Weekend Reading

Books, Orals, Sunken Rivulets, Garbled Architect Speak, and Missing Magazines

For your lumbering late-summer consideration, works by Dan Piepenbring, Anna Silman, Adlan Jackson, About Buildings + Cities, and the Brooklyn Public Library

“New Books” by Dan Piepenbring in Harper’s

For years, the New Books column in Harper’s has been skimmable and skippable. The selections have always been worthy, but the columnists often seemed to be pacing themselves. Dan Piepenbring, who took over in the August issue, has given the staid old format a new zest. Not only do the books seem more viscerally interesting, but the prose is full of laughs. The September column — which covers a biography of a cowboy writer, a history of the AR-15 rifle, and James Ellroy’s latest novel, about a Hollywood private eye — is a gem. “The cowboys and guns and Hollywood stuff coalesced in such a way that it seemed like I had an endless well of jokes to draw on,” Piepenbring told The Fine Print. “I did have a line in there about AR-15 owners being micropenised. That, unfortunately, didn’t make the cut. If you want the penis jokes, then you gotta talk to me.”

Piepenbring’s predecessors seemed to have a soft spot for books featuring stunning prose describing next to nothing. Though Piepenbring does, too, he’s decided to focus on books with more going on. “Heavy on happenings is certainly by design. It just makes my job a lot easier. I love books that are low on happenings. In terms of fiction, especially, that’s what I tend toward, but I find them much more difficult to write about. You end up having to lean on certain critical cliches where you’re writing about the limpid prose style or the quotidian magic of it all. I think that would get kind of tedious month after month, both for me and for the reader,” he said. “The quality of the book isn’t always of paramount importance. It can be immaterial to its usefulness in the column. Obviously, it’s better if one actually enjoys reading the book and can unequivocally recommend it. But if there’s a book out there with interesting material in it that you can put your own spin on, I don’t think some sloppiness or some boring passages should preclude your using it in the column. It’s all about producing criticism that people actually want to read, hopefully.”

Piepenbring tends to err on the side of happenings in life as well. At the height of the pandemic, in October 2020, he and Tom O’Neill — his co-author on the book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties — accepted an invitation to speak at Peter Thiel’s book club at Thiel’s home in the Hollywood Hills. “As I recall, Bret Easton Ellis was there, I forget who else. He had this fire pit that seemed to be lined with shards of obsidian, very fittingly,” he recalled. “He grilled Tom with questions about the book for the better part of two hours. I, as the lowly co-author, was able to sit there and watch it all happen, which made me much happier, of course. But it felt too surreal an invitation to ignore.” (Representatives for Thiel and Ellis did not respond to requests for comment.)

Was the experience as menacing as your average media worker might imagine? “I was hoping for more villainy, but it really did feel like a book club, like Peter Thiel as Oprah. But as one who’s fairly conspiracy-minded, I was hoping for a bit more of the good stuff,” he said. “He brought up trepanation and no one knew what it was except me. That was my one shining moment. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s when you drill a hole in your head to get high.’ I was like, ‘All right, I’m in.’”

“How Merve Emre Became the Hottest — and Most Reviled — Name in Literary Criticism” by Anna Silman in Insider

On first click, this profile of New Yorker contributing writer and Wesleyan professor Merve Emre seemed like an odd fit for Insider. Was there room for aggressive reporting and juicy revelations in the life of a literary critic? To us, obviously. But for Insider? A publication led by editors who think an office screening of Elf is a cool idea? When Anna Silman brought the story to her editor, she didn’t know how many compelling details she’d find. “I had been following Merve for a while. Every time I went to a book event, people were talking about her, gossiping, and speculating,” she told The Fine Print. “I had heard from people who were more in the literary scene than I was that she was both loved and vilified. But I had no idea what that meant until I interviewed her.”

That interview, which unfolded around New Haven over two days in July, “often felt like an oral exam designed for me to fail,” Silman writes. At one point, Emre tells her that she’s read her work and concluded, “You’re very good at letting people hang themselves by their own rope.” Silman wasn’t prepared for quite how confrontational their dynamic would become. “I definitely knew, because she is so smart and because she is a writer and editor herself, that I was gonna have to be really well prepared, but I definitely didn’t anticipate there being such a heavy push and pull between us,” Silman said. “It made for a really good story because she was engaging with me and thinking about my questions in a way that a lot of subjects don’t do.”

Throughout the process, Silman and her editor kept an eye on how this story would land with Insider’s audience. “My editor took a chance by letting me write a piece about a critic and an academic. Obviously, that’s pretty niche. But I think she saw how interested I was and knew that if I cared about the subject, I could make it fun and make other people care about it. So I really appreciate her letting me write something that’s a little bit outside the Insider norm,” she said. “I tried a lede that was much more in media res, that was just us walking and talking, which maybe could have worked for another publication. But I think because we are Business Insider and we are introducing Merve Emre to a lot of readers who haven’t heard of her, it was good to start with a more zoomed-out view.”

One of the stranger details in the piece is Emre’s point of view: “She hasn’t had her own contact lenses in ten years; instead, she wears her husband’s prescription. Her eyesight, she said, has adjusted to make up for it. ‘My husband thought he was taking me to the optometrist so that I would get scolded,’ she said, beaming. ‘Instead, the optometrist was like, “Extraordinary.”’” Has she looked through those borrowed lenses at this story? “She told me ahead of time that she wouldn’t be reading it and that remains the case today,” Silman said on Thursday. “We’ll see in the coming weeks if she changes her mind.”

“Anohni Still Believes in the Dream of New York” by Adlan Jackson in Hell Gate

By the time Adlan Jackson’s turn came to interview the British singer and songwriter Anohni for Hell Gate, the artist was deep into her album promotion cycle — she’d already been profiled in The Times, she’d talked with Rolling Stone. “As an indie publication, when you’re talking to someone of Anohni’s stature, we typically expect that legacy publications are probably going to get the first swing at an album cycle. So that becomes something that I try to think about: How do I not just replicate the New Yorker profile, the New York Times profile, the New York magazine profile,” he told The Fine Print. “One of the things that’s useful about being a local publication is that people like to talk about their home and their relationship with New York. So people typically do get pretty excited and are willing to talk about that.”

By focusing on Anohni’s relationship with the city, Jackson managed to capture haunting resonances. “I don’t really have a proper contemporary New York experience, because I’m still in Manhattan, which is sort of a weird place now,” Anohni tells him. “It’s not where most people live. But there’s still a lot of beautiful people around.” It’s traces of history that anchor her. “There is this corner on Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, where there’s this tiny little park, like a quarter of the size of the footprint of one building, one of these little triangle parks on the east side of the street. And someone told me that there used to be a little rivulet that used to flow there. And it was still somehow under the ground,” she says. “It’s so faint, but I think that for some reason in Manhattan there’s all of this energy of the past. I really do believe that there’s something sacred about the memory, even the un-held memory, of everything that has transpired in New York City.”

“Stewart Brand’s ‘How Buildings Learn’ — ‘What Happens After They’re Built.’” About Buildings + Cities

From some angles, architects are a lot like journalists. They want to know how things work so they can exert their creativity within the strictures of reality, but they’re also wildly impractical and idealistic in their choice of occupation. They’re curious and hardworking, and most of them don’t make much money. Maybe that’s why I find architecture podcasts so relaxing. They have the familiar rhythms of journalists talking amongst themselves — very nerdy, very articulate, occasionally cutting in a goofy way — but they’re almost always talking about things that are so far removed from our work — for instance, “topologies,” a term I still barely understand — that I can’t get too stressed about them.

Usually, I let episodes of About Buildings + Cities wash over me. If I miss a theoretical nuance in their four-part series on Zaha Hadid, at least I’ve picked up a few new ways to describe a building. But in their latest episode, on Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn, they bump up against a non-architect. That fruitful friction first becomes apparent when they talk about Brand’s office, which he proudly built in a shipping container. “He paints the roof with reflective paint, which he says deals with the problem of it being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter,” notes co-host George Gingell. “That bit, I don’t believe at all,” protests his co-host Luke Jones. “There is nothing you can paint it with which will stop a metal box from absorbing a huge amount of radiant heat on a sunny day. There is no magic paint that will do that.” Gingell warms up to the criticism. “For me, he doesn’t really provide evidence for why it’s better than a shed,” he says. “I think a shed would be better. It’d be made of wood, its lifespan would easily be [garbled architect speak] to this, it would have better environmental performance, and it would have windows.” Jones concludes snidely, “I guess a shipping container is a bit more rhetorical.” Gingell replies, “One would think the examples he has chosen are gerrymandered.”

The hosts are fascinated by the central question Brand raises — how should buildings evolve after their initial construction? — but extremely frustrated by his arrogant amateur approach. “I feel like this book is really onto something very interesting, but the way that it engages with everything is so scatterbrained and superficial, that it’s deeply aggravating,” Jones says.

Gingell agrees. “I don’t think he’s really taken on any sort of systematic approach. He has taken an approach of ‘Things I like,’ which are often things he has done, or things that people he likes have done, or nice places he’s visited, like a McDonald’s, or the London library, or the Boston Athenaeum, or country houses in America and England. They’re good. And then the worst things I can find are bad. He’s got all these examples, but he never really describes what’s going on in them.”

Browsing international magazines at Brooklyn’s Central Library

From Japan, there’s Men’s Club, billed as “The most traditional men’s fashion magazine since 1954.” (What happened to Japanese men’s fashion around 1954? W. David Marx’s book Ametora is an excellent place to find out.) The cover line for February/March is “Tokyo Trad,” and the issue includes some translated service spreads from Esquire. Unfortunately, the library doesn’t stock Popeye, Japan’s “Magazine for City Boys.”

There are card separators for several Russian magazines in the collection, but perhaps due to the Ukraine war, this reporter couldn’t find any issues in the Languages & Literature room. Did someone go through and remove them? “I guess so,” said a librarian, “if they’re not there.”