All The Way, HBO’s new movie about the passage and aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a messy and curiously double-minded affair. Like Selma, it wants to show that the shopworn narrative of white men grappling with fate in smoky rooms was never the whole story. But All The Way doesn’t give Martin Luther King’s movement enough screen time to live again as the complex entity it was. Instead it’s portrayed as one of the many blocks Johnson has to shift around to secure passage of the bill.

But if All the Way reduces itself to the story of Johnson’s break with Southern whites then, however unintentionally, it does succeed in making one point very clearly: Nostalgia for the Johnson presidency is misplaced, thanks to forces set in motion by the man himself. More… “They’re Not Coming Back”

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in international affairs. He writes at Open Letters Monthly, where he is Editor-in-Chief.
The ethereal myth of the Old South

Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.

Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the South. More… “Whistlin’ Dixie”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at

I recently finished college and a competitive, labor-intensive internship. I’m going to be starting a new job in a couple of weeks, but instead of feeling proud or relieved to have completed my studies, I feel nervous. Why does The End seem so ominous?  
— Patrick E.


Well, as the old adage goes, the end is the beginning of something else. It is the beginning of the unknown — that’s why it can be so scary. That’s why it can fill us with unease, but remember that we would get bored if life were predictable. We love the unknown in books, for example. We love movies that shock and awe, stories that end with a twist. We love poems whose endings make us hoot in delight:


Part II

Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)

We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy’s padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing’s minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
“I can’t bear it! I have to see how it comes out!”
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space–
how often I’ve followed yours!–for a resting-place.
And I’ll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death’s, to find the end of the story.

(Mona Van Duyn)

Life is a loop of beginnings and endings, stories copious as crossbars on a roller coaster. Roller coasters scare the living daylights out of me, but sometimes my husband can convince me to ride one with him (not in the least considering the other passengers whose eardrums I might burst with my desperate pleas to STOP THIS RIDE!  STOP!  STOP!  STOP!). I’m glad when it’s over, but I know that in the future my husband will persuade me on another ride. I have no idea how he does it. I am acutely aware that a mishap, no matter how slim the chances, could kill me, though maybe some part of me enjoys being terrified.  Maybe some part of me loves that jolt and thrill, hearing that scream that comes from the depths of my fear. Fear is good, most of the time. Anyway, Patrick, you are at a precious juncture in your life. Good things have passed and good things will come. Just enjoy the ride.

Thank you to the many people who have supported this column in various ways. I’d like to extend a special thanks to my mom and dad, Jeff Seglin, Jason Wilson, Dr. Sunshine, Liz Bury, Allison Brown, and my husband, Gamal. • 28 June 2011

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

On this day in 2007, Barry Neild wrote about his fear of a real-life Planet of the Apes. Two years later, Andrea Calabretta told the story of how her love for cute primates led to an unfortunate encounter with and subsequent wariness of the furry creatures. It seems as though we have a history of stories about close encounters of the simian kind posted on October 5th — read them both and keep it going.

More… “Primate Instincts”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at

Once upon a time, there was time. There was time for a contented reader to sit beside a fire in the fireplace, sip a cognac, and turn the pages of Michel de Montaigne’s marvelous essays. There was time to soak in some wisdom. There was time to absorb the author through his writing. Those days and evenings have gone. Technology stole them.

This is not to say that technology does not have its uses. It does, of course. But though there are uses, much is useless. For starters, information is frequently wrong or scrambled. Or it arrives, as television news often does, in advance of verified facts. Wisdom is the better and safer commodity; it doesn’t crash. Maybe we should have a moment of silence to remember what it felt like to read in leisure, not haste. To remember the pleasure of smelling, touching, palpating a real book. To linger at the end of a paragraph and read it over again, assessing its importance and place in the world. More… “Put the Pedal to the Metal”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.

The internet is saying farewell to Bookslut after 14 years. We dug back into our archives to find you lovely readers some gems from Jessa Crispin’s time here at the Smart Set.

Leave James Joyce Alone!

[W]hen scholars and biographers complain about the gatekeepers to the estate, especially when those are family members, what do they expect? Biographers may claim noble and spotless intentions, but for the most part they deal in gossip. Stephen saw the people who raised him reduced to cartoon figures. He watched as the biographer of his very troubled aunt, who had recurring periods of madness and spent most of her life in an institution, hailed as not schizophrenic but merely artistic and damaged by her father’s sexual love for her. His grandfather was called a liar and a cheat. His parents, private figures both, faced a scrutiny they did not deserve. Stephen’s father, Joyce’s son, was called a worthless layabout for never really having a career, and his mother was called mad. If I were Stephen, I would have started to burn documents, too.

I’ll admit it: when it comes to murder, I’m a sexist.

“Think,” I told them. “What would cause a 12-year-old girl to wipe out her entire family? What would cause her sister, when pushed, to say they all got what they deserved?”

As we retread the book carefully, with this question as a lens, I started to feel that maybe I was betraying the book, taking it off in a direction it did not necessarily want to go. I was imposing my own agenda on the novel, using it to prove that, while it’s almost accepted wisdom that adolescent boys are rage-filled thunder gods, ready to wreak death and destruction upon any around them, a girl must have a pretty good reason to lash out. Maybe instead I should have felt it was natural for a 12-year-old girl to poison the sugar.

Walk Like a Man

We stopped freaking out about the “Oh my god, women want to wear pants!” thing a really long time ago. Women wandered into the traditionally masculine realms of self-expression and ambition and now it’s just normal.

Not so with masculinity. It is still as rigid and well defended as ever, despite a few David Bowies or Johnny Depps in the mix. Just look at last year’s total freaking meltdown about a J. Crew catalog that carried a photo of a woman painting her young son’s toenails. . . . When a girl is boyish, or even claims she’d rather be a boy, it’s cute. She’s a tomboy. When a boy is girlish, wanting to wear dresses or try on some makeup, it’s a mental disorder and needs an immediate medical intervention.

Book Report

This is where the action is, after all, the public libraries. And by action I mean bloodletting. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable segment of the American Library Association, dependent on city and state budgets rather than the universities and corporations that find their funding elsewhere. And each year, thousands of the PLA’s 11,000 members descend on a city to set the agenda for the year to come, to commiserate and strategize. And to network for employment, for the more recent victims of the cutbacks.

Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked, I expected to walk in to find a mournful scene. Maybe candlelight vigils for state funding, a designated mourner wailing over grants for arts programs? I was donned in black. I was ready to blend in.

We love you, Bookslut. You will be dearly missed. •

Get in touch with The Smart Set at
No thanks to him...

I’ve smoked a lot of weed in my day. Blunts with boys on stoops in bad neighborhoods, metal pipes with middle-aged Buddhists, roaches with an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank at a Dead concert, and gravity bongs made out of POM bottles. I would never classify my avocation as an addiction. But perhaps an appetite? Something old Aristotle might say is “the cause of all actions that appear pleasant”? I’d say so.

One would assume that a philosopher would approve of such appetites. Weed does, after all, inspire thinking, pondering, concluding — all that good stuff. But reading a line from his Rhetoric gave me a twinge of uneasiness, as though an assumed supporter no longer stood by me. He writes, “A ‘criminal act’ … is due to moral badness, for that is the source of all actions inspired by our appetite.” More… “Toked Affection”

Emily Callaghan‘s work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia magazine.
Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston shows children a Kodak.

In January, Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11 documents in U.S. bankruptcy court. Its debts exceeded its assets by approximately $1.7 billion. The New York Stock Exchange delisted it. Three weeks later, the company announced that it will stop making digital cameras, camcorders, and digital picture frames some time this year in an effort to cut costs and further reduce its workforce. Apparently Kodak believes there are people somewhere who will still buy whatever it will still be selling at that point, but according to all the experts, the company that created a mass market for personal photography has officially morphed from viable commercial enterprise into picturesque curio, another victim of the Internet’s punishing economies.


Like many other media behemoths that fell before it, Kodak had trouble embracing the notion that the products it had sold effortlessly and profitably for so long would become worthless so quickly. So a few horny geeks had started trading 256-color images of old porn mags on CompuServe. So what? So digital cameras were getting cheaper and more powerful. Who cares? Hundreds of millions of people around the world weren’t going to just stop buying film overnight. “You come back in 10 years, there will be a film business here,” a Kodak executive told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2009. Six months later, the company discontinued the last remaining version of its iconic Kodachrome line.

“They were a company stuck in time,” Ryerson University professor Robert Burley explained to Bloomberg News. But if any company should have recognized what 2012 would be like in, say, 1988, Kodak should have. After all, it pretty much invented 2012 in 1888. That was the year that company founder George Eastman introduced the Kodak No. 1, catalyzing a new way of looking at the world, a new mode of existence that would make Kim Kardashian a millionaire and Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire.

As Alexis Madrigal explains at The Atlantic, Kodak referred to this new mode of existence — in which a camera or some other recording device is ever-present; in which making images, consuming images, and other forms of self-documentation and self-curation are major aspects of one’s life — as Kodakery. Unfortunately for Kodak, it wasn’t able to maintain the sort of proprietary hold on this mode of existence that the name suggests. Even in 1888, Kodakery (or as we might more generally call it, snapshot culture) was too big an idea for just one company to control.

The first production camera model, the Daguerrotype, was manufactured in Paris 50 years earlier. It cost 400 francs or approximately $50 at the time —  the equivalent of $1,190 in current U.S. dollars. It and all the accompanying equipment it required weighed 120 pounds. The cameras that followed in its wake were similarly expensive, heavy, and hard to operate. Film didn’t exist yet. Images were made on glass plates inserted in the back of the camera after they’d been dipped in a bath of chemicals in a nearby darkroom. Once a plate was exposed, it had to be developed in a matter of minutes. The chemicals involved were toxic and messy, the process exacting.

All of this meant that photography was limited to a narrow sector of humanity — wealthy and meticulous he-men, essentially, who could afford the necessary equipment and had the strength and patience to make it work. The Kodak No. 1 changed things. At $25, it wasn’t cheap but at least it was cheaper. The camera weighed just under 2 pounds. Most profound, it did away with glass plates and messy chemicals and came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, which the camera’s operator would not have to develop or print himself. The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co., as Eastman Kodak was then known, would take care of all that. “A division of labor is offered, whereby all the work of finishing the pictures is done at the factory, where the camera can be sent to be reloaded,” an 1888 Kodak advertisement exclaimed. “The operator need not learn anything about photography. He can ‘Press the button’ — we do the rest.

In her book Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Nancy West, an English professor at the University of Missouri, explains that the Kodak No. 1’s 100 pre-loaded exposures represented “probably over 10 times as many photographs as the average middle-class American family owned at the time.” Photography may have been an extraordinary technology, but its scope was mainly limited to whatever could be shot in a dedicated photography studio. Its output was limited by the fact that only a relatively small number of practitioners possessed the skill and equipment to produce images. 

But the studio portrait was about to give way to the snapshot. The studio portrait was deliberate, posed, static. The snapshot was casual, spontaneous, improvisational, panoptic. Even in a controlled environment like a studio, taking 100 images in a single session with a camera that used glass plates was a virtually impossible feat. The Kodak made it a routine matter, even in the harshest environments. In 1892, for example, explorer Robert Peary took three Kodak cameras and 23 rolls of film with him on his 1892 expedition to Greenland; he managed to produce more than 2000 photographs of what the New York Sun described as “superior excellence.” In a letter to W.P. Buchanan, the vice-president of the Columbia Photographic Society in Philadelphia, Peary explained that he had never before used a Kodak, “knew nothing of practical photography,” and attributed the success of his picture-making efforts to Kodak rather than his own talent. (If it sounds like he was angling for a spokesperson’s gig, he might have been: Kodak would incorporate his story into future ads.)

Did the Kodak’s capacity to document the world so exhaustively create mankind’s desire to take 2,000 pictures of snow? Or did it merely allow mankind to finally realize a dream that had always existed inside him? Either way, 19th-century consumers loved the Kodak. In the wake of the No. 1, George Eastman marketed a series of follow-up models in rapid succession, and each one was cheaper and easier to use than the one that had preceded it. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie, a camera so simple the company claimed that it could be “operated by any school boy or girl.” It cost $1. Six-exposure film cartridges, which could be loaded into the camera in broad daylight, cost as little as 10 cents.

By 1905, Kodak had sold more than 1.2 million cameras. During this period, Nancy West writes in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the company’s advertising focused on “the sheer pleasure and adventure of taking photographs…capturing subjects in candid moments…recording travel to exotic places.” Many ads focused on outdoor leisure activities: hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring a lake in a canoe. “Take a Kodak with you,” these ads insisted. On a one-off basis, these ads seem pleasant enough, with their pastoral imagery and mild, folksy imperatives. In aggregate, however, they begin to seem comically oppressive in their insistence that the Kodak should play a central role in every American’s life: “Make Kodak your family historian.” “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing.”

In 1888, the Hartford Courant lamented the new ethos Kodak and its customers were pioneering. “The Kodak has added a new terror to the picnic,” it opined.  “The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday-school children. And the young fellow who wishes to spoon with his best girl while sailing down the river must keep himself constantly sheltered by his umbrella.”

To a certain degree, there was pushback against the new breed of camera snoops and their new power to document the world. In 1893, for example, the organizers of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition imposed a $2 fee on amateur photographers who wanted to bring their Kodaks to the Fair. In 1898, two American tourists were arrested for taking photos in Cuba. The first roused the ire of authorities when he took a snapshot of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine, which, earlier that year, had suffered an explosion of famously undetermined cause and sank in a Havana harbor. The second photographed a group of local children outside his hotel. He was jailed, his film confiscated to prevent the publication of images that would illustrate the abject conditions under which the subjects of Spain were living in Cuba.

But if one or two people were jailed, if thousands more were unfairly taxed, well, that still left millions more. Armed with portable and unobtrusive cameras and an infinite supply of film, they weren’t all just going to take charming snapshots of baby elephants and frowning toddlers. A new culture of surveillance began to evolve in America. In 1899, for example, a New Jersey laborer sued a woman who’d hired him to work on her farm but allegedly failed to pay the wage she’d promised. Things were going well for the laborer in court until the defendant produced a photograph of the laborer that had captured the true nature of his work habits: He was husking corn in the middle of a cornfield while sitting in an armchair! In 1900, a Republican politician in Baltimore recruited a team of 12 volunteers armed with Kodaks to discourage illegal voter registration tactics by the Democrats. The same year in Corning, New York, Kodak-wielding prohibitionists began compiling photographic evidence of hotels and saloons that were illegally selling liquor on Sundays.

In courtrooms, on the front pages of newspapers, in family living rooms, the snapshot established itself as the ultimate form of truth-telling. Ostensibly snapshots caught life as it happened. A studio portrait may have produced a startling likeness of its subject, but it was an obvious artificial construct. Individuals wore their best clothes in portraits. Their postures and expressions were deliberately chosen to convey specific qualities and values. Multiple exposures were made to increase the chances of capturing a person in his or her best possible light. Cropping, retouching, and other forms of manipulation might be applied to the final image.

Snapshots, in contrast, were spontaneous and informal, produced with no apparent forethought or calculation. And they  were thought to be natural, true, revelatory even. In his 1991 essay, Kodakers Lying in Wait: Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885-1915, law professor Robert Mensel explains how photography journals advised the era’s aspiring paparazzi that newspapers paid “fully twice as much” for candid snapshots of famous people as they did for studio portraits. “A photograph of a person’s facial expression, taken while that person was unaware and consequently not that self-conscious, was thought to be the surest way to capture the subject’s ‘real’ feelings, character, and personality,” Mensel writes.

As the 20th century progressed, a Kodak was the presumed antidote to a rising tide of Hollywood cowboys and corporate hamburgers, a populist defense against press agents, Madison Avenue, and all the other shills of mass-produced image-crafting. It could penetrate veils of publicity and marketing. It could slip behind the scenes and expose the real story. Because it was so closely aligned with notions of authenticity and truth-telling, the Kodak helped establish gawking as a legitimate activity. An inveterate ogler who might have once been challenged with an aggressive “What are you staring at?” could now confidently answer, “What have you got to hide?”

The Kodak turned millions of people into amateur ethnologists and investigative reporters. In 1902, an American expatriate opining in the pages of the Mexican Herald complained that tourists “armed with Kodaks” were wandering through a local cathedral and taking snapshots of worshipers engaged in prayer. “Oh, isn’t she a sight?” one of them reportedly exclaimed to another upon spying a withered old Indian woman dressed in rags. “You bet she is,” the other replied. “You don’t see things like that in the States. Wait and I will get her.”

The hunt for the authentic turned the world into a giant stage set and its inhabitants into props. Ironically, what began as a participatory, user-driven phenomenon helped pave the way for the passive voyeurism that would characterize 20th-century American culture. Kodak got us used to a life of media abundance, a life of looking. And while amateur “camera fiends” may have pioneered the new ethos of intrusiveness in the late 1880s, professional media practitioners ultimately proved at least as adept at delivering the authenticity the public demanded. Think of Weegee racing around Manhattan in the 1930s to snap photos of murder victims with his Speed Graphic before the police even managed to arrive. Think of the mid-century tabloid Confidential, which published unflattering snapshots of celebrities on its covers and promised “uncensored and off the record” tell-alls about Frank Sinatra’s fling with a call girl or the time that an already-sauced Robert Mitchum stripped naked at a Hollywood dinner party and “sprinkled himself” with a bottle of ketchup.

In the early days of snapshot culture, unwitting models often protested when their images were appropriated by entrepreneurial photographers and enterprising corporations. In one example that Robert Mensel recounts in Kodakers Lying in Wait, a teenage girl named Abigail Roberson “suffered a severe nervous shock” (and then filed a lawsuit) after discovering that the Franklin Mills Company had printed her portrait on 25,000 sacks of flour it was selling in stores, warehouses, and saloons in the area where she lived.

Over time, however, America’s capacity for exhibitionism began to match its capacity for voyeurism. And then to exceed it. There were so many two-timing hermaphrodites and racist nudists eager to expose the intimate details of their lives that not even Oprah, Phil, and Jerry could accommodate them all. In literary memoirs and gonzo porn tapes alike, the unrelenting candor of our overmediated era grew so commonplace that it began to seem simulated even when it wasn’t. To compensate for this glut of self-revelation, extraordinary measures were necessary to deliver moments that delivered the charge of the convincingly authentic. People began to eat hissing cockroaches for cash prizes on network TV. Convenience store assaults caught on surveillance cameras were presented as prime-time entertainment. Private sex tapes featuring famous or at least semi-famous individuals were leaked on the Internet.

How did the company that made it OK for 19th-century peeping-toms to gape at “half nude and innocent bathers” at Coney Island not figure out how to capitalize on all of this? Why, after teaching America that “a holiday without a Kodak is only half a holiday” in 1908, did it leave it to Mark Zuckerberg to teach America that lunch without a status update is only half a lunch? Ultimately, Kodak’s problem wasn’t that it was stuck in the past. Its problem was that it wasn’t paying enough attention to the past. Had history’s greatest peddler of memories and nostalgia utilized more hindsight, it might still have a future to contemplate. • 10 February 2012

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
Molly Ball works for The Atlantic, where she writes on national politics. She has become known for her in-depth view into American political culture and her flashes of Twitter wit. She previously worked for Politico, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Las Vegas Sun. She has been a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow and won the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. She was also a winner on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
This interview was conducted by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. Ball began by offering the class a brief introduction to her experiences interviewing as a political reporter.

MB: I’m a political reporter, so the people I’m interviewing are pretty different than other people that you interview as a journalist. Most people that you interview are motivated by sort of fundamental human motivations: they want you to like them, they want to be understood, they want to tell the truth, they want you to know where they’re coming from. Politicians are not like that. Politicians see an interview as a transaction; they have something they’re trying to achieve with the conversation. They’re trying to get a particular message out, so it’s not an honest conversation, where someone is saying whatever comes into their head. It’s more like a chess game where you are sort of strategizing — how can I get them to say a certain thing or push them in a direction they’re not comfortable with and force them off the talking points so they say something interesting or authentic? The politician does the opposite: They’re trying to make sure they present themselves in an advantageous way. They’re trying to make sure that they tell people what they want to hear, whether or not that’s true, and above all they’re trying not to screw up.

A lot of what I do is also talking to voters, going to political events and trying to understand what’s motivating the people who really pull the strings in American politics. It’s a very interesting interaction because some of them distrust the media; there’s a lot of that in politics and society overall, but most of them really want to be heard. That’s why people participate in politics: They want their voices heard. You can have a conversation with them that I think can be really revealing — if you’re listening. I think too many reporters aren’t listening to the people who are trying to communicate with them.

I think it’s important when you’re talking to people to always be compassionate towards them because they are pretty much totally powerless in the political system. Our job is not to judge them or pick on them: Our job is to understand where they’re coming from. When I meet a voter who tells me Obama is a Muslim, I’m not going to get into an argument with that person or try to convince them that they’re wrong. I’m going to try to understand where they’re coming from because my job is not to set the person straight, it’s to explain to my readers that these people exist out there and this is what’s driving them, this is where they’re getting their information and this is how it’s motivating their political behavior and try to shed some light on the way the whole electoral system works.

I try to talk to dozens of people at every political event I go to, and after a while it wears me out — I have to go run and hide. I think if you’re not a sort of pathological extrovert like a Bill Clinton, it’s really exhausting to talk to so many strangers, but I think it’s a really important exercise not just journalistically but as a human. It is really valuable to come into contact with so many people from so many different perspectives and different walks of life and try to understand where they’re coming from. I frankly think that in a society where we hear so often how segregated we are into our political and class and racial sort of silos, it would really be a better place if we made more attempts to seek out the opinions of people who aren’t like us and to listen to them.

TSS: Unlike most political stories, yours are very colloquial and have a lot of colorful rhetoric. Do you think you sacrifice any credibility or separate yourself in a negative way from the way other political writers write?

MB: ­I am very grateful that I get to write in that kind of style. I’m a magazine writer; I certainly didn’t write in quite this voice when I was a newspaper reporter. I’ve always thought that a good political story has to be first of all a great story. It has to have a great narrative, it has to be entertaining, it has to be fun, it has to be smart. There’s a lot of political reporting that is just sort of asking you to take your medicine and care about something because it’s important and I think that’s way too high a bar for readers. If we want people to be engaged with politics, we have to engage them. So I tend to write about people that I find colorful, like John Kasich, who is not your average sort of choreographed, scripted, buttoned-up politician. I try to find stories that I find interesting — stories that I would want to read — not just stories that are only going to be interesting to the people in them.

TSS: There are some ground rules that reporters have as far as agreeing to an interview, but depending on the situation, sometimes reporters break them. With political writing, does that come up frequently?

MB: As a political reporter, you’re constantly negotiating with people, because people in the political world, particularly staff, are very well versed in the difference between on the record, off the record, and on background. You can always assume with these people that they know that they’re on the record unless they have specified that they’re not. It’s not like when you’re talking to a crime victim that you’re interviewing about something on the street who you would probably want to explain that to more clearly. It’s pretty annoying a lot of times because staff can be very controlling and they are always trying to make sure they don’t look bad in a story but what you always have to do is just make sure you’re getting what you need. If someone says “well on background blah blah blah blah blah,” I say that’s fine, but what’s your on-the-record answer? Whatever it is, I need to know what it is because I can’t put your answer that’s on background in my story and attribute it to an anonymous source, that’s just not going to cut it for this story.

TSS: Before you get to release an article, does it have to go through anybody or their staff? Would you let a politician approve quotes before you ran a story or tell you what questions you’re allowed to ask and what subjects are off-limits?

MB: Never agree to pre-conditions for an interview, and with a public figure, they can go off-the-record if you agree to it, but they never get approval of their quotes. When someone is a figure of interest in that way, you can’t allow them to edit the information that you give to the public. With staff it’s different. I often will allow them to approve quotes because if they’re speaking on background, what I mostly need from them is to understand the situation and to get the information I need. When I need something to put in the story, usually they’ll approve whatever particular quote you want to use. But not for a politician.

The procedure is also a little bit different for the print magazine of The Atlantic. I write for both the print magazine and, and our print articles go through a very laborious process of editing and fact-checking. Every person in that story will be contacted or we’ll attempt to contact them by a fact-checker who will run all the quotes by them. Sometimes they want to change something and hopefully I have it on tape or in my notes and that’s always the final authority. At that point you go back to the person and say I’m sorry, the tape is the final authority, and you don’t get to take back something you said in clearly on-the-record conditions.

TSS: How has your style of interviewing or political interviewing changed since the last presidential campaign?

MB: I’m always trying to challenge myself and write better stories and write more interesting stories with greater breadth and depth, and I’m learning new things every day about politics. I will say that this election has been pretty mind-blowing to me. I think it’s important that we be humble about that. It’s easy to try to, with perfect hindsight, explain things so that you sound smart, so that you sound like you saw it coming, so you sound like you know what you’re doing, but I think the most important tool for any reporter is humility. When someone says something that surprises you, be honest about that because it probably surprised your readers too. We don’t have all the answers, and I think it annoys people when we act like know-it-alls. Curiosity is the most important asset you have as a reporter. When something happens, you want to figure it out for yourself, you want to see it with your own eyes, and you want to understand what’s happening and why and how, instead of sort of sitting in your ivory tower and saying oh, well, if we look at this poll and that poll we can put two and two together and come up with this pat explanation. Unless you’re on the ground talking to the real people making the decisions, you’re not going to have a really deep understanding of this stuff.

TSS: When you watch Trump being interviewed, he doesn’t respond to the specific question: Often he hears the topic and he responds to the topic more than answering the exact question he’s asked. What kind of tactics do you use to get a genuine response from him?

MB: A lot of times he’ll just employ a non sequitur. It’s very common for politicians to answer the question that they want to answer instead of the question you actually asked, and over the years being a political reporter you just come to listen for that and be very aggressive in the way you follow up: not being afraid to interrupt people, not being afraid to stop them and say you didn’t answer my question. It doesn’t come naturally as a human to be rude in that way, but it’s a skill that you develop, and you become, I think, more and more fearless the more that you do this. Trump can be very evasive in a way that’s different from other politicians and I think that’s why it’s disorienting for people in my business. He can be very hard to pin down because, unlike politicians who memorize talking points and just spit them out over and over again — that’s an easy tactic to recognize, that’s an easy tactic to point out and follow up on — but Trump always seems like he’s being spontaneous. He’ll go off on some riff that’s fascinating or shocking in its own right so you get caught up in it. You get captivated by this weird story he’s telling you and you sort of forget that you were trying to get something else out of him. When I’ve interviewed Trump, I’ve been careful to keep track of what I’m asking him and what I’m trying to get him pinned down on from the interview so I can keep circling back and saying wait, that ten minutes you just spent telling me this other fascinating thing, that’s great but here’s what I asked you. He’ll sort of pretend that he doesn’t remember, like oh what was that again? Where did you hear that? What was this you’re asking me? You just have to keep at him.

TSS: This is the first election where as a reporter you’ve had to live in the possibility that a presidential candidate might start trashing you personally on Twitter. Does that enter your thoughts that you might wind up the story? Do you fear that?

MB: No, you don’t have to do this for too long to grow a very thick skin. The Twitter part is new, but when I covered the 2006 Nevada gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic candidate used to tell an anecdote trashing me at every campaign stop. It was part of her stump speech. You learn to shrug it off or even take it as a positive, like oh, I must be doing something right if I got under her skin in that way.

TSS: In this election, certain political candidates are getting more coverage than others. Do you think that the media and journalists should be forced to provide more even coverage of political candidates?

MB: No, I don’t think there should be any authority over the journalism business. I think that way leads to totalitarianism and the end of the First Amendment. Nobody should be regulating the journalism business. It’s very important to our free society that there’s no governmental or other entity that gets to say what we report on. Second of all, I’m not very receptive to those kinds of complaints because I do think that we’re going to write about what’s interesting to us and interesting to our audience. Certain candidates are boring, don’t make good TV, don’t make good copy, and readers are not going to be as interested in that — and I think that’s totally fair. This idea that the entire primary as it’s been covered on cable news has been one giant free advertisement for Donald Trump strikes me as ridiculous. A lot of the coverage has been extremely negative, and there have been a lot of other candidates who have gotten a disproportionate amount of coverage. Jeb Bush, for example, I think got covered a lot more than any candidate in his position who didn’t have his famous last name would have. It didn’t benefit him at all because people weren’t interested in buying what he was selling. The coverage process is democratic in that way. In the same way that people can decide who they want to vote for and nobody can tell them what to do, people are going to gravitate towards certain candidates. It should not be our job as journalists to scold them for it or push them in another direction or become activists who campaign for or against certain people that we’re covering.

TSS: Quotes are very powerful and they can definitely make a piece great. What is your policy on quotes from politicians? Do you edit for grammar or paraphrase and still put them as quotes?

MB: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t and it’s somewhat arbitrary. I’m a reporter: I’m not there to make someone look bad, so if they slip up and use the wrong tense of something, I’m not going to put that in there just to make them look stupid. I think if you want to make someone look stupid because you believe they are stupid and that’s the truth that the story needs to communicate, you should do that in a less sneaky way.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a reporter was use as few quotes as possible. The natural inclination as a reporter is oh this person told me all this stuff and I’m going to dump it out of my notebook onto the page. Actually, you can almost always say something better than the person that you’re quoting because you’re a writer and they’re not. If you can craft a more eloquent paraphrase, you almost always should. The more sparingly you use quotes, the more potent those quotes become and the more the reader gets out of them. You can take 90 percent of what your source told you and paraphrase it as context, and then have that one quote as a zinger at the end and that becomes much more powerful in the story. People’s eyes glaze over when they read an entire paragraph of somebody droning on.

TSS: As a writer about politicians, is there an expectation that for this political figure you’ll write a certain kind of story, and, if so, how have you been pleasantly surprised or how did stories go differently than you might have expected?

MB: I am a natural contrarian, so I always want to write the piece that’s the opposite of what everyone else is writing. There’s a lot of groupthink in journalism, particularly in political journalism, so if you can stand outside of that and say you think it’s X but it’s Y, that’s a story that a lot of people are going to be interested in. I think it’s important to retain the ability to be surprised. I hate that voice that you get in political journalism that says well, nobody should be surprised by X; we knew this was going to happen. That’s not very interesting. News is what happens when you weren’t expecting it to happen. The other problem I have with most political reporting is that it doesn’t answer a question anyone was actually asking. It’s just giving you information that you didn’t know you needed and probably still don’t. I read a lot of other people’s writing and I’m always trying to figure out what’s my question about this, what am I curious about, what’s the question I want answered, and how can I go out and answer that question?

Back in November when the Paris attacks had just happened and Trump was starting his whole we’re going to keep out the Muslims, we’re going to bar all the refugees thing, this was a new phase of the Trump campaign when a lot of people started to get really alarmed about what he represented. You had even a lot of Republicans saying this person sounds like a fascist to me and you had protesters starting to get punched and kicked and thrown out of his rallies. I thought this sounds kind of scary. I wonder what it feels like — what is that like to be there? Does it feel like you’re in danger? So I went to a Trump rally in South Carolina and just tried to capture that — tried to capture for people what is this feeling and where is it coming from. I ended up feeling like he was pushing these dark buttons in human nature but the surprising thing to me was that it wasn’t a dark or scary feeling at the rallies at all. It was a lot of people brought together by this really cathartic experience of hearing someone say the things that they felt that no one else had the courage to say. So that was an instance where I felt like I got to tell readers something that was different from what they were expecting.

TSS: Your style for such strict political stuff seems very fresh. Do you emulate that from someone or is that just a you thing?

MB: I didn’t come into this as a political junkie. I came into this as someone who wanted to write cool journalism. When I started out, I was a reporter in Cambodia for a couple years, covering war crimes tribunal negotiations and refugee issues and stuff like that. When I got to Las Vegas I wrote a lot about the justice system: I did investigations, I did feature stories. I started writing about politics because it was the beat that opened up at the bigger paper when they wanted to hire me. I like politics — I’m fascinated by politics, I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t — but I’m not the kind of person who sat down in my room when I was 12 making flash cards of the members of the House of Representatives. As journalists, you always have to see yourself as a proxy for your readers. You are their eyes and ears for something that you get to access and they don’t, so if you can bring that kind of regular-person perspective to a political story, you will be giving your readers something fresh because you’re not coming at it from this sort of rarified weird perspective of the political junkie. •

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and prepared for publication by Karen Shollenberger. Student interviewers who contributed: Rebecca Cargan, Brandon Eng, Sarah Griggs, Susan Kelley, Grace Kerschensteiner, Charles Maguire, Trevor Montez, Melanie Ng, Ridhima Phukan, Callan Powell, James Pyne, Nicholas Santini, Arin Segal, Joshua Settlemire, Karen Shollenberger, Melissa Silvestrini, Allison Starr, and Zacharia Thottakara.

Feature image art by Maren Larsen. Source image courtesy of Molly Ball.

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Framing memories with flowers and frills.


Page one of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain a cardstock minivan pasted onto a gray chalk outline of a Virginia highway. A photo of my face would be slipped into the driver’s window, and my hands would be cut out and pasted to a cardstock wheel at a sturdy 10 and two.

Renting a minivan to get to the Chantilly, Virginia, convention had been an inside joke with myself about going undercover as a scrapbooker for a story on the scrapbooking phenomenon. But the joke turned on me (as inside jokes with yourself usually do) when I ended up finding the van on the way to the convention to be a comfy and spacious drive with enough bass to make it sound like Jay-Z himself was carpooling with me to the convention. By the time I arrived at the center, I realized I didn’t look any more rocking than the average scrapbookers filing into the center, and I hadn’t even had to work at the outfit (a pony tail, a dated cut of jeans, and a tank top I’ve outgrown) to look like someone who spent her money almost exclusively on scrapbooking supplies.

Page two and three of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain photos of the inside of the expo center. Most of the women on the floor looked happy to be out of the house for the weekend, walking around the expo in tennis shoes and generous applications of drugstore-pink blush with their elderly moms, their daughters, or their girl friends, and if their T-shirts were to be trusted, they knew exactly what their husbands and other non-scrapbookers thought of their hobby, and they lived to scrap anyway.

So despite my aesthetic aversion to everything scrappy (bubble letters, paper doilies, glitter glue, ferry stamps, posed portraits, close families) a crowd made up of individuals capable of feeling excitement at the discovery of the perfect cropping tool was endearing. I spent the day walking through all the aisles, where I watched vendors demonstrate ways to “jazz-up” prom pages and make military service layouts “pop,” and then I sat down in the cafe (not to be confused with a café) that sold hot dogs and nachos, and there I watched — a little too intently to be polite — a woman devour a can of energy  pudding. She wrote something on a keyboard when she was done, and her middle-aged daughter read the computer screen and laughed.

If they enjoyed scrapping, I thought, more power to them. For some people it looked like organizing and embellishing photos was a soothing, fun way to organize their familial and personal histories. Some people conduct symphonies, or paint, or dance, or tie fishing flies, or share at AA.  I try not to be the kind of person who begrudges anyone a form or a forum that provides them a sense of release.

The busy aesthetic of scrapping started to make me dizzy, though. When it comes to layouts, I’m comfortable with white space. When it comes to photographs, I think a well-captured frozen moment in time is arresting on its own.  So when I saw one vendor selling a plastic flip-flop kit for sewing together a book of large sized flip-flops to collage photos on to, I walked outside the convention hall for some sunlight.

The sidewalk outside was misplaced and didn’t fully lead to a destination, and some scrapbook convention attendees were driving the couple of hundred feet from their parking spots to the pack of fast food joints closer to the freeway. On page four of my scrapbook I would cut out the skyline dominated by a business park of buildings with tinted windows, a cluster of drive-thrus, and a Hooters.

And on page five I would jazz things up with a dye-cut parking lot filled with paper-piecing license plates to represent the inordinate amount of personalized license plates in the convention center parking lot: 1GODMOM, HOTXBUN, VELMA3, HAPIME, 1ONTHEGO, GS LDR, NOONISH, PAY4WRD. Some plates were held by personalized license plate holders; “Disney,” “This is not a minivan, it’s a shopping cart,” and, alarmingly if it were parked anywhere else except outside a craft booking expo, “Cutting Queen.”

On the concluding pages of my scrapbook, I wouldn’t be at the expo.  The page six-seven spread would contain a matte photo of me sitting on some concrete steps in Alexandria where I would be waiting for a locksmith, after somehow managing to lose the house as well as the minivan keys on a walk.  It might seem off topic to include a large photo of me locked outside of the house in suburban Virginia where I was dog sitting in a scrapbook that was supposed to be about the scrapbooking conference, but here I would be employing a device, scrapping off topic in order to illustrate a theme, and the theme as usual would be memory.

We — scrapbookers, non-scrapbookers — work obsessively on the narratives of our lives all the time.  We cling to a story about the past and the future, and we embellish and run it compulsively like we’re flipping through the pages of a scrapbook we just can’t get enough of.

I had no interest in considering the past that had led me to the point of being locked out on the steps, and the immediate future seemed a little rough; I didn’t really want to think about finding a tow truck for the minivan, or how I would pay the $240 for an emergency lock smith to unlock the house so the dog, Doogie, and I could have a place to sleep. So I tried to drop my dumb personal story for a while and just look across the street.

But without a story about the past and solid plans for the future, who the hell are you? Letting it all go for a second felt like a release, but it also felt a little like a death, and I know why scrapbookers and the rest of the world have an aversion to it.

Then a mother opened the screen door of the house across the street and started to interrogate her kid, who apparently had said the “F” word in the yard and been told on.  “Who did you hear that from?” she asked.

“No one,” he said.

“You don’t hear that from no one,” she said. “Who?”

“No one,” he said, and began to cry as she grabbed him by the crook of his armpit and started to yank him home.

“Who did you hear that word from?” she kept demanding, and by this time he was crying with shame and holding his free hand over his eyes.

Then right there on the sidewalk he leaned in to hug her thigh.  She kept walking and dragging him anyway.  He wanted to be comforted by her, even though she was the one making him cry.  And she was still mad at him, because I guessed she wanted him to grow up to be a good person, and in her mind a good person was not the kind that said “fuck” and then refused to tell his mom who he heard the word “fuck” from.

I don’t even know how you would capture that in a scrapbook.  Maybe you would embellish the border of the final spread with some journaling carried out with an acid-free pen. I guess though, if you had the mentality of a scrapbooker, someone interested in organizing the past to make it look like fun, and in order to create a cute keepsake, you might have to leave out a lot of the uncertain parts of the past and probably a lot of the little scenes where you cried. • 22 July 2008


When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at

I once read that happiness plateaus after $75,000 a year. Before you get to the “magic number,” increases in income correspond to increases in happiness. After that, more money won’t buy you more happiness.

I believe it, but it’s hard to believe. By this metric, I should have already reached maximum happiness. And yet there are things I feel sure would make me happier if I could afford them.

One of those things is a bigger bed. My husband John and I have slept on a full-size (AKA double) mattress for almost ten years. This once seemed normal, but now it seems ridiculously small, though our sizes haven’t changed much. Over the past decade, we may have each gained five pounds. More crucially, John is 6′ 4″. A full-size mattress is 75 inches long. That makes him one inch longer than the bed. He’s also an insomniac (of the sleep-onset variety), a restless sleeper, and occasional snorer. I fall asleep easily, but wake up easily too, and in the early morning hours I find it hard to go back to sleep. I feel sure that we’d both get more and better sleep, and thus be happier, in a bigger bed. More… “Time, Money, Happiness”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

Did Montezuma II, the legendary king of the Aztecs, really imbibe 50 cups of a special thick chocolate-vanilla-honey potion every day? We will never know, but we know for sure that vanilla flavoring in any of its many forms is one of the substances that people just cannot get enough of. It can be found in more obvious places like ice cream, cakes, liqueurs, perfumes, tobaccos, and soaps. It is an open secret that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola buy the naturally produced substance in large amounts.

But vanilla flavoring is also where you may not expect it — such as in cough and cold preparations or pet food, where the cheaper, artificially produced substance helps to mask undesirable tastes. It makes most mouths water, which explains why it is also used as a supplement for fodder. Vanilla used to be extolled for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Curiously, Chandler Burr, one of the world’s most renowned cologne critics, sees vanilla eternally associated with the oldest profession. “Men love vanilla, which is why whores the world over smell like it,” he told me recently. He didn’t tell my why women love it, too, though. More… “Vanilla Mania”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is Birds and Humans – A Curious History. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselearville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

The origins of the limerick are vague
But the style came after black plague.
And in today’s modern age
This boyfriend may wage
Spats in rhyme, though his girlfriend may beg.
(Stylisticienne, The Smart Set)

Let’s take a critical eye to the profane and the obscene. (Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set)

What’s the value of paper in the digital world? If you’re biting your nails over the imminent demise of the paper book, relax — technological doomsayers have been around for ages. And before you hit send on that e-résumé, consider putting your skills on paper. (National Endowment for the Humanities, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

In a letter to a friend, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) recalled how, as a child, he enjoyed “charming, graceful nature in such abundance” in the vicinity of Tegel Castle. Tegel, the Plattdeutsch word for “brick,” was still a small town northwest of Berlin on route to Hamburg in Alexander von Humboldt’s times. Here he spent the warm seasons of his childhood with his brother Wilhelm. Besides the castle, the family owned a townhouse in the center of Berlin, which was three hours carriage ride along sandy paths.

If you walk through the castle’s surroundings today, you can imagine him as a boy strolling around this romantic setting, perhaps listening to the hammering of a woodpecker, then walking over to the lake to enjoy the scenery. Nature made him curious and open to the world. This is where he started to collect plant specimens, stones, and insects, earning him the nickname “the little apothecary.” Objects of nature were his favorite toys. “Both brothers withdrew into their own worlds — Wilhelm into his books and Alexander into lonely walks through Tegel’s forests, great woods that had been planted with imported North American trees. As he wandered among colorful sugar maples and stately white oaks, Alexander experienced nature as calming and soothing. But it was also among these trees from another world that he began to dream of distant countries,” writes Andrea Wulf in her biography of Alexander von Humboldt The Invention Of Nature.

More… “Bricked In”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is Birds and Humans – A Curious History. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselearville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
In Cleveland, the ghost of d.a. levy is everywhere, even animating MOCA Cleveland's summer show. But what is it that makes the poet's legacy endure?

A young poet killed himself in Cleveland on November 24, 1968. He did it with a .22 caliber rifle he’d owned since childhood. In the years leading up to his death, the poet often demonstrated to friends how he could operate the gun with his feet and put the muzzle against his forehead, right at the spot of his “third eye.” The poet’s name was d. a. levy, as he liked to spell it (he was born Darryl Alfred Levy). He was just 26 years old when he died.

Just a year before his death, levy was arrested by the Cleveland police. He’d been indicted in 1966. The specific charge was “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” At a poetry reading, he allowed juveniles to read work deemed obscene by city officials. levy’s own poetry had its share of bad words, sex, and drugs. The poet was a public advocate for the legalization of marijuana. It all seems rather tame by today’s standard. But in Cleveland in 1968, the d. a. levy affair created quite a ruckus. His arrest brought national attention. Guys like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder got involved in the case, advocating for the dismissal of the charges against levy. The call to “legalize levy” became a rallying cry at protests and on t-shirts and flyers, not just in Cleveland but around the country.

After his death, many people in Cleveland adopted levy as a kind of local hero. And there it should have ended, if history is any guide. A young poet takes his own life. A city mourns. The relentless wheel of history churns on, forgetting as it goes.

This summer, however, there is a show at the museum of contemporary art in Cleveland with the title “How To Remain Human.” That’s a line from one of levy’s poems. The poem is called “Suburban Monastery Death Poem.” It is 13 pages long. The poem is mostly a long rant about Cleveland. It is also a tortured love letter — as are most rants. It contains passages like the following:
More… “How To Remain Human”

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at

I went to Istanbul’s Taksim Square in a blizzard. Snow comes with Istanbul winters but blizzards are rare. When I emerged from the funicular, Taksim was deserted, which was also rare. The streets spiraling out from its center like bicycle spokes were washed out by a volley of flurries that forced the few pedestrians to scuttle like crabs along the sidewalks. A few tourists gathered in front of the Republic Monument, which depicts two statues of Ataturk, one before and one after the war for independence; the wind had blown a mask of snow over his face on both statues. A batch of roses had been laid at his feet along the eastern portico, a reminder of his importance in Turkish memory. On the western portico, Ataturk’s snow-covered face looked toward Istiklal Caddesi, “Independence Avenue,” obscured by flurries.

I had gone to Istanbul partly because of the weather. I’d always wanted to go but the weather had been a bonus. I hadn’t thought Istanbul would be warm, exactly, but I hadn’t expected the Biblical storms we were at the time experiencing in Boston. I’d been thinking 40, maybe even 50 degree days. It couldn’t get much colder in a city lined with palm trees, right?

The driver who’d collected me at the airport had been the first to warn me of the impending snow fall, but he hadn’t been worried. “The snow here, it does not last.”

He’d been wrong on that point, but neither of us could have known then. I’d asked him if he could visit just one site in Istanbul, what would it be. I’d wanted to know what a local thought worth seeing, and I’d been hoping for a suggestion off the beaten path, the kind of tucked-away jewel only locals knew about. Without hesitating he’d said, “Taksim. If you want to see Istanbul, that’s where to go.”

More… “Huzun, Snowfall”

Robin Kish received her M.F.A in Creative Writing from Indiana University. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Florida Review, and Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, along with other journals. When not traveling, she teaches writing at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Collaborators in life and love.

In my first real music history class, I was confronted with a disturbing fact: I couldn’t name a single British composer. In a get-to-know-you exercise our professor asked us about our homes and histories, and then connected them to music. You’re from Louisiana? Tell us about the history of cajun and zydeco! Your family came from France? Name some French composers for us. Circling around the room, my professor stopped at me.

“Where are your ancestors from?”

“As far as I’m aware, my ancestry is almost entirely English.”

“Name a British composer!” More… “Labor of Love”

Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters,, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.

I interviewed Nora Ephron not long before her cancer diagnosis became known and a little more than a year before her death. She entered the Drexel University Picture Gallery, where we film our Drexel InterViews, looking game but weary. I thought she was tired out by the speaking engagements attached to the publication of her latest book, I Remember Nothing. In retrospect, I realize she was sick — and knew it. She was wearing black leggings and her hair framed her small head like a luxurious cap. I wonder now if it was a wig but tend to think not. Ephron always had marvelous hair; it was other attributes she complained about.
More… “I Remember Nora”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

When I was a teenager I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Instead of taking this beautiful book as a path to something useful, like a career in theoretical physics, I mainly used it as an excuse not to tidy my room. And I don’t mean I sat there screaming “Mum! Not now, I’m reading a book!”: if I understood it correctly, A Brief History of Time said that tidying my room would (in an absurdly, ridiculously tiny way) hasten the end of the universe. Surely, I argued, a tidy room wasn’t worth that…

That the argument was asinine should go without saying, but an argument can be asinine and still technically correct. More… “Don’t Tidy Your Room”

Uri Bram is the best-selling author of Thinking Statistically and writes about very big ideas and very small questions.

In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

More… “Struggling Through”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at
...a lifeline.

He swiveled around on his bar stool and leaned close to me and put his hands down my shirt. They gave off little sparks. I leaped off my stool like someone escaping flames.

“What the fuck are you doing? I’m married?”

“So what?”

He obviously had no respect for the institution.

More… “The German Guy”

Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) winner of a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown, (Mammoth Books), a 2009 National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story “Yalla!” set in South Sudan, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She is director of the Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.
That's what she said.

I am interested in Anthony Weiner’s wiener and so are you. Here’s why: Anthony Weiner has been behaving in such a way as to undermine the public career that he is, quite obviously, in love with. Weiner is in love with politics, he is in love with power, he is in love with being a public figure, he is in love with the things he can accomplish as a Congressman. He wants to keep his job and he wants his career as a politician to grow. He is also in love with doing naughty things that, by their nature, threaten the other things he loves. We’ve all been poked to a greater or lesser degree by the horns of this dilemma, and so we are interested when we see someone else getting poked, too.


But there are always those who say that commentators should keep their interests to the abstract realm of issues, debates, politics, and policy. Both Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Glenn Greenwald of Salon have come out in the last few days with columns decrying the lack of substance that surrounds Weinergate. Greenwald claims that Weinergate “sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.”

I will leave it to someone else to draw out the complicated connections between Greenwald’s sometimes holier-than-thou political writing style and his inability to understand that the private sexual activities of public figures “down to the intimate details” do not need  “other relevance” to be inherently relevant. The private sex lives of public figures are inherently relevant because it is fascinating to observe human beings acting strangely, or acting as we’ve always suspected that they are acting, or doing things counter to their own interests, or messing up, or ruining themselves. Consult Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky for more.

Perhaps the definitive defense of the relevance of Weiner’s wiener can be found in Ron Rosenbaum’s now-classic article for Harper’s from 1983. Rosenbaum was defending the New York Post in an article he called “Why Alexander Hamilton would have liked Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.” The Post, as we should expect, has been all over the Weiner story, writing classic headlines such as “Weiner is Shrinking” when Weiner’s staff was trying to keep him out of the public eye, and “Weiner hung out to dry – Fellow Dems keeping hands off Anthony’s expanding scandal.”

Rosenbaum is highly approving of such Post headlines and anticipates, in his 1983 essay, the disapproval of the Hertzbergs and Greenwalds of the world. Rosenbaum writes:

[T]he people who unthinkingly make fun of the Post and its concerns are the victims of a serious intellectual misconception, a kind of kneejerk gentility, a schoolmarmish journalism-school mentality that sees the only fit subject of “investigative reporting” to be official misconduct, bureaucratic sins as opposed to those of flesh and blood.

The attitude that Rosenbaum is criticizing here is exactly the one recommended by Glenn Greenwald (who can be, by the way, a very good investigative reporter). But Glenn doesn’t always do so well with flesh and blood. In complaining about the coverage of Weinergate, Greenwald writes, “Can one even imagine how much different — and better — our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter?”

Perhaps. Perhaps our political culture would be better if journalists ignored the wieners. But it wouldn’t be about us, about the human beings that I see before me on the streets, the ones I have been living with and of whom I count myself a member.

Rosenbaum makes one more point in his essay. He reminds us of a question Alexander Hamilton once asked: “Has it not been found that momentary passions … have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?” Yes, that fact has been found. It has been found time and time again. The lesson of it, nevertheless, eludes us almost as rapidly. We know about the passions, we know that we are creatures of the passions, but we pretend that it would be possible to erase those passions and become creatures of pure reason.

We can all understand, I suppose, Glenn Greenwald’s wish that matters of policy, utility, and justice were of preeminent concern. We can understand it, but we know it is not true to the reality of human experience. We’ve learned in the last few days that Anthony Weiner would rush with bated breath from his latest important vote in Congress to get to the locker room nearby where the next important work of the day could begin, that being sexting with his lady friends. That short trip from the halls of Congress to the House Members gym is a journey through the deepest pathways of the human soul. It is a journey from reason to passion, from the realm of policy debates and public interest to the realm of sexual desire and pubic interest. That journey from the House floor to the House gym is a lesson in how we are, if not always how we want to be. The New York Times may be the paper of record for the first part of the journey, but the New York Post is most definitely the paper of record for the second. A true story of human behavior in all its facets requires both. As another New York Post headline about Anthony Weiner put it so eloquently, “The Beat Goes On.” • 15 June 2011

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at
I'm a man whose pants are not on fire

It’s 1827, and you’re a social Englishman. Among fellow English gentlemen, you sit discussing the disappointment that was Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man. Bored with the subject matter, you excuse yourself for the evening. But as you rise from a fine mahogany chair, a hot sensation erupts in your pants pocket. Your trousers are immediately engulfed in flames, and you have to strip them off in front of a room full of astounded guests. Horrified, you slink away, running near-nude to your home as your wife awaits your return. She inquires, “Where are the matches? I’ve been waiting to light the stove for dinner.” This is your third pair of trousers ruined this month. Your wife is not happy. You could have died, and you’re fresh out of pants. It’s 1827, and friction-lit matches were recently invented, but a vessel for transport that will prevent them from igniting pockets or bags won’t be invented for another year.  More… “Pocket Protector”

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

Hello, everyone. My presentation today is about the harm that PowerPoint presentations are doing to the way we think and speak. To illustrate the danger, this warning is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

Next slide, please.

For nearly two millennia, from Isocrates and Cicero to the 19th century, the art of rhetoric was at the center of the Western tradition of liberal education. The liberally educated citizen was taught to reason logically and to express thoughts in a way calculated to inform and, when necessary, to motivate an audience. More… “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

Cultural critics generally place themselves at a distance from material culture. They may critique the world, but they don’t seem to inhabit it.

But why shouldn’t those of us who parse culture also celebrate it — acknowledge that we make choices all the time about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furniture we put in our homes? Why shouldn’t we, in other words, make recommendations regarding products and services that we think are unique, useful, or otherwise commendable?

“We’re IN society, aren’t we, and that’s our horizon?” as Henry James put it. In a consumer society, we want reliable recommendations regarding products that can improve our lives. At the same time, we tend to be suspect of product endorsements. We are aware that advertisers will use whatever means they can to sell — from testimonials by famous people to ingenious product placements to the incorporation of skepticism itself into their messages (i.e. couturiers who stitch “waist of money” into their garments). But if someone like myself, who has experience deconstructing culture, sets out to explain the value of a product, shouldn’t that carry weight? I realize, of course, that this could be seen as a more sophisticated advertising ploy, but that’s the mise en abyme of salesmanship and a risk you have to take.
More… “This Product Will Change Your Life”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
Earthworks, new and ancient, and the art of disappearance

On the day we went to see the Great Serpent Mound, the rain plunged from the sky. Lightning shot down to the cornfields and made the cornfields roar. Everything was dark. Guides recommend that you come to the Serpent early or late in the day, when shadows alongside it are deep and the winding shape becomes bolder. But on the day we visited, the whole of Ohio was shadow, save the neat green grass of the Serpent’s skin, which was oddly bright.

When the first European settlers came to farm southwestern Ohio, they found earthen lumps scattered all around the land. They did not know what these lumps could be — some farmers went about flattening them, others farmed around them. In the 1840s, a local doctor and a newspaper editor from the town of Chillicothe investigated the mounds. They discovered wooden structures inside, built to house the dead of Native tribes whose names are lost to us now. Jewelry and effigies were placed around the cremated remains to keep the spirits company. Then the Mound Builders covered over the structures with layers of soil and sand. As the generations passed, new dead were buried on top of the old, and more earth was put on top, until the mounds grew higher and higher and the little wooden structure collapsed within.
More… “The Face of the Earth”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about television shows we watched, particularly the ones stigmatized as “bad,” “junk,” and “garbage.” She threw in a few suggestions, none of which I thought were particularly terrible – a few sitcoms and reality shows. Finally, I said, “well, I watch wrestling,” to which, she replied, “you win.” This response is not unfamiliar. As somebody who regularly watches wrestling, my fandom is frequently approached with raised eyebrows, “seriouslys,” and the inevitable “you know it’s fake, right?”

More… “Spandex Ballet”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
Yes, you can eat fruit for every meal.

During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city.

After I had the pallets out on the dock, I’d root around the crates and baskets and boxes. This is why I didn’t eat breakfast — after all, I had this fruit smorgasbord all to myself. I might cut up a cantaloupe or honeydew or watermelon with my pocketknife, or just grab a handful of cherries or peaches, squirting juice all over my hands, then wiping it off on my t-shirt. I’d spit pits and seeds off the dock, or toss them across the lot trying to hit a truck trailer. My general thoughts were: You can’t eat fruit all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.

At the age of 12, all seemed clear and good in the world, and I assumed fresh produce would be my life’s work. But that was not to be. My father sold out his share of the business to my uncle when I was 16, and my job at the stand no longer existed. Soon enough the stand itself was no longer, as my cousins turned it into a successful, modern brick-and-mortar market.

As I grew older, I began to think of those early summer mornings, sitting alone on the loading dock, gorging myself on fruit, waiting for the work day to begin, as quite possibly the closest moments to pure happiness I have ever experienced. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to recapture during my current late summer fruit binges. Or perhaps that’s just the writer in me trying to justify why I’ve decided to eat fruit for dinner.

In any case, I get ridiculously excited any time a fruit finds its way into a savory dish. I am willing to admit that I have unabashedly embraced all food trends involving savory fruit: grilled watermelon, pineapple in tacos, melon soups, blueberry barbecue sauce, apple slaw, that whole strawberries-in-salads fad.

One thing I’ve always loved about the Italian table is that meals so often begin with melon and prosciutto. But beyond that classic pairing, there is a whole category of savory fruit dishes that surprised me on a recent trip to the Alpine wine region of Alto Adige (or Südtirol, as its German-speaking citizens call it).

There, in the town of Appiano (or Eppan as the German speakers call it), at a restaurant called Pillhof, the waiter informed me that the day’s special was risotto ai mirtilli, or blueberry risotto, a traditional dish of Trento and Alto Adige. I didn’t even look at the rest of the menu. When the dish arrived, the rice had a bright purple hue, and was served with a tiny lamb chop on top and garnished with blueberries. I was in heaven.

When I returned home, I delved deeper into fruit risottos, and saw that this was far from a novelty dish. In my research, I found traditional recipes for strawberry risotto, apple risotto, and pear risotto, among others. I even found a contemporary risotto recipe that called for…melon and prosciutto. To anyone who loves risotto, this is probably not too shocking. Risotto, after all, can famously be made from just about anything — seafood, mushrooms, greens, saffron, truffles, wine, beer, you name it.

So, as summer winds down, I bring you three fruity recipes. As with all risotto and pasta recipes — think of these as a template. With a little experimentation, I can envision fresh honeydews or plums or nectarines in place of the berries and cantaloupe.

I know I intend to experiment a little more. After all, you can’t eat fruit all day, unless you have it for dinner, too. • 2 September 2014

Tips for making risotto

Be patient and zen-like. Risotto can take 20 minutes or more to make, and requires constant attention and stirring. You’ll notice that all of these recipes call for a little wine. The rest of the bottle is for the cook. This will help the time pass.

Make sure you add the stock to the rice little by little, never drowning your rice and never letting the liquid completely dry out.

Make your own stock (vegetable, in the case of these recipes). You will thank yourself for this.

Be sure to use the correct rice, either Carnaroli or Arborio — no Uncle Ben’s here. I highly recommend Carnaroli rice, hailed as the “king” or “caviar” of Italian rices. If you’ve only used Arborio in the past, do yourself a favor and try Carnaroli.

With risotto, the rice should be served al dente, meaning it should be tender, and should be neither too crunchy nor too squishy. Taste the rice as you go along to make sure you don’t undercook or overcook it.

Serve and eat risotto the moment it’s finished. Call people to the table as you’re finishing your final stirrings.

Melon and Prosciutto Risotto


6 cups vegetable stock (below)
4 tablespoons butter
½ medium cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
2 shallots, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup mascarpone
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped


Bring 6 cups vegetable stock to a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add cantaloupe, shallots, and garlic. Cook, stirring, until liquid is thickened, 8-10 minutes. Add rice and white wine, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take about 20-25 minutes.

Once rice is finished, stir in mascarpone and prosciutto and season with pepper to taste.

Serves 6

Recipe adapted from Cassy Vires, Home Wine Kitchen, St. Louis.

Risotto alle Fragole (Strawberry Risotto)


About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
7 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
1½ cups dry white wine
8-10 medium strawberries, hulled
1 cup light cream
Salt and pepper


Bring the stock to a boil. Melt half the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated in butter. Pour in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed.

About halfway through the cooking time, mash all but two or three of the strawberries with a fork and add the mashed berries to the risotto. Set the remaining strawberries aside and continue stirring in the stock until it has all been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is almost tender, stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with strawberry slices.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Risotto ai Mirtilli (Blueberry Risotto)


About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¾ cup dry white wine
1¾ cups blueberries
½ cup light cream
Salt and pepper
Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated (optional)


Bring the stock to a boil. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened.

Add the rice and stir until the grains are coated in butter. Sprinkle in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the blueberries and add the remainder to the pan. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is tender, stir in the cream and transfer to a warm serving dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the reserved blueberries and, if desired, serve with pecorino.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Vegetable Stock


4 potatoes, coarsely chopped
4 onions, coarsely chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
4 turnips, coarsely chopped
4 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
12 cups water
Pinch of salt


Place all vegetables in a large pot. Pour in water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then strain into a bowl or container, pressing down well on the cooked vegetables with a spoon. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to three days or in the freezer.

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).

Shagga glowered, a fearsome sight to see. “Shagga son of Dolf likes this not. Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop off his manhood.”

No, that’s not a parody of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin; it is A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. And if I begin my discussion of what is in some respects a remarkable creative achievement with a sample of bad prose, that’s because A Game of Thrones is virtually an encyclopedia of bad prose. It has bad exposition, bad dialogue, bad sex scenes, bad nature description, even bad free indirect discourse, to use the term for the narrative device Martin employs to advance the plot while taking us inside the heads of his principal characters.

More… “Shagga Son of Dolf Likes this Not”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
This paper is a modified version of a talk that was given at the Smart Set Forum: Free Speech on the College Campus on April 21, 2016 at Drexel University. The Forum was sponsored by the Pennoni Honors College.

Discussions about free speech on college campuses are made all the more difficult because many of the controversies that ultimately become framed as controversies about speech begin as controversies about racism, racial equality, sex discrimination, sexual assault, and rape. These are not easy issues to discuss – especially when we disagree. And yet the current state of the “Free Speech” debate on college campuses amounts to little more than a fruitless exchange about who is silencing whom, which distracts us from the issues that require our attention.

More… “Space, Speech, and Subordination on the College Campus”

As both an educator and as an attorney Laura Beth Nielsen has spent her career working on the role of law in social change. Her License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech provocatively examines how the law can be used to deal with racist and sexist street speech. In addition to being a professor and director of legal studies at Northwestern University, Nielsen also serves as a research professor at the American Bar Foundation.
And a turbulent one at that.

As I’d been saying, it’s always something else. Take roofs, for instance. You can go months, even years without thinking much about them. They’re in jokes like, “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace,” which considering my recent experience with a broken furnace, would be a low blow.


Actually, if there’s snow on the roof, it’s a good thing. That means the insulation is working and heat isn’t escaping. Or it could mean that the snow on the roof will leak, stain, peel paint — or worse.

When that starts, the first hope is that it’s just the flashing. I used to listen to a lot of home-repair programs on the radio — amazing, the trivia I store away in the file cabinet of the mind, stuffing it so that I can’t find the file concerning the whereabouts of my glasses or keys or that elusive receipt for taxes.

I was in possession of a great deal of roof trivia. It went way past metal, tar, tile, slate, asphalt, the advantages and disadvantages of each. You could — and people have — filled books with information about just slate roofs.

And I was going to need everything I knew. 

When my next-door neighbors got a new roof a year or so ago, I could hear my biological house clock starting to tick. Our houses are about the same age. If they needed a roof, I probably did, too. I figured I’d wait a year, and if they were happy with the roof work, I could get a reference.

The best way to replace a roof is to do it before you absolutely have to. But replacing — or even fixing — a roof is one of those home repairs that the homeowner given to habits of procrastination might well put off. I might and I did. For one thing, the roof’s up high and I’m down low, my eyes not much more than five feet off the ground.

From time to time I’d step back from the house in the front yard, where the garden gnome would be if I had a garden gnome and where the neighbors could watch me being a responsible homeowner. I’d stare up at the roof, sometimes squinting into the sun, sometimes with the sun at my back, which made the granules on the roof gleam. On days when the weather was mild, I’d repeat the process from the back yard.

The roof looked pretty good for its age. What exact age? Darned if I knew.

I couldn’t really tell that much from the ground. Even if I had climbed a ladder to look at the roof, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.

I provided myself with many happy years of procrastination in just that manner. I call them happy, but they weren’t carefree. I wouldn’t have partaken in all those sessions of roof-staring if I’d been confident that the roof was sound, that it would outlast my need of it.

Roofers, used car salesmen, and members of congress have about the same level of trust in the public eye these days. However, I get to vote every couple of years, and I can do research on the car and get it inspected. A lot can go wrong with roofing.

I know enough not to pay any mind to those printed circulars offering me a senior discount on a roof, or inviting me to use my house as a demo model for the neighborhood, with finders’ fees for any referred neighbors. So I’d toss those all away, step back and take another look — wishful, hopeful, and semi-conscious that I was fibbing to myself when I said the roof was fine.

But when the wind blew a couple of shingles down into the yard, my years of procrastination were over. Truth be told, I did allow myself to wonder if those couple of shingles were actually important. I didn’t know how long they’d been there without any problem. Maybe I could ignore them?

It was analogous to finding a bolt on the floor. How did that get there? Where did it come from? Was it going to matter? If not, why had it been wherever it was in the first place? And having no answers, I’d put the bolt in a drawer just in case I needed it. They add up, those loose bolts.

Analogies, however, break down. I wasn’t going to put these shingles in a drawer, or even in the garage. I stepped back in the yard to see where the tiles came from. Did that part of the roof even matter?

On closer inspection of a shingle, I discovered that mine had been a white roof. But it was white no longer: too many granules were gone. As I tested it for strength and flexibility, the shingle snapped in my hands like a sheet of matzo.

I toured the inside of house, looking at the ceiling to hunt for a sign of damage. I don’t usually stare at the ceiling like this. Was that something up there around the vent? Yes? Even if it turned out to be the flashing, I’d still need to call the roofer who had such a good reputation.

One major decision down.

The roofer arrived, ready to climb onto the roof and tell me the news. No sense replacing a whole roof if you don’t have to, he said. When I pointed at the problem area, he said the magic word — “flashing.” He couldn’t have said anything more welcome to me. I felt a wave of good will wash over me. Golly, I was glad this company came highly recommended because this was a darned good sales method.

I hoped what he’d find was going to be better than the state of the economy; if not, I was about to “invest” (i.e., spend) what used to be called a “fair piece of change.”

He returned with his digital camera, the next best thing to being there myself. Just as well that I hadn’t made the trip on my own. He explained to me what I was seeing; it was a little like looking at my dental X-rays.

The upshot was that after staring at a brochure with names of shingle colors as poetic as those of lipsticks, I phoned the roofing company to give them the names of a few colors I liked. The salesman returned with a full complement of shingles, which he held up against the brick, partially in sun, partially in shade.

The process repeated itself: Which is better, this or that? The roofer was remarkably patient and well organized; the number of tiles in the running decreased. But the man had seen my roof — he knew that I knew, and so on.

A neighbor came over from across the street to weigh in on the color selection. After all, the neighbors would be looking at my roof more than I would. This was almost fun.

Besides, I’d learned enough to know that this roofing company wasn’t going to vanish in the middle of the job, that the workmanship of the company was excellent, that they were entirely reliable. I’m sure the ridge vent they use is exactly like the finest ridge vent that I heard about on the radio.

Even so, the best part of getting this roof was that with the lifetime shingle and the extra warrantee, I’ll never have to do this again.

I hope. • 8 February 2011

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.

For a long time, most academic studies of metal were as dark and foreboding as the songs appeared to be. With titles containing phrases like “heavy metal music and adolescent alienation” (1996) and “delinquent friends, social control, and delinquency” (1993), these works looked at whether being a metalhead was associated with a higher likelihood of depression, suicide, violence, and a particular kind of adolescent male aggression.
More… “The Positive Psychology of Metal Music”

Despite appearances to the contrary, Christine Ro doesn’t care much for metal. She writes and edits from London.
This  Louis Vuitton ad ran in the print Sunday NYT next to its article on RBF.

Every few months there’s another finger-wagging piece about models in the fashion industry. Generally, the topic is weight: the epidemic of anorexia; the efforts underway to mandate a minimum weight; praise for more robust models (more robust meaning a few pounds above malnourishment).

The other topic that crops up is age. It was recently reported that some runway models are as young as 13. This hardly seems surprising. If you search “Teen Models” online, you’ll find pages of agencies geared to this group.

But what exactly is the problem with very young models? Is the issue one of child labor? Plenty of teenagers work in theater and play sports in front of large audiences. Those activities don’t warrant outrage.
More… “Face Value”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
No problem!

Looking for some outdoor summer fun but hate the crowds of Yellowstone, the remoteness of Dry Tortugas, the heat of Death Valley, and the obviousness of the Grand Canyon? Maybe you’d instead enjoy picnicking in James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park in Georgia. Or swimming at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Kentucky. Or walking your leashed pet through Harry “Babe” Woodyard State Natural Area in Illinois.


If so, you should get on that now. This is not a good time for state parks. With economic conditions making employment and education seem like privileges, recreation is hardly thought a right. Which is why the state parks make easy targets for the nation’s 50 governors and 7,382 state legislators looking to cut costs. Which is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in turn, has placed state parks and historic sites on its latest list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

According to the organization, 26 states have seen reductions in state park funding. This means cuts in staffing, maintenance, and access. A New York Times slideshow of the impact includes wistful photos of a donation box in an Arizona park, a Colorado ranger at sunset by a sign that reads “No Services Availalble in this Area Due to Budget Cuts,” a motorcycle club whose members have volunteered to mow the lawns of an Idaho park, and — perhaps most elegiac — a picnic table overtaken by a pale green sea of early summer grasses in New York.

Reductions in access to state parks is unfortunate for many obvious reasons: It lessens opportunities both inexpensive recreation and outdoor experiences; it also marginalizes such experiences by treating them as expendable. But less obvious is how such cuts reinforce the image of the state park as a kind of poor man’s national park. Would Yellowstone ever close? What a dumb question. But New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park? Well, times are tough…

National Parks get all the glory. Last year, they were the subject of a 12-hour Ken Burns documentary. This year, they started appearing on quarters as part of the U.S. Mint’s new decade-long “America the Beautiful” series (Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Hood National Forest make up the first batch). Their dramatic landscapes come together to form the country’s natural identity.

The state parks don’t do this kind of cultural work. Their diffuse nature — the fact that they are the products of individual states and not the federal government — prevent them from taking on symbolic meaning beyond their home state’s borders. And yet as a whole, the state parks could be more accurate reflection of our national character and aspirations than their national counterparts.

Parks in the United States actually began with the states — or the lack thereof. While it’s true that Lincoln’s preservation of Yosemite in 1864 marked the first time any federal government granted natural land such protection, California initially oversaw the reserve. Eight years later, the federal government preserved what is today Yellowstone, but since Montana and Wyoming had not yet been made states, responsibility for the park fell to the Department of the Interior. New national parks were created over the next several decades, and in 1916, Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service.

The state park system is arguably more diverse than its national counterpart. This seems counterintuitive, considering the 58 national parks are made up of biological and geological features that range from volcanoes to giant sequoias, glaciers to dry deserts. But the epic-ness of the national parks gives the system a kind of sameness — a collection of Big Wonders.

State parks can at first seem a bit tame in comparison — many consist of forest, hiking trails, maybe a lake with a swimming beach. They’re meant to provide easy access to the natural world (when budget cuts aren’t reducing it, that is). None of us can visit on a whim, say, the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, formed by a collapsed volcano. But in the two free days we have each week, we can fairly easy get to Lums Pond State Park or Cherry Creek State Park or Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

But they are a much more idiosyncratic bunch. Some have surprising histories, such as New Jersey’s Parvin State Park. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the public works program that created more than 800 state parks between 1933 and 1942. During World War II, Parvin served as a summer camp for the children of uprooted Japanese-Americans, then as a POW camp for German soldiers, and later as a temporary home for the Kalmyks of southeast Europe who had avoided Soviet deportation to Central Asia. Today it offers canoeing, swimming, and picnic tables with grills.

Other parks are notable for their non-epic invocation of the epic ideal, such as Nebraska’s Smith Falls, established around the state’s highest waterfall; you may never have considered whether a place as flat-seeming as Nebraska even had a waterfall, but it does, and Nebraska thought enough of the feature to set it aside as something to look at and enjoy. Visit Leonard Harrison State Park and you can see the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. And then there’s Oklahoma’s Little Sahara State Park, whose sandy landscapes inspired allusions to the brutal African desert but whose main warning is, “You must bring your own Dune Buggy to ride dunes.”

The beauty of state parks is that you don’t need a waterfall or Little Sahara to have one. You don’t even need an area all that natural. California’s Eastshore State Park on the San Francisco Bay sits, in part, on former attempts to fill the East Bay. “[T]he shoreline reflects the influences of both natural systems and human intervention,” according to the park’s general plan, “with natural features, such as tidal marshes and sand and gravel beaches, intermingled with man-made elements, such as engineered revetments, construction rubble, and other debris.” Massachusetts’ Pope John Paul II Park Reservation was once a landfill and drive-in theater. 

Every state park falls under the purview of some state agency. In Alabama, for instance, that’s the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Most states have “natural resources” as part of the department name. Others, like Idaho, play up the human-use aspect of the parks with names such as the Department of Parks and Recreation. Connecticut offers Environmental Protection, while Rhode Island practices Environmental Management and Delaware exerts Environmental Control. Louisiana — with its Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism — suggests that state parks aren’t so much about preserving the environment as they are about maintaining a place to have fun. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks oversees that state’s parks; Nebraska is not as magnanimous to its wildlife: its parks are run by the Game and Parks Commission.

State parks are everywhere. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there are more than 6,000 state park units in the 50 states. The system receives more than 725 million visits a year. And yet you’ll never see the state parks on any kind of national calendar, on the face of any coin. This is unfortunate, as the diversity of the parks and the states’ approaches to nature; the aspiration behind arguing that you may not have the Grand Canyon, but you have a grand canyon; the gumption of saying that when life hands you a landfill and former drive-in theater, make a state park, collectively create an identity as inspiring as the that of the national parks. I mean, if you’re going to have values embedded in nature, those seem like seem like pretty good ones to me. • 15 June 2010

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

Religion and spirituality are not subjects that have figured heavily into the world of American comics. When they have, traditionally, it’s been either in the form of evangelism (i.e. Jack Chick’s hardcore proselytizing pamphlets), straightforward adaptation (Picture Stories from the Bible and Robert Crumb’s by-the-numbers version of Genesis) or nose-thumbing iconoclasm (Winshluss’s In God We Trust being a recent example). Rare is the comic or cartoonist that attempts to grapple with issues of theology — or at least Western theology — in the modern world.

Not Chester Brown, though. While far from being the central focus of his bibliography, Brown has long been fascinated with exploring and questioning Christian doctrine, especially when it dovetails with sexuality. It’s a fascination that comes to a head in his latest work, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible.

More… “Chester’s Christian Comics”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered community engagement lead for By night, he writes about really nerdy things — mostly comics — for Robot 6 and Comics Journal, among others.

Baseball has almost always centered on one thing, which sounds reductionist, but isn’t terribly uncommon for a sport. Hockey, for instance, is all about time and space. If you are an offensive player, you wish to create time and space; if you are a defensive player, your goal is to limit both. Baseball has long been about pitching. Even the most successful batsman records an out 70% of the time. Everything is slanted towards the pitcher. Pitching is what wins games in October, and even offensive postseason heroics are often more a matter of timing — the clutch hit, that is — rather than sustained excellence.

Pitching has failed to rule the roost exactly twice: during the steroid era, when hitters began putting up numbers you’d never even say you accrued in a summer of Wiffle ball against your younger sister, and when one of the sport’s prospective pitching legends showed everyone he was that much better at hitting, and thus proceeded to overhaul America’s then-pastime. After which, when it was all over, everyone had come to know the value of pitching even more.
More… “Leaving the Mound”

Colin Fleming‘s fiction has recently appeared in the VQR, Black Clock, Post Road, Boulevard, and The Southwest Review, with more work appearing of late in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, The New Criterion, and Sports Illustrated. He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His third book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, is forthcoming from Dzanc in August 2015, and he is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write his Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time. Find him on the web at
Even the signs aren't sure.

Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys. More… “The Last Walk”

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
Friends with benefits?

While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive. More… “The Man Who Would Bed King?”

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

After watching three seasons of Damages straight through, I have become terrified of the wealthy. What started as a late-night, jet-lagged distraction turned into an obsession, as happens with the whole TV-on-DVD phenomenon. There’s always another episode right there, and you don’t have to really be anywhere for the next 44 minutes, so why not? After 36 episodes in two weeks, the message I took from this show about a ruthless attorney ruthlessly going after ruthless TV actor stand-ins for Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff is that people with money are ruthless, will do anything to protect their wealth, and think nothing of having someone in the middle class knocked off if need be.


  • Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel by Anne de Courcy. 480 pages. Harper Perennial.
  • A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mitford Mosley. 296 pages. Times Books.

Of course the reason the show works is because we live in the age of Goldman Sachs domination. Glenn Beck’s followers could easily believe his insane conspiracy theory that George Soros secretly rules the world because it sure seems like he can afford to. My own fear of the rich goes back further, back to when I was working in nonprofit fundraising, a job I should never have held. Overhearing a few too many conversations about why the white woman who received a yacht as her 21st birthday present was donating money to fund family planning clinics in low income African-American communities made me fear that even when they’re being charitable, the wealthy are being evil. It’s a bogeyman-like construct I’ve been neglectful about shaking, and Damages has reawakened it in my mind.

The current financial shenanigans almost makes one nostalgic for the aristocracy. They were at least more up front with their disdain for the rabble, and they would never feign contrition in front of a Senate panel. Take Diana Mitford. Her biography, subtitled Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel, shows a woman so bored with her estates, her elite societal contacts, her world travel that she became a fascist and befriended the “poor dear Hitler,” as she referred to him in letters to her sisters. She married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, in Goebbels’ house, and encouraged the romance between Hitler and her sister Unity.

But even more remarkable than her biography is her 1977 memoir, A Life of Contrasts. While one’s older years are generally a time of wise reflection, Mitford stands her ground. When looking back at her involvement with Mosley’s politics, and her own frequent trips to Nazi Germany, she writes:

Forty-four years have since gone by; we have had our ups and downs and sorrows and joys and never have I regretted the step I took then. If I have a regret, it is that I could not have done more to help [Mosley] and further his aims, for there is no doubt in my mind that the disasters which have befallen our country and our continent need never have been.

If Diana Mitford had anyone killed, she kept quiet on the subject in her memoirs. But having tea with Hitler seems like the equivalent. On the subject of money and power itself, she’s fantastically mum. She addresses her wealth and assets as if they were perfectly normal, as if a post-prison trip to the Mediterranean would be familiar to all. That seems to me a saner sensibility than this ruthless need for more and more acquisition and domination. Her obliviousness — in contrast to greed — would make her a poor subject for the next season of Damages, starting up again in July. Watching the news, however, I doubt the show is hurting for a new villain. • 17 June 2011

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of She currently resides in Chicago.

The Metropolitan Museum Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue (the former site of the Whitney Museum now relocated to hip new quarters downtown) currently features an exhibition that seems perfectly suited to an outpost of the Met. What should an outpost do, after all, if not reframe and critique the masterworks of the established space? The exhibition now on display, entitled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, does this with intelligence and panache.

More… “Non Finito”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.