Sunday Post for September 1, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

Editor's note

Between writing the copy below and the time you're reading this, poet and critic Robert Lashley published an essay that defines why this weekly column exists. Lashley writes about Toni Morrison, his childhood, and his mother; it is humbling to see the grace with which he navigates between thoughtful analysis of Morrison's work and reflection on a deeply personal and difficult story. This is everything good writing about books should be, and I'm thrilled to have a place to highlight it.

If I could hear my mother read again
If, as Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, my mother’s voice was a rocketship. Graduating from The University of Washington in 1973 with a major in African American studies and a minor in Latin American studies, Glennis Wilson was one of finest literary minds I have ever heard or will hear. As an intellectual she was great misanthrope, and like all great misanthropes she was a broken-hearted idealist. She carried the scars of being excommunicated from progressive antiwar, black power, civil rights, and socialist movements for the sin of her occasional skepticism. Yet it was in literature, in the writers and likeminded people who represented democracy better than founders and most fortunate beneficiaries, where she found her true exemplars of the human condition.

One of my go-to newsletters is "Why is this interesting,", written by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy with frequent guests. When I first came across it, that seemed like the quintessential question the Sunday Post tries to answer, one paragraph at a time — why is this essay interesting? Why should you read it? They do a marvelous just-the-right-length job of responding to that question every time.

In the last few weeks, their newsletter has been talking about navigation — wayfinding, and what the ability to find your own way does for your brain and spirit. There's a lot of cool stuff about compasses and navigating by the stars, and about people who are finding their way back (pun intended) to the hand-rolled navigation styles that preceded Google Maps’ little blue line.

The flip side of finding your way is getting lost. Getting lost is something I do well and often, sometimes even trying to get back to my table after visiting the washroom in a new restaurant. Hunting for a house, I have criss-crossed the city I've lived in for 14 years and been delighted and a bit chagrined to see how all the neighborhoods, well, connect to each other. They're not geographic islands! I knew this conceptually, but to have your brain map it as a physical reality is like putting on glasses for the first time.

Those who are good at getting lost know the panic of the wrong turn before an important appointment and the frustration of well-intentioned navigators in the passenger seat. They also know the pleasure of finding your own way back from lostness. As a solo hiker, I was often lost and as often gratified by my ability to remain calm and puzzle my way back to the trail. Since partnering up, I've lost that (pun intended, again); when I turn down the wrong path, there's always a voice to call me back. It saves time but sacrifices something else — something I discovered after hours of real terror in the desert in Las Vegas once, trying to find a bit of sandstone that looked familiar while the sun went down and my cut leg burned and the sound of coyotes echoed from not too far away.

There's the reward of self-sufficiency, of course, which is what "Why is this interesting" is focused on. But there's something more than that, too. There's seeing the world become strange, seeing how memory transmutes fear to wonder, seeing yourself become strange and wonderful.

There are innumerable books about getting lost; one of my most beloved is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, which, if you are only familiar with the movie, will surprise you with the depth of the sadness in it. Bastian Balthazar Bux loses himself, piece by piece and willingly, in the wonder of the world he's found. The trope is not uncommon, but the tone is: it's a story of incredible loneliness and longing and fear.

The protagonists of "door into" books are so often heroes waiting to be discovered; Bastian is a childish antihero, instead, like Narnia's Eustace Scrubb, who loses himself inside a dragon's skin. Bastian is infinitely more complex, though, and his lostness infinitely more resonant. His story tells us why getting lost in the real world and finding your way out of it is such a necessary joy: it promises that you can be terribly, terribly lost, even within yourself, and still find the way home.

I mentioned Rebecca Solnit last week and hesitate to do so again, but her Field Guide to Getting Lost is just a few feet away and too appropriate not to check. "We treat desire as a problem to be solved," she says, "... though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between us with the blue of longing." I saw the blue of longing in a shallow pool at the top of a white sandstone canyon once. I've never forgotten the brilliance of it.

The Wayfinding Edition
What I didn't realize then is that this practice of land navigation was forming my mind and thoughts in a certain way. Unfortunately, it’s a way that I've likely lost after a decade of using Google Maps for navigation on my iPhone. As Maura O'Connor notes in her new book _Wayfinding_, and a recent Washington Post article, the hippocampus—the part of the brain that allows us to orient in space, recall events from the past (episodic memory) as well as the ability to imagine ourselves in the future—shrinks when it isn’t used. She also notes that atrophy in that part of the brain is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. It seems not using a map isn’t just affecting how I think today, but it can also affect my thoughts well into the future.
Other good reads this week

Soroya Roberts on white angst about writing about black culture:

Why is it that when I see Halsey on the cover of Rolling Stone I don’t think twice, while seeing Cardi B makes me feel out of my depth? My woeful lack of music knowledge is the same for both of them. If anything, I should feel more of an affinity for Cardi because I’ve actually heard a couple of her songs. But I don’t, because Cardi’s otherness eclipses everything else about her and becomes her identity — she reads insurmountable. Halsey, who passes like me, despite us having nothing else in common, plays less obscure. Is that racist? Cause it sure as hell sounds like it is.

Katie Booth on the divorce between sound and hearing:

Once I began to wonder where the real borders of musicality are, the world started to crack open in beautiful ways. Some particular types of movement pattern, sensations of wind. Watching telephone poles through a car window is a musical experience, Kim tells me. As soon as she says it, I remember a 2013 event in Boston in which the poet Raymond Luczak read a poem with this same image, his arms embodying that exact tune: “As you drive home, notice how rhythmic / telephone poles and corner signs are. / Wonder why no one ever thinks of making music / for eyes alone.”

Why don't women get tenure as often as men? I'm glad you asked. Also, absolute gold-star use of "ramshackle" here:

Given that women have been the majority of the undergraduate student body in many countries for the last three decades, one can no longer argue that equality can be achieved by simply waiting for young female scholars to emerge at the end of the academic “pipeline.” “The increase in women at later stages of the pipeline is the consequence of a slow ‘pull’ provided by the expanding pool of women at the beginning,” the authors of a 2008 study in Science suggest, “not because of an effective ‘push’ that reduces attrition during career advancement.”10 Strengthening this push, however, means addressing the sexist practices that “push” men along the cursus honorum, because these practices tend to be the very same mechanisms that oust women from the academy. The zero-sum nature of this problem makes it difficult to discuss, let alone redress. Ugly small-brained misogyny explains only part — albeit an important part — of this result. More insidious are banal sexist practices that reinforce one another to compose a vast ramshackle machinery that elevates men to the pinnacle of the ivory tower.