Four brutal, short works

I find so much of the great nonfiction depressing. I wonder if prose can even win an award these days if it is not. I’m reading Susan Orlean’s classic of first-person journalism The Orchid Thief. Complex, multi-dimensional, and at times quite dark, the book that became the basis of the film Adaptation presages the rich, multi-mode works of nonfiction that Michael Pollan has hit the jackpot with in recent years. But The Orchid Thief was written in 1998. The tenor of everything has changed since then, and Orlean’s masterpiece is positively flowery by comparison.

For my birthday, I luxuriated, if you will, in four brutal, short works of urgent and current nonfiction. Each was wonderful and illuminating in its way, and I believe their emotional impact was of the good, developmental kind. Our bandwidth for action is limited by the clock and any number of other finite resources, from cash to energy to direct opposition. But our bandwidth to understand, identify, and feel seems unlimited to me. It’s a capacity that can be trained, toned, and fine-tuned by pounding it like a baseball mitt.

Still, I am wondering if four was a bit much.


“How I Learned to Relax and Love Donald Trump,” an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer by former Air Force Colonel Curtis Milam, is utterly compelling in its dismantling of the Trump administration and related pathologies of present-day America. Only slightly less convincing in his assertion that this is a good thing, in a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back way. Of course I want to believe that it is or can be a moment of turnaround, but I am always wary of calling the suffering of so many a necessary spark.

Still, Milam’s lucidity is stunning. You will probably feel, as I did, that he expresses with simple exactitude things that you’ve almost been able to articulate a thousand times in the last few years.

In “I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy,” the latest installment of the Washington Post’s Voices from the pandemic series, the superintendent of a tiny, predominantly Mexican Arizona school district struggles out loud over an agonizing decision he has to make whether he should open his schools or lose five percent of his annual funding. He’s already had a teacher die of Covid-19, contracted at one of his schools when only two other teachers were present and all protocols strenuously observed.

The real-time pathos of this piece is almost unbearable, but it is a must read.

Jimmie Briggs’ “No, I am Not Okay: A Black Journalist Addresses His White Friends,” from Vanity Fair, is an elegant analysis of the paradoxes and landmines of white ally-ship, explored through the personal lens of a veteran black journalist and who is also the father of a newborn. Tough questions abound. He serves, you volley, and good luck.

From The Atlantic, Ed Yong’s  “How the Pandemic Defeated America”… well, how about a quote: “In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s healthcare system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the Covid-19 debacle has also touched — and implicated — nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.”

Scientific, political, cultural, this piece is a kind of unified field theory of our doom.

Happy birthday to me?

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.