Strangers In Their Own Land

STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: ANGER AND MOURNING ON THE AMERICAN RIGHT
By Arlie Russell Hochschild

The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of people scratching their heads. Here was a figure with no experience, and whose candidacy seemed little more than a bad joke, upending the entire established political system. A number of books rushed to explain what had happened, and in particular what made Trump voters tick. Of these, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, while not providing a complete answer, is the best we have so far.

Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, takes as her test ground the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana, where petrochemical refining is the main industry. This has led to a lot of local problems with pollution, and Hochschild takes the environment as a “keyhole issue” to understand how people with different political points of view and from different social and economic classes respond to something that affects everyone equally (meaning that they all breathe the same poison air, eat fish from the same dirty rivers, and are threatened by the same sinkholes). How do right-wingers square the damage caused by pollution with their resistance to regulating polluters?

In answering that question three concepts become central: the Great Paradox, the empathy wall, and the deep story.

The Great Paradox is that made famous by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do so many people vote against their own clear self-interest? In particular, why do poor, working-class people vote for governments whose policies actually punish them economically, while only benefiting a tiny elite?

The empathy wall is what divides us from understanding how people with different points of view from our own think and feel. It seems from most reports that this wall is becoming higher, and more and more a fixed part of the American political landscape. Hence the need for the kind of immersive reportage that Hochschild undertakes.

The deep story is a myth, of the kind you get in Plato’s dialogues where someone wants to make a point by telling a story. The story isn’t “true” (that is, it never happened) but it nevertheless represents a felt reality or can be used as a thought experiment. As Hochschild puts it, “a deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”

For Hochschild the deep story explaining Trump voters and Tea Party members is of a bunch of people waiting in line for some promised payoff. Hard work and self-reliance will lead to the realization of the American Dream, or at least some fair reward waiting just over the horizon. Unfortunately, people standing in line see others jumping the queue or being unfairly advanced ahead of them. To their horror they feel themselves actually slipping backward, despite doing nothing wrong and playing by the rules. They feel like strangers at home, and that they have lost honour and respect.

The cornerstone of their faith – and the Tea Party is a religion: “not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of feeling about a place and its people” – is hatred of the government. Not distrust, but hatred. The government has betrayed them. It has taken their money and done nothing to protect them or improve their lives. Instead, they’ve only looted the till, feathering their own nests with public money.

Public servants, they feel, should not get rich for doing their duty. This explains the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s anti-Hillary television ad that asked how she had gotten so “filthy rich” from a lifetime spent in politics. Nor was this the result of a true double standard. One didn’t expect probity or altruism from a reality TV personality and NYC real estate developer, but from a senator and Secretary of State?

In one of the more telling anecdotes in Hochschild’s book she talks to a local man whose idea of public service is modeled on the church, with those doing government work living modestly like nuns. Similarly, tithing is seen as an honour, where taxes are seen as tyranny. As unrealistic as all this may be, it’s a point of view that I think is widely shared.

As for the environment, I’m afraid that message is being lost completely. Pollution, according to Tea Party doctrine, is “the price we pay for capitalism.” Hochschild breaks down one interviewee’s point of view:

Clean air and water; those were good. She wanted them, just as she wanted a beautiful home. But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” An operator job in an oil plant is a passport to houses in Pine Mist. One of those rare engineering job gets you into Autumn Run, and a high management job gets you into Courtland. The Arctic Cat, the SUV, the house: all these, she felt, came indirectly from oil. For its part, the federal government got in the way of both oil and the good life.

This kind of thinking drives progressives crazy, but it isn’t crazy itself. It denies reality (or, in Karl Rove’s deathless words, “the reality-based community”) as well as economic self-interest for what Hochschild calls “emotional self-interest”: “a giddy release from the feelings of being a stranger in one’s own land.” This sense of elation or “high” is what Trump offered, the feeling of “being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” In comparison, what could reality offer? Downward mobility, or moving backward in the line. Of course Trump was only going to make the lives of his followers worse, but you could say the same for any drug.

Notes:
Review first published online July 19, 2017. Brian Alexander’s Glass House is another excellent work of social reportage on much the same phenomenon. 

The Siege of Mecca

THE SIEGE OF MECCA: THE 1979 UPRISING AT ISLAM’S HOLIEST SHRINE
By Yaroslav Trofimov

“Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is today commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible. Thirty years later it is massive, seemingly permanent, and overshadows in importance the American military presence anywhere else in the world.” – Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

Why? Short answer: because of the Carter Doctrine, announced in that president’s State of the Union address in January 1980 where he declared the entire Persian Gulf region to be in the vital interests of the U.S. and therefore under its protection/domination.

Shorter answer: oil.

And why at this time? Because at the end of 1979 there had been an Islamic awakening that had challenged the authority of the Great Powers. On November 4, 1979 the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed. On Christmas Day of the same year the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan. Between these two events, on November 20, a group of fundamentalist terrorists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for almost two weeks.

Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping account of the siege of the mosque tells an important story that I suspect few people today know anything about, and helpfully plugs it into the larger context of militant Islamic radicalism.

Few people even at the time knew what was going on. A news and information blackout, of a kind impossible to imagine today, was enforced by Saudi authorities, to the extent that the different branches of the police and military that were directly involved only had a shaky idea themselves as to what they were up against. This, along with poor training and lack of cooperation, prolonged the siege and led to significant loss of life.

As for the larger political context, in terms of both its geographical and historical importance Trofimov may be guilty of overstating things. While there were foreign elements in the terrorist gang and the Saudi government did need to import some Western talent to advise them on the final assault, the takeover of the mosque was — unlike the Iranian revolution and capture of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a domestic story. Saudi Arabia was then, as it remains today, a mess. The tension between its government and religious establishment, which has been papered over for a century with a free flow of oil dollars, may be unresolvable.

In hindsight, what makes the story of the siege seem so important is the immediate U.S. response: the massive increase in America’s footprint in the Middle East that would in turn lead to ever greater forms of backlash. It’s curious that this is how it played out. Unallied and even antagonistic Islamic groups reacted against foreign (Western and Russian) imperialism, leading to a far greater involvement, or doubling-down of those same foreign powers, which in turn created an even more violent reaction. As Trofimov puts it, “The process leading to massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf – a presence that would motivate droves of jihadis to join al Qaeda in following decades – was set in motion” by the siege. This then became a negative cycle, or spiral of violence, with subsequent generations becoming ever more radical while at the same time being inspired by and borrowing from the rhetoric and political ideas of fringe groups whose earlier apocalyptic imaginings they saw being validated.

This sort of escalation is an old story, and I think we need to start thinking of better options. Carrying a bigger stick into the region hasn’t helped.

Notes:
Review first published online July 10, 2017.

Solitude

SOLITUDE: A SINGULAR LIFE IN A CROWDED WORLD
By Michael Harris

There seems to be no end to the impact of the digital revolution on our lives and its ongoing transformation of the ways we work, relax, socialize, express ourselves, and even think. Clearly technology is changing everything.

Naturally, it is a subject that has been exercising critics and commentators a great deal, and there have already been a host of books on the subject. One of them, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, won the Governor-General’s Award a couple of years ago. With Solitude Harris is back covering a lot of the same ground. Charitably, we might call it a sequel. With less charity we might think he’s repeating himself.

Even the form the presentation takes will be familiar: personal anecdotes alternating with items drawn from Harris’s eclectic reading and interviews he’s done with various experts in the fields of business and psychology. The basic point he draws from all of this is also nothing new. Modern life, and in particular our always-connected technology, is alienating us from ourselves. We need to recharge and reconnect with absence/solitude in order to regain a sense of personal authenticity.

If this sounds like the sort of felt truism typical of a lot of pop spirituality (think of the mindfulness movement, for example), that may give some clue to the source of Harris’s charm. In his hands what are often banal observations take on an air of profundity (or fail, as when we are told that “not till we are lost can we hope to be found”). But he is always an engaging writer, easy to read and capable of expressing his arguments in what are often memorable and helpful ways. His main thesis, that solitude is a beneficial resource that has to be responsibly managed and saved from being exploited by profiteering tech companies and other agents of distraction, is particularly well imagined. The environmental analogy works nicely, finally presenting us with the dangerous possibility of a clear-cut “Easter Island of the mind” and stressing the need to make the preservation of individual solitude (so as to “safeguard our inner weirdo”) a personal mission.

The comparison of solitude to a threatened environment is extended in various ways, culminating in Harris’s visit to an off-the-network island retreat. Such a retreat, however, can also be seen as symbolic of a withdrawal into an intellectual comfort zone. Harris is not big on raising counterpoints, such as, for example, whether our protective weaving of “stronger weirdo cocoons” might be seen as narcissistic. He also allows his argument to spread a bit thin at times. The chapter on the grand, “final and inviolate solitude” of death seems particularly out of place and doesn’t connect all that well with the rest of the book.

There is, however, a strong takeaway. Solitude has real benefits: leading to enhanced creativity, a better understanding of the self, and the ability to connect more fully with others. It is, however, a psychological and emotional resource that is increasingly under assault. We have to be aware of this, and look for ways to defend the endangered singular life.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2017.

No News Is Bad News

NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS: CANADA’S MEDIA COLLAPSE — AND WHAT COMES NEXT
By Ian Gill

The story is a by-now familiar one. Print is locked in a death spiral, starved for revenue because of the switch to a “culture of free” online. Newspapers are either cutting back or shutting down entirely. Postmedia and Torstar, to take just two of Canada’s biggest players, engage in public spats arguing over which of them will be going out of business first.

If you don’t know what’s been happening to the news business then you haven’t been following the news. In this new book former journalist Ian Gill isn’t sounding a fresh alarm. We’ve had warnings for decades, going back to the Davey Report and Kent Commission on the concentration of media ownership. Of course more recently things have been getting worse, faster, with disruptions fueled by the digital revolution and the move to alternative advertising avenues, not to mention the fallout from the economic downturn that struck in 2007-2008, but this is still a story that has been covered extensively elsewhere. Just last year an excellent book by Brian Gorman, Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption, provided an in-depth look at the situation, with insightful analysis and thoughts about the shape of things to come.

No News Is Bad News doesn’t go into the same detail as Crash to Paywall (which it oddly doesn’t reference), but is instead a breezier, more condensed broadside. While the problem both books address is the same, what’s different is their attribution of blame and their roadmaps for the future.

For Gill most of the blame lies with the news media itself, in particular the old, “legacy” news dinosaurs that have failed to adapt to the new media environment while at the same time cutting off access to revenue for up-and-coming alternative news sources.

To some extent, particularly with regard to the large chains, this criticism is deserved. The idea that newspapers can cut their way to profitability, for example, has clearly been a disaster, and thus far there have been few bold new ideas from the “wounded giants of yore” for monetizing the digital audience.

That said, the current crisis is largely the product of forces over which the news media has little to no control. At its best, you could argue that journalism in Canada today is better than it’s ever been. The problem is that the Internet economy is geared toward producing a handful of big winners at the cost of the destruction of everyone else, and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This same dynamic has led to the hollowing out of the middle class generally and the laying waste of entire cultural ecosystems, as described by Scott Timberg in Culture Crash.
Better journalism isn’t going to fix the problem of a vanishing audience, and the question that remains is how quality reporting, which is very much in the public interest, is going to be financed. A lot of Gill’s book is taken up with his interviews with people who have enjoyed some success in alternative (usually non-profit) media start-ups, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear, long-term, scalable business model aside from snagging grants from charitable foundations or subsidies from the government.

Like many a surveyor of the Canadian cultural landscape over the years, what Gill really wants to do is disrupt the status quo. At one time the Internet seemed to be a beacon of hope in this regard, but as we’ve seen it has only led to further consolidation and generally made matters worse. Gill is absolutely right that we need healthy, dynamic news media. The question is whether we want them bad enough.

Notes:
Reviews first published in Quill & Quire, November 2016.

Excellent Sheep and Fail U.

EXCELLENT SHEEP: THE MISEDUCATION OF THE AMERICAN ELITE
By William Deresiewicz

FAIL U.
By Charles J. Sykes

The future of the university has been a hot topic for the last five years or so, warm with much talk of a higher-education “bubble.” There are certainly grounds for concern on this front. Here’s Charles Sykes with some American stats worth considering:

Since 2004, student debt has more than quintupled; 66 percent of students now borrow to pay for their education – up from just 45 percent as recently as 1993. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of student borrowers grew by 92 percent and the average student loan grew 74 percent. The average student now graduates with around $30,000 in student loans, while the portion of students with $100,000 or more has doubled. Millions of students carry debt burdens without getting any degree at all. Student loan debt now exceeds both the nation’s total credit card and auto loan debt. The delinquency rate on student loans is higher than the delinquency rate on credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages.

Comparing student loan debt to mortgage debt before the housing bubble burst in 2008, Sykes cites a report that says the balance of student loans has grown twice as fast. This is troubling.

But the economic worries are only part of it. From questions of whether the present system of higher education will survive a crash, or even a gentle deflation, concerned critics have also begun to question the role and value such an education has in contemporary life – to wonder what a university is for, and whether it is, not just in a financial sense, worth it.

The defence of a university, and in particular the value of a liberal arts education, has a long and rich history. So much so that William Deresiewicz knows that a lot of it now sounds clichéd. If you want to make the argument that a university education aids in giving purpose and meaning to one’s life, be aware that this is going to seem trite to most ears. “I am painfully aware that much of what I’ve been saying,” Deresiewicz says, “has long been reduced to cliché – and worse than cliché, advertising fodder. ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Do your own thing,’ ‘You only live once’; such sentiments are next to meaningless now.”

Meaningless or not, these are the lines that have to be trotted out because there isn’t much else to point to. Even without the threat of the financial bubble bursting, the arts in particular have been experiencing a tremendous crisis of confidence lately (see, for example, my joint review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?).

In these two books blame for the current crisis is spread around. Some of the problems universities face are of their own making. They spend too much money – far too much money – on bloated administration and buildings. There has been a “flight from teaching” into the more lucrative field of research, leaving the university’s most important function to a growing class of underpaid sessionals. In repackaging an education as a consumer good they have made the university experience over into a meaningless exercise in accreditation. If consumers (students) want easy marks and a “safe space,” then that’s what they’re going to get.

But it’s not all the fault of our universities. The economy and, even more broadly, the culture have moved on. If the real purpose of a university education, as has been argued for many years now, is to provide a badge of one’s social-economic class, then we might expect something like the present crisis to be occurring as that class has come under increasing pressure. Try making a sales pitch like this to a member of today’s shrinking middle class:

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

What makes what Deresiewicz is saying here a little hard to take is that he is preaching to a class, America’s elite, who, as he capably demonstrates, have nothing to fear from falling anyway. The faux-meritocracy aren’t going anywhere, as they have already “made it” from birth. Then there is the implicit assumption that becoming “fully human” is only something that can be achieved from an elite education. Elsewhere in his book Deresiewicz tempers this somewhat, saying that, if the purpose of education is to turn adolescents into adults, “You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.” Still, I think experience tells most of us that higher education isn’t as necessary, useful, or even relevant to any of this becoming as it is made out to be.

It seems clear, at least to me, that some kind of contraction in the university economy is inevitable. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to come about voluntarily, with the system adopting a new philosophy that Charles Sykes summarizes as “smaller, fewer, less” (and, increasingly, “online”). But even if the bubble deflates without popping, a soft landing will still lead to much being lost. There’s a dark age ahead. The lamps of learning are going out all over academe. I don’t expect to see them lit again in my lifetime.

Notes:
Review first published online May 22, 2017.

Snark

SNARK
By David Denby

What is snark? It’s a fitting question to ask considering how it began life as a nonsense word before going on to enjoy a brief moment in the media sun as a critical rallying cry.

David Denby, a professional film critic, seems like a good source to turn to for a definition, especially in a short book concerned with formulating a precise description of the phenomenon. Does he succeed? I’ll try not to be too snarky in my comments.

To begin with, the identification of snark is a value judgment, and like all such judgments much of it lies in the eye of the beholder. We know snark, or like to think we know it, when we see it. We may also be aware of degrees of snarkiness (Denby ranges them from high to low), and the very different personal responses we may have to it. Indeed, our own response may be conflicted. Denby “hates” snark but also finds it “irresistible.” Is it possible to make sense out of such ambivalence?

Given its inherent subjectivity, even the best efforts at nailing some kind of working definition down may come to nought. So in addition to trying to figure out what it is I’d like to go on to ask why we are hunting it down and what’s at stake. But, for the moment, we’ll put those questions to one side.

To begin with first principles: snark is a form of evaluative criticism, which is to say it passes judgment. Seeing as we’re calling it snark, our thumbs will usually be pointing down. In terms of its critical voice, snark may make use of irony, irreverence, or spoof, but, as Denby breaks it down, it is something different than all of these. Perhaps the quality it is most often identified with is sarcasm. It is criticism with bite. But as Clive James wrote, in defense of snark, “all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree.” It’s just a question of how much pepper you like.

To this essentially negative or adverse character Denby would add two other qualities. In the first place, snark is personal. It isn’t just an attack on something but someone: the person (or people) responsible for whatever it is the critic is finding fault with. Extended to the political realm – and this is a direction Denby really wants to take snark, though I’m not sure it’s a wise move – it means going after a politician’s personal qualities, and in particular their race and gender.

The reason I don’t think expanding snark to discussions of politics is a wise move is because I believe a politician’s personal qualities are among the things voters should know about. I’m not talking about jibes at Barack Obama for being black or Hillary Clinton for being a woman – these examples of bigotry and crude insult are only straw men Denby sets up. But surely mocking a politician for personal failings that go to matters of judgment or temperament, in whatever context those qualities express themselves, is fair game.

Political snark, however, does highlight something about snark that is a real problem. One functional definition of snark might simply be the expression of an opinion, often but not always made in a sarcastic tone, that you disagree with. Or, if this isn’t the difference between snark and not-snark, it’s at least the difference between snark to be avoided and snark you like. Criticizing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton isn’t just snark, it’s hate speech. Criticizing George W. Bush or Donald Trump is an exercise of critical wit or irony. Thus, for Denby: Maureen Dowd bad, Stephen Colbert good. And Keith Olbermann (another liberal commentator) can be excused because “he may use snark as a weapon, but snark is not his general mode.” Which makes no sense at all to me except as partisan positioning.

This business of taking sides is the way that I’ve typically found the label of snark being used in discussions of book and film reviewing. Now I’ll admit labeling snarky reviewing can be difficult. Denby quotes from one of the earliest anti-snark manifestoes, by Heidi Julavits, as finding “it hard to separate justified cruelty in criticism from mere showing off,” and immediately adds “I agree: One can’t make general rules about it; one can only go on a case-by-case basis.” This makes any attempt at definition (which is a “general rule”) kind of pointless, and it also opens the door for that eye-of-the-beholder quality I began by mentioning. Thus the helpfulness of my rule of thumb for identifying snark as the expression of an opinion you disagree with. If you find yourself in sympathy with the negative judgment being passed on a new novel or film then you’ll likely find the review insightful, courageous, important, well-written, clearly argued, cogent, etc. If you disagree with it then you’ll think it’s just a snark attack. It really is that easy.

The other quality Denby uses to characterize snark is that it is criticism without “a coherent view of life” or any vision of what is of value. Snark is nihilistic, tearing down everything indiscriminately, without appeal to any common standards. Here again we are led into danger. What if one’s values are nihilistic? Or what if the vision of what is of value that is being expressed is different than our own? Aren’t we likely to see criticism from any uncongenial perspective as snark?

From my own experience, snarky critics tend to be among the most passionate and even idealistic critics going. So when Denby writes that if you “scratch a writer of snark . . . you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity” who recognizes “no standard but celebrity” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Most of the snark I recognize as such is radically opposed to media conformity, and has no greater enemy than celebrity.

All of this is just to point out that definition is pretty much impossible. But, to return to the question I flagged earlier, why are we so intent on calling it out? What’s at stake? Why does Denby care?

That’s another hard question to answer. As noted, Denby doesn’t mind some snark. There is snark he finds enjoyable. But there is something at stake in the hunting of the snark. We have to be concerned at any line being drawn around critical expression and, yes, freedom of speech. Denby is careful to say that he doesn’t want to forbid snark, but at the same time he would clearly like to see the worst examples of it eliminated. This is dangerous territory for anyone, but especially a professional critic, to enter into. Nevertheless, Denby is far from alone in taking his stand among those who have grown tired of an excess of voices and divergent views, particularly on the Internet. And as the trend toward media cocooning continues, insulating ourselves online in a web of self where opinions disagreeing with our own can be safely filtered, this is very much swimming with the tide.

Finally, why does Denby care? I don’t know, but some of his own snarkiness offers some hints. Denby is an older, establishment critic, having been a film reviewer for the New Yorker for over twenty years. Who are the people who really bother him (aside from Maureen Dowd)? Bloggers who are only adept at “schoolyard taunts.” Punks who are dismissed as “today’s snarky pipsqueaks.” “The snarkers,” Denby tells us, “sound like kids – and not like wild, beautiful, and crazy kids, either, but like hoods and brats.”

One gets that Denby wants to defend standards of “intellectual complexity or wit” (domain of the Scriblerian snarkers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift), but those standards, as we’ve seen, remain relative, subjective, and uncertain. Meanwhile, what really upsets him are those critical kids on his lawn, the ones (as his subtitle has it) “ruining our conversation.”

But there is no single conversation, just as there is no single set of critical standards. There are many conversations, taking place in many different rooms. Some of these we may want to join, while others we try to avoid. But any form of criticism, in my opinion, can be good for the soul. And snark, paradoxically, might even teach us to be less judgemental and more tolerant of the views of others, in whatever form they are expressed. The form an idea takes, after all, is an idea or mode of thought itself. And the worst thing we can do is to try to make the world a place that always agrees with us.

Notes:
Review first published online May 1, 2017.

Best Canadian Essays 2016

BEST CANADIAN ESSAYS 2016
Edited by Christopher Doda and Joseph Kertes

A collection of essays is a tough sell. The very word “essay” sounds like a work assignment, and it covers so much ground it’s hard to find the right shelf for such a volume in the bookstore. The Best American Essays series, for example, is one of a stable of annual titles brought out alongside Best American Sports Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. In Canada, one volume has to cover everything.

Beginning with definitions, most people would understand an essay to be a species of non-fiction. But the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not always that great. Any piece of writing, at least any that’s worth reading, involves the exercise of art and imagination. As editor Joseph Kertes puts it, “The art of non-fiction lies in the storytelling ability of its creator, just as it does in fiction. I want to feel compelled to read it, compelled to know.”

These are the magazine pieces that weren’t just skimmed or glanced at, but which, to quote the master essayist Francis Bacon, had to be chewed and digested. They require being “read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

The vast range of topics are approached from perspectives that run from the intensely personal (memoir, anecdote, family history) to the professional (journalism and reportage on news and current events). Leona Theis’s speculative alternative biography “Six Ways She Might Have Died Before She Reached Nineteen” is a remarkable example of the former, while Richard Poplak’s “Dr. Shock,” a profile of a serial sex offender who worked as a psychiatrist in South Africa and then Canada, is typical of the latter approach. They’re very different essays, but both are eye-opening, compelling reads

Blending the two approaches is Kenneth Sherman’s terrific essay “Living Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.” A scholar and poet in his own right, Sherman examines Sontag’s famous work in the light of his recent bout with cancer (a subject he deals with in more depth in his excellent cancer memoir Wait Time). Sontag’s intellectual distance from the subject is counterpoised to Sherman’s immediacy, with the result being a profound piece that’s made all the stronger for its grounding in personal experience.

2016 was a year of good reads, so enjoy! The house of the essay has many mansions, and every door here opens onto one worth entering.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 1, 2017.