What I’m reading: April 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and The Circle (all currently available episodes as of 4/27).

What I’m reading for work

  • The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker: It probably seems a little weird to read a book about gathering during a time when gathering is more fraught than usual, but as I’m looking toward returning to the office in the next few months and the inevitable, eventual return of in-person meetings, conferences, and other events, this book caught my eye and I decided to take a look. I’m glad I did because I think the author has some really valuable ideas about what makes for a meaningful, satisfying gathering, much of which can be equally applied to committee meetings at work as it can to big parties. Her point about thinking about the purpose of a gathering really resonated with me. Too often work meetings happen because that’s just what we do and how office culture works rather than because there is any actual purpose to it beyond “reviewing candidates for a job” or “updates on department/committee projects” or “discussing a work-related reading.” Thinking about a gathering’s deeper meaning or purpose beyond working through some rote agenda would actually do a lot to help identify and eliminate vestigial or extraneous gatherings/meetings and free up a lot of needed time. That said, I don’t think my workplace will move toward something like that any time soon but I know what I read in this book will make me think a lot more carefully about the meetings or gatherings I’m called on to lead or plan and finding ways to infuse them with deeper purpose and more meaningful engagement.
  • Why “Gentle Writing Advice,” Exactly?: Chuck Wendig doesn’t share writing advice on his blog these days as often as he used to, but once in a while he returns to the topic and what he has to say is always worth reading.(1) Here, he offers some commentary that calls out the kind of harsh, masculine (his word) style of writing advice that’s become popular these days–the kind that basically shames you if you can’t, for example, find the time or the will to write 5000 words every single day. After reading something like 30 writing books and nearly 200 author interviews for my current investigation into the role of research in fiction writing, this really resonated with me. Every popular writing book I read for my project seemed to have a gimmick and each gimmick was focused on making you believe that the author of the book you were reading had the magic key or roadmap to becoming a successful writer and a lot of those maps involved writing every single day no matter what. (The academic books, by contrast, were all about convincing you that you would never be successful because in order to be successful you have to be in possession of a special kind of genius and all the white, male people who had that genius are dead and never coming back.) This is similar to how books and videos from the fitness industry make it sound like in order to be healthy you have to exercise and eat healthy every single day and never miss a day because if you do, your whole life will be ruined when really no matter how good you are about your health there are going to be days where you just can’t and that’s okay. What was especially interesting to me about this post was his suggesting that writing is a craft but storytelling is an art. I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about writing process versus writing craft. This is a new wrinkle that I hadn’t considered before that I’m definitely going to have to think about a little more.

What I’m reading for fun

  • What is the dining table even for? from Vox: A few months ago, I got rid of my parents’ old dining room table. They gave it to me after I moved in to my current apartment (my first with an actual, somewhat separate dining space) and I used it for a long time as a wobbly desk, then a wobbly jigsaw puzzle table. The table had become kind of rickety over the years (the screws were forever coming loose and one time it nearly collapsed on top of me while I was underneath it trying to retrieve a puzzle piece I’d dropped) but my parents insisted that when they were first married, it was the nicest thing they owned. Considering how old the table was, I think it’s safe to say it was worthwhile investment but it didn’t fit well in my space and even though that’s always been true, the fact that it didn’t fit became a much bigger deal this past year when pandemic-related lockdowns meant I was spending all my time at home. I hoped I could find someone who would take the table–I wanted it to live on because of all the childhood memories I associated with it but unfortunately no one was interested so I hired a local junk service to haul it away from me on the hope that they would be able to recycle or donate it. Anyway, I thought about that table a lot reading while this interesting little history of the rise and fall of formal dining tables. I ended up replacing the old dining table with a tall bistro table that fits my space much better but is also not the kind of thing that I would expect to last more than a few years, much less long enough to give away to a younger relative in the future. They definitely don’t make ’em like that anymore and it was interesting to read about the shifts in our culture that explain why.

What I’m watching for fun

  • The Falcon and the Winter Soldieron Disney+: First, I should probably tell you that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is by far my favorite movie in the MCU. That’s not to suggest it’s objectively the best movie, just that it’s my favorite. I saw it in the theater three times. It was the movie I was watching a few years ago when I found out my fellow librarians had voted to approve my tenure case (I had taken the day off while they discussed it). I love this movie. Unfortunately, I don’t love Captain America: Civil War. I want to, but I don’t. As a fourth Iron Man movie, a third Avengers movie, a first MCU Spider-Man movie, a first Black Panther movie, and a test run for Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame (in the way it brings so many of the MCU characters together), it’s fine.(2) But as the third Captain America movie and a follow-up to CA:TWS, it gives pretty short shrift to the threads that movie left open that personally interested me most. But I did like the scenes with Sam and Bucky so I was cautiously optimistic when I found out they were getting their own TV show together. Overall, I felt like F&WS did a pretty good job of giving Sam a chance to be more than a sidekick and Bucky a chance to be more than a plot device–both Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan did great work here. In particular, I absolutely loved the energy and the action and the banter in the second episode. Watching that episode, I was sure that the series was going to be everything I had been hoping for for these characters since Civil War. Unfortunately, it wasn’t but it still had a lot of great moments and I was pleasantly surprised at the show’s willingness to grapple so directly with what it would mean to be a Black superhero (especially a Black Captain America) in the current climate. Otherwise, I have to think that the general unevenness and weird pace of the series had something to do with unexpected pandemic-related changes they might have needed to make to the plot and the fact that the MCU hasn’t really figured out yet how to take advantage of the episodic TV format to tell a story like this. (WandaVision came closer mostly by virtue of its early “classic sitcom” conceit but I don’t think it quite got there, either.) Like, I really feel as if there’s a much more streamlined version of this story that would have made a great 2-hour movie. But because that movie almost certainly would have left out some of the more charming and challenging elements of the series, I’m glad we got the series instead, even if it wasn’t perfect.
  • The Circle on Netflix: Okay so last summer I got a little obsessed with all of the various incarnations of The Circle that are available on Netflix. I watched not only the American version but also the Brazilian and French ones. I had a whole thing about how The Circle might actually relate to information literacy in some unexpected ways. Despite my obsession, I wasn’t planning to dive into the new season of the American version on Netflix right away, partly because it’s being released in batches and I prefer to wait until a full season of something is available so I can binge it at will and partly because I’d read some stuff about the new season that didn’t thrill me. Like how suddenly the cast of contestants just happens to include reality stars from some of Netflix’s other shows as well as C-list celebrities. Throwing “famous” people into the mix does have some interesting complications (is it really the famous person or a catfish? if it is the famous person, are they playing as themselves or as a catfish? if they play as themselves, will everyone think that they’re a catfish?), having someone like Chloe from Too Hot to Handle among the players (and Jonathan Van Ness, as much as I adore him, among the judges of one of the show’s “competitions”) felt too much like product placement to be fun. I ended up watching the show anyway and found it just as addictive as in the past, if not quite as enjoyable. What I especially like about The Circle is how no two seasons are exactly the same. With most reality shows, you get into the rhythm of a particular format but The Circle plays around with the format in interesting ways. For example, in the first American season, after the rankings were revealed and the influencers were identified, the conversation about who the influencers were going to kick out of the game usually started more or less right away. In this season, there was a 24-hour waiting period after the first ranking which meant that the players who were in danger could use the extra time to employ strategies that might end up saving them (and in some cases did). I don’t know that I liked this format better necessarily but the effect it had on how the players played the game had some interesting consequences. Overall, though, I definitely liked this season less than others I’ve watched. Again, intrusive cross-promotion and famous people. Also I felt like there were too many catfish this time around (though I have to say that on the whole the various catfish were much better prepared to play their parts this time than in earlier seasons). But I still think this show, for all its trashy reality-TV realness, has some surprising connections to information literacy. As one player says upon meeting another player in person and discovering that he’s a catfish, everyone is playing a character and choosing to present themselves in a particular way–even those who are supposedly playing as themselves.
  1. Which is to say, I find that everything on his blog is worth reading, whether it contains advice about writing or not. It’s just that the writing advice he gives is especially relevant to my current research interests, so that’s why I’m highlighting this particular entry.
  2. Except for maybe the big airport fight scene where it’s incredibly obvious that everyone with a helmet on is being played by a stunt double with the voices and maybe a few insert shots of the relevant actors (Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, and Paul Rudd) added later. With all due respect to the stunt doubles and folks who created the CGI that made that big fight scene possible, it’s just way too obvious that the actors who play those characters weren’t really there when that scene was filmed.

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