Mark Athitakis Newsletter #38

Life is hard. Get an almanac.

Things, you may have heard, are awful. Impeachment hearings, climate change, upheaval in a host of countries, disappointing presidential candidates. Or, maybe they're not awful. Good books arrive, and smart people are around to discuss them; we are, at least, having impeachment hearings; around the world, people are endeavoring to face up to civil shortcomings. Or not. Or...not not?

Let's rephrase: Things, to be more precise, are the internet. And though my mood comes and goes with this, lately I've been feeling more exasperated with internet-argument follies, where somebody asks us to share food opinions and we then spend two days debating the nature of opinions, food, and sharing. I have brought this exasperation upon myself, I know. Last week Allison Kelley wrote a lovely piece in Slate about how she stalks a Facebook group in her nice Connecticut hometown from afar, basking in the picayune fussbudgetry of the locals. I too stalk a Facebook group about my nice Illinois hometown from afar, except the only local content is somebody advertising a dog-walking service. Otherwise it's full of aggressive and fact-challenged meme slinging over our current political environment. Attempts to correct matters of fact are routinely shouted down. Gestures toward detente are met with condescending I'll-pray-for-yous.

A few weeks back, in the midst of my funk over this, a publicist emailed asking if I'd like to receive a copy of the 2020 edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts. With embarrassing speed, I replied yes. A book with nothing but facts in it. Glory be.

If you're like me and haven't looked at an almanac since high school, you might be surprised at how satisfying it is, how much immediate comfort it delivers. A thousand pages of information, all true! Bless you, heart-crushingly dull chart of the National Home Price Index. Thank you, graph of favorite cell-phone use functions among U.S consumers. Handy, this list of birthdates and birthplaces of prominent living authors (Paula Hawkins, Harare, Zimbabwe, 8/28/1972). Here is confirmation that, yes, the Washington Nationals did indeed win the World Series this year. The NATO phonetic alphabet is there for me should I face some life-threatening or crossword-based emergency. If I need to know who won the two-man bobsled at the 1948 Olympics, it's there for me.

No, I do not really need to know Paula Hawkins' birthday. Yes, all of those things are readily findable via Google. But on moments when the internet feels like the tire fire behind the porn shop on the Superfund site, the almanac feels welcome---a walled garden, carefully manicured and useful. 

Except---except! Sorry, but there is an except. The garden metaphor prompted me to look up the data on greenhouse emissions and average global temperatures since 1880. (Not promising!) There is some comfort to be taken in the sheer existence of the data, in a place separate from the slapfights about it. But just as the plural of anecdote is not data, the plural of data isn't truth. Reading it recalled Stephen Pinker's 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, a charts-’n’-graphs lecture I dearly wanted to buy into, but which seemed stubbornly determined to ignore the role of human agency in improving our fate, and to consider the forces that might deny that agency, and to condescend to the violence, injustice, and so forth that serve as statistical anomalies in his book.

Ah well. Back to the internet, which informs me that the almanac itself has had a tough time of it lately. The New York Times and Time magazine have both abandoned their almanacs in the past decade. At my local Barnes & Noble, the only other reference almanac on offer is published by National Geographic, which produces nature-focused almanacs for adults and kids. (My son loves the latter and asks for new ones every year, even though there has been little to update on an annual basis about, say, otters.) The World Almanac soldiers on, its name the last remnant of the New York World, a newspaper that had a famously checkered relationship with the facts. But I trust it, even if it can only take me so far. 

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I wrote about Olaf Olafsson's disappointing thriller, The Sacrament, for USA Today.

Colin Dickey delivers a brief on fact-checking. Geoff Edgers revisits Altamont. Jeanne Marie Laskas recalls her friendship with Fred Rogers, artist. David Quammen considers the mosquito. Stephanie Burt considers the trans plotting in Frozen 2. Theater is a huge blind spot for me, but I took in Michael Feingold's and Christopher Bonanos' obituaries for critic John Simon as one might a train wreck; I'd call them appreciations, but he seemed to have lived his life as if determined to repel the form. Joshua Sperling looks at the meteoric rise of John Berger and his retreat from the success of Ways of Seeing.

Thanks for reading. I wrote a book that makes for a lovely stocking stuffer. I'm on Twitter, I guess. I don't love the internet, but I love getting your email: mathitak@gmail.com.

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