Category Archives: Essays

Remembering Tom Hayden

By Mike Davis

Fifty-two years ago this December, an obscure group of young activists, Students for a Democratic Society, held a national council meeting in New York to discuss the next year’s work.  As I recall there were about forty people present, some of them recent veterans of Freedom Summer, others peace and civil rights activists at campuses such as Swarthmore, Michigan, Chicago, Harvard and Tufts.     Continue reading

Rock and Literature: On Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

By Kevin Dettmar

I’ve just returned from a wonderful small conference at the National Humanities Center called “Novel Sounds.” At its most specific, conversation focused on the role played by rock ‘n’ roll in contemporary American fiction; more broadly, presentations engaged with the fruitful — if sometimes stealthy, but in any event mutual — give-and-take between writing and contemporary popular music. Continue reading

Construction Sites of Los Angeles: 435 West Los Feliz Road

By Ellie Robins

MILL CREEK, say the site’s barriers. PEOPLE · PLACES · RELATIONSHIPS. Words like this repel thought, which seems not-accidental. Has anyone ever stood here, beside five lanes of traffic, and plugged the URL into a phone? They have now: 20,000 apartment homes built since 2001, apparently. Twenty thousand lives being lived right now in six-, 12-, 18-month installments all around America, laid out in space and time by Mill Creek. And soon another 220, here. Continue reading

Nobel Notes: Dylan as Literature

By Joshua Clover

Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize on Thursday, made his last great recording on my mother’s birthday in 1975. Also, Joni Mitchell is better. He’s a world-historical artist anyway. You might disagree; every Nobel Prize winner is broadly disliked, I hope. Taste is, as always, the least interesting aspect of the contentious debates over who is deserving of this annual travesty. More interesting is the struggle — the campaigning, the outrage, the political demands — over this doling out of cultural recognition by gross global prestige machines. But this year the heat seems to reside in the definition of literature, itself a site of ceaseless cultural combat. Continue reading

Teaching in a Time of Trump

By Robert Zaretsky

“Should this book one day be published…” So began a dedication that, seventy-five years ago in Nazi-occupied France, the renowned French historian Marc Bloch inscribed in a small book he was then writing. As it turned out, the book — The Historian’s Craft — was published, but posthumously, and unfinished. Shortly after he wrote the dedication, Bloch joined the resistance. Captured in 1944, he was tortured and executed by the Nazis scarcely a week after the Allies landed at Normandy. Continue reading

Trigger Warnings: Not Punching Down

By Annie Julia Wyman

In 2013, I taught my first university course: it was to be just me, then a fourth-year graduate student, and five college juniors in the Harvard English honors program. Some weeks before, a student who’d been assigned to my tutorial approached me at a department reception. “I’m so excited for the class,” she said, “I love comedy.” She told me she was a comedian and an actor. We talked about what we were going to read and watch — Chaplin, Joyce, Nabokov, Rogen, Rock, Glazer and Jacobson, and Kondabolu were all on various drafts of my relatively improvisatory syllabus — and how we were both thrilled to have the chance to combine theory and practice. We’d be reading about laughter and trying to make each other laugh. “It’ll be awkward,” I said, “but eh!”

Surprisingly — to me, at least — my half-joke didn’t hit. Taylor looked at her feet, and then she looked at me. “I wanted to tell you something, which is actually why I came over,” she said. “I can’t laugh.” Continue reading

Berlin Scenes

By Alex Cocotas

Berlin is a waiting room. Last week we went to a dinner party. There were Syrians, Israelis, Somalis, Germans, a Croat, a Greek, and, myself, an American. At times it was a Danse Macabre of sorts. Syrians and Israelis commiserated about overcoming preconceptions. A Somali interjected that five years of war was nothing — see what fifteen years of war does to your reputation. Two Somalis argued about the security situation of their country. One insisted it was getting better; there is a boom in the Mogadishu real estate market. The other said she was just there. She spent three nights sleeping under her bed, the sound of gunshots ringing out in the distance. There’s a government now, he countered. Who elected them? She retorted. Are there hospitals, public schools? The Greek exclaimed: That’s the key! Continue reading

A Book of the Bible Even an Atheist Can Love: Secular Inspiration in Ecclesiastes

By Jeffrey Tayler

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” announces Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament that I, an atheist with an ardent distaste for religion, find consoling, calming, and wise. As the years pass and cares mount, as pleasures fade with repetition, and as the senescence and deaths of family members bear down relentlessly, I find myself turning to Ecclesiastes for comfort, inspiration, and, despite its melancholy tidings, cheer. Continue reading

A Vision of San Francisco: SFMOMA Expansion and the Rise of a City

By Mimi Zeiger

In 1990, several years before the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) would move into its new building on Third Street, William Gibson wrote the short story “Skinner’s Room” for the architecture exhibition Visionary San Francisco. Commissioned by the museum’s first architecture and design curator Paolo Polledri, Gibson’s sci-fi dystopia depicted the city’s homeless population squatting on a defunct Bay Bridge while wealthy urbanites made their homes in 60-storey solar-powered towers. Continue reading