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Books, Books, Books 10 min read

Books, Books, Books

John le Carré's letters, Mick Herron and Slow Horses, Prince Harry and ghostwriting, how to keep a great magazine going, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Books, Books, Books Post image

I just finished my first book of 2023.

As I wrote that, I’m reminded of a tweet I saw not too long ago:

Like that poor confused friend, I did not just finish writing a book. Just read one. That’s it.

When you close a book, immediately after taking in that final line, it’s not all that different from the end of show you just watched: A cultural artifact is now logged in your history. You can reference it. You can ask a friend if they’ve read it and make an informed recommendation if they haven’t or engage in thoughtful conversation if they have.

But, if you’re anything like me, you might look around and feel like it’s actually nothing like completing an episode of a show; it’s so much more. And of course, you’re right; it is a more active and time-consuming endeavor (if we’re just comparing one book to one show). But I don’t know why I feel like balloons should fall from the ceiling or someone should pay particular attention to me and congratulate me, as if I’d just competed in a hard-won tennis match.

It’s still January, and not at all a ridiculous time still to be thinking about resolutions. Many of the people I’ve asked have said their resolution is to read more. And in a general way, I guess I’ve seen that as something I could stand to do more of this year, too.

But it’s actually much more than that. Because the one thing I truly wanted to do was write more this year. More of this newsletter. More blog posts. More stuff that I’ve not really done in ages, like short stories or the beginning of a novel that I’m convinced is in me somewhere.

Stephen King, in On Writing, had a few words on that remind me my reading goal should be more than a passive thing; it should be front and center in my mind:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. … If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So now I’m excitedly thinking about my next book, and how I’ll choose it. Should I read something else by the same author? Should I switch to non-fiction since the book I just finished was a novel? Should I read something from my Kindle library since it’s one of my great joys to browse the Bookbub email every day to see if there’s a cheap e-book I want? Should I read the one I’ve purchased most recently?

I’m currently thinking of implementing a system of one degree of relationship between my books, whatever that might be, defined as broadly as I want. For example, I just finished Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a zombie apocalypse story that is grim and bleak as most zombie stories would be but is so beautifully written it’s hard to remember sometimes that the topic is hordes of the flesh-eating undead.

The writer could be my one degree, so I could read Harlem Shuffle, which I excitedly bought in hardcover as soon as it came out. Or I could do post-apocalyptic worlds as my degree and restart and actually finish The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Because then I could have McCarthy be my next degree and read one of his newest, The Passenger, after that. Or maybe the secret is read multiple books at a time, based on mood and place, as suggested in this GQ article.

Either way, whatever the decision, here’s to the next one.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Jennifer Wilson’s New Yorker review of a new volume of personal letters of author John le Carré begins with a revelation that she was once recruited to the CIA.
The summer I finished writing my dissertation, the C.I.A. tried to recruit me—as a spy. The call came in the middle of the afternoon, as I was working on a chapter about Tolstoy and midwifery. An older woman with an eerily friendly voice started going over what the training for a job in clandestine affairs would entail.

A paragraph later, she wrote:

This was not how being recruited as a spy had played out in my mind, where a pastiche of scenes from movies and cheap paperbacks had created a fantasy so vivid it almost felt like a memory. I was supposed to be sitting at a bar, nursing my second shot of bourbon, flirting with the bartender and exuding the tousled sex appeal of someone who has not lived up to their potential. A stranger would strike up a conversation, all small talk at first, asking me about the menu, the town, where I got my taste for brown liquor. Then casually, menacingly, the stranger—bearing a striking resemblance to Al Pacino in “The Recruit” (2003)—would call me by my name.

Her reasoning is seductive to me, for as much as I know the spy stories I consumed via book, TV, and movies were exaggerations, I wanted them to be real.

As far removed as Wilson’s recruitment was from her stylized notion, mine was even more so.

I was not recruited at all, though how I wished I might be. I presented myself for consideration. As if to say, “Hello there, would you like me to be a spy for you?”

Sometime in law school, I can’t remember whether it was my 2L or 3L year, I met with recruiters from the CIA. I do not know what they looked for, but suffice it to say, I did not meet their standards. Which is honestly what seems so seductive about the fictional version of spy recruitment, that all-knowing types have heard of you, through some impressive quality or two, and put your name on a short list, run you through the background checks, and deemed you worthy, which is to say, sufficiently interesting, charming, intelligent, resourceful, and every other thing we expect our spies to be.

Le Carré’s fiction isn’t like that. His are the anti-James Bond. His, though still fake, seem closer to the real thing.

Wilson highlighted his adherence to the truth and his resolve not to glamorize:

The most revealing letter, though, might be le Carré’s gently discouraging reply, in 1988, to a ten-year-old boy who wanted advice on how to become a spy. He diagnosed his young fan with the same yearning—for adventure, for purpose—that had made Charlie susceptible to her handler’s seduction. “My guess is,” le Carré wrote, “you want excitement and a great cause. But I think and hope that if you ever find the great cause, the excitement will come naturally from the pleasure of serving it, & then you won’t need to deceive anybody, you will have found what you are looking for.”
  1. In another dose of British spy fiction chronicled by The New Yorker, this December story from Jill Lepore on author Mick Herron’s Slough House thrillers paints the picture of le Carré’s most deserving successor. I came to the know Herron’s name only after his novels had been picked up by Apple TV+ and produced a show that gripped me from the first minute. Herron’s gift is an inspiration to those of us aspiring to write something but worried by the sensible advice of “write what you know”: Unlike le Carré and Ian Fleming (the author of James Bond), Herron never served in the British intelligence services. Yet he’s heralded as quite possibly the best writer of espionage in a generation.  Plus, check out this podcast interview he did with the guys of The Watch back in April.

  2. Speaking of the Apple TV+ show Slow Horses, it just concluded its second season. The seasons are deliciously bite-sized at only six episodes each, so if you’re looking for a great watch, consider this one which, like the best spies, may have evaded your detection.

  3. I tired to think of book-selling phenomena I’ve lived through in my life. I’m thinking of those instances where books, that oldest form of entertainment, were the topic of conversation most in the zeitgeist.  I’m not sure if I remember many that vividly. Harry Potter books and The DaVinci Code come to mind most easily mainly because I partook in the hubbub and actually read them, while other examples, like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey series trigger the memory of the books in regular conversation, seemingly everywhere, but are more abstract because I never read them.  Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, currently has the title of most ballyhooed book in recent memory, but I’ve been largely uninterested, despite having cared very much as a kid about the death of his mother in 1997 and fallen very much for Netflix’s The Crown. But what does have me sitting up and paying attention to it is twofold: 1) the sheer number of people saying it’s good, like, really good, and 2) the presumed reason it’s considered to be so good in the first place: its ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer. Here’s one of many reviews (this one from Slate) singing the praises of the book, and here’s Bryan Curtis on The Press Box podcast saying much the same thing.

  4. Ghostwriting sounds alternatively wonderful and terrible. The freedom from direct scrutiny is undeniably freeing, one would think, but as a writer, it feels strange to consider your words passed off as someone else’s. Most writers write not only to be read but to be read and known as that singular authorial voice. What a mix of thoughts must go through a ghostwriter’s head when writing reflexively and then pausing to second-guess because one has to wonder “Would my subject/mouthpiece think these thoughts and say them just so?” This New York Times article traces much of this territory and makes no secret of the fact that Moehringer was the inspiration of the article. But, it’s interesting to note that, like the best ghostwriters, Moehringer’s voice is nowhere to be found in the piece.

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  5. From books to their scrappy little brothers: the humble magazine. A love for magazines is what took me back to school for a graduate degree in journalism. I subscribe to many, and I love when the physical copy shows up at my house. One of them—Texas Monthly—is celebrating its 50th year in print, and it is the epitome of a magazine that has long punched above its weight class. Stephen Harrigan has written for the magazine for pretty much all of those 50 years, helping usher in the New Journalism mindset in Texas. His latest is part history of the publication, part memoir, and part marvel at how the whole thing still functions all these years later.

  6. The Texas Monthly story above is titled online “How to Keep a Great Magazine Going.” One of the most basic answers, too basic for Harrigan’s piece, was found in another great magazine, The AtlanticDerek Thompson’s short piece on the value, journalistic and beyond, of asking dumb questions has a lot of truth that I saw in reporting on stories far less complex than the subjects that Thompson tackles. The difficulty in asking dumb questions doesn’t come from an inability to see them but rather from sheer ego on the part of the asker.

  7. I read the account of a Ph.D. in astrophysics who’d lived off the grid for eight months. But not “off the grid” like the Unabomber was off the grid (in a cabin in the woods of Montana) but off the grid while living in Manhattan and teaching at NYU. It was an impressive feat and somehow simpler than I imagined. Don’t get me wrong: I won’t be signing up for such an experiment of my own, but if I were so inclined, it seems more than doable. But in reading it, the story reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, the author of a book I love called The Know-It-All (which I’ve referenced previously).  It was a book that epitomizes most of what I see from Jacobs these days: An simple but incredibly difficult-to-perform task is undertaken and he documents his efforts. That’s it really. In The Know-It-All the goal was to read every single word of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In others, he’s tried to live based only on the tenets of the Bible as literally as possible. About a week ago, he published an article in The New York Times (this week’s gift article to Critical Linking readers) where he tried to go 24 hours without using products made of plastic (or even touching it).

  8. As I gear up for my Sundance screenings this week (see last week’s newsletter for the title’s I’ll be seeing), I got excited about a film that I hadn’t even heard of because it was a surprise, last-minute addition to the Sundance lineup: A documentary looking into the FBI investigation of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The whole project was kept secret, and its director, Doug Liman, told The Hollywood Reporter how he managed to keep it quiet. This came in the same week that, in actual Supreme Court news, the Court released a report from its marshal saying the investigation into the leak of the Dobbs decision had turned up no answers.

  9. A random piece from The Ringer about a single episode of The Simpsons that aired 30 yearsago caught my attention and made me laugh at just how often the truism “The Simpsons already did it” applies to real life when their gags now seem prophetic. The article tells the story of “Marge vs. The Monorail,” from the vantage point of its writer, Conan O’Brien. Just a fun backstory to an episode I may or may not have seen prior to looking it up (for Disney+ subscribers out there, it’s Season 4, Ep. 12), but the jokes are a mile a minute, both verbal and visual bits that have lost none of their biting humor. Worth a read, worth a watch.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

1/16: HIDDEN FIGURES* (Disney+); THE FIRM* (HBO Max)
1/17: Slow Horses, S2 (4)
1/18: Slow Horses, S2 (2)
1/19: Break Point (Netflix)
1/21:ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022) (Netflix); American Vandal, S1 (5)* (Netflix)
1/22: American Vandal, S1 (3)* (Netflix); The Last of Us (HBO Max); Zone One, Colson Whitehead