Cleaning Out My Phone: Great Reads For the New Year

I’ve got about a half-dozen pages on my phone’s browser open to articles and essays that I’ve been meaning to share here. They’ve been open for months, and I’ve just been carrying them around with me, like a little personal library of thoughtful writing.

Today seems like a good day to get that writing off of my phone and out to y’all. Happy New Year!

1. David Cain at on the connection between our weekly schedules and consumerism:

I don’t think it’s necessary to shun the whole ugly system and go live in the woods, pretending to be a deaf-mute, as Holden Caulfield often fantasized. But we could certainly do well to understand what big commerce really wants us to be. They’ve been working for decades to create millions of ideal consumers, and they have succeeded. Unless you’re a real anomaly, your lifestyle has already been designed.

The perfect customer is dissatisfied but hopeful, uninterested in serious personal development, highly habituated to the television, working full-time, earning a fair amount, indulging during their free time, and somehow just getting by.

Is this you?

(Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed)

2. In “Rob Karlsson Will Not Make Your Life a Misery (or Will He?),” Aaron M.G. Zimmerman takes on Joseph O’Neill’s short story “The Referees,” about a recently divorced man trying to find two personal references for an apartment in New York. “Just two people,” says Zimmerman, “to say he’s a decent guy who’ll pay the rent on time.” Zimmerman writes:

Rob has no one to vouch for him. He is left, like many of us, to argue his own case. We are forced to be our own advocates, our own agents pleading for a deal. We spin our wheels, sell our brand, and curate our identity. We hope the people we’ve hurt don’t blow the whistle and destroy the illusion. And we hope it’s enough that our heart is in the right place.

This one hit me, by the way, right I as I was starting the fall cycle of the academic job market: asking for references, writing letters in praise of myself, etc. Rob Karlsson says, “I had no idea the bar was so high.” As Zimmerman writes, “Amen, brother.”

3. Maureen Ryan writes about “‘Outlander,’ The Wedding Episode and TV’s Sexual Revolution.” Here she is on the status quo on-screen depictions of sex:

Critics and viewers protest the most overt, exploitative nonsense, but the industry churns out so many predictable, poorly conceived and lazy depictions of sex and sexual assault that it’s not possible nor advisable to get angry every single time something demeaning, insulting or dumb gets on the air.

So we tolerate the dewy sex lighting, the primacy of the male gaze and the objectification of female bodies. We grimly put up with violence conveyed without insight or compassion. It’s too exhausting to ask constantly why so many scenes take place in strip clubs and brothels, and why so few depict a woman simply looking at a man.

And here she is on Outlander’s wedding episode:

But in “The Wedding,” both characters’ points of view, and both bodies, were equally important. The camera was interested in everything — in both characters’ mental and physical states, in every curve and every limb.

She writes, “I’ve watched a lot of TV, and I cannot recall any show that has done what this hour of TV did. Ever.”

(Ryan’s essay, by the way, needs to be read as a piece in a conversation with two other essays that also spent lots of time on my phone this year: Jenny Trout’s “Outlander and the Female Gaze” and Lili Loufbourow’s “‘Game of Thrones’ Fails the Female Gaze.”)

4. Okay, technically these next two were on my phone last year (I got a new phone since then), but all this talk about the female gaze reminded me of two essays I meant to share way back then: Katy Waldman’s 40th-anniversary review of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Ann Friedman’s incredible essay “What Does Manhood Mean in 2013,” which compares our contemporary understanding of masculinity with the shifts that society’s definitions of femininity underwent in the 1970s. These essays are particularly relevant to all the recent talk of the rise of the lumbersexual.

5. At Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, Matthew Sitman wrote my favorite 2014 piece about religion, “What Is Christianity For?” It’s a response to a post by Rod Dreher, and could be, in many ways, a manifesto for this blog. On the Myth of Moral Decline, Sitman writes:

I’ve never quite bought this line of thinking, never understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task.

About the sexual issues that prick the traditionalists:

I just can’t view the coming of sexual modernity simply as the triumph of hedonism, if for no other reason than that it has led to grappling with real injustices.

On his hope for Christianity in the modern world, which is something that he rightly sees missing from the traditionalists:

When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate.

Right on, Sitman. Right on.

6. I should end with that piece, but in fairness to Dreher I’ll include his great post from last week on the “Hard, Healing Experience of Faith.” Dreher writes about the ways honest religion compels us to face our weaknesses:

That is hard work, and scary work. I think of myself as an introspective person by nature, but I had so much farther than I possibly imagined to go into the dark recesses of my own heart to haul out the wreckage. Yet if I had not done this, if I had not been compelled to do this by circumstance and by a priest who takes his role of pastor and healer of spiritual disease seriously, I would still be sick.

One complaint: Dreher turns the column into an attack on “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” which is fine. But I know from his previous writings he includes the Episcopal Church in that category. Dreher, and lots of folks who cite him, seem to think that Episcopal pastors just hand out lollipops and green participation ribbons in our services. So it has been heartening, this year, to read about Michael Boyle’s experiences with the Episcopal Church, and contrast those with the way the church is depicted by traditionalists.

7. Okay, one more. Even though it’s kind of outside of the scope of this blog, I’ve written a lot about Texas this year, in part on the encouragement of Terry Weldon. So I have to share this blog post from the Houston Press, “Why I Don’t Consider Texas a Southern State.” The relationship of Texas to the South is complicated. On one hand, we share a lot of cultural touchstones: pickup trucks, country music, college football. On the other hand: I’m in Atlanta right now, driving to South Carolina in a couple of days before we head home to Austin and, as always happens when I visit family in the Deep South, I’m struck by what can only be called culture shock. Things are just so different here.

That’s it. My phone is now clean.

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