Year in Reading 2020 – Antkind

Given the amount of time spent indoors or in relative seclusion, over the past few days I’ve been reflecting on the past year has been the time I’ve spent reading, and the books that have provided companionship over the course of the year. 

These books do not reflect the totality of my reading for the year, but the books that have stuck with me, and some brief impressions of each.

I began this blog more than a decade ago exploring the nature of creative genius through the eyes of a college-aged student. If you allowed me to pontificate on my views on creative genius, informed by the books and movies I particularly admired at the time (David Foster Wallace, Dyostoyevsky, Kirosawa, Fellini, etc.), I believe that my response would have alluded to a belief in a god-given or supernatural ability to create plot, imagery, or language eluding those of us left to appreciate / marvel their work. 

Charlie Kaufman was another of these ‘auteurs’ whose genius defied explanation. At that age, my brain latched onto Kaufman’s screenplays/movies like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Synecdoche, New York (the last of which elicited a frenzied two-hour post-theatre dazed walk through a snowy State College, PA), and the type of mind that could produce such profound meaning through their art. 

As I’ve gotten older, my perspective on creative genius has changed considerably. These days, I’m much more likely to cite the importance of iteration, collaboration, and effort to ‘manufacture’ genius, much more so than the image of the epiphany-induced solitary figure plugging away at a keyboard / typewriter / notepad/canvas. 

My impressions reading Kaufman’s Antkind are almost certainly informed by this perspective, making me less referential to the author and thereby deferential to the art itself, and more open to examining it on its own merits rather than the mind behind it. To be sure, Antkind represents a continued fidelity to what makes Charlie Kaufman completely unique – an intimate, unfiltered first-person narrative experience touching on ego, masculinity, sexuality, art, and related topics that have a tendency to pass through one’s mind but few of us allow to escape our brains and make its way onto the page. For fans of Charlie Kaufman curious to see how his craft translated to a book, Antkind certainly checks all the boxes of what makes something unmistakably his. 

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman (Random House 2020)

Over 700 pages Antkind manages to explore crevices of Kaufman’s mind and ideas that would likely never fit into a 2-hour (or 3-hour!) movie, either due to their perversity (clown fetishism, sexual submission or a satirical stance towards race, gender, and other liberal norms that would subject him to pillory if not hidden within the pages of a book that most people won’t read) or impossibility of being portrayed due to the extent of the surrealist imagination. 

In fact, Antkind’s plot actively thumbs its nose at ideas of film and film’s self-importance: the main character, B. Rosenberger is a nebbish film critic and academic whose expertise is movies that are unwatchable (Kaufman often self-referentially refers to his own films in this category), extremely obscure (mostly made up, though I never checked), or both, and whose opinions about films are confined to little-/unknown journals seemingly publishing these analyses out of sympathy, and the book’s plot centers around a several-months-long animated film that so perfectly captures the essence of art and the meaning of life that our intrepid hero spends the rest of the book trying to bring it to broader light. Through numerous twists and turns, all of which blur the lines between taking place in a dreamscape or in Kaufman’s imagined world, we follow Rosenberger’s descent into depravity, poverty, and insanity. 

Antkind carries forward a concept most explicitly explored in Synecdoche, New York but present in all of Kaufman’s films – a blurring between one’s art and one’s life, reality and surreality, imagination and real life. The book is darkly comic, chock full of satirical but incisive cultural commentary on the state of our (pre-pandemic) world, full of witty references and allusions, most of which were likely lost on me.

If this sounds unnecessarily intense or overly absurd for a piece of escapist fiction, then you’re probably best skipping Antkind. However, for anyone curious to see how Kaufman’s work translates to the written page, you’re sure to be in for a maddening, surreal, intellectual experience. 

Review – Thinking in Bets

The world of professional gambling is a relatively closed-off world. This makes intuitive sense, given the secretive and oftentimes fleeting “edges” of gamblers, and their desire to continue to capitalize on the undereducated play of nonprofessional gamblers, where many gamblers make outsized returns.

One of the most widely known professional gamblers (before the recent reign of Jeopardy all-timer James Holzhauer) is the sports gambler Haralabob Voulgaris, a frequent and always-entertaining guest of Bill Simmons’ podcast. Haralabob’s insights into professional basketball, where he focused his energy and capital, were oftentimes counterintuitive, controversial, or against commonly-held wisdom, and were always entertaining. Unfortunately, to the detriment of the layman basketball media consumer, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, caught wind of Haralabob’s talent and hired him to become Dallas’ Director of Quantitative Research and Development.

Both Holzhauer and Voulgaris, and their abilities to snuff out edges and arbitrages working within established systems, demonstrated that there is much to be learned from the world of professional gambling. Another example is Ed Thorp, author of the blackjack card-counting book Beat the Dealer, who after being banned from the Vegas casinos turned his attentions to the stock markets, writing a follow-up book entitled Beat the Market (the stories of which are covered entertaining detail in his autobiography, A Man for All Markets). Regardless, the stereotypes of professional gamblers mob-connected sharks dropping millions on an inside tip or gut feeling has certainly matured considerably in recent years (though I’m sure these folks still exist).

Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets is a business book that draws on Duke’s (seemingly controversial) time as a professional poker player, a profession that she took on following in the footsteps of her brother, professional player Howard Lederer, after failing to publish a dissertation in cognitive psychology. Duke’s book draws equally on both of her former lives, as well as from her most recent one — as a corporate consultant, “decision strategist” and speaker.

thinking_in_betsThinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, by Annie Duke (Portfolio Penguin 2018)

Thinking in Bets pulls liberally from the works of acclaimed economists, behavioral economists, psychologists, and sociologists like Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Michael Mauboussin, and Robert K. Merton, compiling some of their career-defining research with entertaining anecdotes from her adventures as a professional poker player surrounded by compulsive gamblers. These stories often times felt too few and far between, and would’ve been welcomed.

In lieu of more gambling examples, Duke draws on wellworn anecdotes from the world of sports, as well as from her newfound role as a corporate advisor, to help illustrate her points and presumably illicit recall from readers. These several-page-long level-setting explanations take away from Duke’s unique vantage point and attraction as a gambler-turned-writer. Reading this book, I wish that Duke elaborated more on the worlds of wagering and oddsmaking to complement her explanations of probability-based thinking and seeking out objectivity (termed “truthfulness” by Duke). While the subjectmatter of Thinking in Bets is worthwhile, it would be better served with some lighter treatment when she’s not diving deep into the published research.

One approach that Duke refers to as a common practice of professional poker players to avoid “resulting” (or incorporating the outcome of the event into one’s analysis of the approach / strategy / decision-making) is to analyze a poker player’s handling of a particular hand of poker, while never divulging the result itself, so as to avoid any biases that would naturally bias the evaluators. More parallels like this to the world of professional gambling, or even callbacks to famous hands from her poker-playing career or poker history, would only serve to drive her point home further.

A common critique that I find in “pop” social science books like Duke’s is a tendency to overload the book with every relevant study that could add to the author’s argument, and hope that the sum total of these studies with lead to the reader’s assent to the book’s broader premise. Each individual study normally provides interesting insights that could be potentially actionable if explained and explored in depth, but the barrage found in most books results in each individual conclusion becoming lost in the process and not actionable. While Duke doesn’t shy away from loading the reader up on studies, she helpfully pulls back to offer the reader helpful and actionable processes, while ceding that our brains are natural purveyors of these biases and deficits, and that there’s no use in trying to attempt to rewire our mental makeup entirely. Rather, like the most successful gamblers and learners, Duke explains the benefit of choosing one’s spots and seeing compound benefits from implementing small changes to one’s habits and routines.

Thinking in Bets is a useful book on cognitive psychology with some elements pulled from the world of gambling. However, Duke’s work found me wishing to return to the work of Nassim Taleb, especially his most recent book, Skin in the Game (reviewed here). For those looking to dive deeper into the world of gambling, the life of writer-turned-gambler Maria Konnikova comes to mind (book forthcoming?), as well as author Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle.

Review – Cosmopolitanism

(Edit: Coincidentally, Tyler Cowen posted a wide-ranging conversation with Appiah this week as part of his Conversations with Tyler podcast series, which touches on Cosmopolitanism and Appiah’s broader biography and career. Highly recommended!)

Given the ongoing resurgence of nationalism that has taken hold of societies across the world, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism (published in 2006) can either be considered to have aged terribly or only become more relevant. No matter where you sit, It’s hard to not see Appiah’s text as prescient and worthy of consideration.

cosmopolitanismCosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah (Norton 2006)

Cosmopolitanism is a concept that was born as a critique to the catch-all and supposed inevitability of globalization, and addresses our individual responsibilities when engaging with the world around us. Unlike globalization, where all values, countries, and cultures converge into a single entity based on our increased exposure and exchange, cosmopolitanism sees our increased engagement with the rest of the world leading to a developed familiarity with the similarities and differences between our societies, leading to increased understanding, compassion, and fraternity with peoples across the world.

Appiah’s arguments, while laden with examples of his native Ghana and other places from around the world, are still grounded in the reason-based appeals that separates philosophy from other, daresay more approachable disciplines, which makes the book a bit of a slog to get through.

However, in just under 200 pages Appiah addresses a wide range of issues that impact modern cultural exchange, such as the repatriation of museum artifacts, the practice of circumcision, and the existence of cultural imperialism (arguing that Hollywood and western culture does not have the pervasive impact its critics claim). More broadly, Appiah argues that making value judgments on local customs shouldn’t be examined as the ignorant versus the uninformed, explaining that cultures tend to imbue their own ethics and worldview on the media they consume (a recent example of this can be seen in Chinese consumption of American blockbusters, and vice versa via the recent Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth.)

The book briefly touches on the concept of “counter-cosmopolitans,” which he cites Osama Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda, and their desire to see a strict adherence to their version of Sharia law, a theme that has only become more pronounced via the establishment of the ISIS caliphate.

Cosmopolitanism is definitely a worthy read for those of us looking for an affirmation of our curiosity about the world around us and further our openness to experiences that fall outside of our own, as well as people looking to explore the ethics around this cultural exchange further.

Review – Thirteen Days in September

To those of us either too young to remember or not yet alive, the late 70s were an especially precarious time in the history of the United States, especially in comparison to the comfortable, almost complacent hegemony enjoyed by the US following the fall of the Soviet Union leading up to 9/11. Anemic growth and high inflation plagued the domestic economy, while the Soviets and their alternative path of development continued to expand and flex their physical and technological might around the world.

Beyond this context, the failure of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and President Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardoning of Nixon were all ingredients leading to the election of Jimmy Carter, an outsider with limited political experience and an uncharacteristically dovish, religious profile rarely seen among serious Presidential contenders. Then and today, the election of Jimmy Carter is seen as a historical anomaly in US politics.

Similarly, the perception of Israel as a first-world desert oasis and security and technology leader was hardly the position of Israel just 30 years after the UN declaration and subsequent Arab-Israeli War that led to Israel’s independence. In that timespan, Israel won two hard fought wars in 1967 (Six-Day War) and 1973 (Yom Kippur War), as well as participating in numerous skirmishes against its neighboring Arab countries. As a result of these victories, Israel amassed land beyond its initial 1948 partition-planned border, including an post-war occupation of the Sinai peninsula bordering Egypt, as well as the infamous West Bank and Gaza Strip regions.

Israel’s ongoing existential crisis, as well as the resignation of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, led to the election of Menachem Begin, known to Israelis as the head of the Israeli militant group Irgun. Begin immigrated to Israel after losing a majority of his family at the hands of the Nazis, leading to a lifelong distrust of foreign countries, allies and enemies alike, and a call for a robust Israeli military to secure the newly-acquired borders. Begin’s distrust, as well as his biblical belief in the Jewish people’s right to its land, led to his election, as he promised the Israeli people of their right to populate the Sinai area, as well as settle there someday himself, a pronounced statement of his belief in Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory.

Egypt, both the aggressor and defeated party in the 1967 and 1973 Wars, was in a profoundly weakened geopolitical and economic position, and their President, Anwar Sadat, saw the establishment of peace and normalized relations with Israel as a first step towards a broader relationship with the United States, securing needed economic support in the process, and leading to a restoration of Egyptian leadership in the Middle East.

Carter, Begin, and Sadat, as well as their Ministers and aides, are the protagonists of Lawrence Wright’s account of the Camp David Accords, Thirteen Days in September, a fascinating account of Carter’s attempts to create a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel, as well as solve the Palestinian question. Through detailed diaries and reflections from the key actors, Wright provides a comprehensive look at unorthodox retreat organized by President Carter that led to the establishment of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, known in the United States as the Camp David Accords.

thirteen-daysThirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf 2014)

Over 15 chapters, one for each day of the drawn-out negotiations and one chapter helpfully bookending the process, Wright provides the day-to-day diplomatic details of the negotiations. Beyond his intimate recounting of the events themselves, Wright shares important historical context leading up to and informing the summit, drawing all the way back to biblical times, as well as shedding light on the individual perspective and contexts that the protagonists took into the negotiation.

Wright helpfully makes no attempts to paper over some of the less savory aspects of Israel’s post-1948 history, forcing the reader to grapple with the moral and political questions that envelope Israel’s history: nationhood, war, and ideological, territorial, and existential defense. Throughout the book, Wright reminds the readers human toll that had been suffered on all sides of the conflict, and the importance of achieving peace and normalized relations between Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian people.

Wright’s broader expertise on the making of the modern Middle East, deftly displayed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Looming Tower and his ongoing reportage for the New Yorker, provides helpful geopolitical context on Egypt’s position in the Arab world and Sadat’s atypical willingness to engage with the Israelis, and the risk taken by Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s need to restore relations with the United States risked alienation from other Arab countries in the region, as well as defiance from radical and extremist elements within his own country, and ultimately led to his eventual demise at the hands of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad just two years after the signing of the Treaty.

Today, it is easy to take for granted the achievement of a longstanding peace between Israel and Egypt, but I came away from this book with an appreciation for the audacity of President Carter to engage with both sides and work towards a historic accord. Similarly, the failure to reach agreement on the Palestinian question, as Carter was ultimately unable to stop the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, nor make good on his attempt to secure Palestinian autonomy, stands as the core tragedy of the Camp David Summit.

While history, and Carter’s failures on domains outside of the Israeli/Egyptian question, have not been kind to Carter, Begin’s Defense Minister, Ezer Weizman, is unequivocal at the end of Wright book, claiming that Jimmy Carter did as much for Israel as any US President in Israel’s modern history.

To those who deem the Palestinian / Israeli conflict a forever war, incapable of settlement, should look to President Carter’s leadership and example in bringing the Israelis and Egyptians to the table as inspiration, as capably recounted in this terrific book.

Review – Trail Fever

As an unabashed Michael Lewis fan and reader of most of his published work, I was surprised that I had never heard of his book on the 1996 elections, which I discovered after it was namechecked by Ezra Klein as a favorite book of his in a podcast interview with Lewis (recommended).

The book is written as a chronological diary as Lewis follows aspiring Republican candidates, and then the eventual nominees around the country to caucuses, conventions, and other campaign events. While at first blush this seemed like a lazy attempt to turn a series of musings into a published book, once I begin reading the format makes enough sense, given the relatively mundane day-to-day nature of a Presidential campaign, in which any scandals can consume a series of news cycles, “momentum” is mostly an illusion, and both the micro and macro aspects of the election process end up being lost to memory.

trail fever.jpgTrail Fever, by Michael Lewis (later republished as Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House (Knopf 1996)

In the book’s introduction, Lewis recounts the remarkably low stakes of the 1996 US Presidential Election due to the backdrop of the United States as a country “on autopilot:” steady (but not spectacular) economic growth, no major conflicts or international conflicts, and a relatively uneventful first term from President Clinton, despite attempts from his adversaries to expose malfeasance and scandals. In short, a comfortably numb state of affairs.

Lewis begins in the early stages of the Republican primary, introducing us to obscure characters whose names have been lost to history (Alan Keyes, Bob Dornan, Lamar Alexander, Phil Gramm), or individuals that elicit a “yeah, I think I know who that is” in 2019: Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and the eventual nominee, Bob Dole, who Lewis struggles to kindly portray (or portray at all) throughout the book.

Among this pool of uninspiring professional politicians is one candidate that stands above the rest in the eyes of the story-starved Lewis. On a whim (lore states that one of his factory-floor employees implored him to run), Maurice “Morry” Taylor, the millionaire CEO of the now-absorbed tire manufacturer Titan Tire, was met with the question that prods at the most ego-driven among us: “why not me?,” before putting his own name in the running to represent the 1996 Republican Party as an heir to his billionaire businessman predecessor, Ross Perot.

As opposed to most businesspeople-turned-politicians (and fiscal conservatives), Taylor’s preoccupation with “managing the government like a business” did not begin and end with balancing the Federal Budget. Employing a tactic revived by Trump in 2016 (though actually carrying it out, in Taylor’s case), Taylor funded his own campaign, and in the absence of “rented strangers” (Lewis’ term for the campaign staff that surrounds a candidate and President), spent more than $6 million of his own funds on a series of innovative (and questionably illegal) stunts to rally the vote: running $5,000 raffles in early-election districts, flooding potential supporters with free swag, and holding a rally of over 6,000 motorcyclists in a party organized for the Republican party.

Taylor’s irreverence and ingenuity hardly ended at his electioneering: Taylor’s ideas stood far apart from his Republican competitors, who he claimed were just as poisoned as Clinton’s Democrats and the broader two-party centrist system. Some of Taylor’s ideas were on the sensible, everyman side, such as implementing term limits (one) for all politicians, advocating for more States’ rights and a smaller government, simplifying the tax code, and removing money from politics. The ones that Lewis, and Taylor’s enthusiastic (but small) electorate tended to veer towards entertainingly implausible, including putting a 10-year moratorium on law schools (to prevent lawyers from entering the DC fray), closing all embassies around the world (“international business is done over the phone and fax”), and shutting down the Pentagon ( and turning it into a hotel for visiting Representatives and Senators, who would no longer be able to maintain a separate home away from their district.) Ironically, Taylor’s brutal and symbolic approach to cost-cutting the White House is reminiscent of the extreme cost-cutting currently underway in Mexico under newly-elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As the campaign drones on and the more entertaining candidates make way for the purposefully staid Dole vs the incumbent Clinton, the book loses much of its momentum, and Lewis palpably struggles to continue to create momentum all the way to the end of the election. At this point, Lewis introduces many then-readers to Senator John McCain of Arizona, then on the campaign trail for Dole. McCain, along with Taylor, come away as the other two figures unscathed by Lewis’ cynical and honest take on politics (an aside: Lewis’ recounting of McCain’s humility, open candor, and heroics as a POW for over 5 years only serve to further inflame Trump’s deplorable treatment of McCain in his final months.)

The 1996 election, and Lewis’ coverage, touch on certain issues that proved prescient and have turned front-and-center as Trump has risen to power, namely a visit to the Mexican border, where Lewis marvels at the mass of Mexican hopefuls doggedly risking it all to reach the US, as well as meeting incipient morals-based Evangelicals and their faith leaders in Colorado Springs.

Lewis grows increasingly frustrated with the minimal ideological space between the two candidates in an attempt to win over Centrists, and the broader two-party system in general. His most pronounced contempt is held for the “rented strangers” and pollsters, the career servants of the political class, who shape the opinions and image of the mainstream candidates to broaden their appeal to the largest possible population, muddying their appeal and held views beyond all recognition in the process.

Lewis comes away more or less disgusted with the entire political class (excluding McCain and a cameo from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader), and closes the book with a call to action for a reform of campaign finance and the broader influence of money in politics, a similar (and hopefully not altogether hopeless) call to action we’ve heard from Bernie Sanders and others over the past decade or so.

Given Lewis’ soft re-entry into politics writing this past year, the Fifth Risk (reviewed here), which essentially calls for sanity and basic competence in politics, it is incredibly entertaining to see a younger Lewis provide a much more unhinged and inflammatory take on politics, one where he vacillates between Republican and Democrat, Dole and Clinton, seemingly on a whim, ultimately casting his vote for Nader and his reputed $5,000 Presidential campaign. Given the massive, 24-person Democratic Party Primary, as well as Trump’s continued bloviating from the White House, one wishes that a less reformed Lewis might return for one more bite at the apple.

Review – River of Doubt

Aside from my partner, accompanying me on my trip to the Amazon was the fantastic book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. River of Doubt tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s discovery of the Rio da Duvida (later re-christened the Rio Roosevelt), a fateful adventure that proved nearly fatal for Roosevelt and almost certainly led to his early demise at the age of 58.

While headlines of cooperation and alliance between Trump and Brazilian President Bolsonaro seem to harken back to World War II, where Brazilian allegiance to the US led to it declaring war on the Axis, and sending ~28,000 troops into battle, Millard’s book tells the story of a lesser-known chapter of Brazilian-American diplomatic history.

river of doubt

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (Doubleday 2005)

Roosevelt’s Brazilian expedition was prompted by a combination of timely and chance circumstances. In the period leading up to the expedition, Roosevelt was undergoing a rare downswing in his long political career and post-Presidential life, following a election defeat suffered in 1912. Fascinatingly, Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign was an attempt to secure a third term, four years after his second, as a member of the third-party Progressive Party (a party due for a revival?).

Wallowing in his defeat, Roosevelt accepted an invitation by an Argentinian intellectual salon, leading to his initial South American journey. Roosevelt’s acceptance was no doubt prompted by a desire to visit his son, Kermit, whose paternally-endowed zeal for adventure led him to work in Brazil as a bridge builder. Arriving in the northeastern city of Bahia along with his family to visit Kermit, Roosevelt was received by a Brazilian diplomatic party. No doubt seeking to kindle Roosevelt’s own infamous lust for life, a Brazilian diplomat made a passing comment that had untold consequences, offering Roosevelt the opportunity to discover an “unknown river,” to quite literally place it on the map. Roosevelt was immediately intrigued by this opportunity, a chance to another chapter to his legacy as an explorer and conqueror of the infamously treacherous and untamed Brazilian interior.

Millard draws on a wealth of source material to explain how the ill-fated group of adventures who accompanied Roosevelt came to be, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit, an old acquaintance, Priest, and Notre Dame professor named Father Zahm, two naturalists affiliated with the newly-established Museum of Natural History, and a Brazilian party of military officers and camaradas (support staff) led by one of the true heroes of Brazilian history (and previously unknown to me): Colonel Cândido Rondon.

Rondon was previously the leader of the Rondon Commission, an attempt to map and lay thousands of miles of telegraph line in the Brazilian interior (now the state of Mato Grosso and Pantanal region). During his Commission, Rondon came into contact with several previously uncontacted indigenous tribes, many of which, despite their vast skills as warriors and survivalists living of the region’s uninviting land, were otherwise technologically in the Stone Age. Rondon became widely known for his commitment for winning over these native tribes via peaceful and diplomatic means, refusing to retaliate or attack even in the face of the murder of his men or animals.

Rondon was fiercely committed to his cause, and saw the opportunity to join / lead Roosevelt’s expedition (exploring a river that he had initially discovered himself at the end of the deadly telegraph Commission) as a continuation of his life’s work: to open up the Brazilian interior (and its inhabitants) to the rest of Brazil. For his lifetime of service, bravery, and dedication to his cause the Indian Protection Service, which operates to this day as the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), as well as the christening of a ~90k square mile part of northern Brazil as Rondônia.

As the officially-titled Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition courses through the Brazilian highlands and into the Rio da Duvida, Millard provides a good deal of high-level scientific basis to better explain the region, including the geographic, geologic, biologic, and ecologic foundations that make the Amazon River unrivalled and so unique. Her explanations of the river, its thousands of tributaries, and the surrounding jungle region make for a fascinating and useful (if not terrifying) companion to my time in the Amazon. In addition, Millard incorporates firsthand accounts (journals, letters, lectures, published articles and books), as well as anthropological research and oral histories to provide insights into not only the Brazilian and American officers mindsets and retellings of their journey, but also the native tribes who came into contact with the Expedition, including the Pareci, the Nhambiquara, and the Cinta Larga tribes, the last of which’s consensus-based tribal decision making process led to the fateful survival of the Expedition (a fate not shared by many ensuing foreign explorers of the region at the hands of the justifiably suspecting Cinta Larga.)

The book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in Teddy Roosevelt, Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest/Jungle, and adventure in general. I look forward to following up my read of the River of Doubt with Millard’s other works, Destiny of the Republic, on the assassination of James Garfield), and Hero of the Empire, on Churchill’s exploits in the Boer War.

Compulsion, Intention, and “Digital Minimalism”

I’m a highly compulsive person.

For many, simply acknowledging compulsions and bad behavior is enough to compel change, to shame people out of their destructive practices. My paradox is that I’ve long been hyper aware of my compulsive tendencies. And while I’m vigilant enough to constrain my worst habits to function as an adult and working professional, rationalized exceptions or excuses have otherwise prevented me from making dramatic changes.

One of the earliest stories that my Mom loves to share was my toddler-aged devotion to my blanket. My birth blanket and I were inseparable for the first 3-4 -odd years of my life. I loved to compulsively caress its frilly edges and feel its softness. However, at some point I realized that my blanket served as a crutch, something that I wasn’t going to be able to keep in close-at-hand for the rest of my life. As my Mom recalls to this day, one morning I asked her to take away my blanket from me, seemingly aware of my own need to separate and thereby wean myself from this support object. Once I asked for it to be taken away, I no longer felt the desire pangs of my blanket, and my onetime attachment became relegated to a lifetime of teasing by my Mother.

AOL and AOL Instant Messenger were my first internet-based obsessions. Dial-up internet (and a single phone line) was the only thing preventing me from regular after-school contact with my friends. Once second phone lines and the internet in general became more ubiquitous, the stand-alone AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software became my online home, and I chatted days and nights away with friends (most of which I saw regularly), crushes, and sometime-online-girlfriends (made official by the mutual inclusion of one’s initials or name into your AIM profile.) My first AIM screen name was methodboyz59 (ages 10-13?), followed by ezeh25 (13 -?).

College (2009-10) was the first time I chose to actively suspend my Facebook. After receiving access in 2006 (shortly after Facebook decided to open up access from email addresses), I quickly became a faithful and regular Facebook user, religiously visiting and posting on my friends’ Walls, uploading and commenting on Photos, and mindlessly visiting the pages of friends and strangers alike. Once Facebook Chat and Status Update functionalities were added, my Facebook use became ubiquitous with being “online,” mixed in with a helping of email (before email conquered the world) and Google Reader (RIP.) “Deleting” my Facebook was hardly a statement back then – for me, it was much more so an acknowledgment of a particularly thorny semester to come, and the need to “buckle down” and avoid succumbing to the distraction and neverending information stream of Facebook that I knew I was unable to resist. I re- and de-activated my Facebook numerous times during the ensuing years, each time taking into consideration my lack of impulse control and the responsibilities in front of me.

Today, I’d probably consider myself to be a relatively “healthy” online consumer. To the utter confusion of Brazilian friends (among the most active social media users internationally), my social media habit is almost non-existent (outside of Linkedin, or “Li-kee-jin” as its known in Portuguese):

  • From 2015 (or so) onwards, I’ve been Facebook-less
  • After a longtime Twitter habit (/addiction?), I similarly deactivated my account in 2017, after initially removing the app from my smartphone 1-2 years prior
  • I’ve never had an Instagram (nor a “finsta” account)

All of this (presumably) adds up to a healthy digital existence, following the mainstream advice of the ever-multiplying array of psychologists, technologists, academics, luddites, charlatans, and well-intentioned friends that make up the growing class of digital “experts” and advisors seeking to help us regain our attention spans, relationships, lives. Litte/no social media, minimal “push” notifications on your phone, “silent” mode (versus the Pavlovian vibrate or ringer modes) would place me in the top quartile of “enlightened” cellphone users; hardly a powerless lab rat to the A-B tests, fake news, and general exploitation on offer by programmers, UX designers, and the broader attention merchant class. Right?

Embarrassingly and shamefully wrong. With the advent of the Screen Time app on iOS devices (iPhones/iPads), I’ve gained an embarrassing amount of insight on the level / extent to which my device addiction has taken over my life. The compiled stats from the last 7 days alone, which I’m not proud to share, are not pretty:

  • 38 hours of weekly device use (more than 5 hours per day!)
  • 1,086 compulsive “pickups” (155 per day), spurned by 1,083 notifications (again, 155 per day), an almost 1-to-1 pickup-to-notification correlation

An important addendum to these statistics is the exclusion of any laptop and desktop use (work-related or otherwise), adding another 5-10-odd hours per day to my ‘screen time’ quotient. Further, the past 7 days of smartphone usage is after the implementation of my ‘digital detox’ (more below), a cold turkey approach to cutting out some of my most pernicious and mindless habits – Youtube, Twitch, and Podcasts.

Trying to contextualize these data points within the context of my life seems nearly impossible to comprehend. For all intents and purposes, I’m a (middingly) productive adult able to dress and feed myself, hold human conversations, and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, hardly one of the overweight, parents’ basement-dwelling losers at-once ridiculed and lauded by Trump for widely disseminating political memes and fake news. How can I spend so much time on my phone? How have I damaged my brain / attention span, my relationships, myself through this constant phone use? Can this be reversed, or am I resigned to a future of smartphone addiction?

I debated quite a bit as to whether to share these statistics – to bare my ‘digital’ self for broader judgment. As noted above, my human impulse is to deny my addiction outwardly, while very much recognizing my own compulsive behavior. Of course, it’s much easier to pass judgment on others, to share concern for the growing anxiety and suicide rates of young people, the susceptibility of non-digital natives to fake news, and the rising violence the misinformation has wrought around the world, than to acknowledge one’s own problems, one’s addiction.

The ultimate result of this cycle of connectivity, compulsion, and hyper-awareness is a well-documented and ever-present state of lingering anxiety: “a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates [one’s] daily life.” Minutes, hours pass with a constant awareness of unattended to messages, emails, even current events. Temporary and limiting solutions provide fleeting salves, rather than a sustainable solution.


Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Seeking to try and put away my digital “blanket,” I picked up Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, a self-help book written for our (and my) current condition. Books, probably the most popular surviving “analog” format, have sought to capitalize on our current age of digital “coexistence,” and the need to seek out balance in our lives between the “analog” and “digital.” As if taking the first step in admitting my condition, these books at the very least are heartening in helping me recognize that my ‘condition’ is hardly a unique one, and is in fact of increasing occurrence.

digital minimalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (Portfolio Penguin 2019)

Beyond merely disconnecting (or breaking up) one with one’s phone, however, Newport’s book aims further, seeking to reclaim our personal intentions away from the mindlessly addictive scrolling, refreshing, and compulsive checking that leads to my more than 150 “pickups” per day and more than 5 hours of weekly usage. I’ve long found my most concerning phone-related issue to be around intention — how to avoid this mindless consumption of information at the expense of more enriching and purposeful pursuits. Beyond merely trying and be more aware and conscious of my habits, usage and consumption, my ultimate goal in “fixing” my relationship with my phone, and my digital life, is to actively try and implement steps to reverse these compulsions, to remove the film of ever-present anxiety and carry out actions with clear headed intention and focused intensity.

The appeal of reclaiming one’s time (5 hours a day!) from the mindless scrolling and compulsive checking that we unconsciously participate in on a minute-by-minute/hourly/daily basis is clear – how to wholly achieve this is an altogether different question. In his book, Newport provides a helpful compendium of the latest thinking on our digital addictions from contemporary thought leaders (Shelly Turkle, Tristan Harris, Matthew Crawford) while providing the example of more timeless thinkers (Thoreau, Aristotle, Franklin, Lincoln) as shining examples of the power of quiet contemplation, solitude, and a balance between connection and disconnection.

Newport helpfully provides implementable practices, both digital (stop clicking “like,” remove social media from one’s phone, setting one’s phone to do not disturb, etc.) and analog (leave your phone at home, take long walks, use “office hours” to purposefully check-in with friends and family, pursue craft and “leisure” activities), all of which add up to provide a reasonable collection of half-measures to regain some form of sanity and balance amidst the constant noise of our modern age. Ultimately, Newport cedes that any form of cold turkey or return to nativism is unrealistic – better to reclaim our autonomy over these devices and maximize their usefulness (and minimize their harmful features) rather than taking more drastic actions. Digital Minimalism (the book/object) serves as a physical totem of the need to “disconnect” – however, after reading his book I still feel like I have a ways to go in solving my own digital / smartphone addictions, and significantly more intention-setting to make.


My Digital Detox

One of the most helpful activities called for in the book’s first-third is dubbed a ‘digital detox,’ a Marie Kondo-esque attempt at decluttering the vast array of activities done on our phones in an attempt to ascertain our true “need” for these “tools,” rather than a mere “want.” Following a period of time (30 days is Newport’s suggestion), we’re told to revisit each individual “detoxed” activity to determine its necessity and potential re-adoption. As the reader is told, test subjects are oftentimes amazed to find that the gross majority of these applications are hardly missed, and removing the compulsion to check them serves to re-open minds and schedules.

For my digital detox, I identified the applications that collectively add up to my biggest time wasters, and have sought to cut them out of my daily routines altogether.

  1. Youtube
  2. Twitch
  3. Reddit
  4. Podcasts
  5. E-mail newsletters (habitually subscribed to and religiously consumed)
  6. Whatsapp / Groupme Groups

While I’ve found myself exhaling a bit easier doing away with these applications, each (sofar) has had a countervailing and mixed effect on my digital “well-being”:

Youtube / Twitch / Reddit: Without ready access to my three most-visited websites and sources of entertainment, I’ve found myself opting for more information consumption, namely via ESPN, NYTimes, and the Pocket app. The cumulative impact of this switch, while marginally beneficial, doesn’t feel altogether restorative, and oftentimes feels like I’m simply re-emphasizing one bad habit (mindlessly consuming content) for another (mindlessly reading articles).

Regarding NYTimes and a compulsive need for up-to-date information, I pasted a relevant quote from an article called Meditation in the Time of Disruption (The Ringer) that “rang” particularly true to me, citing meditation as a potential solution to our digital compulsions:

“[A] foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for The New York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.”

While these sites were initially excluded from my detox as slightly less malicious versions of the aforementioned time-wasters, I believe the next step may be an end to mindless web browsing altogether, rather than a justification of some web usage over another.

Podcasts: While many may counter that podcasts, especially news- or educationally-focused ones, are in fact a good habit, rather than a harmful one, I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the last ten-year uptick in my podcast consumption and a significant reduction in the amount of time listening to, appreciating, and discovering music.

Unfortunately, I have come to see podcasts as little more than non-stationary television watching (daresay radio?), and the daily mix of podcasts consumed little more than “channel changing” from the constant refreshing of the Podcast app and seeking out of the latest Podcasts available.

My Podcast time has been replaced with a concerted combination of listening to more music (made embarrassingly easy by the Spotify app, truly the eighth Wonder of the World for a prepubescent version of myself patiently recording songs off of the radio and pirating tracks over dial-up internet), audiobooks (still working through the 48-hour long Grant biography by Chernow), and phone calls.

While I find myself missing a critical takes on the latest in sports, politics, and the world, I am reflecting on the fact that I most often absentmindedly and passively consume these podcasts, rather than seeking to engage with our challenge myself via the medium – part of Newport’s aforementioned turnkey lack-of-intention that our smartphones provide.

Going forward, I think I will continue to do without Podcasts, or choose to strategically reimplement a limited number of podcasts I find particularly valuable.

Email Newsletters: So far, this is where I’ve found myself feeling the most relieved, where I’ve found the most weight lifted from my day-to-day digital “responsibilities.” Over time, I had wittingly and unwittingly signed up for tens of email newsletters, whose ability to “push” themselves into my inbox make them little better than a app-pushed notification, and in fact require more of my time and concentration. While each individually is mostly well-intentioned (if not self-promotional), the cumulative effect is to create an avalanche of weekly email responsibility, a second job of parsing through the seemingly-relevant collection of advice, hyperlinks, articles, etc.

Unsubscribing all is an impulse I long resisted, even after multiple unplugged weekends and vacations where I’d return to hundreds of unread emails (very few of which dealing with direct correspondence), and a necessary morning (or full day) of work to catch up the unread onslaught. Of course, there’s a false sense of productivity that comes from working through emails carefully curated from smart people, but this “detox” has had an altogether positive impact, in that it’s forced me to rethink my relationship to these “obligations.”

I’ve rid myself of 95% of my newsletter / subscriptions (I’m ashamed to admit that several long-favorites remain, as do some professionally relevant missives [including the excellent newsletter from Anne Trubek, Notes from a Small Press]), and don’t plan on resubscribing anytime soon. Email continues to be a challenge for me, but doing away with imagined obligations, leaving only the real ones, has been a very positive start.

Messengers (iMessage / Whatsapp / Skype / Groupme): Living abroad for the better part of 1.5 years, messenger apps have become constant companions, necessary appendages that help keep me connected with family and friends and maintain important relationships (including to my patient and understanding significant other). Without these apps, my communication would be relegated to letter-writing (email or physical), and would result in a loss of intimacy that comes from an unexpected phone call or FaceTime. These apps have offered a great deal of support (in the form of who they’ve connected me with), and I would be hard pressed to do away with any of them.

However, the great irony that exists is that while these digital tools have enabled me to maintain my cherished and important relationships across the world, they end up being the applications I end up receiving the most notifications / pickups, and thereby spending most of my time on.  Further, the anxiety borne of “constant connectivity” is mostly led by these apps, which offer an accessible window into me at any given time.

One unfortunate admission is that any sense of moral superiority from not being on social media is quickly replaced by the similar effect of these messenger apps, which include their own versions of the dopamine-triggering notification, response, and “like” more famously attributed to their social media counterparts. Even disabling notifications for the majority of these groups (especially the more active one) evokes near-constant curiosity, and a desire to ‘catch-up’ in quieter moments. “Direct” messages, which do receive the same ‘de-notification’ treatment, are responded to immediately, and certainly not cast out of mind until having been responded to. In some ways, it feels like my compulsions and worst habits have compounded onto the messenger applications (though maybe they’ve always been there?)

My simultaneous appreciation and apprehension for the app’s side effects is difficult to deconstruct, and likely the necessary subject of further scrutiny and tweaking. On the other hand, I’m somewhat optimistic that my return back to the US, closer at hand to friends and family, will enable me to more purposefully separate myself from the daily ebbs-and-flows of text. On the other hand, being in an environment surrounding by new acquaintances and opportunities (more later) may prove even more harmful – fodder for future thought, and maybe some preventative action.


Even now, 2 weeks into my “digital detox,” I’ve yet to see a meaningful downtick in my smartphone usage, though one could potentially argue that my usage has been more “intentional:” more audiobooks, music, reading, and writing; less social media, Youtube, Twitch, and podcasts. Nonetheless, the Screen Time statistics from my last 7 days usage is altogether jarring, and in itself a call for action. I plan to continue to track my usage via a weekly-kept spreadsheet, and will try and maintain a mindful approach to my notifications, pickup, and usage time in general, with an eye towards a gradual reduction (what’s a reasonable amount of time?)

On the other hand, even the composition of this overlong missive (and yesterday’s) could be attributed to a more conscious attempt at reigning in my smartphone usage. So far, it seems like Newport’s gentle admonition, acknowledgment of our phone’s unimpeded place in our lives, and entreaty for “balance” has won out. Bathroom breaks, spare moments, and cab rides all seem to still be “phone moments,” though maybe more intentional ones.

Review – Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)

For the uninitiated, Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of the band Wilco, as well as a musician, producer, poet, and songwriter. In my mind, he is one of our generation’s great artists.

Like others who have risen to the top of their respective professions, there’s a tendency in us “laymans” to want to understand the magic or secrets behind their success and prolific output, or in the case of Tweedy, his capacity for imagery and melody, and his ability to convey meaning from a series of chords/notes and words strung together. What books were read, routines established, and/or blood oaths taken to reach these heights?

Oftentimes, I think we find ourselves, as eager consumers and seekers of these types of secrets (daresay “hacks”), disappointed by how pedestrian or seemingly simple they seem, or wholly unattainable, either by virtue of god- or genetically-given talent or circumstances, usually combined with a smattering of serendipity and sheer luck.

Let's_Go_(So_We_Can_Get_Back)_book_coverLet’s Go (So We Can Get Back), by Jeff Tweedy (Dutton 2018)

Jeff Tweedy, the youngest child of gruff, blue collar alcoholic parents born in rural Illinois, certainly did not come from means, nor was placed on this Earth with any sort of prodigious talent. Over the series of his memoir, Tweedy speaks to his “superpower:” his passion for discovering music of all sorts, and where that openness and commitment has taken him: bands (and bandmates) formed and broken up and a continual sonic evolution via experimentation – new songs, structures, and genres.

With remarkable humility and honesty and a pervasive sense of gratitude, Tweedy takes on his journey starting in his formative years, eagerly absorbing the music recommendations of his older brothers, far-reaching radio stations, and all-knowing record store clerks, as well as a fellow classmate named Jay Farrar. Farrar would soon become his first bandmate and his eventual counterpart in the much-loved early-90s outfit Uncle Tupelo.

Tweedy’s journey is remarkable for just how unremarkable it is, including his battles with depression and painkiller addiction, his wife’s battle with cancer, his experience as a Dad of two boys, and his pervasive and unabated appreciation for music. Tweedy takes us along the ride through Wilco’s evolution from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and Farrar to the shadow of British songwriter Billy Bragg, the addition of another Jay (Bennett), a volatile creative combination that led to (my opinion) their best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (infamously chronicled in the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”), up to the band’s current formation, responsible for the past few albums.

Throughout, Tweedy is remarkably frank about his personal and professional battles, creatively, emotionally, and physically, which makes for an interesting and engaging read. However, I think non-fans of Wilco/Tweedy will likely find little to draw on from this book – maybe not a surprise altogether, as very few “celebrity” memoirs stand on their own. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any fan of any of Wilco’s albums (at the very least to read Tweedy’s plea for his fans of various generations/formations of Wilco to get along!)

On another note, this is one of the first books that I’ve listened to “cover-to-cover” in audiobook format. To anyone with any familiarity with Tweedy’s voice, I’d contend that audiobook is the far-and-away optimal “format” to consume this book. The production value is incredibly strong throughout, as Tweedy’s unmistakable dry and wit-laden candor comes through, and there are even some fun back-and-forth conversations with his wife and children, done in their own voices, that I don’t think would translate as well on the page.

For me, recommending an audiobook is a bit of a remarkable statement, as I’ve had mixed experiences with audiobooks in the past as a way to supplement my reading habits in the car, while walking, etc. Listening to other books, I’ve oftentimes found myself mentally zoning out, or getting lost among the characters speaking and broader narrative. I’ve had the most luck with memoirs like Tweedy’s (currently listening to Tara Westover’s Educated), or longer form history (more than 10 hours into Chernow’s Grant, a longer project.) On the other hand, listening to fiction has continued to elude me, as listening to the 166-person cast Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook (my review here) left me mostly lost, though one could argue a more straightforward, non-experimental book, like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (which I enjoyed on audiobook several years ago), might work better.

Eager to continue with the experimentation, and continuing to refine what works best for me.


Reading an author’s essay collection cover-to-cover, as opposed to picking-and-choosing essays of particular interest or jumping around, may seem like an overly rigid way of reading.

However, I’d argue that a book of essays, an author’s collected works, or even a collection of letters, when consumed as organized by the author and/or editor, provide a rare look inside the mind of a public figure or thinker, oftentimes much more revealing than even the most insightful biography.

The “payoff,” if there ever is one in reading, is not necessarily in the consumption of any one essay, but in the broader absorption of the interpretations of the varied topics and subsequent opinions of the author. Over the course of the book, it allows the reader to deepen their relationship with the author, better understand their influences, core ideas, and thought processes, especially useful in the case of fiction writers, who shroud these elements in the nooks of their finished works.

Attention by Joshua Cohen is a perfect example of one such collection – an assorted patchwork of essays, unfinished thoughts, digressions that represent an open notebook into his reading, travels, and mind.

attentionATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, by Joshua Cohen (Random House 2018)

The topics covered are wide-ranging and culled together with little more intention than the authors’ own interests. As a result, some topics resonated more than others with me, especially the ones that mirrored some of my own interests and background.

Some highlights include:

  • A letter to Ruth May Rivers, providing a beautiful introduction to a music performance recorded by the Lomax father and son combo for inclusion into the Library of Congress entitled (Boyd Rivers & Ruth May Rivers: Come Out the Wilderness – Youtube)
  • An analysis of Thomas Pynchon in the wake of his newest release, Bleeding Edge. Pynchon is clearly a strong influence of Cohen’s, and the reader benefits from sharing in Cohen’s reading and interpretation, akin to a $28.00 post-graduate course
  • Cohen’s review of a five-thousand, four-volume biography of Gustav Mahler, a descent into madness that anyone who has read a massive, meandering work of scholarship can no doubt relate to
  • Reviews of a series of books about our contemporary internet age (Jaron Lanier’s – which he uses data accumulated over the course of his review (earnings per word, time spent, etc)  as the medium to review these books on data’s growing influence on our lives (link)

True to the book’s subtitle, Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, many of these essays, even the best ones, have a similarly hasty, cobbled together nature to them, the works of a professional writer almost annoyed with his natural talent, seemingly preferring to do anything else but actually put pen to page.

One exception to this is a mid-book travelogue of a commissioned trip to one of the remote corners of the world, Azerbaijan, to learn about and meet the diaspora Jews of the region, known as “mountain jews” (truly proving the adage that Jews can be found anywhere.) Like many great travel writers, Cohen arrives in the country nearly spontaneously, with little more than a list of Azerbaijan Jewish towns and synagogues, and the name and number of a contact provided by an overly gregarious New Yorker met in a Brooklyn dacha (bathhouse).

The ensuing story, told in clear-eyed detail, is predictably hilarious, and captivating, despite minimal progress made in his goal and the vast chasm between Cohen’s intentions and the interlocutors he meets along the way – most tenuously Jewish, and nearly all seeking to profit from the interaction. This essay is the clearest indicator of Cohen’s massive ability as a writer, and would wholly recommend it to any curious parties (“Me, U, Baku, Quba” – Tablet Magazine).

Less successful are his attempts to play traditional essayist / columnist. In a series of essays at the beginning of the book, Cohen tries and tie together disparate concepts in a series of formulaic essays, using a concept relevant to the present day (or at least when the essays were published), and a follow-up series of seemingly unconnected, irrelevant, and under-examined topics, such as the Jewish history of US Socialism and the rise of Bernie Sanders, and the fall(s) of Atlantic City and Ringling Brothers Circus and national prominence of Trump (separate essays.)

A similar conceit was used in an essay published by Cohen in the September edition of the New Republic, “Israel’s Season of Discontent” (link) – there are some good ideas in there, but they seem almost besides the point of the article, which is written lesso to convince than to be consumed by avid readers.

It’s hard to find a review of a Joshua Cohen that holds back from marveling about Cohen’s intelligence, abilities, and talent, and I don’t plan to be the first. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to read this essay collection (less organized and cohesive than most), which provided something along the lines of a rotating kaleidoscope or funhouse mirror into the Cohen’s mind, rather than the popularly conceived “window.”


Review – Dreamland

A future classmate of mine recently asked me, based on my stated love of books, whether there was a single book that I’d recommend everyone read. Though of course it’s very much fresh in my mind, I believe that Dreamland is as good of a candidate as any nonfiction book in recent memory.

dreamlandDreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury 2015)

Dreamland presents a nuanced and well-researched story of the rise of the opioid epidemic in the United States, and the associated havoc that it has wreaked through US towns and cities, through a dual lens: the evolution of the heroin trade, funneled to the United States via Mexico, and the history of medically-sanctioned pain treatment, leading to the discovery and subsequent sales and marketing efforts of Purdue Pharma’s “blockbuster” drug: OxyContin.

Aside from onerous restrictions on medications at your local chain pharmacy, most who have yet to experience opioid addiction in their own lives see a minimal connection with the innocuously named Vicodin, Percocet, and the aforementioned Oxycotin and the insidious heroin. However, as clearly laid out by Quinones, the path from a medically sanctioned prescription for a common injury to a debilitating or life-ending addiction to heroin falls in a fairly straight line, from mostly sincere doctors (with a smattering of abusive/criminal cases) seeking to treat the pain of their patients, to Mexican peasants in search of a better life for themselves and their families back home importing their locally grown chiva (potent black tar heroin) to blighted American cities with an unestablished drug presence in the market. To satisfy their increasingly hungry customers, Quinones chronicles the savvy strategies to boost their drug trade, mirroring the optimization tactics of any normal corporate operation: from production, to logistics, to marketing and prospecting new clients (mostly outside of “pain clinics”), to steering clear of law enforcement.

Dreamland is a heartbreaking, infuriating, tragic, and gripping story masterfully told (and reported on) by Sam Quinones, a seasoned journalist and with twenty seven years’ worth of experience, including decades reporting on immigration issues on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Without Quinones‘ deft capacity for tying together disparate threads and humanizing his story through the stories of DEA and local police officers, scientists studying the link between opiates and addiction, former addicts and their surviving families, the story would be an ineffective tale of corporate malfeasance on the part of Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Instead, Quinones makes you question your stance towards addiction, and root for a revitalization of the communities and families that the “morphine molecule” has destroyed.

It is a beautiful book, and a worthy read for anyone even moderately curious about the massive opioid crisis taking place across the United States.