, the image of God, that animates every person.
And so I will walk back down to the museum sometime soon. (If you’re in the neighborhood, let me know and we can take a turn together through the American Wing’s open storage.)
Over the break I returned to the blog (finally) and posted a few new pieces. One briefly seethes about how little use it is to blame “baby boomers” for, well, anything.
The other two both have to do with how to build a safe society.
In Karen Levy’s Data Driven, Levy considers a technology intended to make us all safer by enforcing rules more precisely. Then she shows how it actually made things worse. This book will change how you think about rules, about technology, and about how to really build a better, safer world.
Living in a “safer world” could sound, well, boring. But I hope readers of Jessie Singer’s mind-bending There Are No Accidents will realize that safety need not entail the absence of risk. Instead, in a safe society or a safely designed environment, people are encouraged to take risks—precisely because they know that while they may fail, they won’t be destroyed.
As I wrote in my blog post:
The book’s radical assertion is that unforeseen events do not necessarily cause excessive harm. In a properly designed system, things can go off the rails without actually going off the rails.
Singer notes in the book that surveys show that white men are much more likely than others to say that the risks in our society are worth taking. It is not hard to see why: those men (like me) walk around taking risks in an environment where they might well fall, but usually won’t fall far, or won’t fall badly, and will be okay. (In extreme cases, think finance or tech, guys fail up repeatedly!) Singer does not want to take this privilege from white men: she wants white men to commit to making that privilege a universal one. We should build spaces, streets, and institutions where everyone can fail or fall and survive to try again.
This book challenges so much of the logic that I grew up with. It revealed to me so much that I took for granted and helped me see the assumptions baked into my 90s/00s-era education. I think it was the most important book I read in 2022.
I never sent out a newsletter at the end of 2022 with any of my own best books from 2022. I’ll keep talking about them in future newsletters and blog posts.
I also never shared my excitement here about that moment in late November when the New York Times named DEMOCRACY’S DATA to its Top 100 list for 2022.
No one ever texts me, but that day I got two text messages in row. Something had to be up. My dear friends were shooting me screenshots of the announcements. Woo hoo!!!
Also, The Atlantic put DEMOCRACY’S DATA in a list of “Seven Books that Will Make You Smarter.” The Atlantic was the first magazine that invited me back in the mid-90s into a big, messy collective conversation about the life of the mind. I don’t think it taught me how to think, but it made me want to think…and write.
In December, Anne Helen Petersen featured the book in the Culture Study newsletter, and allowed me to call the census “a continent spanning art project, an absurdly large social dance.”
It has been particularly rewarding to hear from people who do data-work and find that the book offers them new tools. Here’s one terrific example, from Dave Zvenyach’s blog:
This book taught me, therefore, to remove the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” from my vocabulary when talking about data. Instead, when confronted with the inevitable “data quality” issues that affect any organization, I will try and approach the discussion with greater curiosity about the question: “what is this organization, if this is its data?”
In the next few months, I’ll be making a few more book-related appearances. I’m particularly excited to join one of my favorite fellow census story writers, Tammy Hepps, for an in-person conversation at Carnegie Mellon University on February 23 at 5pm in Kresge Theater. If you’re Pittsburgh, come join us!!
I should get back to course prep now. I get to teach American Intellectual and Cultural History again this semester. It’s been almost a decade since I last took it on, but it always have a special place in my heart. It is why I am a historian.
In 1999, a Michigan State undergrad majoring in computational mathematics (named Dan Bouk) took American Intellectual History with Dave Bailey. I took to following Bailey to his office after every class, asking some question or another as pretext. Mostly, I just wanted to listen to him.
Bailey died too young. Here’s a snippet of a memorial reflection I wrote in 2015:
As I have grown older and have become a professor like Bailey, teaching courses inspired by Bailey’s, while striving to be even a shadow of the mentor he was, I see now ever more clearly how much our campuses need the vision of what William James called the sick souled, how much they need scholars and humans like David Bailey. Bailey had a talent for drawing our attention to the incompleteness of life and to his own incompleteness: he was often uncertain of truth, he could be silly or messy (although NEVER incoherent), he could be hopelessly impractical. And yet he was always fully human, embracing of the unruly humanity of those he encountered, open to the variety of life and of living, attentive to the burdens of oppression past and present, alive to the constant need to listen, love, and also fight for those whom our collective human frailties laid low.
I dedicated Democracy’s Data to Bailey’s memory.
Bailey introduced me to William James and my students are kicking this class off with “The Will to Believe.”
Later in the semester, they’ll watch this short film from Julian Saporiti’s No-No Boy Project, which was recommended to me by a fellow MSU alum, my friend Laura Portwood-Stacer. Check out the project and all the No-No Boy music. It blends historical research, audio excavation, oral interview, and a rock-and-roll sensibility. Bailey, whose best lecture was on the history of jazz, would have loved it.
Take care everyone.
Here’s wishing us all a steady amble toward happiness,