This week, or so, in criticism, #723

“Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading.” But “your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading.” Tim Parks channels Giacomo Leopardi on the many reasons literary glory is probably unattainable by people who merely write well (NYRB).

“His writing is deeply musical—not just in the easy rhythm of his words, but in his sonic descriptions: piles of pistachios crackling in peoples’ hands in Iraq; the metallic rattling of the van on bumpy roads in Afghanistan; the croaking of frogs in the Barakar river on the edge of Bengal.” Geeta Dayal praises the late Deben Bhattacharya’s photo- and audio-enhanced diary of his twelve-thousand-mile quest in 1955 for folk music (4 Columns).

“Feuds draw us in for the joy of the spectacle, but in this case there is enough at stake—how we, as individuals and societies, might address suffering and depression—to make a more thorough assessment of the background vitally important.” Alexander van Tulleken tries to distinguish light from heat in the ongoing argument between Johann Hari and Dean Burnett about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of antidepressants (TLS, subscription required).

“He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. . . . At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. ‘No one approaches anyone in public anymore,’ said a teacher in Northern Virginia. ‘The dating landscape has changed.’” Kate Julian investigates five possible reasons young people are having less sex, and less romance, than previous generations did (The Atlantic).

“In the 1840s, Joshua Giddings, an abolitionist who represented Ohio in the House, concluded that too many of his colleagues from the free states were ‘afraid of these Southern bullies’. He resolved to express ‘boldly and fearlessly’ his abhorrence of slavery. . . . ‘The most dramatic innovation in congressional violence,’ Freeman writes, was that in the mid-1850s ‘Northerners fought back.’” Eric Foner extols Joanne Freeman’s chronicle of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War (LRB).

“Among journalists, the project generated mild derision of the who-cares-what-Joe-Schmo-ate-for-breakfast variety, but also enormous excitement among researchers, roughly four hundred of whom wrote during the project’s first three years with requests to use the data. So far, not one of them has gotten a hand on it.” Nora Caplan-Bricker looks into the moral and logistical hazards of archiving the internet (Harper’s).

Further into the twilight

In June, in posts at the New Yorker website and here on this blog, I reported new statistics about the amount of time that the average American spends reading, as a way of updating my 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books,” which discussed America’s shift from a literate culture to one of secondary orality. A couple of days ago, to prepare for a radio interview on the topic, I decided to poke around online to see if I could update other statistics in my 2007 piece as well. Here are a few that were easy for me to find . . .

In 2007, I wrote that

According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005.

That spending dipped to one hundred two dollars in 2013, though it recovered somewhat in 2016, when it reached one hundred eighteen dollars. These amounts are not adjusted for inflation; if they were, the decline would look even steeper. Here’s a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017, also not adjusted for inflation:

US household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017

One of the pegs for my 2007 article was the release that year of a somewhat dire report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), titled To Read or Not to Read. The NEA has published several follow-up reports since then, including the more optimistic Reading on the Rise in 2008 and the more mundanely-titled U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017 in September 2018. The NEA defines “creative literature” as novels, short stories, plays, and poems, and it counts in that category electronic texts as well as those printed in ink on paper. In 2007, I reported that

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four percent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

The NEA subsequently reported that in 2008, the share of Americans saying they had read a work of creative literature in the preceding twelve months recovered slightly, to 50 percent, but the share fell again in 2012 to 47 percent, and then in 2015 to 43 percent. In 2017, the number was hovering at 44 percent.

What about non-fiction books, such as history, political punditry, and memoir? Over the past quarter century, the NEA has also regularly asked Americans whether they’ve read any book at all in the preceding year that wasn’t required for work or school, and it turns out that the decline here, too, has continued to be steady.

Pleasure reading in America, 1992-2017

It’s conceivable that the dip in household spending could be explained away by the price-cutting enforced by Amazon and by the internet’s decimation of the subscriber base of newspapers and magazines, but the recent declines in self-reported rates of reading look dismayingly consistent with the recent declines in average time spent reading. I’m afraid this is (still) a thing.

Revised apple pie

Three years ago I posted a recipe for apple pie on this blog, which I claimed to have proven with science. I hereby disavow it. It used vodka, and I’ve decided a little distilled white vinegar is as effective. I’ve also decided that using a food processor isn’t worth the trouble of cleaning it. And I’ve switched from corn starch to arrowroot, and from all-purpose flour to pastry flour. This version is better!


dozen ice cubes
2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
½ cup water

2 cups pastry flour
½ cup cake flour
2 tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter

½ cup brown sugar
3 tbsp. ground arrowroot
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. allspice

2 tbsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. vanilla
7 cups sliced Cortland and McIntosh apples (7–11 apples)

1 egg white
1 tsp. water
pinch of salt

demerara sugar


bench scraper
smooth surface
sandwich baggies
ceramic pie-baking dish
rolling pin


Two days ahead of time:
Make fresh ice cubes.

One day ahead of time:
In a large mug or tumbler, combine ice cubes, vinegar, and water. Let stand.

On a smooth, clean surface—a clean countertop, or a large cutting board—pile in a mound the pastry flour, cake flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Chop and blend with the bench scraper until the largest visible pieces of butter are pea-sized.

Holding a knife across the lip of the mug, to catch the ice cubes, pour out exactly 2/3 cup of the vinegary meltwater. Pour a little of this meltwater into a furrow in the flour mixture. Immediately, with the bench scraper, blend water and flour together. Repeat until all the 2/3 cup of meltwater is well blended in. The flour mixture should be damp and a little scraggly, but not gooey. With your hands, clump it together into a ball. Push the ball flat with the heel of your hand, fold it over. Push it flat again; fold it again. Slice it in two with the bench scraper. Shape each half into a stubby disk, roughly the size and shape of a hockey puck. Slide each puck into a plastic sandwich baggie, seal the baggie, and refrigerate overnight (or for at least three hours).

The day itself:
Preheat the oven to 425ºF.

Lightly flour a rolling pin, a smooth surface, and both sides of one of the dough hockey pucks. With a closed fist, smush the hockey puck with the back of your knuckles, pressing gently and repeatedly, moving in a circle, in order to start the process of flattening it. Flip the puck over, and smush down repeatedly in a circle on the other side. Now roll the dough the rest of the way out with the rolling pin, lightly and repeatedly flouring it on both sides as you work in order to prevent it from sticking. Once it’s wide enough, place the flat sheet of dough in a ceramic pie-baking dish, letting it droop over the edges. Roll out the second hockey puck the same way, placing it flat on a large plate. Refrigerate both.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, ground arrowroot, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Sift together with a fork.

Into a large mixing bowl, squeeze the juice of half a lemon (about 2 tbsp.). Add vanilla. Peel, core, and finely slice the apples, and as you measure them out, add them to the lemon juice in the bowl. Stir.

Take the chilled dough that’s in a pie plate out of the refrigerator. Gently press the dough down into the baking dish, to make sure it’s touching the ceramic. Fill a teacup with water and place it nearby. Bit by bit, fold the excess circumference of the pie shell inward, so that the edge of the new fold lies along the outer edge of the pie plate’s rim. Use your thumb, moistened with the water in the teacup, to smooth together the two layers of dough.

Once the pie shell looks right, mix the dry sugar and spices into the large bowl of lemon juice and apples. Stir until all the apple surfaces are coated, and then pour the mixture into the pie shell, along with juices. With your hands, shape the apples into a slight dome within the pie shell.

Slice the dough that’s lying flat on a dinner plate into eight parallel strips. Lay the first strip over the apple-dome vertically, just to the east of the north-south-running Greenwich meridian. Lay the second strip horizontally, just below the west-east-running Equator. Lay the third strip vertically, just to the west of the Greenwich meridian. Lift up the top of the first strip, gently folding it back toward you. Lay the fourth strip horizontally, just to the north of the Equator, so that it runs over the third strip but under the part of the first strip that you have lifted up. Then let the top of the first strip fall back into place. Continue laying strips, lifting and lowering the ends of other strips as necessary, aiming for a total of four vertical and four horizontal strips, interwoven. Fold the ends of the strips downward, tucking them under the lower pie shell and inside the pie-baking dish.

Whisk an egg white, a tsp. of water, and a pinch of salt in a mug, and brush onto the lattice and the perimeter of pie dough. Sprinkle demerara sugar along the lattice and perimeter as well.

Bake on a lower rack of the oven for 25 minutes, with a baking sheet on a rack beneath to catch spillover. Then lower the oven temperature to 375ºF, shift the pie to the oven’s middle rack, and bake for another 30 minutes. Let the pie sit on a trivet or cooling rack for at least three hours, until the juices from the apples are re-absorbed.

Forget the future

Peter recently bought a copy of Gregory Hays’s 2002 translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, published by the Modern Library, and flipping through it, I found a passage that made me laugh out loud:

Give yourself a gift: the present moment.

People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?

It would be almost rude to say this in public but it’s liberating. Maybe the translation is a little too zingy, though? I took off the shelf the other translation we have in the house, a version made in 1944 by A. S. L. Farquharson and currently published by Everyman’s Library. Here’s the same passage in Farquharson’s rendering:

See that you bestow this present time upon yourself. Those who rather run after fame in the future leave out of account that men hereafter will be just such others as these whom they find hard to bear, and those men, too, will be liable to death. What, after all, is it to you if men hereafter resound your name with such and such voices or have such and such a judgment about you?

Which explains why I never made it through Marcus Aurelius when I made the attempt as a teenager.