Mark Athitakis Newsletter #22

Don't @ me.

Front Matter

Don’t let that blue checkmark on my Twitter account fool you---these days I don’t feel like I’m using Twitter well, let alone professionally. I’m not one of those people who can routinely deliver a witty line that’ll get more than ten likes, and most of what I write there escapes my memory a day after I wrote it. But I still think about this tweet I wrote in 2012:

At the time, I was responding to a Tumblr post (and later a Slate article) about the kind of “Read my awesome friend’s awesome book!” boosterism that’s a major province of book twitter. Twitter is designed for sharing things—-it encourages you RT things you agree with and which you hope others agree with. That, in turn, encourages cheerleading, if not for a book, than for the particular literary camp that you’re in. And now that we’ve had Twitter for more than a decade, that sharing has entrenched itself as close to the default of what online literary conversation is—sharing your enthusiasm, and hoping others agree with it.

As for conversations about books beyond that, I’ve…kinda given up on it? The politics of the moment have back-burnered them, or for better or for worse subsumed it. In the years since I wrote that tweet, the sense that Twitter is an affirmation engine hasn’t abated, but there’s also a sharper edge to all that affirming, an increasing sense that not only are we all supposed to be here to voice our enthusiasms, but that criticism will not be abided. I’m not talking about the keening that you occasionally see from the froggier portions of Twitter where people complain that they can’t make off-color remarks without being dragged; stupid, bigoted comments deserve to be dunked on. But lately I’m being strenuously reminded that I mustn’t tag an author in a negative review, as if that act weren’t just poor manners but an egregious offense. (And hey, why are you tagging the author in your positive review? Why is doing unpaid labor as a writer’s clipping service OK?) Even if you’re not tagging a writer, not-positive thoughts are usually delivered under some kind of subtweeting rubric; not naming the author, screenshotting the bothersome passage rather than quoting it. Remember that piece a few years back about literary culture and how we needed to burn it all to the ground? Everybody loved it on Twitter. In my DMs and others’? Not so much.

Twitter-as-affirmation-engine does good things---sells books, connects people with similar enthusiasms. Spark conversations? Not so much. This point came up again last week when novelist John Boyne tweeted this:

You will not be surprised to hear that if you ask people on Twitter if they prefer Twitter, they will tell you they prefer Twitter. Fine. But it was frustrating to see book reviews take it in the teeth for not being enthusiastic in an acceptably Twitter-y way. A representative sample of Boyne’s replies: “Newspaper reviews reveal far too much”; “I never trust reviews. I don’t know who knows who”; “Professional reviewers are filtered by editors”; “Tweets by people whose taste you trust work for me better than press reviews”; “I’d rather get a book recommendation from a ‘regular Joe’ than a newspaper book review.”

All of those comments are based on the notion that book reviews are somehow poisoned or suspect. (Why can’t you trust a reviewer’s taste? Do you really know “who knows who” better on Twitter?) I understand the world we live in—-visuals sell, enthusiasm sells. I am not above a galleybrag myself. And I don’t wish to bite the hand that feeds—-tweets affirming ol’ Five-Like Mark have gotten me work and moved a few copies of my book. But I’m struck by how many people responded to Boyne’s tweet as if he were establishing a zero-sum game—-that in the name of affirming a “random tweet,” a “commissioned newspaper review” had to have its status lowered. Why can’t both have status? And why talk about this solely in the context of selling books? Twitter is still an affirmation engine, but it’s designed to affirm some ideas more strongly than others.

What I’m Reading

Jennifer Finney Boylan looks at “Peanuts” through the lens of queerness and unrequited love—-the strip is, she notes, “one broken heart after another.” T.C. Boyle recalls growing up with a schizophrenic friend. Michael Harris delivers another lament about our dying attention spans, though it’s less panicky than most and alert to the fact that reading isn’t a natural act to start with, forever subject to changing outside forces. Scott McLemee braves the written artifacts of Lyndon LaRouche’s diminished, pathetic cult on the event of his recent passing; Rob Harvilla celebrates Pavement’s enduring, enchanting cult on the event of the 25th anniversary of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Anne Trubek, who generously put out a good word for this newsletter earlier this week (Hello, new readers! I affirm you!), maintains a few newsletters of her own, including an engagingly nutsy-boltsy one about running an independent press.

What I’m Writing

At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, I’ve written a brief appreciation of Robert Christgau’s essay collection, Is It Still Good to Ya? “Practically every piece is rooted in the notion that music is a prism through which we can better understand race, society, and politics, especially in America. For Christgau, artists old (Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry) and new (Gogol Bordello, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z) evoke a vision of American life that’s been embraced or attacked over time, and will continue to shift.”

The book—-which still deserves a full-dress review—-is a finalist in the criticism category of this year’s NBCC awards, which will be presented in New York on March 14. If you support book reviews, please consider buying a ticket for the NBCC’s fundraising party immediately after the awards; just click the big red button the NBCC homepage. Random positive tweets need no assistance, but commissioned book reviews can use all the help they can get, and the party is the best NYC literary party I attend. (It’s the only NYC literary party I attend.)

End Notes

Like Dean Christgau says, “It’s fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green.”

Thanks for reading. Send opinions you dare not share on Twitter and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter, because I contain multitudes, that’s why. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #21

Baseball, antinarratives, boxing

Front Matter

I’ve spent much of the winter listening to an audiobook called Bryce. It’s awful. Its hero is a 26-year-old man of great promise who’s secluded in Las Vegas, trying to figure out what city he wants to move to. Might he go to Washington, D.C., where he spent so many of his formative years? San Francisco? Philadelphia? Chicago---but then, is he better off on the North Side or South Side? As a listener, you never get to hear Bryce’s side of the story, so he’s never much of a character. And though there are secondary characters in a similar situation---guys named Manny and Craig---most of the story is about outsiders looking in on Bryce, trying to determine his intentions and ambitions, and, as in a cruelly attenuated Beckett play, never figuring it out.

OK, let’s not belabor this. Spring Training begins this week, Bryce Harper hasn’t signed with a team, and listening to MLB Network Radio has proven to be one of the more foolish things I’ve done as a person who respects his own time, reads fiction, and enjoys plot resolutions. I began listening to the station because I wanted to be better educated about the behind-the-scenes elements of the game, particularly its economics---salary arbitration, AAV, the luxury tax, broadcast revenue, deferred money, etc. These are all things you’d think I could sort out by pulling up a few Wikipedia pages, but I’m slow to grasp how money works---this may be how I wound up a freelance writer---and I figured immersing myself in radio chatter would provide me with some kind of education. Instead I got a narrative---or, more precisely, a bit of an education in bad plotting.

In an earlier newsletter I wrote about how I’ve been trying to pay more attention to plot in the novels I read---not that I’ve been neglectful, exactly, but I haven’t given it high priority. But these days I’m working on a long, academic-ish (I only have a B.A., so “ish” is my postnominal in many contexts) essay about a handful of Midwestern novels, and I’m paying more attention to the matter. What I’m struck by, at least in this case, is how often novelists downplay plot themselves. I’ve occasionally felt bad for not recalling what happens at the end of novels, even novels I love. But the novelists seem to feel bad too, sometimes, dispatching critical plot questions with little more than a sentence or two after thousands of words of buildup. The underwater house that was so troublesome for so many characters? Oh, they might just tear it down. What will happen to the true murderer who’s come back to town? Oh, the police chief just let him go. The mysterious package a character was ferrying in chapter one? Oh, just part of a bomb to blow up a mosque. Let’s move on.

Clearly a whole generation of non-genre writers have been taught that plot is less important than style, tone, characterization, etc. But it’s not unnecessary. And my closer-than-usual attention to plot turns has made baseball radio feel like a cliched postwar European novel where there’s a whole lot of noise and affectation and shapely sentences but in which nothing actually happens. Hosts have spent months talking themselves hoarse about the potential fates of Harper et al, to the point where one could hear an unseemly but palpable sense of relief when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson died last week---finally, a plot twist, a new chapter, a resolution of some sort, even if it’s not the one you wanted, a invocation of Don DeLillo’s statement that all plots tend to lead deathward.

For the sake of my own cravings for resolution, I’ve decided to stop listening to baseball radio in the off-season. A couple of days ago, a caller to one of the shows pleaded that it’s time to change the narrative---pitchers and catchers are reporting, baseball is a great and exciting game, and this obsession with where Bryce will sign is hurting the public perception of what makes baseball baseball. “It’s a problem, it’s definitely a problem,” the host intoned, oblivious to the notion that the problem is, at least in part, him.

What I’m Reading

David Lida catches up with Leonard Gardner on the 50th anniversary of his excellent (and still only) novel, Fat City. Shakeia Taylor looks that the intersection of baseball and jazz. I am forever a sucker for a defense of Jonathan Franzen, and Kevin Power’s is a good one, not necessarily impressed with Franzen’s work but bemused at how it’s become the literary internet’s favorite punching bag. David Salle looks at Andy Warhol’s work and considers what will and won’t last from it. Cameron Shenassa considers a few counternarratives in contemporary Midwestern fiction. And Vincent Haddad assesses the YouTube series Cobra Kai, a sequel to the Karate Kid that was one of my favorite recent guilty pleasures.

What I’m Writing

At On the Seawall, I wrote about Scholastique Mukasonga’s latest memoir, The Barefoot Woman, which is informed by tragedy---Mukasonga’s mother was killed during the Rwandan genocide---but turns on gentler matters of folklore and family traditions. “If the familiar narrative structure is Freytag’s Pyramid, with its rising and falling action, Mukasonga’s book is arranged more like a spiral, taking the moment of her mother’s murder and circling around it, creating distance from it yet encompassing it, the better to understand all the influences in her community that made her.”

End Notes

Last night I got caught up in a Twitter conversation about 90s one-hit wonders, the kind of conversation you (well, I) used to have almost daily on Twitter before Trump sucked all the air out of the room; if you want water-cooler culture talk now, you have to do it in person, or start a newsletter and wait for emails and DMs to come in. Red House Painters were a no-hit wonder, but dear to me as delivering certain romantic but non-Eagles-y notions about California when I had just moved there in 1995.

Thanks for reading. Send NL East predictions and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #20

Cheap books, recycled books, atonality.

Front Matter

What’s a book worth? If you’ve ever searched for a used book on Amazon, you know the answer is often “not much”---books can there sell for pennies, with the main expense wrapped up in shipping costs. For a society that reportedly doesn’t read much, we’re swimming in used books---literally used, cracked spines, dog-eared pages and all.

One of the starkest visions I had of this was a few years back here in Phoenix, where the annual VNSA book sale attracts hordes of people to the state fairgrounds. It’s usually held around Valentine’s Day for reasons I’m unclear on, but one of them surely must be to avoid killing people; the line of people to get inside on the morning I went waited about 90 minutes, a recipe for heatstroke during a Phoenix summer. People camp out overnight to get at the very opening, which sounds charming, but they’re not doing it because there’s a rare Hemingway or something to claim. (There’s a rare[ish] book area, but otherwise the stock is similar to any decent used-book store, just bigger.) Those early arrivals are resellers. Mere minutes after the doors officially opened, I could see people emerging from the venue with shopping carts filled with paperbacks, bought cheap and ready to be sold again cheap. (I imagined them clearing shelves full of titles into carts like contestants on Supermarket Sweep.)

For anybody who puts a book out into the world and wants to receive actual money for doing so, such scenes are disheartening---why would anybody pay more than a nickel for my book, when there are so many other books out there, and mine likely can be found online for even less than a nickel? (Don’t look. Buy from the publisher. Link at the bottom of this email.) So when I think about dealing with my own piles of unwanted books, I can’t help but think about how much I might wind up contributing to the problem. Which is why I don’t worry so much about tossing my unwanted ARCs in the recycling bin anymore.

I had mentioned the problematic nature of ARCs a couple of newsletters ago, and a reader asked me to write more about it. (Really, it’s that simple; ask me to write about something here and I’ll probably do it.) My local library doesn’t accept them. Goodwill does, but doing so presents the ethical problem of putting books in the marketplace that never delivered money to the author or publisher, and indeed risk taking away sales. “Can ARCs be sent to prisons?” my correspondent asked. For a time, one of my fellow parishioners gathered donations for a nonprofit that delivered books to prisoners, so I gladly brought boxes of ARCs to church. But last year the Arizona Department of Corrections began implementing new restrictions on what kind of published materials it would accept—-long story short, very few—-and she stopped taking collections. The prisons would prefer (if not explicitly demand) that books arrive directly from publishers, and even before then the Arizona DOC haphazardly censored titles. Such actions are lamentable, but if there are workarounds I’m unaware of them. (If you know of any, get in touch.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve simply concluded that ARCs aren’t real books---though they’re useful enough for review purposes, they typically contain errors large and small, and infelicitous design hiccups that make the books less enjoyable to read than the finished product. Also, because publishers understandably want to reduce costs on ARCs, they’re printed on mediocre paper, which may or may not be meaningful to you. (Side note: Am I the only one who’s noticed just how nice the paper is for Michelle Obama’s Becoming? In a time of paper shortages, her publisher still sprang for the good stuff, noticeably good in this cost-cutting era. Everybody I mention this to gives me a funny look, but I’m standing firm: If Ms. Obama is looking for a blurb for the paperback, I’ll say “The brightest, most satisfyingly weighty paper stock I’ve experienced in years!” [Assuming the paperback’s printed on good paper too.] ) One writer, a well-published poet, pleaded with me a few years back to put ARCs in recycling; doing otherwise not only takes money out of writers’ pockets but hurts their chances to put their best foot forward in the marketplace. And when books in a glutted marketplace sell for nickels, they need all the pennies they can get.

What I’m Reading

Responding to last week’s newsletter on race and comp titles, a friend directs me to this MetaFilter thread challenging some of the conclusions of the “Comping White” essay. (Also, we still have MetaFilter threads.) Adam O’Fallon Price explores the peculiar genre of books that defeat you not so much because they’re “difficult” but because you’re a poor fit for them temperamentally. I’ve been emailing with another friend---all friends are kept anonymous here, but I swear they’re all real, perhaps realer, because email is where everybody is actually honest about things---about Donald Hall, and he pointed me to this lovely, persnickety essay of Hall’s about a disastrously edited collection of Robert Frost’s poems that was hell on his punctuation. (“If [Frost] had wished to sprinkle his lines with new commas, as one might salt a roast, he would have pencilled them into his reading copy.”) James Wood considers Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a novel I love but which I suspect is going to disappoint people looking for a straightforward crisis-at-the-border narrative. Marie Myung-Ok Lee explores how best to address autism in fiction when novelists seem increasingly eager to use it for ill-advised symbolic purposes.

End Notes

We can’t agree on what music we like or what’s funny anymore, which is probably one reason why we no longer have professional comic songwriters like Tom Lehrer. Considering that this also means we no longer have Mark Russell specials on PBS, this is probably a blessing. But this sweet bluegrass goof on atonal composers is enough to make me wish for a revival.

Thanks for reading. Send ranked lists of favorite Stanley Brothers and/or Schoenberg compositions and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #19

Franzen. Sorry.

Front Matter

Remember Franzenfreude? In 2010 Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom came out, and it received the sort of outsize coverage enjoyed by major American authors back when we had those. Time magazine put him on the cover, proclaiming him a (the?) Great American Novelist, and the New York Times prepped profiles and reviews in the daily paper and Book Review. Novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult detected rank sexism in this kind of coverage, which elevated family sagas written by men as important dispatches from the republic of letters and family sagas written by women as “women’s fiction.”

The debate—-which, in Weiner’s own words, was about “whose books were getting reviewed, and where, and by whom, and with what language; about who were the ‘right’ writers to drive the conversation, about whether the change was necessary, about whether change was possible”—-got fraught and ugly and not a little sexist for a while. I pretty much sat it out because a) I’m a guy and was concerned that made me potentially Part of the Problem, b) I generally like Franzen, don’t @ me, and c) who has the damn time? But the question I often thought about as the squabbling persisted that summer was: What about the publishers? Newspaper and magazine coverage of Franzen and white-male writers may leave a lot to be desired, but the publishers are the ones putting out the books and framing their introduction to the marketplace in ways that news outlets often happily seize upon. Franzenfreude targeted a problem in “the media.” But book publishers are media too.

Well.

Earlier this month Stanford professor Laura B. McGrath wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books about how this Franzenfreude-y dynamic plays out among the people who actually produce the books. McGrath’s own research revealed the way that much of the publishing industry is ruled by identifying comparable titles---that is, books are sold by agents and sales reps by likening them them to previous books that have already sold well. Comps are why a while back there were so many I’ve-been-to-heaven-and-here’s-what-I-saw-no-really memoirs with yellow covers, why seemingly every novel about a failing marriage has an exploding flower on the cover, and why when I go book shopping for my son every chapter book seems to be aping either Jeff Kinney or Rick Riordan.

It’s also why, McGrath argues, publishing is set in very conservative, whitebread ways. Comp titles are overwhelmingly white, even for nonwhite writers: Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere, for instance, “was comped to novels by Lauren Groff, Liane Moriarty, and Emmas Straub and Cline. Ng was not going to be the Next Amy Tan; she was going to be the Next Reese Witherspoon Adaptation.”

Ann Kjellberg, a former New York Review of Books editor who now runs an ambitious literary newsletter/review called Book Post, wrote thoughtfully on McGrath’s research, pointing out that it’s an “under-reported aspect of how we get to read what we read.” She pushes back a little bit at its consequences for literary fiction, though. The books from high-end literary houses aren’t as beholden to comps, she argues. I’m not entirely persuaded: Publishers at New Directions and FSG responded to her queries about comps with a well-I-never high dudgeon that’s a little hard to trust. “These editors cook up comps, at the insistence of distributors and sales reps, with greatest reluctance,” Kjellberg writes. Even assuming that their stated reluctance is indeed genuine, and that a house like FSG only cares about high art and suchlike and people who concern themselves with comps are NOKD, FSG’s leading lights are novelists like Franzen and Marilynne Robinson, and Tom Wolfe. You don’t need comps to make an echo chamber.

Franzenfreude felt like it was fought to a draw at the time, but nine years on it’s had a modest impact: Franzenfreude was a motivating force behind the VIDA count, according to Weiner, and the Times now strenuously avoids doubling up coverage of titles while noticeably diversifying its profile subjects. (In terms of race and gender, anyway; its focus is still on titles that presume to ahhht.) As for Time, the days of a Great American Novelist cover are done, and besides, when was the last time you cared what it put on its cover? What any magazine put on its cover? Well-known writers from big houses could take on this battle because they were arguing for journalistic integrity, not biting the hand that feeds. What writer dares to take the fight directly to the land of comps?

What I’m Reading

Related: Victor LaValle writes about Marlon James’ new fantasy epic in the context of what critics have elevated (pain) and disregarded (gay sex) in his work. And not dissimilarly, B.D. McClay considers Kristen “Cat Person” Roupenian’s story collection and its coverage as exemplifying a narrow view of what we want out of fiction by and about women. Gene Seymour writes about the peculiar balm provided by Westerns in our current moment. Kashmir Hill tried to completely remove Amazon’s tentacles from her daily life for a week; no dice.

What I’m Writing

For USA Today, I wrote about Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, a Sophie’s Choice-ish tale set in Trinidad that gives a contemporary sheen to postcolonial themes. The point obvious point of comparison, which I make, is V.S. Naipaul, but tonally the book it reminded me the most of is Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, which also addresses family tragedy at a low boil, but with a knockout ending.

End Notes

When Freedom came out, various people with time on their hands wrote songs employing the lyrics Franzen imagined for its musician protagonist. Franzen’s lyrics were awful on the page, but this take on them isn’t too bad; if you’d told me it was a Richard Hell B-side or something, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com; I promise not to share your confessed love of Franzen with anybody. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #18

Shelves, silence, banished artists

Front Matter

Marie Kondo, the latest iteration of the Queen of Clean every generation seems to wind up with, recommends that I thin the herd of books in my home; I resist this deeply. Yet my friend and sometimes editor Anne Trubek has absolutely had it with sending printed review copies of books to the media; I’m sympathetic. Is this hypocritical? Books can be a mess, and figuring out what to do with them is a messy business, especially when they’re part of your livelihood.

I suspect that most of the people who subscribe to this newsletter know about advance review copies (ARCs), but just in case, here’s how the system (dysfunctionally) works. Months before a book is officially published, publishers print ARCs, which are little prayers that are sent to media outlets and bookstores in the hopes of stoking purchases, coverage, or any of the other things that might improve a title’s fortunes in the marketplace. For a freelance writer like myself who wants to get review assignments, having ARCs on hand is a useful way to pitch editors. I get a lot of unsolicited ARCs in the mail, and I’m dutiful about sorting through them. They’re arranged chronologically on a separate shelf in my office, so I can see my options at a glance. If an editor is looking for pitches on titles coming out in May, for example, I can respond quickly.

This sounds practical and efficient, but the truth is that it’s mostly wasted effort; at least 90 percent of these books will go from the publisher to my doorstep, from my doorstep to my shelf, and then from by shelf to recycling bin, unopened, once the publication date has passed and there’s little hope for coverage and I have no interest in hanging on to the book. (How best to dispose of ARCs is an ethical minefield of sorts, which perhaps deserves its own newsletter riff at some point.) The publisher has wasted time and money sending them; I’ve wasted time shelving them; trees have been felled on their behalf to no meaningful purpose.

Anne, rightly annoyed at this expensive ritual, is inclined to give up on ARCs for the books she publishes and instead email PDFs of titles to reviewers. This would put a crimp in my ability to underline and scribble margin notes, but it has advantages too; I can more easily search on words and phrases that might help be better tease out themes I want to write about. Still, if publishers went strictly with digital ARCs, my sense of what I have and what I don’t would be harder to access, if not vaporize. (That’s especially true with the kind of digital ARCs available through tools like NetGalley, which sets time limits on their availability.)

I suppose I would eventually make my peace with an all-digital process, if it came to it. But I would still want to have hard copies of the books I truly care about. Files become corrupt and Kindles die, but the codex is forever. Kondo isn’t really telling people to only own 30 books, I know, but household spareness and visual austerity is plainly her gig; she commands me to preserve only the possessions that “spark joy” for me. Fine; walls of bookcases in my house spark joy. Still, that shelf of ARCs spark only the possibility of joy. If there’s a better way, I’ll dispense with the shelf.

I’m waffling on this because books provoke all sorts of mixed emotions. Bookshelves are memory palaces; I can look at most of what I own and gain some recollection of when I read it, how I received it, a certain passage or plot turn that’s stuck with me. It means something to have physical books. But bookshelves are also blessedly chaotic and uncertain places; they are full of books I haven’t read and many I wonder why I keep around. The confusion this all sows doesn’t move me to cut back on my shelves; rather, to the extent I have the available shelving, I’ve learned to appreciate their fluidity. I could do the same with a hard drive full of PDFs. Maybe. In time. With difficulty.  

What I’m Reading

Jane Brox considers Thomas Merton’s peculiar relationship with silence as a Trappist monk who was a public figure. Rachel Donadio reports on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, which once again seems destined to be received as prophecy in his native France and trolling everywhere else. Stephen Holmes writes on Francis Fukuyama’s and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s books on identity. Lionel Shriver lets fly a cri de coeur about what #MeToo has done to our available options as arts consumers. (I’d be more sympathetic if I felt that The Cosby Show was really and truly memory-holed---I can watch it on Amazon Prime right this minute---or if I felt that I was lacking in entertainment options at the current moment.) And I serve on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, so I’m busily reading many of the titles that were nominated for its awards earlier this week.

End Notes

One of the books up for the NBCC awards is Robert Christgau’s essay compendium, Is It Still Good to Ya?, which does what all good music books ought you---send you to the music. His enthusiasm for M.I.A. across a series of articles is infectious, and going back to Kala a decade after I heard it has been delivering a much-needed morning jolt.

Thanks for reading. Send more Billy bookcases and correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

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