If you were given a month to learn something about a subject about which you had hitherto known nothing, what would you choose? Quantum physics, maybe, or the works of Willa Cather, or the Hundred Years’ War? Would you learn a language, or possibly teach yourself how to administer first aid in the event of a domestic accident? I ask only because in the last month I have read everything there is to read and, as a consequence, now know everything there is to know on the subject of the film version of Doctor Dolittle, and I am beginning to have my doubts about whether I chose my specialism wisely.

– Nick Hornby, Stuff I’ve Been Reading (2013)


Reading is a long conversation with several different people, all of them living in your head, all of them demanding your attention. There’s a sports fan in my head, and a music fan. There’s a needy person who is always looking for things that make him laugh, but, because he also prizes fully imagined characters and soul, frequently goes hungry. There’s somebody who wants to read novels that move him. There’s a father who wants to find books for his reluctant sons. There’s a man who writes for a living and draws inspiration and strength from books about how other, better writers and artists did their work. There’s someone who loves other people’s love for books, and who is therefore a sucker for wide-eyed recommendations that begin, ‘I know you’d never think about picking this book up, but trust me – it’s a work of genius.’ All of these people need to be addressed at periodic intervals, and when they feel they are being ignored, I find myself picking up books that I didn’t know I wanted to read, presumably as a way of keeping them happy.

– Nick Hornby, Stuff I’ve Been Reading (2013)

Surely there is nothing particularly novel in the annals of human history in looking for a happily ever after, a life that is secure and pleasant and easy. Expecting it to be the result primarily of romantic love, on the other hand, is a fairly recent historical trend. Even more modern is the oddly naïve insistence—particularly in otherwise sophisticated men and women—that somewhere out there, Prince Charming or a perfect princess is waiting for them, the only thing standing between them and a perfect life. For good reason, my circle of friends refers to this kind of overinflated, codependent fantasy of romantic love as “Disney damage.”

– Hanne Blank, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012)

Five centuries ago women were not merely thought sexually insatiable; it was believed they could make a man impotent, or even make his penis disappear. The Malleus Maleficarum, the definitive guide for witch hunters published in 1486, wrote of a woman who stole dozens of penises, then hid them in a tree where they lived like birds in a nest.

– David M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001)

I liked Baldwin in a divested way, the way that anyone who writes and aspires to write well does. […] And yet, for me, there had always been something slightly off-putting about him—the strangely accented, ponderous way he spoke in the interviews I watched; the lofty, “theatrical” way in which he appeared in “Good Citizens,” an essay by Joan Didion, as the bored, above-it-all figure that white people revered because he could stay collected. What I resented about Baldwin wasn’t even his fault. I didn’t like the way many men who only cared about Ali, Coltrane, and Obama praised him as the black authorial exception. I didn’t like how every essay about race cited him. How they felt comfortable, as he described it, talking to him (and about him) “absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation.”

– Rachel Kaadzi Gansah, “The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin,” The Best American Essays 2017 (2017)

Sunday Review

Book I’m reading now

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Books read last week:

Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett

DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You by Misha Glenny


Films watched last week:

Locke (rewatched)


War for the Planet of the Apes


TV shows I will watch this evening:

Russia with Simon Reeve

Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power with Suzy Klein


Articles I enjoyed reading last week:

“How Vulgarity Normalizes Predators” by Leah Libresco Sargeant

“The Science of Spying: How the CIA Secretly Recruits Academics” by Daniel Golden

“Binders Full of Asininity” by Jonah Goldberg

From the time of slavery to the civil rights era, black men faced every possible violence, including castration and far worse, as both punishment and prevention against even presumed sexual insult. An exchange as common as eye contact, as simple as salutation, could be construed as an assault. […] Claude Neal was twenty-three—a farmhand in Jackson County, Florida, who in 1934 was accused of raping and killing his white boss’s twenty-year-old daughter, Lola Cannady. He was moved from jail to jail so white lynch mobs wouldn’t find him before the trial. But eventually they tracked him down in Alabama, holding the jailer at gunpoint and absconding with Neal. The news of his capture attracted a bloodthirsty crowd of as many as three thousand. Lest a riot ensue and someone get hurt—someone besides Neal—he was lynched by a group of six, who then dragged him behind a car to the Cannadys’ farm, where Lola’s family members took turns slashing and shooting his corpse. Onlookers stabbed at it, spit on it, ran their cars over it. His body was then driven back to town and strung up in an oak so that the full mob could have its way. People skinned him. His fingers were cut off and, eventually, jarred. He was set on fire. […]

The warning in these stories is obvious: be careful near white people. The warning between the lines isn’t hard to spot, either: be careful because your sexuality, to them, is hazardous.

– Wesley Morris, “Last Taboo,” The New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2016

Lost among the pages and pages of nonsense in the Report were three hypotheses suggested by Dr. Tarbell:

That, since many cases of mental illness were cured by electric shock treatment, the Devil might find electricity unpleasant; that, since many mild cases of mental illness were cured by lengthy discussions of personal pasts, the Devil might be repelled by endless talk of sex and childhood; that the Devil, if he existed, seemingly took possession of people with varying degrees of tenacity—that he could be talked out of some patients, could be shocked out of others, and that he couldn’t be driven out of some without the patients’ being killed in the process.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect (2008)

Although the things “everyone knows” seem like common-sense realities, inevitable and unshakable facts, the truth is that they aren’t. They change. But if what “everyone knows” can change, then how is it that everybody still seems to know it? How do we know what we know about sex? How do we arrive at our expectations, our interpretations of words and behaviours and appearances, our opinions of ourselves and of others where sexuality is concerned? Does it matter?

– Hanne Blank, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012)

The Devil’s penis was the obsession of every Inquisitor and the “star” of nearly every witch’s confession. The women invariably said it was cold but there was disagreement on other details. Some located his penis at his rear. Some said he had two, others that it was forked. Most reported it was black and covered with scales. Several said “there was nothing where scrotum and testicles should be hanging.” One likened the Devil’s penis to that of a mule, which the Evil One constantly exposed, so proud was he of its massive size and shape. The Devil’s ejaculate was said to exceed that of one thousand men. But others claimed his penis was smaller than a finger and not even as thick. This led a French Inquisitor to guess that Satan served some witches better than others.

– David M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001)