What to Read Next (No. 231): Our New Reality
Happy Friday, readers!
Earlier this week, I finished a book that is definitely in my top 3 reads of the year so far. I can’t stop thinking about it and I can’t wait to share it with ya’ll in two weeks, when I’ll list my top ~5 reads of the first half of the year. (Next week is my American history-themed 4th of July newsletter.)
Today, I’m bringing you a couple books about our new reality of living as a human in the digital age. One is a novel about how our screens have taken over our brains and one is a searing examination of Donald Trump’s attempts to dismantle the American government.
Neither of those things are going away, which means it’s in our best interest to have a deep understanding of both life on the internet and life in the age of extreme political polarization.
Let’s get to it.
Three Quick Hits
My son is very into Roald Dahl lately. The Witches and Charlie and the Glass Elevator are his current favorites. I tell ya what, these stories are weirddd and creepy. But the kiddos just think they’re hilarious. Fine by me; at least they’re entertaining.
A few books I’ve DNF-ed recently:
The Mutual Friend — I really wanted to like this one from the creator of How I Met Your Mother, but I just couldn’t connect with the characters.
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is — I enjoyed parts of it, but ultimately found it way too heady. This is some meaty philosophy, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Outlander — I tried out this mega-bestseller, but it just didn’t stick. It was fine, but not good enough for 800+ pages (let alone the equally enormous eight other books in the series).
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
“I don’t know how to be anymore.”
I’ve hardly ever seen such polarizing Goodreads reviews for a book. It’s either 1-2 stars or 4-5 stars; there are very little 3-star reviews to be found. I ended up on the higher end, thoroughly enjoying this weird and disorienting novel from a rising star in the literary world.
Lockwood was first published as a poet, then wrote a highly acclaimed memoir (Priestdaddy), and now has a Booker Prize finalist under her belt with her first novel.
Our protagonist is unnamed. She’s an Extremely Online person who’s gone viral for a stupid tweet and now lives, mostly, inside “the portal” (also known as the internet).
First of all, I can’t help but love that imagery. The internet really is a portal, isn’t it? You’re taken to another place, outside of the present moment, and you play around in the trash heap, seemingly for entertainment or escape or whatever.
But what happens when real life interjects? When crisis calls us out of the portal? What does life look like in the face of a world taken over by a 3x5-inch screen?
Lockwood’s prose is weird, scattered, stilted, hard to follow at times, and disorienting. Which is exactly how the internet works — especially on social media. At the same time, No One Is Talking doesn’t hesitate to ask big questions.
I completely get why people don’t enjoy this one, and yet I’m not sure I’ve encountered such an insightful look into the mind and thought processes of a modern internet power user. It’s just a weird place to be.
I rather enjoyed this quick-reading novel, but I have an unquenchable thirst for stories about our internet age. It certainly isn’t for everyone (classic Booker material), but you might be into it if you’re an Extremely Online person or EO-adjacent — as I have been at various times in my life.
The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy by Michael Lewis
I’ve tried to stay from Trumpian books, for the most part. There have been a ton of journalistic accounts of his presidency — rather than wading through those muddy waters myself, I’d like to give it a few years and see if there’s a few that stick around.
But I love Michael Lewis’s work and couldn’t resist this one any longer.
On the surface, the book is about a few under-appreciated government agencies, but it’s actually as much about Donald Trump’s approach to governing as anything else.
Every incoming presidential administration has a succession plan. The day after the election, hundreds of staffers are supposed to descend on every agency in Washington, D.C. to learn all they can about the ship they’re about to be steering.
He sent nobody.
Department of Energy? (Which controls the security and viability of our nuclear arsenal.) Nobody showed up.
Department of Commerce? (Which collects scientific data across every possible discipline you can imagine.) Nobody showed up.
Department of Agriculture? (Which regulates an obscene amount of food, animal, and wildland safety guidelines.) Nobody. Showed. Up.
Trump didn’t care or put any thought into actually running the government. Which might not seem so bad, except our American government does more for its people — especially in rural, Republican-leaning areas — than you could possibly imagine.
Here’s the interesting part: beyond any of the head-scratching things we’ve heard about Trump that have been leaked by disillusioned staffers, this book, which contains seemingly “boring” reporting, is perhaps the most infuriating thing I’ve read about his administration.
There are a handful of existential threats to our nation — climate change, nuclear war, pandemic, you get the idea. The fifth risk? Simple lack of project management. Things crumble when the person at the helm doesn’t care.
I could talk about this slim, but potent book for a long time. I won’t — other than to say that you should read it. Ultimately, it functions as both damnation of the Trump administration as well as a love letter to the humble civil servants who keep our government running every single day.
The Fifth Risk is unforgettable — you won’t look at an ordinary government agency the same way ever again.
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I deeply appreciate it. And, I’d love to hear what you’re reading!