Reading, Looking, and Listening / February 6, 2016

In December, I posted “What I’m Reading.” I want it to be a regular thing, but I also think that limiting these to what I’m reading is too constraining. So I’m rechristening this series “Reading, Looking, and Listening” to cover all the bases.

  • Nikil Saval, “’I Would Prefer Not To’: The Origins of the White Collar Worker.” In the course I’m currently teaching, I assign Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I first read it in high school. My English teacher told us that it’s the greatest short story ever written, but we would not appreciate it. Mr Vernetti was right: I didn’t appreciate it at all. In fact, I couldn’t stand the story. Now that I’m not sixteen and have a better feeling for absurdity and working life, I agree that “Bartleby” is among the best short fiction there is. Saval’s article (an excerpt from his book Cubed) gives the history of office work in America in the 19th century. He explains the cultural anxiety around this new type of work and the distrust of those who engaged in it. We’ve come to accept office work as part of the fabric of our lives; it’s good to be reminded that it really is a recent phenomenon.


  • Zach St George, “They Seem to Be Immortal.” I recently discovered Guernica magazine. I dig it. St George’s article is about efforts to save the sequoias. Perhaps it’s that I grew up in California, but there’s something sacred about the giant sequoias and their redwood cousins. They’re remarkable organisms—reminders that life and time are not the exclusive rights of the animal kingdom. Some sequoias are over three thousand years old. It’s humbling to think about a tree rooted in one place for three millennia, withstanding all the changes of its ecosystem. Of course, the greatest challenge to the survival of sequoias is humanity. Reckless deforestation, climate change, and even misguided attempts at conservation have all pushed the giant sequoia toward extinction. As with everything in the world of ecology, it’s a complicated story. St George spends some time with a man from a foresting company that seems to be part of the problem and part of the solution. I’ve been thinking a bit about ecology recently. I feel the potential in thinking about life and society in terms of ecosystems beyond simple “sustainability.” The St George essay creates a conversation with another author I’ve been reading—Wendell Berry. From his recent collection Our Only World (Amazon), “A Forest Conversation” takes seriously the need for local economies as locations of knowledge, care, and responsibility.


  • John Moreland, “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” I’ve been listening a lot to Moreland’s excellent recent album, High on Tulsa Heat (Spotify). It’s the kind of writing that makes me incredibly envious. Check out the lyrics. There’s not a wasted word. It’s concrete without being too personal; they leave a poetic space that invites the listener in. Here’s Moreland doing a live version at SXSW.