10. On Writing

20170709-1

Stephen King

2000

You must not come lightly to the blank page.

In the crowded genre of books about writing, we can now declare Stephen King’s On Writing to be a standard. It’s so often read and recommended that many who have never tried a word of King’s fiction will yet have this one on their shelves. And for good reason. King, whose stories have entered our cultural lexicon in a way that other fiction mega-sellers, like John Grisham or Danielle Steel, couldn’t dream of, is as successful and prolific a guide as you could wish for. Continue reading “10. On Writing”

9. The Lottery and Other Stories

Shirley Jackson book, The Lottery and Other Stories, sitting on a bed of stones.

Shirley Jackson

1949

“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.

Around eight years ago I was dutifully reading my way through an anthology called The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia. I sometimes forget it now, but this book was a great supplementary education, even for somebody who had ostensibly begun to study literature. I’d recommend it to anyone. It was here that I first encountered “The Overcoat” by Gogol, “The Dead” by Joyce, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, to name some. Among all of the gems in this collection, slotted between Zora Neale Hurston and Henry James, was a story by an author I had not heard of until then. The editor’s introduction noted that, after this story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, the magazine received more letters from readers—most of them puzzled or upset—than they had received for anything else they had ever printed. That alone is an intoxicating fact to carry into a story, and like seemingly everyone else who reads “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, I was horrified and delighted, and probably uncomfortable about the ancient tribal reflex that it stirred faintly within me. Continue reading “9. The Lottery and Other Stories”

7. Silent Spring

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

1962

The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

Fifty-five years ago a voice emerged to report on a little known and unromantic cause: environmental destruction due to chemical pesticide use. Rachel Carson wrote a steady and meticulous essay, calling for environmental protection with a keen feeling for the damage being wrought on the world’s ecosystems, and confidence that her readers would share in her outrage. Her book Silent Spring was not only a well-researched polemic—it was also an ode to the natural world as she saw it: a wonder of complexity, a system of checks and balances in which every piece was necessary to the health of the whole. Carson’s descriptions of environment and biology broke new ground in popular writing on science and are still some of the finest examples of the genre. She shows us nature as a delicate machine, which, if tampered with, can run itself into grotesque and alarming shapes. Recklessly transforming the natural world, she wrote, would have effects on humanity that could last generations. With its enormous popularity, Silent Spring kick-started the environmental consciousness of a nation and, along with the ensuing denials and smears from the chemical industry, sparked a new phase of the never-ending battle between commerce and the defenders of a clean and hospitable planet. Continue reading “7. Silent Spring”

4. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

1937

De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.

Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece broke many rules of black American fiction when it came out in 1937. It depicted black communities in the South without any pretense of raising their status in the eyes of “cultured” white, Northern readers. In Their Eyes Were Watching God the characters speak their own language, tell their own stories, and move in their own world. They work on farms and manage stores; they drink at dance halls where men fight over women and guitar music plays until dawn. Hurston’s contemporaries, whose reviews of Their Eyes seem self-serving and incongruous when read today, lamented that such a novel could only fuel white stereotypes of black people as uneducated farmhands and Sambo clowns. To Richard Wright, as he wrote in his infamous review, Hurston had done nothing but captured the simplicity of the “Negro folk-mind”—hers, he wrote, was just one more tale in a long and enforced tradition, “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” Continue reading “4. Their Eyes Were Watching God”

2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers

2000

Could he really be doing all this for attention? Could he really be milking his own past to solicit sympathy from a too-long indifferent public?

It’s San Francisco in the early nineties. The Silicon Valley playground of today has not yet devoured the grubby hippie paradise of the mid-century. Instead, the two seemed for a time to be moving in parallel. Startup culture was already there, an incubator for cool, new things made with creative freedom and virtually no hope of profit. Few would have seen it, like droves of overachieving tech utopians now do, as billionaire’s first steps. Continue reading “2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”