Just in time for the weekend, here’s a little list of some of the things I’ve been listening to and reading this week, some of it online — Storyboard included, natch — and some of it on vinyl or actual ink and paper.
Two of my biggest loves are narrative journalism and music, and I’m lucky that my days are filled with both. When reading stories, I get inspired by songs I think fit the article’s theme — a soundtrack. Here are a couple of this week’s Storyboard articles, and their soundtracks:
Annotation Tuesday! Thomas Curwen and a Big Sur hermit named Jack English. This is a bit of an unusual annotation, because I was the editor on the story. As I explain in the annotation preface, I chose it for one of the first annotations of my tenure as Storyboard editor because it’s close to my heart on many levels — the writing, its theme of loss, the wonderful subject. I loved working with Tom, because he’s thoughtful, and lyrical. This answer in the annotation was particularly deep:
I’m generally suspicious of ghost stories, but I’m also drawn to them. They touch upon one of my abiding concerns and curiosities about life: What becomes of us? I think I have the answer, and it’s a little troubling. We are destined to be forgotten, maybe not in this generation, maybe not the next, but eventually we become that image in an old photograph, the face of a stranger, and all the energy that we brought into the world, both good and bad, dissipates. Yet love is such a powerful bridge between the present and the past, and Jack’s love for Mary kept her front and center throughout the reporting of this piece. That was a gift.
Soundtrack: The Last Beat of My Heart, by DeVotchKa. I know this song is melodramatic, but I don’t mind being manipulated by it. Don’t we all want to love someone until the last beat of our hearts, or theirs? (I’m a bit bummed that this doesn’t appear to be available on Spotify any longer, even though many of their albums are. The capriciousness of licensing?)
Digital longform, and the pitfalls of the “build it and they will come” business model. Most of us have probably bookmarked at least half a dozen longform sites, and, while appreciating them immensely, wondered how they manage to stay afloat. Aleksander Gorbachev, a Russian-born graduate student at the University of Missouri, wondered the same thing. And he did something about it: He spent months researching their business models for his thesis. The results, I’m afraid, aren’t for the faint of heart:
“Their primary ambition is to tell great stories, and many were guided by the same old logic of “if we build it, they will come;” i.e., if we publish truly great journalism, people will pay for it in one form or another. Unfortunately, in most cases it doesn’t work like that at all.”
And this one:
“I mean, I don’t consider myself that big of an expert, but it seemed obvious to me that if you want to launch a successful media outlet these days, in the era of total information overflow, your first and foremost have to have a clear idea of who your readers are and how you will reach them. Apparently it’s not that obvious.”
Oh, but one bright spot in the article: I got to use a photo of a jetpack. I say any day with a jetpack photo is a good day. (I could almost soundtrack the photo: Anything by the wonderfully named We Were Promised Jetpacks, a great Scottish band.)
Soundtrack: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), by R.E.M. OK, so the thesis wasn’t that apocalyptic. I just decided to have a little fun with my existential angst. I’ve seen R.E.M. in concert several times, and there’s not much better than dancing wildly and shouting with thousands of other people: Leonard Bernstein!
What I’m reading online: I usually listen to music in the car, but this week I happened to be listening to NPR when they interviewed Garnette Cadogan, who has written the tremendous “Walking While Black.” I immediately went online to read it. (Don’t worry; I had stopped driving when I did.) He talks movingly and eloquently about race, making a political statement wreathed in poetic language and observations. The piece has a lovely narrative arc: his childhood in Jamaica; his “awakening” of how his race marked him in the eyes of police in New Orleans; his life now in New York. Here are a few excerpts, but I strongly recommend reading the whole piece — especially this month, with deaths on both sides of the divide.
I wasn’t prepared for any of this. I had come from a majority-black country in which no one was wary of me because of my skin color. Now I wasn’t sure who was afraid of me. I was especially unprepared for the cops. They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted. I’d never received what many of my African-American friends call “The Talk”: No parents had told me how to behave when I was stopped by the police, how to be as polite and cooperative as possible, no matter what they said or did to me. So I had to cobble together my own rules of engagement. Thicken my Jamaican accent. Quickly mention my college. “Accidentally” pull out my college identification card when asked for my driver’s license.
I’ve lived in New York City for almost a decade and have not stopped walking its fascinating streets. And I have not stopped longing to find the solace that I found as a kid on the streets of Kingston. Much as coming to know New York City’s streets has made it closer to home to me, the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets. I walk them, alternately invisible and too prominent. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness.
What’s on my bedside table: I loved “Olive Kitteredge,” by Elizabeth Strout, which won the Pulitzer Prize and led to a wonderful TV version starring Frances McDormand (seriously, can she do no wrong?) I’ve just started reading Strout’s latest book, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” and it that same combination of spare, yet detail-filled, writing. How about this passage, about a professor she’s having an affair with, who’s a condescending voyeur about her childhood of poverty:
He asked what we ate when I was growing up. I did not say, “Mostly molasses on bread.” I did say, “We had baked beans a lot.” And he said, “What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?” Then I understood I would never marry him. It’s funny how one thing can make you realize something like ethat. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past, or one’s clothes, but then — a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.
What’s on my turntable: Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: “Frankie Valli Solo.” I’m not a huge fan of the Four Seasons, but I would argue (and have, many times) that “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is the perfect pop song. You know how most pop songs have a great chorus and a middling verse, so you’re impatient the whole time they’re singing the verse until they get to the chorus? In this song, I can never decide which one is better. Which one do you think is?
If you want to suggest story soundtracks of your own, or just want to chat about storytelling or music, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.